Agents of Change?

If you’ve been to a high school or college commencement lately, then you know the drill: at some point, at least one speaker will urge the graduates to be “agents of change,” suggesting they’d like to see these students make the world a better place through some sort of social activism.

The problem with goading students to think this way is that it assumes they should be dissatisfied with the status quo. It asks students to dwell on the negative, to focus on what is wrong, and to obsess over injustices, whether perceived or real. This makes us imagine an alternative message that we rarely, if ever, hear: for graduates to go forth thinking about what is already good, to dwell on what is worthy of conserving, and why sometimes it can be important to be barriers to change.

In the context of protecting the environment, this message makes sense to pretty much everyone: let’s be careful stewards of nature. People may disagree with what this means in certain contexts and may disagree about how to weigh trade-offs, but everyone agrees that environmental concerns shouldn’t be casually dismissed.

At the same time; what does changing or reimagining the US mean? No country close to the population size of the US has wealth or income per person even close. People from around the world are eager to move here. Think about our blessings: property rights, freedom of contract and the ability to enforce those contracts, a democratic republic with a Constitution that separates executive and legislative functions, a bicameral legislature that makes it tough for temporary voting majorities to impose their will, and social institutions that foster individual rights. The list goes on and on.

And yet the academic class would like those graduating from its intellectually narrow, and often overly shallow, confines to dwell on how to make our society different from what it is today.