Reach exceeding grasp?

David Brooks of the NY Times is worried–but hopes against hope:

“We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing all of them.”
Barack Obama, Feb. 21, 2009

…The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.
These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.
Before long, I was no longer a liberal…
President Obama has concentrated enormous power on a few aides in the West Wing of the White House. These aides are unrolling a rapid string of plans: to create three million jobs, to redesign the health care system, to save the auto industry, to revive the housing industry, to reinvent the energy sector, to revitalize the banks, to reform the schools — and to do it all while cutting the deficit in half.
If ever this kind of domestic revolution were possible, this is the time and these are the people to do it. The crisis demands a large response. The people around Obama are smart and sober. Their plans are bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.
I worry that we’re operating far beyond our economic knowledge. Every time the administration releases an initiative, I read 20 different economists with 20 different opinions. I worry that we lack the political structures to regain fiscal control. Deficits are exploding, and the president clearly wants to restrain them. But there’s no evidence that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have the courage or the mutual trust required to share the blame when taxes have to rise and benefits have to be cut.
All in all, I can see why the markets are nervous and dropping. And it’s also clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited. We will know that highly trained government experts are capable of quickly designing and executing top-down transformational change. If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity.
It’ll be interesting to see who’s right. But I can’t even root for my own vindication. The costs are too high. I have to go to the keyboard each morning hoping Barack Obama is going to prove me wrong.

Mark C.
Update: President Obama’s speech to Congress Feb. 24 rather makes Mr Brooks’ point.

5 thoughts on “Reach exceeding grasp?

  1. Nicola Timmerman says:

    Since when do highly trained experts in government run anything efficiently and/or predict which companies will be successful or how the economy will react?
    It’s known as rolling the dice…
    It’s as if your young teenager had stolen the keys to your car and you are hoping against hope that he will get home safely.

  2. Ran says:

    “[ ] I have to go to the keyboard each morning hoping Barack Obama is going to prove me wrong.”
    This, from the “conservative” who assured us that Obama would govern from the centre???
    No, the markets are not “nervous” and dropping, they’re RATIONAL and they’re doing the smart thing, SELLING SHORT.
    And… it isn’t the biggest “social experiment” of our lifetimes. What “experiment”? What, we’ve never seen a nation take this road before? Why, no-one can predict what will happen?
    Wow, man. Social experiment. [inhales]
    [coughs coughs] Whoa. That’s groovy, man.

  3. david foster says:

    “We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing all of them”…people who have practical experience in actually running things don’t say, or even think, things like this.

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