The Conservative Outcome of the 2008 Election

Jonathan Alter’s book, The Promise, about the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, is due out this week and Aaron Wiener has a bit of a preview of it (“Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top,” The Washington Independent, 4 May 2010). At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, both Senators McCain and Obama returned to Washington for a joint White House-Congressional leadership briefing, Senator McCain famously staging the publicity stunt of “suspending” his campaign over developments. Mr. Alter has Senator Obama saying as he left the meeting,

Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there. Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but he [McCain] definitely shouldn’t be.

This is admittedly an off-the-cuff remark, probably not representative of an explicit, deeply held political philosophy, but nevertheless I want to highlight it as a fundamentally conservative attitude toward politics and positions of great responsibility. The objective in selecting officers for high office is not to achieve perfection or optimum outcomes, but merely to avoid catastrophe.

What this most reminds me of is the story of the meeting between President-elect John Kennedy and Robert McNamara. Kennedy had offered McNamara the position of Secretary of Defense, but McNamara protested, “Mr. President, it’s absurd; I’m not qualified,” to which Kennedy responded, “Look, Bob, I don’t think there’s any school for presidents, either.” Both represent a recognition of the limits of human judgment and the capabilities of normal people elevated to high office (contrast this with the belief of President Bush that he was carrying out the will of God).

This is of a piece with what Robert Capps, writing for Wired called “the good enough revolution” (“The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,” vol. 17, no. 9, August 2009, pp. 110-118) or John Maynard Keynes’s bit of wisdom that it’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money [1935]).

It’s also worth pointing out that in the great (mostly right wing) debate of democracy versus its contenders — aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, hereditary monarchy — it is in this high-consequences area of avoiding the worst outcomes where democracy most outperforms the alternatives. And it is in avoiding the occasional catastrophic rather than excelling at the upper end that the game is decided.

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The Hegemony of Neoliberalism

A roundup of some recent thinking on the hegemony of neoliberalism:

  1. Taking off from what Matthew Yglesias calls “Prestige Cross-Pollination1 and Ezra Klein “The Tyranny of the Economists,”2 Mike Konczal at RortyBomb relates of the,

    … “credibility gap” between sociologists and economists, even when they deploy the same methods, when it comes to the public debate over the issues we face.3

    It helps to have a paradigm, and in recent years economics has rather forcefully acquired one.4

  2. In his review of Steven Teles’s new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement,5 Henry Farrell makes a brief assessment of the state of the tyranny of the bureaucracy:

    If you win the technocrats (and [the law and economics movement] arguably has won the technocrats), then you very nearly have won the entire game.6

    This strikes me as about true. The shift rightward of the economics and policy intelligentsia since the New Frontier / Great Society heyday of Keynesian fine tuning has played a significant part in the general right-ward drift of the polity. There aren’t exactly dais upon dais of unreconstructed Keynesians offering policy makers intellectual cover on the Sunday morning shows.

  3. Via Charles Mudede7, Steven Shaviro reacts to Peter Ward’s new book, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?8 Using the purported instability of ecological systems — one of the paradigm cases of self-organization — Mr. Shaviro sets himself against emergence, evolution, complexity, network theory, et al. He identifies Friedrich Hayek as one of the key thinkers of self-organization — the market would be one of the other paradigm cases —

    But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. … inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could.9

    Friedrich Hayek, cyberneticist.

Combine these three and where are we for policy making and policy debate?

  1. Yglesias, Matthew, “Prestige Cross-PollinationThink Progress, 2 June 2009
  2. Klein, Ezra, “The Tyranny of the Economists,” The Washington Post, 2 June 2009
  3. Konczal, Mike, “Economists, Methods and Government,” RortyBomb, 3 June 2009
  4. The Future of Economics is Here: The Arational and the Irrational,” This is Not a Dinner Party, 28 September 2008
  5. Teles, Steven, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)
  6. Farrell, Henry, “Fabians and Gramscians in Law and Economics,” Crooked Timber, 30 April 2009
  7. Mudede, Charles, “Self-Made,” SLOG, The Stranger, 28 May 2009
  8. The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009)
  9. Shaviro, Steven, “Against Self-Organization,” The Pinocchio Theory, 26 May 2009