24 February 2009

Why I Am Not a Liberal

I used to think I was a conservative, then I thought I was a liberal, then a progressive, then a pragmatist. Now I regard myself as post-ideological. That's another way of saying, everyone gets it right and wrong in turns, whatever their ideology. No -ism will infallibly guide. If I had to chose a political label, it would simply be critic. Or maybe aphorist (see tomorrow's post). Or crooked timberist (see below).

Per liberalism, David Brooks really nailed it in his column today. I discovered Brooks as an author (Bobos in Paradise, brilliant) before I discovered him as a columnist. But in him I find a post-ideological soulmate. It's "clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes," and his article frames the trepidation most of feel about that, whether Obama fans (as he and I are) or not. But I loved a particular biographical aside he offers up:

    The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

    These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

    Before long, I was no longer a liberal. Liberals are more optimistic about the capacity of individual reason and the government’s ability to execute transformational change. They have more faith in the power of social science, macroeconomic models and 10-point programs.
I have little faith in any of that. Odds are much of this will help some, but none of this will rescue the economy. It looks like Wall St. is agreeing with me, but hey, we all know what geniuses those guys are.

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