Muddle we must

Democracy in America’s post the other day about Peter Orszag’s ascension to the heights of financial power at Citigroup makes a very interesting point about structural injustice in America resulting from “exploit[ation] by the tools meant to foil our exploitation.” In other words, government too often is co-opted to serve the whims of those who already have, and at the expense of everyone else. He then asks how this reality affects progressive notions of government:

Washington is so unconstrained in no small part because progressives and New Dealers and Keynesians and neo-cons and neo-liberals for various good and bad reasons wanted it that way. So, what is to be done? Summon a self-bottling genie-bottling genie?The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don’t believe that. Until more of us do, we’re not going far in that direction. And maybe that’s just as well. Maybe it’s true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it’s also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism’s injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue’s op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

So what is to be done about the structural injustice spotlighted by Peter Orszag’s passage through the revolving golden door? How exactly do we tweak the unjust structure? If the system is rigged, how exactly do we unrig it? In which direction can we muddle without making matters worse?

I don’t have a good answer for what is to be done, but I agree that muddle we must. We must learn to recognize the very real (and often institutionalized) inequalities which exist in this country and understand how past actions have caused these problems. And we must try not to repeat the mistakes of old; but we must accept the reality that we will inevitably make new mistakes. We’re at a crossroads, where we can stubbornly cling to the dogmas of the past, or we can accept that there is no single best way of doing things. We must never block the road to inquiry. Future successes will depend just as much on pure dumb luck as they do on thoughtfulness, foresight, and skill. It’s a complicated and ever-changing world that we now have always faced, and now is the time to step up the plate and actually deal with it. We possess the agency to forge a better tomorrow.

If you’re lost in the woods, the conventional wisdom is to stay where you are. That only works if there is someone looking for you. We’re stuck in these vast woods alone, but we’re together, and the only way we’re going to find our way home is to explore. Muddle we must, indeed.

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