Sunday, September 03, 2006


This statement by Brad DeLong disturbed me on so many levels and I've had difficulty sorting them all out.

I am, as I said above, a reality-based center-left technocrat. I am pragmatically interested in government policies that work: that are good for America and for the world. My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share--world peace, world prosperity, equality of opportunity, safety nets, long and happy lifespans, rapid scientific and technological progress, and personal safety. The aim of governance, I think, is to achieve a rough consensus among the reality-based technocrats and then to frame the issues in a way that attracts the ideologues on one (or, ideally, both) wings in order to create an effective governing coalition.

This, in a nutshell, is the worldview of the Sensible Liberal. It's the belief that there are Sensible Policies concocted by Wise Men (and women), preferably ones with advanced degrees, which are Right and True and Good. Wise Men may disagree a bit about the means, and we should throw a few conferences to hash these differences out. Politics and ideologues who do not share the ideology of the Wise Men, who of course are not really tainted by ideology, get in the way of enacting policies which are Sensible.

It's a dangerously wrong view of the world. First, there are absolutely fundamental differences of opinion about the direction of this country which will have tremendous impact on the lives of people. DeLong's been tangoing with Greg Mankiw long enough to know that we're not just talking about minor tweaks. There are wide differences of opinion about not just the means but the goals, and those differences of opinion aren't just about debates between Pat Robertson and writers for the Nation. Those differences of opinion exist throughout society, including in the club of technocrats.

Second, it's a useful conceit to imagine you're above ideology, to plant your feet in a place and call it the center, imagining you have the facts on your side and everyone else is an ideologue, but that's hogwash. Certainly some people are more informed by the facts than others, but that doesn't free them from ideology.

Third, as someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time around the kinds of people DeLong is talking about, I'm not sure I want them running anything. The sensible technocrats haven't exactly had the best track record lately, in part because imagining you're above it helps to isolate you from the consequences of what you're advocating.

How's that "free trade" working out for Mexico? How'd that currency peg work out for Argentina? How'd that energy deregulation thing work out for California? How'd that shock therapy work out for Russia? How's the privatization of federal government functions coming along? Oh, and how's that Iraq war coming along?

I'm not pinning all of these things on DeLong, I'm just saying that the Consensus View of Sensible Technocrats has been pretty disastrous for a lot of people. Sensible Technocrats are above of all driven by the belief that They Are Right.

When the Russia collapse happened one Sensible Technocrat who was partly responsible for the disaster said it all would've worked out swimmingly if only they'd listened to everything he had said. Perhaps true, but not how the world works in practice.