They cannot fathom failure
Matthew Boudway February 24, 2009 - 7:46pm
On his New Yorker blog, "Interesting Times," George Packer writes:
Obama isnt trying to remake Americas economy and society out of ideological hubris. Hes initiating sweeping changes because he inherited a set of interrelated emergencies that require swift, decisive action. Theres an instructive example for both [David] Brooks and Obamas supporters to bear in mind: Herbert Hoover became President with the sterling reputation of a practical man, an engineer and businessman who had succeeded at everything in his life. When the Depression began, he took what he assumed to be practical steps to ameliorate it. But, as Richard Hofstadter observed in The American Political Tradition, What ruined Hoovers public career was not a sudden failure of personal capacity but the collapse of the world that had produced him and shaped his philosophyBecause, on his postulates, his program should have been successful, he went on talking as though it were, and the less his ideas worked, the more defiantly he advocated them.This is an apt description of the current attitude of John McCain, Eric Cantor, and Bobby Jindal. Like Hoover, they cannot fathom the failure of their philosophy, so they cling to it and insist that it has all the answers while the country drowns. Conservatism, pace Brooks, is no more likely to be clear-eyed and critical-minded than liberalism. Any set of ideas can harden into ideological certainty, especially when its been in power for a long time. Obamas emphasis on government intervention could become as calcified and resistant to facts as the Republican Partys free-market conservatism is now. If or when it does, Obama will need to hear from Brooks all the more. But for the moment, Obama is necessarily experimenting in the face of disaster much like the President who followed Hoover.
Read the rest here. "[T]hey cannot fathom the failure of their philosophy." Not "they will not fathom" it. They cannot. Sure, the response of many conservativesto the bailout and the stimulus packagehas beenopportunistic and cynical. Many of them, though, simply cannot imagine what it would mean -- what it now does mean -- for the premises of their policy agenda, and indeed of their entirepolitical philosophy, to have failed.Not even the most spectacular failurecan force anyone to learn a lesson he desperately wishes not to learn. Historical events are always complicated and contingent enough to admitof more than oneinterpretation, and the most plausible interpretation is not alwaysthe most attractive."The financialcollapsecould mean that our financial industryhas beenunderregulated and overleveraged for many years, andthat the power of centralized capital requires centralized public oversight to keep it in check. In that case I and my allies havebeen fools.Or it could mean that any regulation is too much regulation, and that the market only works when banks are allowed to fail, no one's money is guaranteed by the government, and everyone must look out for himself. In that case I'm one of a small remnant of brave prophets who are destined to be ignored by all theweaklings now looking to Washington for safety."If it were only a matter of rationally evaluating the available evidence,it would be hard at this point not to favor the first of these interpretations. But of course it is never just about rationality; itis also about saving faceand even, sometimes,saving one's very self. What is true of religious conversions is also true of ideological conversions: theold man does not yield easily to the new. Even Paul did not leap up from the ground,jump back on his horse, and ride straight to the nearest village to begin evangelizing. He was stunned, blinded, scared; and those fish scales stayed on for a while. In any case, there is no shame in silence. It is the normal reaction to disorientation. (Alan Greenspan cut a noble figure as he quietly ate three decades' worthof placid reassurance.) The shame is in simply raising your voice andyelling the same thing you were saying before, this time with your hands clapped over your ears: "Laissez-faire capitalism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found wanting and left untried."Like the man said -- time to putaway childish things.
About the Author
Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.