Friday, May 08, 2020

'rona Reading III: The hubris of the learned and the perils of technocracy

The Return of Fortuna

There is a contemporary tendency to try and sever politics from fundamental and first-order questions about the nature of reality. Politics, and our political institutions, are understood in narrowly procedural terms, legitimized by aggrandizing claims of expertise that reduce what are ultimately political questions to dry technical problems to be solved by experts.

…. an overconfident hubris that we have essentially “figured it all out” and arrived at an end of history moment with little left to do. In addition to producing the kind of cultural and social nihilism that Ross Douthat captures in The Decadent Society, this hubris has helped produce sclerotic and decaying political institutions unresponsive to democratic and geopolitical pressures.

These political institutions are undergirded not just by democratic legitimacy but by technocratic legitimacy. Technocracy, in its very essence, implies that technology and knowledge can render fortuna obsolete. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that modern managerial expertise is predicated on the predictive social sciences. These offer a systematic understanding of reality that gives the managerial class access to a superior form of knowledge and enables them to effectively govern society.
Steve Sailer made an interesting point on Twitter

Eric Hoffer:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
On the surface, Trump's governing style seems outlandish and unprecedented. Look a little deeper and you can see parallels with some of our greatest presidents.

Here's historian John Gaddis on FDR:

He improvised, edging forward where possible, falling back when necessary, always appearing to do something, never giving in to despair, and in everything remembering what Wilson forgot – that nothing would succeed without widespread continuing public support. 'It is a terrible thing', Roosevelt once admitted, 'to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and to find no one there.'
FDR did not juggle only for political reasons. He also understood that bureaucracies and the experts who run them try to use their rules and procedures to limit the freedom of action of presidents and cabinet officers. FDR understood the danger that this represented:

Roosevelt did not so much distrust experts as lament their limited horizons.
A president needs a very broad field of vision. FDR went to great pains to ensure that he retained his. Experts might despair but the results speak for themselves.

Liberal Roosevelt would probably have agreed with the British arch-conservative Lord Salisbury:

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of common sense.
Pragmatism and opportunism also marked Lincoln's governing style.

Lincoln critically assessed costs, neither brushing them aside – like Napoleon in Russia – nor dreading them to the point of immobility –- like Union army generals before Grant. He relied on experience, incrementally accumulated, to show what worked, not on categories, professorially taught, to say what should.
What matters, in the end, are the results:

Napoleon lost his empire by confusing aspirations with capabilities; Lincoln saved his country by not doing so. Wilson the builder disappointed his generation; Roosevelt the juggler surpassed the expectations of his.
Colin Gray:

Both strategy and policy are almost always required to be somewhat flexible and adaptable to the changing circumstances of context. Good enough policy and strategy should always be 'work in progress,' at least to some modest degree.
Lord Salisbury:

There is no such thing as as a fixed policy because policy like all organic entities is always in the making.

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