Reason in the Modern World


In 1996 The Economist wrote, “The ideas of the Enlightenment changed the world. Their legacy is…modernity.” 1 The Enlightenment was an 18th century European intellectual movement whose motto, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, was Sapere aude,  dare to know. Another way to state this are the now commonplaces, " See for yourself." and " Make up your mind." 

In the "Great Ideas" course we took in college, the ideas of the Enlightenment were taught independent of the changes in the societies that the philosophers were a part. The Enlightenment in its first phase was about the supremacy of Reason; the Enlightenment in its second phase was about the use of reason, for instance in government and scientific research. But the French historian, Daniel Roche, wrote:


“Limited local insurrections provoked by hostility to taxation and food shortages, persisted. Above all protest found a new target, moved to new territory, and adopted new means: it directed against local landlords…and availed itself of official mechanisms and legal avenues before resorting to violence. Villages were politicized against an order in which the old solidarities (which had not always been effective in any case) no longer worked. Against a new order that was at once state-centered and economic, villages, cities, and corps invented new forms of political action. People mobilized against actions that revealed the new order of things: (our note) peasants rose up against seigneurial innovations, Parisian workers rose up against entrepreneurial innovations…Limited insurrection and restrained riot: that was what one had in 1750 in Paris…” 2   


What he describes was the development in France of a market society, an economic market and a marketplace of ideas, that (along with some historical accidents like Louis XVI), gridlocked  the progressive ancien (former) regime, and paved the way for the Revolution of 1789 - a cry from the heart, protesting the disorder of modernization.

This Roche quote, we think, is a key to much that is significant in world history since the Revolution because the spread of markets and modernization sparked two world wars in Central Europe, many modernization crises in the developing world, uprisings in the Mideast, and now reactions against globalization, technological and climate changes in the West. As we communicate by the Internet, are cured by modern medicine and live in a marketplace of ideas and goods from all around the world, the Enlightenment was obviously a good idea; but the economies and societies motivated by it have again run into problems, causing spreading political protest. 

There were, of course, writers against the Enlightenment that emphasized its negative effects. The Economist article cites two main objections to the Enlightenment. The first held that “…scientific inquiry (especially when applied to questions of human conduct)  were doomed to miss the point….The Enlightenment challenged faith and offered nothing in its place; it asserted individual autonomy, it had little interest in the truth, as opposed to the social utility, of religious belief….The second kind of assault aimed to refute Enlightenment thought in its own terms…It was a mistake…to think of human history as an advance to ever higher forms of moral thinking, to suppose that intellectual harmony would one day be achieved without regard to local differences.” 

But more important, in now globalized and rather rational societies and governments, there are better or worse ways of doing things (i.e. there are better or worse policies). Consequences do matter both for one’s self and one’s neighbor. Liberalism is a reasoned form of government aimed at finding better ways of doing things, which is opposed to conservative Edmund Burke’s view that, “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.” 3 But, rational policy primarily concerns the people affected and context. Here are three major areas where policy rationality matters to the United States:  

1.     Start with political party rationality. Since the Republicans insist on ideological purity, let's start with that logic. The Party is caught between the contradiction of the promise of the American Constitution, that assumed an enlightened reason by an informed electorate and the conservative values of the communities, some of which are aggrieved. This contradiction is stark in the economic sphere where the conservative value of unfeterred markets clashes with their values of community preservation. We shall discuss this contradiction later. Policy makers should not simply let things happen as the invisible hand of the market fumbles and destroys.

It is crucially important to heed the substantial, now not so silent, minority of Americans in the rural states that voted for Donald Trump. A USDA census shows that large farms with over $1MM in sales account for only 4 percent of all farms, but 66 percent of sales. 4 Policy should therefore address the needs and opportunities of people who are economically marginal in both agriculture and industry. Another question to ask is why have their political representatives failed to do much for them? Is it Tea Party ideology combined with a traditional suspicion of all government?

2.     Consider, now, affordable healthcare. Experience from abroad indicates that the most effective and efficient healthcare system is single payer direct, like Medicare. In 2013, the average expenditure on healthcare was $8,713 per person, compared with average OECD spending of $3,453 per person, with the U.S. experiencing lower life expectancy and a higher than average infant mortality. 5 If the U.S. insists on running a private insurance system, where the healthy pay for the sick, then a mandate is required for a system of real broad coverage to work at all. But reliance upon market competition to produce efficiency will never work because of product complexity (Trump voters fell for the promise, “Insurance for everybody…much less expensive and much better.”) and consumers' lack of perfect knowledge about the future.


The Republican Party, split between the ideological far right and relative moderates, has not formed a consensus to develop a program that all Republicans can support. Furthermore, a reliance on markets will increase costs and reduce coverage. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the present Republican proposal will cause 24 MM more Americans to lose coverage by 2026 6 while social standards hold that good healthcare should be available for all. Republican Party is simply blind to the consequences, valuing its ideology of minimal government.


Apologists for the present market system of healthcare cite superior U.S. medical research. We do note, however, that the pharmaceutical companies test, get approved and commercialize many drug compounds developed by others, among them the government-sponsored National Institutes of Health.


3.     We do not wish to turn this into a screed against the Republican Party, but here again is another major contradiction. The present international system of rules resulting from multilateral negotiation have kept the overall peace in the approximately seventy years since W.W. II. This system was sponsored by the U.S. after the war and maintained by the respect for U.S. civic ideals and its military power. By turning inward, “To make America great again,” the U.S. will do just the opposite – diminish respect and begin the unraveling of the present international system, to be replaced by what?


The Trumpean concept of international relations as a series bilateral deals is not appropriate. Structure is necessary in this relationship business. In the 4/10/17 Washington Post, a columnist notes, “It is predictability that builds and maintains alliance. It is constancy that enforces red lines, allowing others to accurately calculate the limits of American patience. It is vagueness and impulsiveness that invite testing and the possibility of deadly miscalculation.” The historian, Donald Kagan (1996), notes that peace does not keep itself. 7

To be legitimate, the political and economic systems must provide results that are generally in accord with expectations and provide a robust social environment that can withstand the creative destruction of markets. Government has to successfully handle an increasingly complex and interrelated world. The system issues of globalization and automation, disadvantaging the average-skilled American worker, and climate change, disadvantaging all, will become more pressing – not less. Short-term and privately motivated markets are destructive, but they allow the freedom of rapid change. However, they do not provide for long-term, as Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs (2017) writes, “urgent public needs”: political stability (the most important), education, scientific research, public health and environmental protection – in other words, the rational things that abide and serve as solid bases for further problem-solving. Like all valuable things, these require coherent and long-term efforts; not wishful thinking.

The logical resolution of the first major Republican contradiction of community versus the economy is to use subordination, placing the economy in the service of the entire community. The resolution of the second is to begin to move towards a single-payer healthcare system. The resolution of the third is to restore international trust in a coherent, steady United States that does the right thing.

Liberal democracy is a process of discovering the truth, not the implementation of a truth already found and given to the inspired founders of the Republic nearly 250 years ago. The authors of the Federalist Papers were inspired to set down a modern process of Enlightenment truth discovery. In Madison’s words, “…it is the reason of the public alone that ought to controul and regulate the government,” 8 emerging out of the process of good-faith debate (not tactical lies). Given a common ground of facts, debate (for instance in a courtroom) enables reason to apprehend truth and develop better policies and, hopefully, better politics. In The Assault on Reason, Vice-President Al Gore writes, “The very idea of self-government depends on open and honest debate as the preferred method for pursuing the truth and shared respect for the rule of reason as the best way to establish the truth.” 9

Why does Truth matter – the truth teased out of nature, the truth of the public and the truth in your own life? We think the truth matters so you and your society can choose well in a complex world. Biologists tell us that our ancestors developed brains to cope with a complex world when they first began to move. 10



At this writing, the U.S. political system is suffering a bout of unreason from which it must recover. A 4/15/17 NYT editorial notes that  “(Donald Trump) is revealing himself to be a tactical, transactional president, with no guiding convictions or principles beyond ‘winning.’ Not winning for everyone….Winning for Mr. Trump.” In the 2018 congressional elections, voters will have the opportunity to choose real legislators and a real political party with (logical) programs to make things better.





The ancient Greeks had a term to describe the present state of the Republican party. It is called aporia, that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to be at a loss”, “impossible”, “inclined to doubt”, or to be in a state of “perplexity or difficulty.” Aporia (without passage) occurs when the speaker holds two inconsistent premises equally – for instance untrammeled market freedom and the value of the community. 


This is our analysis of U.S. politics in 2017.





In a 5/17 Foreign Affairs article, “The Liberal Order is Rigged,” professors Colgan and Keohane of Brown and Princeton respectively argue that the liberal order has to reform. They note the following that we paraphrase extensively:


1)    Today’s crucial foreign policy challenges arise less from problems between countries than from domestic policies within them.

2)    The institutions of the liberal order have helped preserve peace among the great powers since 1945.

3)    But for all of the order’s success, its institutions have become disconnected from publics in the very countries that created them.

4)    We did not pay enough attention as capitalism hijacked globalization. Economic elites designed international institutions to serve their own interests. Ordinary people were left out.

5)    Populist leaders who claim to represent “the people” arise and seek to weaken and destroy institutions (that stand in the way of their wills).

6)    The Brexit and Trump phenomena reflect a breakdown in the social contract at the core of liberal democracy: those who do well in a market-based society promise to make sure that those disadvantaged by market forces do not fall too far behind. But between 1974 and 2015, the real median household income for those with high school diplomas but without any college education, saw their income drop by 24%. Among those Americans with college degrees, incomes rose by 17%. The result have led to two different sets of Americans living in separate worlds. This sense of self-segregation has sapped a sense of solidarity from American civic life.

7)    The bill for the broken social contract came due in 2016 in both sides of the Atlantic.

8)    The international order, itself, was a contributing factor. The fall of the Soviet Union, removed the main “other” from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States.

9)    What to do? America should be guided by three main principles: First, global integration must be accompanied by a set of domestic policies that will allow all economic and social classes to share gains from globalization in a way that is highly visible to voters. Second, national interests must be balanced with international cooperation to prevent overreach, especially when it comes to the use of military force. Third, Washington should nurture a uniquely American social identity and a national narrative. This will require othering authoritarian and illiberal countries. Without dramatic change in their messages and approach, established political parties will fade away.


The authors conclude, “For Democrats, ‘the party of jobs’ would be a better brand than ‘the party of increasing aggregate welfare while compensating the losers from trade.’” The Democratic party has to find a way to speak to those who have been disadvantaged by the tides of market globalization (by running strong local candidates) *, and by developing reasoned programs (with the advice of practical economists – this is a major Democratic national advantage). The untrammeled markets that the Republicans seek to preserve don’t invest well in the future, as Keynes noted. **


If you add the effects of automation upon jobs, we think this article is a generally valid analysis of the present situation. Where we disagree is the authors’ suggestion of “othering” authoritarian and illiberal countries; in other words to become more like them. We think that a non-xenophobic American civic nationalism  that is, “compatible with the values of freedom, tolerance, equality and individual rights,”*** should be a continuing alternative to authoritarianism because the international system needs the U.S. as a balance wheel.



* add: In the 5/5/17 NYT, the Democratic governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, discusses why he won running on progressive ideas; but the national Democratic party did not. In “How Democrats Can Win in the West,” he notes:


 “…it’s really not a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them. Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. (Our note: Its 2016 concerns were distinctively urban; but the Electoral College favors the rural states.) This has to change….If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard  to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government.”


**  Developed democracies need to reinvest in their societies. The economy isn’t a leveraged buyout, where the first management action is to cut expenses.


*** Wikipedia