The case against optimism: A Harvard Law Prof critiques How Change Happens

June 2, 2017

There was never a better time for the US to leave global climate talks

June 2, 2017

The imaginary advocate, the benefits of Command and Control, and why I’m just channelling Hayek

June 2, 2017
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Continuing the download from the recent LSE-ODI workshop on ‘new experimentalism’ was this thought-provoking description by Word-of-Mouth-PicDavid Kennedy of the ‘imaginary advocate’, the assumed individual behind How Change Happens and, by extension, a lot of NGO advocacy. Might be a very interesting addition to the endless awaydays, strategic planning processes etc to ask people to try and spell out the imaginary subjects of their own organization’s work, and then critique them.

‘What kind of person makes this plausible?  The person – the development professional, the advocate – needed for new governance is not “naturally occurring” in culture.  It needs to be made – that’s why, I presume, Duncan wrote the book.   We’ll need to train people to be like this.

The new governance person fits well in the terrain of modern managerial and technocratic culture.   There are some taken for granteds – you work for an institution, you have a “client” or “cause”.   You favour it, but you’re not obsessed, you have a kind of disenchanted distance from your projects.

You feel a certain sense of superiority to the less agile normal manager in big institutions — it’s not arrogance, we’re against that, but still, the Fordist manager is not entrepreneurial, the welfare state bureaucrat is not transversely agile, etc.

You have a range of possible points of engagement, access, tools.   You have….funding.   You have some autonomy.   And the situation is not too too scary.

Which says something about other people.    This is not an us/them world of struggle.  Other people are more friction than resistance – you are active and they more inertia and friction than opposition.  Or, if in opposition, they are also reasonable – they also have interests, they need to be understood, heard, engaged.

Somehow malevolent self-dealing objectives fit less well with this set of tools.   The greedy will not want to listen or engage, will be too short term, will miss the legitimacy clues, etc.

But I wonder.  This all seems more romantic than optimistic.  Romantic about the client, the local, to whom we should listen, who might have found answers already.    Romantic about human potential for creative action in the public interest if we throw off the bonds of form.’

Once David had finished with me, the LSE’s Stephen Humphreys got stuck in with some contrarian thinking on the merits of command and control, and why I’m really just channelling Hayek.

Come back, all is forgiven?

Come back, all is forgiven?

‘The old Weberian bureaucracy was an intention-machine, it carried out commands. It baked cakes. But we have had it in for command-and-control for a few decades now. It’s been the butt of jokes and derision on the development circuit’s equivalent of late night TV. And at last, it seems to have finally gone away.

No more command-and-control. Do we miss it? I suspect we do. But rather than admit we do, maybe it’s better to celebrate how much more interesting—how much more liberating—this new smoggy uncertainty is, this public policy Brownian motion. Command and control was always such a drag, and now we are free! Free to play.

But is there not too a sense of lowered ambition? Of falling expectations?

Duncan’s system-complexity is of course reminiscent of Hayek. And in particular the central role that ignorance plays in Hayek’s universe, in his state. Hayek loved to remind us that we don’t know very much, and we can’t really predict the consequences of our actions. We are fundamentally ignorant. For Hayek there wasn’t a lot of point in trying to address this ignorance. It’s constitutive. The solution was rather to let it go. Embrace ignorance.

The market, for Hayek, is like Duncan’s flock of starlings. It doesn’t know how it knows. It sort of intuits frictionlessness out of chaos.

I had the sense that Duncan is inviting us into a Hayekian mindset, and although it is not one in which the market altogether displaces the state—at least I don’t think this is what Duncan intends—it is nevertheless one in which the state learns from the market. It becomes market-like. The point is the market doesn’t know or need to know. That used to be the state’s job.’

That lot is going to take some digesting – thoughts welcome.

And for those of you wondering who this Hayek guy is, here’s his legendary geek-rap battle with Keynes

5 comments

  1. Thanks for your last two posts. I will recommend them to my colleagues from Oxfam-Wereldwinkels. Our chain of fair trade shops are losing momentum, i.e. less customers. This kind of thought-provoking input is most welcome.

  2. What a sadly apt day to put up this post, especially the bit about how “Somehow malevolent self-dealing objectives fit less well with this set of tools. The greedy will not want to listen or engage, will be too short term, will miss the legitimacy clues, etc”……………

  3. Surely if one has to choose, when using complex systems thinking you are channelling Keynes not Hayek: emergent properties are ever so macro.

  4. These critiques from these LSE-ODI workshops are interesting and thought provoking, but they don’t function well as any type of general and adequate review/assessment of the book (and were probably never designed to be such). In particular, anyone who is saying the social reality is a complex system and that we limited knowledge of it could be fitted up for the ‘channelling Hayek’ critique. There are large parts of ‘How Change Happens’ that are quite at odds with Hayek and his fellow ‘Austrian economists.’ I also think the role of ‘command and control’ is there – see the chapters focusing on the legal system and the state itself. Furthermore, command and control takes various forms (its not just about states) and I think book recognises this reality.

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