Friday, January 1, 2010

Technocratic Balance

David Brooks has an interesting column up meditating on the limitations of government and any institution. His main point is that institutions will necessarily fail, that centralized programs will always have their shortcomings. Brooks suggests that we need to be able to accept these shortcomings. Here's the conclusion:
At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

Brooks's point is not, as some lefty bloggers imply, that we can't have government do anything because centralized institutions will always fall short but that a centralized system can at times fail and still be worth defending. Brooks isn't a Ron Paulite, and he has no interest in tearing down many of the structures of a robust centralized government.

Brooks speaks on behalf of a kind of moral seriousness about the real risks of centralized bodies. Institutional perfectionism---the belief that institutions must be perfect to be worth defending---is a belief that can be used both to defend and to attack the notion of having a strong central government.

There is this amusing paragraph in Brooks's piece:
Many people seem to be in the middle of a religious crisis of faith. All the gods they believe in — technology, technocracy, centralized government control — have failed them in this instance.
As a coda to this point, we might also note that those "progressives" who would create ever-more elaborate temples to those gods of technology, technocracy, and centralized government control have been elevated to positions of great power in the wake of the 2008 elections. Indeed, it is these baroque temples that have increased the pitch of this crisis.

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers! Here are a few other topics that might interest you: strategy for Republican Scott Brown in the upcoming Massachusetts special Senate election, the dangers of demagoguery, and the meanings of "community" and "government."


  1. "Indeed, it is these baroque temples that have increased the pitch of this crisis."

    Amen and amen!

  2. A generation ago in his book Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto taught us about the failure of placing our children in the hands of centralized schooling agencies.

    At about the same time, Charles Murray taught us that a powerful centralized Welfare State was also a false god. Murray followed up Losing Ground with the ought'a be more widely read little book In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, another indictment of the foolishness of trying to push off onto powerful centralized agencies what, until FDR, Americans had historically done in a decentralized, community-organized way themselves.