November 17, 2009
tensions over technocracy
Ina very valuable piece for National Affairs, William Schambra argues that Barack Obama is the epitome of a policy-oriented progressive; in fact, he is the first "genuine, life-long true believer" in that philosophy ever to occupy the Oval Office. The Progressive "policy approach" presumes that social science can tell us how to fix social problems. Problems are interconnected, hence they require comprehensive reforms rather than programs in separate silos. Standing in the way of the appropriate reforms are local prejudices and interests and "politics"--meaning horse-trading among popular leaders with interests and biases. The perfect manifestation of the Progressive policy approach is the appointment of a policy "czar," an expert, to resolve a broad and interconnected problem. The opposite is a compromise among ill-tutored Congressmen, or a loud objection from some morally outraged cultural group.
- In one policy area after another--from transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy --Obama's formulation is virtually identical: selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to look at the problem in isolated pieces rather than as an all-encompassing system; we must put aside parochialism to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy presidency.
I endorse much of Schambra's critique of policy-oriented Progressivism. He believes it is an unrealistic doctrine and also undesirable because the clash of interests that it tries to replace with "science" actually reflects cultural vitality. This seems right to me:
- ... technocratic rhetoric is meant to be soothing and reassuring to an American public fed up with intractable ideological division: Many of our problems will resolve themselves once we have collected the facts about them, because facts can ground and shape our political discussions, deflating ideological claims and leaving behind rational and objective answers in place of tired old debates. But in spite of several decades of data production by social science, American politics has proven itself to be remarkably resistant to the pacifying effects of facts. It has continued to be driven, as James Madison predicted, by the proliferation and clash of diverse 'opinions, passions and interests.' ... These disagreements, although they do not always lend themselves to scientific analysis and technical solution, speak to genuine human yearnings and concerns.
I agree with that but am not sure that I share Schambra's reading of Barack Obama. Based on the president's writing and speaking, I think Obama understands the intractability and merit of moral commitments and disagreements. He sees personal behavior and community norms as essential components of social issues--and is often criticized from the left for that. He takes an "asset-based" approach to communities and is an excellent listener. His move away from discrete programs can be seen as arrogant (that's Schambra's view), but it can also be interpreted as a critique of the technocratic idea that problems can be disaggregated; Obama's is a more "holistic" approach. The modesty of the health care reform bill (for it is very modest) speaks to a recognition that you have to mend the ship of state while at sea. An arrogant--or more confident--Progressive would favor single-payer.
Finally, Obama has been criticized by the left for allowing Congress to horse-trade on essential issues like the stimulus package and health care, rather than presenting a detailed proposal from the administration. In that sense, it seems to me Obama has broken with technocratic Progressivism rather than epitomize it.
But in the end, I think the struggle over how to apply science to policy--and how to deal with moral resistance and disagreement--runs through the Democratic Party, the Obama Administration, and the president himself. Schambra has nicely identified one side of that argument, even as he underestimates the importance of the other side.
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