Rick cites a remark by Senator Christopher Dodd about the financial regulation bill: “No one will know until this is actually in place how it works.” My observation is that Dodd’s remark was actually true, and would have been true to a substantial extent even if the bill had been properly read, debated, and analyzed. A more perceptive man than Dodd might have seen this as a reason to avoid making such overwhelming changes all in one fell swoop.
Several years ago, I posted about the failure of the FAA/IBM project for a new air traffic control system. The new system was known as the Advanced Automation System and was intended to be “as radical a departure from well-worn mores and customs as the overflow of the czars,” in the words of a participant. Another participant described the radical ambitiousness of the project as follows:
“You’re living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn’t flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it’s bulky and doesn’t save energy, and you’ve seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off…”
“Progressives” of the Obama stamp are not interested in fixing the refrigerator door or even replacing the whole refrigerator: they want to do the massive new-construction project. (Note the quote in Rick’s post from Michelle Obama, who said that her husband is going to fix “the hole in our souls.”) The problem is that massive and radical change projects don’t have a very good track record. When changing many factors at once–particularly when human behavior is involved–it is very, very difficult to predict how all the interactions will play out, and this is a good argument for incrementalism.
Of course, sometimes it is necessary to embark on fairly radical change in order to accomplish what needs to be done. As an example, I was going to use Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model “T”, which was able to transform automobile ownership by combining a new product design AND a new kind of manufacturing process…but I remembered that even in this case, the new production methodologies were introduced gradually, the assembly line being first tried out on the building of magnetos (IIRC) rather than replacing the entire existing process all at once. If we look at one of the most transformational innovations of our present era, the microprocessor, the original developers of this did not have galactic plans for it: the device was created as a practical solution to reduce costs for a simple business calculator that was being designed under contract…indeed, microprocessors spent many years as humble control devices for washing machines, etc, before becoming major players in main-line computing. The creation of the United States was a fairly radical step, involving as it did a revolution (really more of a civil war) and the design of a new governmental structure based on some fairly explicit philosophical theories…but even here, the radicalism was limited by the very limited role assigned to government and the use of preexisting legal forms and traditions. (The contrast with the French revolution is obvious.)
Radical innovation is easy, and doesn’t require much thought. Successful radical innovation is much harder, and requires deep thought, serious and experienced people who understand the difficulty of what they are undertaking, willingness to change course when necessary, and a heck of a lot of luck. It cannot be accomplished by an assembly of clownish people who are driven entirely by short-term political considerations and who are unwilling to even read or seriously analyze the vast and complex bills on which they are voting.
Related and very interesting: WSJ on bricolage