Engine and Caboose, On the Same Track

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.

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5 Responses to Engine and Caboose, On the Same Track

  1. Thanks– this essay gives me a lot to think about.

    I’ve wondered how much lousy op-ed writing can be explained by the deadlines. When I see something really awful (like the op-ed which suggested that Obama was to fit to be president because fat people would be so envious they wouldn’t vote for him), I imagine an op-ed writer with no ideas facing a deadline. I’m sure it’s more common and less blatantly disastrous for op-ed writers to crank out cliches rather than trying to come up with something original.

  2. Tim Ross says:

    This is great, Prof. Burke. You ought to send this to Brooks.

    One line of thinking I’d like to see brought to bear against this vulgar-Hayekian trope is to actually attack the core of the argument. Whenever someone like Brooks name-drops Hayek in an op-ed and argues that that these top-down, imposed solutions are going to plop us in the handbasket and kick us right along the slippery slope to hell/serfdom, it would be a beautiful, masterful stroke to demolish the “top-down”, social-engineering concept. It would be like jumping into the X-wing & hitting that metre-wide exhaust pipe & taking out the superstructure with one shot.

    What I mean is, attack the idea that government programs in the Western industrial democracies have been the top-down social-engineering projects that Brooks thinks they’ve been.

    Heres’ the thing: a lot of these top-down social-engineering schmibertarian bete noires, were more often than not ad hoc solutions cobbled together to address human & social needs on the fly. (And many of them were essentially Bismarckian in inspiration: motivated by the fear of governments that if they didn’t address those needs, then somebody else – the socialists – would seize power in order to address them. Why is this reality ignored by conservatives? Seriously, a return to the Coolidgean status quo was not the only alternative to the New Deal, neither in the US or anywhere else. )

    I think there’s a lot of ground to win back here from Brooks. I’m more familiar with the Canadian context, so I’ll refer to it. Our health care system is centrally planned, yes, but to trace its origin back to a bunch of nebbish city-wonks obsessed, Le Corbusier-like, with controlling the levers of society is just barmy nonsense. Thats not what happened. Tommy Douglas was a Prairie boy. Canadian medicare was an attempt to step in and solve actual problems for actual people. Yes, it’s entirely possible that it has some serious, serious flaws and has created big – huge – problems of its own. But it’s just funny to read into it some grand theoretical scheme. It’s been touch and go, jerry-rigged, held together with duct-tape right from the beginning.

    I’ll acknowledge that Progressivism as both a historical ideology, and as a timeless tendency, can be potentially dangerous/misguided/utopian, but in return Brooks ought to admit that not every big-government program is motivated by pure High Progressivist ideology. Sometimes, it’s just that people wanted to get shit done.

    Hayek is a neat guy. (I’m pretty sympathetic to the Burkean-Hayekian vein. Haven’t read Oakeshott yet, but he seems cool.) I have a soft spot for Austrian thinking, which makes me unusual among my Canadian lefty peers, I guess. Remember Jim Henley talking about the application of Hayek to foreign policy (in Iraq)? I’m constrained by time, so I won’t post a link, but it’s a brilliant bit of blogging. But Henley also revealed the failure of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in another blog post, in which Jim essentially said, “let’s look at Western Europe: what do we see? A robust welfare state, a market-socialist streak, and rotating parliamentary coalitions of (lower case) christian democrats, social democrats, and greens. Where is the Serfdom, given that Western Europe has walked down the Road? “) That was a real simple, but devastating, observation.

    Anyways, to bring it back to Brooks, this is an argument that is eminently winnable by someone with the polish and the swagger to more or less hit Brooks in the jaw; ie take it to him. If he wants to talk about Hayek, let’s bloody well talk about Hayek. And when that’s done, then hit him with a Disraeli right cross, and make him dizzy.

  3. Tim Ross says:

    Also, I have *nothing* against nebbish city-wonks. Love ’em, in fact.

    But it’s funny: the Hayekian critique is essentially an argument against technocracy. (Which I’m hugely sympathetic to!) But here’s the thing: lots of people who are directly responsible for “top-down” “social-engineering” projects weren’t dyed-in-the-wool technocrats.

    Yes, the progressives/New Dealers/New Class were politicians, and bureaucrats, and experts (as I think Burke would say, “calculators”). But they were more than just that. In the North American context, they were from a vast, dizzying array of backgrounds: upper class Northeast, political “refugees”/dissidents from the South, and American Great Plains/Canadian Prairie yeoman families.

    Ugh, the more I think about this, the more disgusted I am with Brooks. Here’s a decently smart, literate guy, who is practising hackwork. Look, people argue strongly against the stimulus/spending bill without resorting to this kind of shitty intellectual history. Brooks is disappointing. We need opposition voices, but not like this. What a total courtier, a fraud, a toady. What a tool.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Doing the actual history of technocratic planning strikes me as crucial, and yet, it also strikes me as a very big empty spot in historical or anthropological writing. A social and intellectual history of the state, or of bureaucrats: there is work that fits the bill, but it’s scattered and in some cases, only accidentally focused on those interests. I like James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, for example, but Scott only opens up the really messy question about how the formal thinking of high modernist planners, utopians, progressives and so on informed what bureaucrats or political leaders did. If you take the fascinating case of Nyerere’s ujaama villages, in one sense, Nyerere’s use of the postcolonial state apparatus was not so different than any other postcolonial autocrat. In another sense, it was entirely different because of the high modernist utopianism of his plans.

  5. Tim Ross says:

    “A social and intellectual history of the state, or of bureaucrats”

    That kind of work would be on the short list of ideas/topics that might lure me into academia, but whenever that thought gets too strong I take a nap. Usually it passes pretty quick.

    Anyway, I think we’re in agreement about the contours here. I guess one way of summing up my frustration with the vulgar hayekian critique is that guys like Brooks want to indiscriminately pin the High Modernist tail on donkeys that don’t necessarily merit it. There’s a big missing step in Brooks’ argument that he just assumes away, like an underpants gnome.

    And on the other hand, there’s the unspoken extent to which High Modernist ideas and undergird actually existing capitalism. It’s a bit of tightrope act to hew to a rigourous Hayekian doctrine that says that planning _inside_ the firm is great and good, but planning *outside* the firm, at the state level, is verboten, while ignoring the reality that capitalist economic practices in the US depend on a huge, centrally-planned, govt project – the US Interstate system.*

    That’s not an attempt to render all Hayekian critiques illegitimate or say that they’re incoherent, but it is an appeal for better Hayekians. It’s the equivalent of returning a student paper covered in red ink, and saying, “you need to do better than this.”

    Now I really want to read Scott’s book. It’s been on my list forever; time to dive in.

    * Not that I want to defend the US highway system as an instance of a top-down technocratic project that turned out to be a _good idea_. I’m just saying, it is a huge factor in just about every aspect of industry and commerce in the States. So it’s probably a good idea for any conservative doing a Hayekian five-finger exercise to remember that.

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