Again, if you just spent your day scrolling through Facebook or watching Funny or Die videos, you should slowly transition to serious mode. But there’s a picture of a cute puppy at the end of the post as a reward.
As I was saying, intellectual modesty and governing.
The problem is that humility and doubt are great principles for your own life, but they don’t give you much direction when it actually comes to making things work for a large group of people with different interests, abilities, and circumstances.
Be open to new insights all you want, but at some point, you have to pause the hunt for new information, you have to shut down the uncertainty, and you have to make some damn policy. David Brooks on conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott:
Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.
[Note that Brooks wrote that paragraph in 2006, well before the Obama HOPE campaign got rolling.]
But that doesn’t mean forget all the intellectual modesty that got you here in the first place. It just means check yourself before you wreck yourself by enacting some irreversible, misguided nonsense.
Make policy that takes into account our infallibility and nuance and allows for personal choice, flexibility, and respect. It should not be overly prescriptive or morality-based. It should make it easier for people to make their own decisions by removing friction, not harder by imposing conditions. It will be a lagging indicator, as the econo-nerds would say; it reflects what’s already happening and likely to stick around for a long time, not what someone (even a lot of someones) thinks should happen and should stick around for a long time. It is an umpire, not an empire.
Unfortunately, as Brooks points out, such a policy maker also wouldn’t have written the Declaration of Independence.
As Oakeshott explains (in what is probably an attempt at humor):
To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living…[I]f it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them
Brooks was right that a candidate of the Oakashottian/Sullivan ilk would never be elected because what kind of platform is “I probably won’t change much” or “I don’t know the truth” or “Do it yourself”? Right.
Also, what you and I think is happening and will stick around for a long time probably differs. As will our idea of “barriers” and “conditions”. Just a few examples:
- In creating a social safety net – Social Security, Medicare, food stamps – did the government overstep its umpire-only bounds? Must the government ensure basic standards of living? Is the safety net less “removing friction” and more “grand moral vision”? Do the taxes we pay to support the safety net impinge on our economic freedom and private property?
- If unfettered markets fail, should the government correct the imbalances through regulation? How do we know when a market is failing? Take the healthcare market or the financial services market. Some consider each to have failed miserably and irreversibly on its own – one because it wasn’t really a market in the first place, and the other because the rewards for cheating were so tempting – but others see their failure as a self-correcting mechanism.
- Do environmental regulations simply charge the real price of manufacturing something to the producer, or do they impose misguided and costly restrictions on businesses that only serve to squash efficiency and innovation?
But before you answer, remember the Oakeshottian quip that “the world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires”.
So heavy! Here’s a picture of a cute puppy to balance it out: