Seeing Like a Policy Wonk, Conservative Critique, Edward Banfield 1977 edition.

Everyone’s writing about Freddie deBoer’s piece “the blindspot.” The piece names names, and calls people sellouts, so it’s easy to miss what is the actual critique. I want to recast the discussion slightly and think of it as a left-wing critique of political policy wonk blogging, a type of blogging which this blogs does often.

We’ll address that argument in the next post, because the easiest way for me to start this is by bringing up the opposite argument, which is a (neo)conservative critique of the very idea of policy wonk analysis. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Edward C. Banfield, a professor of Urban Government at Harvard, the chairman of President Nixon’s task force on the Model Cities Program, mentor to James Q. Wilson, and all-around OG Neoconservative. In 1977 he wrote a paper for the American Enterprise Institute titled Policy Science as Metaphysical Madness (pdf).

In some senses policy wonkery could be construed as a conservative enterprise. It gets its formal footing as a result of Robert McNamara importing RAND and Department of Defense analysis into government agencies associated with social policy. It’s focus is on cost-benefit analysis, efficiency, projections, measurable outcomes, quantification, and other instruments of corporate rationality. And those techniques come from the then-new field of Operations Research, techniques created to execute operations during World War II and later formed the basis of midcentury economics.

That’s not what Banfield sees in what policy wonks do. It’s a long critique with what I read as three main points. The first is an argument about how well any cost-benefit calculation can be done, of whether or not social science can say anything particularly useful about a course of action, actual data and how well it is collected, etc. Fine and good as far as it goes, but it’s not the most interesting.

The second critique is that policy wonkery is trying to replace the actual course of politics, with its messy deal-making in practice and its virtuous statesman character in theory, with a clean rational progressive vision run by technocrats:

From a near perspective the sudden growth of the policy sciences appears as a by-product of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty….

At the beginning of the century, according to historian Barry D. Karl, there developed a methodology of social reform consisting of variations upon three basic steps: first a core group of specialists and influentials, coming together perhaps at a meeting of a professional group, would define a needed social reform or “problem ; then a conference would be called to broaden the coalition by bringing in journalists, philanthropists, and political leaders; and finally, a survey would be made and a document produced “containing all the information and interpretation on which reasonable men , presumably in government , would base programs for reform.”

Policy science, in this perspective, appears as one in a long series of efforts by the Progressive Movement and its heirs to change the character of the American political system–to transfer power from the corrupt, the ignorant, and the self-serving to the virtuous, the educated, and the public-spirited, and to enhance the capacity of the executive to make and carry out internally-consistent, comprehensive plans for implementing the public interest…

The political institutions handed down by the Founding Fathers have proved remarkably resistant to all efforts to make political life more rational. Perfectly aware that the great task of government is to give political leadership–to create and maintain conditions that foster the growth of a public opinion capable of intelligent discussion and of agreement–the Founders were also perfectly aware that that task could never be fully accomplished. The nature of man as they understood it, precluded the replacement of politics by reason…

It is a dangerous delusion to think that the policy scientist can supplant successfully the politician or statesman. Social problems are at bottom political; they arise from differences of opinion and interest and, except in trivial instances, are difficulties to be coped with (ignored, got around, put up with, exorcised by the arts of rhetoric, etc. ) rather than puzzles to be solved.

I’ll plead guilty to this on two counts. First, I really do think politics is made better with better research and number-focused arguments. When I say that there are three million foreclosures in this country, and that bankruptcy could be modified in a way that would reduce externalities, better allocate losses between borrowers and lenders and help exclude the failed servicer MBS model from the driver seat of the macroeconomy, I think it is important that politicians, journalists, “opinion-makers”, etc. know this.

Embedded in that is that the world of foreclosures isn’t some sort of Natural State but instead of makeshift patchwork of REMIC tax law, thoughts about returns to scale in debt collection and the possibility of a housing bubble, conscious choices about the status of junior-lien mortgage debt in bankruptcy and government approved consolidation in the banking sector.  As it was made by people it can be unmade by people.

I also plead guilty to the idea that policy wonkery doesn’t get us very far as a theory of political change. Liberals do not need another white paper on why cap-and-trade is a good idea; we need to find a way to make pricing of carbon happen, and happen fast. Conservatives are ruthless in getting their agenda through; liberals seem far less so.

Banfield’s third critique is the most interesting one. Instead of providing solutions, what policy wonks really do is provide problems:

Why are these [findings of policy scientists] “important”? Surely not because they constitute, or point to, solutions of policy problems. They are important as propaganda: by creating dissatisfaction they will lead to change. Knowledge and what is regarded as knowledge (emphasis added) , ” Lane says “is pressure without pressure groups…”. The influence of professionals and their associations, he acknowledges , is “not all good” but it is, he thinks generally responsive to the needs of society.

One may well reach a contrary judgment: namely, that professionals, because of their commitment to the ideal of rationality, are chronically given to finding fault with institutions (“bringing to public consciousness” new social problems) and by virtue of their mastery of techniques of analysis, to displaying the almost infinite complexity and ambiguity of any problem. Like the social researchers of a generation or two ago, the policy scientist contributes problems, not solutions. – But whereas in the past the problems were ones that appeared manageable to men of common sense and were understood to lie in the domain of the politician or statesman, now they are ones that have been shown to be too complicated for men of common sense to deal with and they are more and more, believed to in the domain of the policy scientist.

I can walk into the public sphere and state that right now approximately 15 million people are unemployed, and that just four years ago only 7 and a half million people were unemployed, and then immediately walk out of the public sphere. But that’s not just a statement of fact, it’s a call to action. It creates the problem that needs to be solved, and solved through government action. It doesn’t associate unemployment, or poverty, or lack of health care access, as a natural state of the world (or, ugh, a virtue some are called to carry), but instead of problems to be solved.  Again, guilty.  I proudly believe the government can be used to solve problems, while respecting the limitations it does have.

Notice what happens when you de-prioritize these two issues – the call for better research, based on the idea that government can solve problems – is that you can create a conservative wonk who presupposes not technocratic analysis but instead a theory of conservative governance that policy then is crafted to carry out.  Which is where the landscape stands now.

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4 Responses to Seeing Like a Policy Wonk, Conservative Critique, Edward Banfield 1977 edition.

  1. Mandrake says:


    I guess I’m missing the point a little here. Are you reframing the argument as to draw a line between those who value policy work and neocons who adhere to ideology in the face of evidence debunking it? I’m trying to see how your piece reconciles with deBoer’s…

  2. A friend in the wine business always said, “It’s not, ‘the wine is bad’; it is ‘I don’t like this particular wine'”

    You guys should get out more and read Michael Hudson.

    Meanwhile, the overall argument is pointless: Coke vs. wine. Both ‘left’ and ‘right’ are rooms in modernity’s mansion: modernity being the great cultural envelope that reduces all to trivia.

    Modernity is the rationale for machines and machine supremacy in all things with the pathetic, helpless humans as barely necessary adjuncts.

    Unlike humanoids and other life forms that eat ‘food’ or sunlight, he machines cannot function without fossil fuel inputs. Left and right are rationales or ‘sales pitches’ for the ‘proper allocation’ of machine resources.

    The ‘left’ might be a bit more self- aware and realize its place in the machine- culture is marginal.

    The existential issue is whither machines?

    The entire ‘machine dialectic’ of (industrial) socialism vs. (industrial) quasi- capitalism is becoming irrelevant. Without cheap energy there is nothing for the machines to ‘eat’. With useless or counterproductive machines, the ad campaign loses its way.

    The ‘right’ as well as the ‘left’ exist to pimp material/machine ‘progress’ along with machine- driven ‘prosperity’. The idea has been to rationalize the allocate machine- created surpluses to the bosses … even as the form or ‘worth’ of the surpluses has been promoted unambiguously in machine- friendly terms.

    You are ‘rich’ because you have more … ‘money’, whatever that is. Our forests and fisheries are depleted … we are really destitute!

    The ad campaign is incapable of pimping ‘less’, which is what consumption economics allows after two centuries of relentless and efficient resource extraction. The cheap inputs have been wasted! What remains is too valuable to waste.

    Driving the waste machine forward leaves us insolvent. Carrying forward from the point of insolvency is completely ruinous. This ruin is the responsibility of both ‘left’ and ‘right’. Both lack the imagination — or realism — to visualize any other process but industrial- scale waste as the operating mode of the world’s economy.

    Both left and right are stranded by peak oil and rising real input prices. The new dialelectic is gardening and starvation.

    The choices that modernity pose are to drive a car or have a job: afterwards it is to drive a car or have something to eat. Neither left nor right are structurally able to propose a response that leaves out the possibility of the car. Both make the fraudulent car promise along with everything else promises and argue their particular approach is the only means to that un- achievable end.

    Left and right represent the ‘useless’ extremes of the cultural dialog: one standing for naiveté and the other notable for its mendacity.

    The fatal flaw of religion is that greatest actor in our society is the machine and neither the Koran, Bible or any other religious tract mentions machines. This is also the ideological vanishing point for modernity as a whole. Modernity created the machine as an elemental force to be taken for granted as well as taken as a ‘given’. These machine imperatives only exist in arguments. Sorry, but in the real world the whole law is entropy.

    The rest is commentary.

  3. Pingback: First We Kill All the Policy Wonks « The Enterprise Blog

  4. Pingback: What’s Missing From Charles Murray’s Diagnosis of the White Working Class? | Rortybomb

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