Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly suspicious of the very idea of social policy. This may be biographically rooted in my work during the 1980s with refugees from authoritarian societies with aggressive social policies. It may also be a reaction to working in a modern university and being surrounded by calls to fall into line and march for social change. I don’t like following anything but my own dim vision of the truth. Beyond these personal inclinations, though, I don’t see intentional efforts to achieve one or another sort of society as consistent with democracy.
While different people and different political philosophies use the word “democracy” in a variety of ways, the term most commonly refers to a system of government in which people either make political decisions for themselves (direct democracy) or elect representatives to make political decisions (representative democracy). In the former, there is no question of anyone “re-making” the people, since the people think for themselves and have the freedom to be what they are. In the latter, also, the goal of re-shaping a society along democratic lines is a contradiction because a representative government represents its public as it is; the government does not try to make the public into something it is not. Since a society is made up of people and of the total of formal and informal relations among people, changing a society means changing the people and their relations with each other. It is a profoundly authoritarian effort and even, as it approaches a goal of total reform, totalitarian at its extreme. Political reform is a matter of changing laws. Economic reform involves changing policies relating to matters such as taxation, public expenditures, or interest rates. Either of these may be consistent with democracy. But social reform aims at changing people and their relations with each other. This is a reversal of the direction of action and control of a democratic society, since it involves the authorities attempting to constitute or re-constitute the public, rather than the public constituting the authorities. This is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s 1953 quip that the East German people had apparently lost the confidence of their government, so the government should “dissolve the people and elect another one.” Creating a new society is precisely the attempt to dissolve the people as they are and to appoint the people as one would like them to be.