Rulers of the Waves and the Limits of Power

In his column today David Brooks uses the figures of Jeremy Bentham and David Hume as epitomes of two different ways of looking at government, imagining Bentham as the omnicompetent technocrat:

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.

13 comments… add one
  • Sam Link

    I’m dying to know who Mr. Hume is.

  • Of course if we were to come forward to the current time periods we’d also see the research of guys like Kydland and Prescott who would laugh at Brooks notion of an optimal plan. But statists always love their plans. Why its all so simple, just listen to the leader and things will be swell.

  • Here’s the abstract from their paper on rules:

    Even if there is an agreed-upon, fixed social objective function and policymakers know the timing and magnitude of the effects of their actions, discretionary policy, namely, the selection of that decision which is best, given the current situation and a correct evaluation of the endof-period position, does not result in the social objective function being maximized. The reason for this apparent paradox is that economic planning is not a game against nature but, rather, a game against rational economic agents. We conclude that there is no way control theory can be made applicable to economic planning when expectations are rational.

    Very relevant.

  • I’d also add that the assumption is of a benevolent social dictator. A dictator whose only concern is that of the people living under him and that they are made better off. Even in this idealized case, the optimal plan is not obtainable. Toss in rent-seeking, politicians with their own goals and agendas, and special interest groups, and so forth and I’m at a complete loss with the fascination with philosopher-kings.

  • Sam Link

    Where does the notion that all Liberals all want Utopia come from? Or that everyone who thinks even a little bit of government nudging is automatically a Liberal, and thus wants an unattainable Utopia and deserves to be ridiculed?
    Most people in the center and center left are aware that you just trade one set of problems for another with regulations, but which set of problems is actually worse is debatable.

  • I didn’t say liberals I said Statists. A Statist can be Right or Left. Bush was a Statist, IMO. His notion of compassionate conservativism, that he didn’t see a government program he didn’t like or thought could be made just right, and so forth.

    Also, my comment about a benevolent social dictator was for the work by Kydland and Prescott. They assumed away the issues of voting, rent seeking, special interest groups, and corruption with a benevolent social dictator. A philosopher-king whose only goal is the well being of the rest of society.

  • Sam Link

    Let me rephrase then:

    Why is it that everyone who thinks even a little bit of government nudging is automatically a Statist, and thus wants an unattainable Utopia and deserves to be ridiculed?
    Most people in the center and center left are aware that you just trade one set of problems for another with regulations, but which set of problems is actually worse is debatable.

  • I can’t speak for Steve and I don’t ridicule but for me it’s the nature, the character of the “government nudging”. Quotas, bans, restrictions, and so on are ineffective. The objectives can’t be achieved with them.

    I’m not a minarchist or anarcho-capitalist. I think that some level of government is not only necessary but benign. However, I prefer policy alternatives that can work to those that can’t.

  • Why is it that everyone who thinks even a little bit of government nudging is automatically a Statist, and thus wants an unattainable Utopia and deserves to be ridiculed?

    Well the story in Kydland and Prescott, which is an idealized world mind you, is that it can’t work. It can’t work becuase at a later date renegging on the initial policy leads to an improved outcome, if everyone believed the inital policy was going to be adhered too. Since people are forward looking and rational, then they wont believe the initial policy will be adhered too so they ignore it. You get a sub-optimal outcome.

    Here is an examle:

    You have a class that is Pass/Fail. The instructor states at the begining of the year that there will be a final that determines if the students pass or fail. Now, on the day of the test, if everyone believed the professor it is in everyone’s best interest to cancel the test and pass everyone. The reasoning is that since they believed the professor they studied, are prepared for the test and will thus pass. However, the students realizing this potential for renegging will not study knowing that the test will be cancelled. So, the professor has to give the test, thus assuring us of a sub-optimal outcome.

    Another example is that there is a flood plain. The optimal strategy initially is to state that the government will not bailout people who build houses on the flood plain. But, if people do build there will the government refuse to bail out these people during a flood? If it improves social welfare they will be bailed out. Hence nobody believes the initial “threat” by the government and people move in there.

    And finally there is inflation and unemployment. The typical view these days is that the the unemployment-inflation trade off works only when people aren’t expecting inflation. So the government announces a policy of zero inflation. But later on, if everyone believes that initial policy of zero inflation, the government can obtain a reduction in unemployment by increasing inflation. But if people are rational and forward looking they will anticipate this and you get higher inflation and no reductions in unemployment. This is why you hear talk about central bankers building reputations as inflation hawks.

    In other words, the whole thing is ultimately self-defeating if you use discretionary policy. That is why Kydland and Prescott argued for policy rules. But politicians don’t like rules since they are automatic and they can’t pass bills with nice yummy bits of pork for various interest groups, campaign supporters, and the like.

    Here is another fly in the Bentham-as-Social-Planner-a.k.a.-Obama:

    We don’t have just Jeremy Bentham. We have Barack Obama who is not some academic sitting there thinking deep thoughts. He is a product of the Illinois/Chicago political machine. And we have several hundred Senators and Representatives in Congress. Then there are all the governors, assemblymen, state senators, mayors, and so forth. It is one thing to look for one Jeremy Bentham, but to fine 1,000 of them and hope they all rise to positions of power in the U.S.? And that they wont be corrupted by the power that they are given? Reminds me of that phrase by Lord Acton,

    Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it. –John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

  • Sam Link


    The problem is this is the system we have, one that has slow-changing moderation built into it by design. If you can’t come up with ideas that move the middle incrementally in the direction you want it to, then what you do is purely entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that (if that’s what you’re after), but I hope you recognize you’re not changing any minds with condescension toward everyone from centrist pragmatists to the left.

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