Bringing Us All Together

Via Jim Manzi at The American Scene, I’d like to second (third?) these words from David Brooks:

The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance.

That’s just right.  Although, my guess is that Jim and I would interpret how we put this idea into use quite differently.  He, being a small-government conservative type, would interpret it to mean that, lacking surety, we should be humble in how we deploy our government, not taking bold, large actions when we aren’t sure about the outcomes.  I agree under some circumstances, but disagree under others – when the cause is urgent, or we judge it to be sufficiently noble or important, sometimes it can be appropriate to pursue our goals with unsure means.

However, I would argue, when we do this we ought to be bold, but flexible.  Be analytical and make sure that we check up, as often as possible, on how well government programs do what they are supposed to.  I would argue in favor of a more scientific governmental worldview.  Make predictions, check against them.  If our program’s outcomes cannot be predicted, then I would necessarily be very cautious about those undertakings.  And, if we aren’t fulfilling the projected outcomes, either explain why, change the goals, or change the means.  But be open about it, whatever you’re doing.

But still, in times like this, when we are undertaking massive governmental expenditures whose efficacy cannot, and perhaps never will be, known, it’s important to keep the sort of humility Brooks was referring to in the front of our minds…

One Response to Bringing Us All Together

  1. Solveig says:

    Rumsfeld, oddly enough, had the brains to talk about the unknown unknowns. People gave him shit about it but it’s the only thing I remember he said that I absolutely agree with.

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