Noble lies and transit

Attention Conservation Notice: I may have just come up with a rationale for overly optimistic ridership and cost forecasts, and having sprouted horns and a tail, may need to go bathe in holy water or visit an exorcist. Crimony.

In the how-on-earth-did-the-argument-wind-up-here department, I am beavering away on Chapter 3 on public transit. It’s a tricky chapter because it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. The major thrust of the book concerns the virtues that urbanists should embrace in order to foster Jane Jacobs’ style urbanism. The transit chapter digresses a bit from that theme, as most of the chapter develops an argument for why cities as a political community have the duty to supply transit (I am then going on to write about whether people have a duty to take transit.) Through many twists and turns, I have come to the topic of bad transit forecasting and whether these might be covered under the rubric of the ‘noble lie’ in politics.

Plato, in Book III of the Republic, has Socrates verbally sparring with Glaucon, Plato’s brother. Glaucon, as we discover, is no slouch when it comes to debate. He also has the will to power, and Socrates often toys with Glaucon, talking about what extremes a society would have to go in order to achieve social harmony. The noble lie is no exception. There are two parts of the lie: the first lie concerns the idea that a society can be, somehow, autochthonous, without politics, or history, or established systems of relationships. That is the pseudoi. The second part is described as a myth, one that would need to be believed by all classes of workers in a utopian political community. Socrates’ myth consists of convincing the members of the polis that each is born with different metals at his core: the rulers infused with gold, their experts and helpers have silver, and the common men made of brass or iron. Leo Strauss noted that Socrates’ description of the ‘noble lie’ captures the idea that leadership is selective, and that society requires these types of myths about social order in order to achieve social cohesion.

Political theorist Kateri Carmola made a somewhat different argument I favor, largely because it ties into its interpretation the positions that Glaucon has taken in favor of seizing power and imposing justice, the context, and the dramatic gestures Socrates makes. It also ties in all those long digressions about genealogy that many take as simple eugenics, though they don’t hold together as simple eugenics because of the way Socrates keeps pointing out that fine breeding only leads to exceptional specimens every so often, and in some cases, leads to some real duds. Carmola’s approach also explains Plato’s focus on cosmogony: the focus on making and breeding is a metaphor for making society, from one generation to the next. Carmola also links the idea of the noble lie to Socrates’ reference to Cadmus and the House of Thebes, one of the most violent intergenerational myths available to him. In the case of the cosmogony, the tales of the origins contained in Hesiod contain a great deal of intergenerational violence and familial abuse. The preconditions of political and social life are bloody and unjust.

Carmola suggests that Plato uses the noble lie to smooth over, and yet highlight, the “incompatibility between historical reality and absolute justice.” (p. 51). The lie is a children’s story, in Socrates’ manner of educating children, that helps them transition to the necessity of a politically established conception of justice, and away from an individual, idealized right order of justice. It concerns the political act of founding, or transforming, a political community. The dialogue in Book III is a means for helping Glaucon, and those like him, to see the problems inherent in believing that justice may be imposed, even as one stretches out and seeks to influence the course of human affairs. Carmola’s paper is delightful, and I highly recommend it.

Applied to transit politics, the idea that public agencies like transit companies might engage in myth making in their future visioning comes out most strongly in Jonathan Richmond’s Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles . Richmond traces the development of Los Angeles’s new rail construction, highlighting the manner of myth making that occurred between the region’s transit providers and the public it serves. Richmond is critical, not unlike Glaucon when he tells Socrates that he should be ashamed of such lies within a political community, deluding people with promises of something that isn’t simply because of the outcomes the vision offers. Plans and visions are in many ways, lies; leaders and the forecasters they employ can not guarantee all the outcomes. They can offer visions and paths, through a glass darkly as Paul warned us. What rail advocates throughout the 1980s, 1990s,2000s and today offered to Los Angeles is a vision of what isn’t–yet. Actualities may or may not follow; shouldn’t adult citizens be capable of understanding that in the dialogic, deliberative venue that is contemporary democracy? As Socrates helps Glaucon see in Book III to Book VII, there are no bright lines and transparent, easy-to-read boundaries in leading for justice. Is it really so wrong for mission-oriented public agencies, founded because somebody had a vision for what they might do, describe their visions in dream states on the one hand, and nightmare states on the other? The rest of us are not bound to subscribe unless we see ourselves as enthralled by ‘what the experts say’ about what cities should build and how–hardly true in planning now, if it ever was true (which I doubt; I think it was more to do with lack of constitutional protections for individuals vis-a-vis state decisions). If most of us know forecasts are diddled, and I think it’s fair to say that secret is out, and yet voters continue to vote for projects, anyway, it is probably fair to say that voters are voter for the grand vision and not the details.

Even if the lines are not bright, there is still a line, as Socrates’ use of the word “lie” indicates, between the poetic license of agencies and advocates seeking to lead through rainbows-and-sunshine visions and the propaganda and overreach of despots, not to mention the political penalties that ensue from such such disastrous-if-one-gets-caught misinformation as Obama’s reassurances about keeping your plan (no matter how crappy), reading lips about “no new taxes, and California’s High Speed Rail Agency strategic distortions of their cost estimates early on.

Carmola, Kateri. “Noble Lying: Justice and Intergenerational Tension in Plato’s “Republic”.” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003): doi:10.2307/3595658.

Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight : The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005