Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Let the experts handle this, sir.

Last week President Obama dissolved the Bioethics Council commissioned by President Bush. This is just another step in a series to put “restore science to its proper place.” The previous step was to federally fund embryonic stem cell research, something his predecessor had forbidden.

Ivan Kenneally, in an article in The New Atlantis, has worked out the presuppositions of the current President on these matters. Obama is, what Keneally calls, a technocratic populist. I’ll explain these terms in reverse order. He is a populist because he believes special interests, in this case the Christian Right, has highjacked the issue of stem cell research. This is why the Bioethics Council had to be dissolved. In the eyes of many, the council was simply a cabal of Catholic conspirators who were trying impose their extreme views on the rest of the country. (Peter Lawler, who was on the Council, has pointed out there was no such conspiracy because not everyone was Catholic and the group came to no consensus on any of the issues they discussed.) Obama’s removal of this ‘faction’ for the sake of the common good makes him a populist.

Why is he technocrat? More importantly, what is a technocrat? They are a group of “hyper-educated elites with specialized politico-scientific expertise [who] are singled out to manage the benighted rest of us.” Now, how can this be since we just learned the President favors the many over the few. This is the tension within Obama’s thought, a tension which Kenneally says goes back to the Enlightenment itself. For Enlightenment thinkers wanted to achieve two goals: equality and base politics on the model of the natural sciences. The belief in the latter is because of the success of the natural sciences in the modern era. If politics could be made more scientific, it was believed, then we could achieve prosperity and perpetual peace.

While the theory began in the Enlightenment, it only became actualized in American Politics in the 20th century. It begins with Woodrow Wilson and his essay, “The Study of Administration” and continued with subsequent Presidents. Patrick Deneen has a quote from JFK discussing the shift:
Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint -
Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the
matter is that most of the problems … that we now face are technical problems,
are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not
lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred the
country so often in the past. [They] deal with questions which are now beyond
the comprehension of most men….

All the themes of the technocrat are on display here: “political viewpoints” are irrelevant because today’s problems are “technical” and require “administrative” solutions. These problems are “beyond the comprehension of most men.” Here is the tension with populism. The 20th century is the century of the common man AND the century of enlightened administration. Modern Liberals, like Plato, believe in monarchy-the only difference is his field.

Now we can understand what President Obama means by putting “restore science to its proper place.” It means letting the scientists make the call when it comes to questions like stem cell research and cloning. David Brooks has pointed out that this Obama’s strategy when it comes to health care also:
Which is why you have MedPAC. That’s the Medicare Payment Advisory
Commission that you want to turn into a health care Federal Reserve Board — an
aloof technocratic body of experts that will make tough decisions beyond the
reach of politics. You can take every thorny issue, throw it to MedPac and
consider it solved.

Notice the decision will be made “beyond the reach of politics.” The problem raised by living constitutionalism, judicial activism, occurs here too. A small, elite group of unelected officials will decide our most important issues for us. But the perennial question which has dogged Plato’s philosopher-king, rears its head: Who guards the guardians?

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