Stoicism as Politics

One of the biggest mistakes—however innocent or willful—on the right has been the single-minded application of otherwise decent personal habits of mind like stoical determination or grit to public policy questions. The reason it’s such a big mistake, and the reason most academics (especially social scientists) find it so foolhardy is that while there might be good reasons to embrace these postures at the micro, day-to-day register, there is little evidence that (a) were a critical mass of disadvantaged people to embrace them, the aggregate macro distributions would change in any critical manner; (b) a critical mass of disadvantaged people aren’t already adopting these dispositions; and (c) policy or the lack thereof can or will encourage these desired attitudinal shifts in any statistically significant fashion.

If someone is genuinely concerned with the well-being of their neighbors, there’s no way to escape the boring but time-tested and empirically grounded answers: ensure everyone enjoys decently compensated and humane livelihoods that allow for the everyday cultivation of one’s talents, passions, and virtues; ensure everyone’s physical and mental health is attended to fairly and effectively; ensure overall social arrangements of wealth and power are determined democratically and equitably. There are already plenty of models both at home and abroad that offer reliable guidelines on these counts. If any attitude really does stand in the way of progress for all, it’s the one that says we have nothing to learn or gain from these models.

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