If you put Mr. Bentham in charge of the government, he’d proceed with confidence. If you told him to solve a complicated issue like the global-warming problem, he’d gather the smartest people in the country and he’d figure out how to expand wind, biomass, solar and geothermal sources to reduce CO2 emissions. He’d require utilities to contribute $1 billion a year to a Carbon Storage Research Consortium. He’d draw up regulations determining how much power plants would be allowed to pollute.
and Hume as a very different sort:
Mr. Hume, I’m afraid, wouldn’t be so impressive. If you asked him to take on global warming, he’d pile up reports on the problem. But if you walked into his office after a few days, you’d find papers strewn in great piles on the floor and him at his desk with his head in his hands.
“I don’t know the best way to generate clean energy,” he’d whine, “and I don’t know how technology will advance in the next 20 years. Why don’t we just raise the price on carbon and let everybody else figure out how to innovate our way toward a solution? Or at worst, why don’t we just set up a simple cap-and-trade system — with no special-interest favorites — and let entrepreneurs figure out how to bring down emissions?”
A more apt and appropriate contrast for the real Bentham might be David Ricardo, whose views on economics differed sharply from Bentham’s. He had begun in life by running errands to the stock exchange for his father, a stockbroker, and eventually became tremendously wealthy and, inspired by Adam Smith, applied his practical knowledge and insight to economics. However, back to Brooks.
David Brooks might well be right. Our choices may be between interventionist, activist technocrats and those who prefer a more minimalist approach:
The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)
The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.
I see the contrast more as one between King Canute (in the old litho above) and Duke Kahanamoku. To the extent that he’s remembered at all King Canute is remembered by most of us (probably fictitiously) as a king who commanded the waves to hold back. Here’s Thackeray’s account of the event:
“Might I stay the sun above us, good sir Bishop?” Canute cried;
“Could I bid the silver moon to pause upon her heavenly ride?
If the moon obeys my orders, sure I can command the tide.
“Will the advancing waves obey me, Bishop, if I make the sign?”
Said the Bishop, bowing lowly, “Land and sea, my lord, are thine.”
Canute turned towards the ocean—”Back!” he said, “thou foaming brine.
“From the sacred shore I stand on, I command thee to retreat;
Venture not, thou stormy rebel, to approach thy master’s seat:
Ocean, be thou still! I bid thee come not nearer to my feet!”
But the sullen ocean answered with a louder, deeper roar,
And the rapid waves drew nearer, falling sounding on the shore;
Back the Keeper and the Bishop, back the king and courtiers bore.
And he sternly bade them never more to kneel to human clay,
But alone to praise and worship That which earth and seas obey:
And his golden crown of empire never wore he from that day.
King Canute is dead and gone: Parasites exist alway.
Actually, I’m thinking about the bishop more than Canute himself.
Duke Kahanamoku, pictured at right, was the father of modern surfing. He was of quite a different stamp. Surfing isn’t a sport in which you bend the waves to your will but one in which you feel the wind and water and, using balance, judgment, and strength, nudge your board to ride the longest distance you can.
These are the different approaches to government from which we can choose: an approach in which experts try to bend the world to their will or one in which we have confidence in the individual decisions of individual human beings and attempt to foster an environment in which the powerful forces those decisions represent function as smoothly as possible.
The thing to remember about the would-be masters of the world is that they cannot succeed. No matter how clever, learned, or energetic you are or how much power you have, the world is simply too complex to be managed. You may command the waves to withdraw; they won’t pay any attention to you. All you will get is wet. Human nature can’t be denied, either. The technocrat will inevitably lose the ability to distinguish between solving the world’s problems and solving his own problems.
But if rather than trying to command the waves we sense their strength and direction, adjusting as need be, we can ride the waves as far as they will take us.
As Thackeray warned us Parasites exist alway as do both the desire for power and the longing, as old as humanity, for somebody to solve all of our problems for us, whether it’s Mommy and Daddy, the king, or the Great Lord Jehovah. Mommy, Daddy, and the king can’t do that for us and God won’t. We need to resist the temptation of putting the experts in charge. They aren’t as expert as we want them to be or as they think they are and they’re not as benevolent as we need them to be.