Waldman on the technocrats
These two posts by Steve Randy Waldman, "Tragedy of the technocrats" and "Moral heuristics, public policy, and self-defeating tribalism," are well worth your time. In them, Steve describes how those on the liberal side of the economic wonk space concede the moral language, preferring to stay within models and numbers. This creates a blind spot to our thoughts that ultimately leaves the other side to win those debates by default ("[E]ven in a challenging landscape it is better to fight than to preemptively surrender. There are ways to address, in explicitly moralistic terms").
I can't summarize these arguments well, so I'd advise you to read them.
I was slightly disappointed Brad Delong didn't engage Waldman's argument further. Markets are one means of governing populations. But what form does that governance take? Delong, more than most, understands that there's an ideology of dark satanic millian liberalism that drives much of what constitutes libertarian and conservative economics, and their vision of how markets should be set up, in this country. That dark argument is that markets aren't about providing the means for individuals to pursue their life goals and fully utilize their capabilities, but that markets are the best means we have for punishing the wicked and rewarding the strong. This is the battle that economic discussions play out against, and appeals to technocratic rationality won't get around that fact.
This goes back to a core split in the way that ideological work is done between liberals and conservatives. Compare the mission statement for Brookings (“The Brookings Institution ... is an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to research, analysis, and public education with an emphasis on economics, foreign policy, governance, and metropolitan policy.") with Heritage (“The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute – a think tank – whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."). They both view themselves as think tanks, but while Brookings emphasizes its independence, its nonpartisanship and its commitment to the ideals of scientific inquiry, Heritage's mission and conclusions are written right on the door in an ideologically aggressive manner. Liberals want to be scientists, conservatives want to explain their ideology.
(Also: "Brookings Institution: In a 1997 survey of congressional staff and journalists about 27 think tanks, Brookings ranked as the second-most-influential and as No. 1 in credibility. In the same survey, Heritage ranked No. 1 in influence and ninth in credibility.")
This narrative is from Andy Rich's "War of Ideas" (Rich is the CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, where I work). And this also goes to a split inside the liberal ideological space, on how those who position liberal arguments are split between those who value a scientific form of objective knowledge to solve the problems of society and those who think that the solutions to society should arise from the mass participation of the population. Expertise does different things in each case, and more importantly it draws on different sources: In the first, it's credentials and methods, and in the second it's the broad experience of organized and engaged people. One craves statistics and credibility, the other mass participation.
In each case the basis for participation and voice is going to be at odds. It doesn't have to be that way. There are examples of leaders who blend the best of social science with concerns for ethical and democratic convictions (John Dewey, for instance). How to try and blend this is something I worry about and try to focus on myself politically.
I can imagine Brad Delong bashing his head at the idea that he needs to be framing arguments around mental heuristics and crass right-wing ideological aggression. But right now is exactly the wrong time to double-down on neoliberal technocratic competence, with the last decade being a failure of elites across the board (and not just economics). Because the way it gets done now leaves a lot up for grabs, especially for a new generation coming of ideological age in a time of failing market neoliberalism. And if we are failing to communicate some sort of moral message about how our version of how to set the rules of the market economy is better than their version, it shouldn't surprise us that people will ignore us in order to take comfort that they aren't quite the loser that someone else is.
| November 11, 2010; 6:07 PM ET
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