Death of a technocrat

Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary under Kennedy and LBJ and architect of the Vietnam war, died. I know some of you object when I blame that war on Democrats and on liberals, but it was a war that was started and waged under that ideology’s optimistic assumptions. Yes, conservatives supported it out of patriotic zeal, and, yes, the New Left would rise to oppose the Old Left liberalism, but the war was still the brainchild of the Democratic “whiz kids,” of whom McNamara was leader of the class. Described as the ultimate technocrat, McNamara was a modernist who assumed that the correct application of technical expertise, social engineering, rational planning, advanced technology, and quantitative science can solve any problem. Yes, Republicans now often exhibit the same hubris. And that spirit is very much in vogue in Washington today.

George Will has some comments along these lines:

Today, something unsettlingly similar to McNamara’s eerie assuredness pervades the Washington in which he died. The spirit is: Have confidence, everybody, because we have, or soon will have, everything — really everything — under control.

The apogee of McNamara’s professional life, in the first half of the 1960s, coincided, not coincidentally, with the apogee of the belief that behavioralism had finally made possible a science of politics. Behavioralism held — holds; it is a hardy perennial — that the social and natural sciences are not so different, both being devoted to the discovery of law-like regularities that govern the behavior of atoms, hamsters, humans, whatever.

Two of behavioralism’s reinforcing assumptions were: Things that can be quantified can be controlled. And everything can be quantified. So, pick a problem, any problem. Military insurgency in Indochina? The answer is counterinsurgency. What can be, and hence must be, quantified? Body counts, surely. Bingo: a metric of success.

Not exactly. The behavior of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did not respond as expected to America’s finely calibrated stimuli, such as bombing this but not that, and bombing pauses. Behavioralists were disappointed but not discouraged. They would give nation-building another try.

And we keep trying it, unable to falsify our optimistic theories.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fws

    true conservatism is by nature rather pessimistic as to outcomes isn´t it?

    conservatism is about damage control. preventing my fist from connecting fully with your nose.

    true conservatism is highly sceptical of exporting democracy or nation building and smells something wrong when it hears those terms.

    true conservatism leads by quiet example, and then talks alot, positively about values and ideals, and doesn´t waste alot of time pointing out how others fail in those ideals but DOES comment with breathtaking freedom in self criticism of how we could or do fall short.

    true conservatism welcomes the rule of law PRINCIPALLY to curb and control “us”. not “them”.

  • fws

    true conservatism is by nature rather pessimistic as to outcomes isn´t it?

    conservatism is about damage control. preventing my fist from connecting fully with your nose.

    true conservatism is highly sceptical of exporting democracy or nation building and smells something wrong when it hears those terms.

    true conservatism leads by quiet example, and then talks alot, positively about values and ideals, and doesn´t waste alot of time pointing out how others fail in those ideals but DOES comment with breathtaking freedom in self criticism of how we could or do fall short.

    true conservatism welcomes the rule of law PRINCIPALLY to curb and control “us”. not “them”.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Today, it is thought that if we free science to pursue its inevitable ends, disease will be cured and a new more humane, less diseased and deathly world will result – we pursue this technology to our peril. Instead of evolving, we become the beast but are largely unaware of how brutal we have become as we all twitter about on our i-phones and cloud computers.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Today, it is thought that if we free science to pursue its inevitable ends, disease will be cured and a new more humane, less diseased and deathly world will result – we pursue this technology to our peril. Instead of evolving, we become the beast but are largely unaware of how brutal we have become as we all twitter about on our i-phones and cloud computers.

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    Yes, free science to pursue it’s goal to find all the cures. At the end of which we will find that the operation was a success, however the patient passed away during the procedure.

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    Yes, free science to pursue it’s goal to find all the cures. At the end of which we will find that the operation was a success, however the patient passed away during the procedure.

  • Leif

    Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,

    It’s that kind of thinking that only keeps us from reaching our Utopian dreams!

    Take corn for example, we can engineer corn to be the dream crop! Our corn will be engineered with antibiotics to fight disease! We can engineer it so that it’ll only grow for a season and then the seeds will be rendered inert and the farmers will only be able to buy from us! We’ll be rich! What’s that? The corn cross pollinated and now the terminator genes are also in all other plant life?

    Uh…maybe you’re right after all Bryan.

  • Leif

    Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,

    It’s that kind of thinking that only keeps us from reaching our Utopian dreams!

    Take corn for example, we can engineer corn to be the dream crop! Our corn will be engineered with antibiotics to fight disease! We can engineer it so that it’ll only grow for a season and then the seeds will be rendered inert and the farmers will only be able to buy from us! We’ll be rich! What’s that? The corn cross pollinated and now the terminator genes are also in all other plant life?

    Uh…maybe you’re right after all Bryan.


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