Wednesday, June 03, 2009

This is Your Future

I should disclose right up front that this is a post assumes too much. I'm making assumptions about what I'm seeing in the photo below, which may or may not be true, but if true are... disquieting regarding what lies ahead.

The caption at the New York Times article containing this photo reads: "Brian Deese, who interrupted his law school career, is the little-seen force behind the revamping of the American auto industry." I'm going to assume that the other people pictured in the photo are also important staffers in the Obama administration, and indeed perhaps in the effort to restructure GM.

What do they look like? They look young, smart, like perhaps they are recent graduates of America's best university graduate programs, undoubtedly majoring in social sciences or the law. (We are now perhaps run more by lawyers than we ever have been. The president is a lawyer; the vice president is a lawyer; the House and Senate and, needless to say, the Supreme Court are dominated by lawyers. Only Nancy Pelosi is the conspicuous exception.)

I don't have anything against young people; I used to be one. I teach them every day, and I know their norms. They often want to change the world, which is commendable. But they often feel they know enough to change the world all by themselves, which is terrible. To graduate from Stanford, or Yale Law School, requires the highest sort of intelligence. But intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom comes as much from experience and from self-reflection as from pure intelligence. And in governing men, the better part of wisdom is to realize the limits of your intelligence, particularly its limits in organizing human affairs to your liking.

The reorganization of GM, like the reorganization of the health-care system, or the reorganization of the macroeconomy, depends on knowing information possessed by millions of individuals all around the world -- information about trade-offs, about value, etc. As we pass that information up the ladder from the individuals who possess it to our benevolent rulers, more leaks out of the bucket at each stage. And so every decision our rulers make will have consequences they did not anticipate, which is an outcome far more dangerous in the hands of someone with the police power behind him, and with a need to get a majority of the population to see the other as a mortal danger to all that is right and true, than when it is caused by, say, a hedge fund. The problem is not that Mr. Deese has apparently never spent a day in the auto industry, working for a publication rating cars, etc., although that is bad enough. The problem is that no one with that much power will do a good job on such a large and complicated question. Our rulers may be subject to hysterias - The green economy is the future! GM should be around for another hundred years! And there are important questions they fail to ask - does a single-payer health system in other countries have hidden negative consequences? Does it negatively affect the health care of people fifty years from now? But the smartest people tend to be those who are most confident in the ability of human intelligence to direct complex societies and achieve desired outcomes, despite the total lack of historical evidence for this belief. They themselves are smarter than all that.

And if our rulers are not in fact benevolent, the problem is even worse. It is a government of the cockiest and most earnest subset of the National Honor Society, the Model U.N. team and the debate team now. Get ready.



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