Your Problem is Their Solution

Responding to a credulous op-ed that called for commissions of technocrats to “fix” the federal budget, the wise Ed Kilgore said:

One of my favorite old southern sayings is: “You can’t take the politics out of politics.” In this case, trying to do so will not only put unelected “experts” in charge of decisions with long-term national impact, but will invite indirect political manipulation that will be difficult to track and almost impossible to hold anyone accountable for.

Previously, Kilgore noted the limits of sweet reason. There are points of disagreement in American politics, he said, that “can’t be reduced to matters of taste, emphasis, background or calculation.”

I just wrote scathingly about a column on reproductive rights by Ross Douthat. Unlike, I suspect, some readers, I don’t think Ross is stupid or crazy. I’ve met him, been on a panel with him, and on some limited topics, I can talk with him reasonably with the possibility of his or my own mind changing. But Ross believes pretty strongly that legalized abortion is a moral horror of the highest order. I think returning to the days when abortion was illegal would be a moral horror of the highest order. If he and I were somehow placed in charge of setting abortion policy for America (and I bridle at the very idea of any man being so empowered), we could compromise, I suppose, but the battle between his idea that I’m more or less a “good German” in the service of unmitigaged evil and my idea that he’s confusing the way things used to be with God’s Will would not go away. Eventually, he’d try to deny me any power over this subject, and I’d do the same. It’s what Seward called an “irrepressible conflict,” and like it or not, our politics are presently loaded with such conflicts.

Now, a modern democracy needs technical guides to viable action. Much of the social world is not what it seems. Society is riddled with peculiar incentives, coordination problems, and spillover effects that can frustrate political action. Because of these realities, a program’s results are not bound by its original intent.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan appealed to this sense of reality when he distinguished programs from policies. Programs are about inputs: staff hired, structures built, benefits paid, etc. Policies are about programs and their consequences—about the relationship between efforts and outcomes.

A mere program, bereft of such guidance, is prone to impotence. A policy without a discernible purpose, however, is incoherent. In politics, it only makes sense to speak of doing what “works” when there is some rough agreement about the ends pursued. Louis Hartz was right: “It is only when you take your ethics for granted that all problems emerge as problems of technique.” Policy, then, is entangled with judgments of value.

Henri de Saint-Simon’s vision of “replacing the government of persons by the administration of things” is a mirage. As you approach, it dissolves. Technocracy would only be feasible if every conflict between values and every clash of interests could be reduced to a technical problem of specialized knowledge, but this is a category mistake.