David Brooks’ column today in the New York Times is a great example of his hackery. I suppose he irritates me even more than your average op-ed shill because he feints at having an interest in ideas and views that I’m sympathetic to, only to brutally toss all that intellectual infrastructure overboard in the second half of most of his pieces so that he can serve up some callow partisan spin. He revs up the train engine and heads down the track, but the back of the train just sits there in the station where it always is and always will be.
So today he starts off by talking about how reading Edmund Burke and assorted other authors (Hayek, Oakeshott, Berlin, Niebuhr, Orwell, etc.) taught him “epistemological modesty” and checked his youthful left-wing hubris, that he was persuaded by their skepticism of planning and technocracy, that he became wary of desires to “reorganize society from the top down”.
Fine. I’m with him on much of that, and feel as if I’ve undergone some version of that journey myself in many ways. The second half of his piece, however, warns that Obama’s Administration is looking to solve every problem from the top down, do everything at once, be exactly the liberals that Brooks once was and now fears. He hopes that Obama’s people will prove him wrong, but it’s clear that he still expects to be right.
This in a nutshell is not only what’s wrong with David Brooks but what’s wrong with the entire form of op-ed writing. All this column does in the end is serve as an intellectual fig leaf for a Lakoffian frame. All it amounts to is planting a meme, providing a soft and chattering-class-friendly translation of Michael Savage’s ranting on talk radio about Obama’s Marxist plans to destroy America. There’s no interesting question convened here, no open conversation begun.
There’s nothing concrete that he’s pointing to, either. I share his anxieties about the hubris of officials and experts (in any Administration or government), but so far I’m not really seeing concretized programs or projects that strike me as alarming examples of that kind of hubris. Certainly the stimulus package isn’t anything of the sort. In fact, the stimulus package depresses me because it’s nothing more than a band-aid and doesn’t pretend to be anything but. I want to see more ideas about what might happen next, about what kinds of redirection might happen further down the road.
If Brooks was being an honest broker of his own declared views, he’d know that the most powerful “perverse consequences” tend to come not from some single, unified umbrella political drive, but through the small initiatives of powerful official actors who are given tremendous autonomy to act independently, to enact some body of social theory or some aesthetic principle held by a visionary. The craziest neconservative bullshit in the occupation of Iraq came from Wolfowitz and the cluster of hacks associated with him: that’s how you got to soldiers and occupying bureaucrats sitting around waiting for flowers to be thrown at them while arms depots were raided by insurgents, how you got freakshow bullshit like freshly minted graduates making statutes and procedures for the whole of Iraqi life from deep inside the Green Zone.
If Brooks really wants to grapple with the problem of how governmental action might lead to dangerous unforeseen consequences, he needs to get down and dirty, to really dig into something specific. What actual policy makes him anxious? Which official? Which particular idea? What perverse consequences does he potentially foresee as following from which specific initiative? Is it too much to ask that an op-ed column in a newspaper actually be based on some reportage?
If Brooks really wanted to explore outward from his intellectual name-dropping, to open up discussion rather than provide some Cliff Notes for conservatives, he’s got to apply those ideas honestly, in an exploratory manner, and without treating them as theological writ.
Three ideas about how to do that:
1) If you want to argue that governmental or institutional action has unforeseen and perverse consequences, you have to apply that insight retroactively, with rigor. Meaning, among other things, that the economic crisis of the moment from this perspective is just as much an unexpected consequence of earlier governmental actions, in this case, changes in regulatory regimes, in monetary policy, and so on, under the Bush and Clinton Administrations.
Moreover, if you want to add intellectually to that composite body of thought rather than apply it in a dull fashion, one of the possibilities to consider is that some of those thinkers on Brooks’ list were too fixated on the state as the only large institutional force in modern life whose actions can lead to unforeseen or perverse consequences. Civil institutions and large corporations ought to be looked at in the same manner, with the same skeptical eye, with the same understanding of social causality. What have companies been doing to the fabric of everyday life in America over the last two decades? What kinds of top-down changes have they imposed on people, with perverse consequences?
This is why so much conservative fretting of this kind seems so phony. It only applies to something that Democrats are doing. It’s not applied to a large-scale analysis of social outcomes as a whole. It’s not applied with any kind of historical awareness. Conservatives forget a massive domain of governmental action and treat many social outcomes as immaculately arising from the wisdom of crowds. The suburbanization of U.S. life is the consequence of official policy in large measure. The products we buy and don’t buy are structured by an intricate web of policies and decisions, taxes and duties. Marriage as it is (not just as it might be, if gay marriage were permitted) is governmental policy. (I didn’t decide in my organic traditional self that a license and a blood test would be a nice thing to do when I fell in love with someone, or that a tax incentive would be a beautiful way to celebrate our love.) We have the energy infrastructure and economy that we do not because of an absence of top-down initiatives, but because the U.S. government has programmatically supported a heavy dependence on petroleum for the last six decades. And so on.
Following on this: being honest about your intellectual commitments requires applying them to yourself and your own political and intellectual history first and last. So before Brooks frets too much about what Obama and his aides are doing, I think he’s still got a lot of archaeological digging to do in his own record of argument, a lot of water that he carried for partisans whose ambitions to use state power for top-down transformations were more breath-taking by far than even the most far-reaching muttering about possible plans that have come out of the current White House.
2) Following from this: so what kind of planning or action is allowable under the banner which Brooks hoists in the first part of his column? That’s where some kind of interesting forward-looking argument could begin. Not this kind of “well, maybe limited conservative views of government will turn out to be right, rather than this OMFG CRAZY LIBERAL stuff”. There is no such thing as a limited conservative philosophy of government or official action in the United States at the moment if by that you are looking to party politics. No movement, no party, nothing that Brooks can point to and say, “There, that’s it, that’s what I mean, that’s how someone who believes in Oakeshott-Burke-Orwell-Hayek makes policy”. Unless what Brooks means is party libertarianism in the U.S., which is not really what anybody on Brooks’ list of thinkers believed in except arguably for Hayek.
One person that I’ve always read as being a part of the intellectual circle that Brooks describes, for example, is Jane Jacobs. But Jacobs’ critique of high-modernist planning was not a rejection of all planning, any more than Burke’s critique of French Revolutionary utopianism was a rejection of all deliberate attempts to produce change. Burke was an Enlightenment progressive inasmuch as he believed that human life could be changed for the better, and that there were things that people could deliberately do that would produce that change. Jacobs believed that government and private institutions could plan, and that their plans would produce better cities. The point being in either case that they believed that plans and changes should be modest in scope and scale, derived out of the organic substrate of daily life, in alignment with the everyday consciousness and common sense of most people.
So what does economic or social or political policy look like right here, right now, from that perspective? It doesn’t look anything remotely like the last eight years of Republican government. Brooks pretends that there is something out there that he’s pointing to other than Obama, some other political project which nicely exemplifies his viewpoint. But there is nothing. If Brooks is serious, he’s got to start thinking through that vision, start taking the risk of concretizing his own ideas, and stop being the nerdy kid who brings towels and Gatorade to the big players of the Republican Party.
Among the open questions that he might look at in an honest exploration would be, “Do those ideas apply well to crisis? Could you wage a war ‘modestly’? Deal with a disastrous fiscal crisis ‘modestly’?” I don’t say that cynically, knowing what the answers are in advance. I’d like to know what a military conflict undertaken with epistemological modesty looks like. Does that just amount to realpolitik, to brutalist realism? I hope not. I’d like to know what intervention in economic crisis looks like if it’s constrained by a modest sense of the limits and outcomes of power. I suspect it kind of looks like what’s being done so far: a bunch of bandaids and holding actions, full of timidity.
Brooks doesn’t have to invent out of whole-cloth ideas about how change and modesty, policy and limitations, might align. William Easterly’s most recent work on development policy is one compelling example of how you can argue for an active commitment to transformation while also maintaining a structural commitment to epistemological and practical modesty. There’s a lot out there that provides the same kind of platform, in fact. But it’s not to be found in the contemporary Republican Party. I wouldn’t say that it’s the mainstream of Democratic governance, either, but I see more of this perspective in Obama and his nascent Adminstration than anywhere else in the federal government at the moment. The point is, if you’re serious about this vision, and not just trying to be an opportunistic schmibertarian hack, start looking for the people who are genuinely trying to put it into action. You won’t find them if all you’re looking to is the endless circle-jerk of Beltway think-tanks and Sunday morning talk shows.
3) Brooks is also limited by the same problem that afflicts a lot of shallow-end libertarian rhetoric in the United States, namely, he takes the lesson about the unexpected and perverse outcomes that follow from the application of state power to social and economic life and applies it with myopic pessimism.
When you start looking at causality through this lens, with an eye to how the circuit of intention and outcome is often broken when a plan or a project moves from the drawing board into guiding the action of large-scale institutions like the state or big corporations, you realize that unexpected outcomes are sometimes positive as well as negative, and sometimes they’re not clearly either, just that we end up somewhere different than where we started. And weird as it may seem, on occasion, what happens is pretty much exactly what the experts said would happen and what everyone wanted to have happen.
Nobody meant for the Internet to come from planning for post-nuclear holocaust communications. Nobody meant for cellphones to make social and economic coordination in rural parts of the developing world easier. Nobody planned for the confluence of middle-class consumerism, contraceptive availability and more legal and social guarantees of rights for women to result in the slowing of global population growth. Nobody argued for massive federal funding of the lunar landing as a generalized strategy for the R&D of many technologies and objects of everyday practical usefulness. Nobody argued for funding spy satellites as a way to get to having GPS systems widely distributed.
But all of that came from some major project that had a lot of money and expertise directed to it by a large institution, a project with some kind of top-down or transformative intent. Brooks jumps, like a lot of schmibertarians, from the insight that institutional action often has unexpected outcomes to a notion that this means that all big initiatives, all visionary rhetoric, all coordinated action, is henceforth doomed, mistaken, inevitably trodding the path to the gulag. It’s more complicated than that.
I agree that recognizing how systemic action frequently is shaped by a break or interruption between intent and outcome inevitably rebukes high-modernist hubris. I agree that this insight should lead us to a persistent skepticism about what experts think and about what planners do. I agree that we need firebreaks in any program of action that check its consequences, that we should always keep modesty in the picture.
But all that should lead us not just to tedious complaints against other social and political actors but to a sense of wonder and surprise at the byways of change, at a bemused view of transformation, a wisdom about the mighty oaks that grow all around us from acorns we never noticed as we trod over them. That’s what it means to view change as something that happens inside the “black box” of organic life, to look for transformation to come from the unexpected alignments and coincidences of heterogenous actors responding to signals and visions present within everyday life. The first humility that flows from this understanding is not something we demand from others, but impose on ourselves.