Elsewhere in his column, Douthat writes that "in one-party states," debacles "tend to flow from ideological mania: think of
China's Great Leap Forward, or Stalin's experiment with "Lysenkoist"
agriculture." The United States isn't a one party state, but both the Iraq War and the financial crisis would seem to owe as much to ideological blindness as anything else. As Daniel Larison notes, "Experts and technocrats can get things badly wrong, but the Iraq war is
a good example of what happens when people embark on a large project
while ignoring all the many experts who said that it was folly." Elsewhere he observes that "the people in and around the Bush administration decidedly were not
experts in the politics, culture, or history of the Near East. For the
most part, the people who were most knowledgeable about this part of
the world were the ones shouting loudest not to invade." If only they'd listened to "the reality based community."
The financial crisis had many causes. One was a bipartisan ideological attachment to home ownership. Another was high-level regulators who were excessively optimistic about the complicated world of Wall Street resembling introductory economic texts. Douthat mentions Alan Greenspan as someone who thought he had reduced economics to an exact science, but recall this piece, which suggests Greenspan's failure wasn't applying a rigid formula so much as presuming that no oversight was needed:
For years, a Congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan
was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage.
Markets jumped up or down depending on what he said. Politicians in both
parties wanted the maestro on their side. But on Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve,
a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the
self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the
self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending
institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a
state of shocked disbelief," he told the House Committee on Oversight
and Government Reform.
Now 82, Mr. Greenspan came in for one of the harshest grillings of
his life, as Democratic lawmakers asked him time and again whether he
had been wrong, why he had been wrong and whether he was sorry.
Critics, including many economists, now blame the former Fed chairman for the financial crisis
that is tipping the economy into a potentially deep recession. Mr.
Greenspan's critics say that he encouraged the bubble in housing prices
by keeping interest rates too low for too long and that he failed to
rein in the explosive growth of risky and often fraudulent mortgage
"You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices
that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by
many others," said Representative Henry A. Waxman
of California, chairman of the committee. "Do you feel that your
ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?"
Mr. Greenspan conceded: "Yes, I've found a flaw. I don't know how
significant or permanent it is. But I've been very distressed by that
Douthat concludes his column by writing that
"we need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits,
experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need
the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned
humility along the way." Agreed. But I'd put it a bit differently. What we need are politicians, media professionals, and citizens who deal less in abstractions. Talk of the federal government creating "an ownership society" or the U.S. military bringing democracy to Iraq because yearning for self-government is universal should be treated with skepticism insofar as they're ideological statements as opposed to pragmatic judgments grounded in observation mediated by wisdom. The same can be said of "green jobs" or "bending the cost curve."
A meritocracy would likely have all the flaws Douthat ascribes to it, if we had one, but it seems to me that what we're living under is actually an extremely ideology-driven government, one that isn't applying a carefully constructed formula for success so much as pretending to do so, which is even worse.
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