“We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing all of them.”
Barack Obama, Feb. 21, 2009
When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke. I loathed the book. Burke argued that each individual’s private stock of reason is small and that political decisions should be guided by the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Change is necessary, Burke continued, but it should be gradual, not disruptive. For a young democratic socialist, hoping to help begin the world anew, this seemed like a reactionary retreat into passivity.
Over the years, I have come to see that Burke had a point. 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. Liberals are more optimistic about the capacity of individual reason and the government’s ability to execute transformational change. They have more faith in the power of social science, macroeconomic models and 10-point programs.
Readers of this column know that I am a great admirer of Barack Obama and those around him. And yet the gap between my epistemological modesty and their liberal worldviews has been evident over the past few weeks. The people in the administration are surrounded by a galaxy of unknowns, and yet they see this economic crisis as an opportunity to expand their reach, to take bigger risks and, as Obama said on Saturday, to tackle every major problem at once.
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 plansare bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.
Yet they set off my Burkean alarm bells. I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they will do nothing well. I fear that we have a group of people who haven’t even learned to use their new phone system trying to redesign half the U.S. economy. I fear they are going to try to undertake the biggest administrative challenge in American history while refusing to hire the people who can help the most: agency veterans who are registered lobbyists.
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.