I admit, this has a horrible title. But I wanted to get something written about a project that I would like to work a little more on…and creating good titles is not one of my strengths.
Anyone who has encountered a manifestation of B.F. Skinner’s utopian dreams (Walden II as a prime example) is made instantly aware of a certain view of public policy. Under this view, public policy is formulated by experts who mold the behaviors of citizens in such a way to lead to the most happiness possible. We should never have to ask people what sort of policies are good, we assume that certain results are desirable (pleasure, happiness, fulfillment, or whatever) and formulate policy with those as our end. This is the technocratic idea; it presupposes that people generally do not know how to achieve the outcomes we want and that experts can do so better. This is obviously undemocratic, but we do just this sort of thing for engineering problems. We don’t generally question how the engineers decide to build a bridge, for instance, once we have set the parameters. One might argue that we should aim for the same ideal in public policy; this would require an extensive understanding of sociology and psychology (which we don’t currently have) but we might still think that this is the sort of way we should develop public policy.
On the other end we find theorists such as Jane Jacobs, who thought that planners should generally leave people to their own devices and listen to their preferences. During New York City’s highway wars of the 1960s, Jacobs was one of the principal opponents of the technocrats (Robert Moses, most prominent among them) who had a vision of New York that stressed easy vehicular transportation. Such plans, however, typically involved the destruction of urban neighborhoods. Jacobs advocated mostly democratic (and localist) procedures that centered around the involvement of community members in the formation of public policy related to that community. This is similar to the messy process that is common today; there may be (and often are) grand, all encompassing plans for policy or urban design but these plans rarely see the light of day without a good deal of public debate. Of course, this approach is nearly as problematic as that advocated by the technocrats. Many questions arise as to how such a process actually works. How do we know what the goal of public policy should be? It is likely the case that what is actually better for people (what they will prefer in the end) is different from their current preferences. So, it seems that people may not even know what they want (as paradoxical as that may seem). Also, how do we make any cohesive plans if we have to listen to the chaotic preferences of the public? How do we find any commonalities or order among these preferences? It also often seems to be the case that political power overcomes truth in the formation of public policy. If political power is the determining factor of our public policy using the democratic process, such a process seems just as tyrannical as the technocratic solution.
I have a few more thoughts on this topic but I won’t share those today. I simply wanted to get some questions about this topic written down. I’ll certainly write more about it in the future.
However, perhaps I’ll post some coffee reviews next.