Reflections on Public Life

by David P. Billington, Jr.

Domestic public life today is informed by two perspectives. One is social science, modern economic theory in particular. The data that economic theories work with are abstractions (usually annualized flows) that represent recurring activities. Economic theory is intended to explain what will happen in any given year if these activities are modified in certain ways. Each year is a mere instance of what can happen in any year.

Yet every elected policy maker is acutely aware of what historical year it is, because elections are scheduled according to the calendar. The dissonance between the historical time of politics and the economic time of policy doesn't prevent policy makers from working in both kinds of time. But the separation of political and economic time tends to disconnect elections from much of government, and an orientation to stasis rather than change proceeds from the idea that economic time is recurring rather than linear.

The other perspective that informs public life has to do with values. There are two basic kinds of value: utility value and intrinsic value.

Market life operates on the principle that things and people have value only according to their usefulness, or according to what they can earn in the marketplace. This kind of value, known as value-in-exchange, can also be called utility value or expediency. A related concept is the idea that actions should be judged only by their consequences and not by any standard of intrinsic worth.

Most people believe, however, that certain things, certain actions, and in some degree all people should be exempt from being valued only according to their usefulness. To the degree that they are exempt, these things, actions, and persons have intrinsic value.

Our civilization has managed so far to resist the urge to see utility and intrinsic value as an either/or choice. We have long recognized that we want both kinds of value. The problem has been to find a proper balance. But to seek a balance between the two kinds of value is still to frame a choice in terms of things that lie outside historical time. Social science policy debate and deeper controversy over values share in common the idea that what matter in life are either recurring or unchanging human needs. Such things are inherently timeless.

Yet singular experiences also occur. These are, in fact, what unite societies. Debate over recurring budgets and eternal values are not what build a shared sense of purpose. What create community (and what define progress) are historically non-recurring events and experiences, and goals achieved in more or less definite periods of time.

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