The reality-based bureaucracy
Given the ongoing fuss with the census here north of the border, you might understand why this article, from the current issue of the Utne Reader, leaped right out at me when I was perusing the magazine today. (It's an excerpt of an article that originally appeared earlier this year in The New Republic.)
Essentially, it seems while Obama is headed in one direction in the U.S., we may well be headed in another in Canada when it comes to putting our faith in science and expertise. Some excerpts:
Yet there is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for—but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early 20th century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.
The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–14, 1932–38, and 1961–72) of the past century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism—from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”
That wide latitude could invite abuses of power, but the old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called “scientific administration.” Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly—to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-20th-century progressives—believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. The success of the regulatory agencies, Croly wrote, depended upon “a sufficient popular confidence in the ability of enlightened and trained individuals . . . and the actual existence for their use of a body of sufficiently authentic social knowledge.”
Remind you of anything? Or more precisely, perhaps, remind you of the opposite? How about this?
Obama’s regulatory appointments could not be more different—no surprise given that he is the son of two social scientists (one of whom attempted to introduce scientific administration to Kenya) and that he once worked in academia himself. Indeed, the flow of expertise into the federal bureaucracy over the past year has been reminiscent of what took place at the start of the New Deal.
I'm not sure when it became a hallmark of Canadian Conservatism to mistrust the experts and science, but that sentiment definitely seems to be part of this ongoing census saga here. Happily, it seems to be a phenomenon limited to north of the 49th parallel these days.