Liberalism's Modest Proposals

Or, the Tyranny of Scientific Rationality

Read a summary of the essay here.

"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquain-tance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled..."

-- Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal," 1729

Jonathan Swift's famous satirical essay remains shockingly effective nearly 300 years after its publication. What was Swift's secret? In part, it lies in the deadpan delivery of an unspeakably macabre solution to the problem of Irish poverty. But what really chills the soul is the author's analytical precision -- the cold logic and hard data as the argument proceeds from problem statement to proposed solution:

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend or his own family to dine with him.

Swift is most obviously commenting on England's predatory policies toward Ireland, but "A Modest Proposal" is also an attack on scientific rationality unchecked by experience, empathy, and moral grounding. Swift's game was to show that pretty much any position, however repulsive, could be advanced on the back of rationality.1

Where is Jonathan Swift when we need him? American liberalism, it turns out, has been dangerously susceptible to the political confusion sewn by an uncritical devotion to scientific rationality and the false belief that right action can be extracted from a set of scientific facts, however unmoored from appropriate moral and experiential foundations. In the 1920s, liberal scientists and progressive reformers rationalized their support of eugenic policies through the emerging science of genetics. Oliver Wendell Holmes authored a Supreme Court opinion rendering constitutional the enforced sterilization of a woman on the grounds that it was necessary to keep her from passing on her defective genes, while another liberal lion, Louis Brandeis, supported the opinion.2 In the early 1960s, escalating US involvement in the Vietnam War was in part justified by liberal confidence in the power of scientific analysis to guide complex national policies. Later that same decade, leading liberal ecologists advocated cutting off food aid to countries like India, where population growth was outstripping agricultural productivity.

Scientific rationality is a terrible foundation for progressive politics, yet liberals seem more devoted to it than ever. As a result, the politics of rational assessment is displacing the politics of liberal values. This evolution has led liberals astray on core moral issues. It has also alienated them from one of the most powerful tools for creating a more equitable society: technology.

American liberalism's one big, galvanizing idea of recent decades has been that, in order to protect the global environment, societies need to fundamentally change the way they are organized. This idea emerged gradually from the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, gaining credence as scientific research began to show evidence of worrisome change in a variety of large-scale environmental systems, most notably the Earth's atmosphere.

From this big idea emerged a proposal worthy of Jonathan Swift's satirical imagination: make energy more expensive. Because fossil fuel emissions were disturbing the planet's climate, fuel prices should be raised to force a reduction in emissions and stimulate a transition to non-fossil energy sources.

If one were seeking a policy intervention that could simply and effectively erode economic and social equity worldwide, one could hardly do better than to increase the cost of energy. Production and distribution systems for energy are an absolute foundation for material welfare in modern societies. In an interdependent world of billions of humans, there is no food, no work, no economy without energy, and one's capacity as an individual to participate fully in that world depends on access to, and thus the cost of, energy. Access to cheap energy in an industrialized world is a basic requirement for human development and dignity. This fact is so blindingly obvious that nearly every large developing country has treated the idea of a global agreement to raise energy prices as a joke of Swiftean character. The difference being, of course, that it was not a joke.

Energy equity ought naturally to be a core commitment of liberal-progressive politics, but somehow it became an inconvenience, an impertinence. Liberals from rich countries, their sense of irony (not to mention equity) apparently dulled to insensibility, defended their call for higher energy prices by saying that poor countries will suffer the most from global warming -- a response that ignores the reality that poor nations already suffer the most from disenfranchisement and disasters,3 and that any future for the poor in which they are no longer poor or disenfranchised almost certainly requires that they consume much more energy, which, of necessity, must be cheap. Indeed, access to cheap energy is a core equity issue in rich countries as well, where poor people suffer disproportionately from the impacts of rising energy prices.

My aim here, however, is not to critique climate change policy per se. What I want to try to understand is why one of the centerpieces of the progressive liberal agenda in the United States over the past decade or more presents itself as a sort of irony-free "Modest Proposal" -- an effort to address a real problem in a way that is fundamentally antipathetic to the precepts of modern American political liberalism.

I take for my definition of American political liberalism the somewhat inchoate family of ideas that understands government action as appropriately aimed at enhancing economic and social equity, that is skeptical the marketplace can sufficiently advance social equity and justice on its own, and is optimistic about the potential for social progress as a result of government action. In total, I would therefore take it as a fundamental premise of American liberalism that policies pursued through the erosion of economic and social equity are repugnant and anathema.

How then did liberalism become associated with -- and, to some extent, obsessed with -- policies whose most obvious direct effects would be to undermine economic and social equity? Here I focus on two related causes. The first is the tyrannical role that scientific rationality has come to play in the liberal imagination and agenda. Second is the alienation of the liberal agenda from technological approaches to social problems.

The value of science as an embodiment of rational thought and action has been central to the American cultural identity since the nation's inception. Yet to the nation's founders, this value was abstract: a knowledge of science helped to cultivate general habits of rational thought that were deemed necessary for the wise governance of democratic society.4 Today we think about science much more concretely, not simply as a habit of mind, but as a source of facts and knowledge that can bring problems to light and tell us how to go about solving them.

This more practical view of science in society did not, however, gain much relevance until the early 20th century, when the technical complexity of the world increasingly seemed to demand specialized expertise for its management, and when developments in social and biological sciences seemed to offer important insights for guiding human action. As Walter Lippmann observed in 1922, the "theory of universal competence" was no longer up to the task of providing the necessary wisdom for governing the "Great Society [that] had grown furiously and to colossal dimensions by the application of technical knowledge.... It could not be governed, men began to discover, by men who thought deductively about rights and wrongs." Now it required "experts who were trained, or had trained themselves, to make parts of this Great Society intelligible to those who manage it."5

For any ideological perspective that saw government as at least partly in the business of actively making society better, science in this diagnostic and advisory mode became a powerful ally. And thus science, enlisted as a tool for defining and advancing political agendas, has had a particular and natural allure for modern American liberalism dating back to its early 20th century variants.

If liberals have erred -- morally as well as politically -- in placing too much reliance on science as a political polestar, their even greater error, again both moral and political, has been their gradual alienation since World War II from the promise of technological change to effectively addressing social problems. These two tendencies, as we shall see, are closely related.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to be worried about technology and suspicious of the utopian claims of technology promoters. During the 1960s and 1970s, the threat of global self-immolation from nuclear weapons, the despoliation of the natural environment through industrialization, the gruesome unleashing of new military technologies against the Vietnamese people, and the depressing tendency of "technology transfer" to mire poor countries in economic dependence, all fed into an understandable liberal skepticism about technology as a source of human betterment.6

But the most politically resonant strand of technological skepticism in the post-World War II era has not focused on issues of power, equity, or distribution, but rather on questions of risk to human health and environmental quality. Such risks may be chronic (toxic chemicals in soil and water) or catastrophic (oil spills and nuclear meltdown), but what unifies them are their origins in technology and their diagnoses in science. Indeed, the emergence of health, environmental, and technological risks as galvanizing liberal issues in the late 1960s marked a thorough repudiation of the technological progressivism that sat comfortably in mainstream American politics through the first half of the 20th century.7 This repudiation brought with it a commitment to regulatory intervention as the cure for the ills that technology visited on humans and nature.

At the same time, the foundations for risk-based liberal politics have increasingly lain with science and scientific evidence, as the political agenda for risk has moved from the obvious and palpable (smog, burning rivers, vanishing eagles) to the increasingly invisible and statistical (disappearing stratospheric ozone, small changes in cancer incidences or cognitive function in large populations of people, gradual increases in average global atmospheric temperature).

Science also documents with increasing precision the declining stocks of natural resources, from fresh water to soil to timber to fish, and thus supports a robust neo-Malthusian strand of liberalism. As with the liberal politics of risk, the politics of scarcity is also an expression of technoskepticism, because it declares (oblivious of history) that technological advance and substitution will not be able to keep up with the technology-driven resource depletion that scientists have measured.

The combination of risk- and scarcity-based liberal politics can only give rise to political incoherence, as liberals find themselves, for reasons of risk, opposing new technologies that could help resolve issues of scarcity. An obvious example is opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While one strand of liberalism has opposed GMOs because of fears about potential health and ecological risks, another strand has insisted that the combination of soil and water depletion, pollution, and population growth is moving the world toward an agricultural productivity crisis -- a crisis that GMOs can (and will) help to avert. And, while it may now seem difficult to remember, in the 1970s, the liberal politics of energy was a politics of fossil fuel scarcity. Predicted fossil fuel shortages drove liberal demands for more conservation and energy efficiency -- the same technoskeptical demands that are now applied in the context of fossil fuel overabundance, as the politics of energy scarcity transitioned to a politics of climate change risk.

A central theme of contemporary liberalism thus emerges from a reverence for science that increasingly, and with ever-greater precision, documents the problems associated with a technology-dependent society. Meanwhile, the philosophical commitment to technoskepticism hampers liberals from achieving their political and social goals because it constricts their imagination about how to accomplish what's important, often leading them to focus on small risks to individuals rather than the potential for very large benefits to society that technological advance can bring.

Against the claims of contemporary liberal technoskepticism is the simple reality that technology has often offered a uniquely effective path to advancing core values that liberals care about.

A rather small set of technologies has made an incalculably positive contribution to human betterment in the past couple of centuries. Cheap, widely distributed energy sources would be among these. Engineered systems for delivering clean water to, and removing dirty water from, people's living spaces is another. So is the advance of agricultural technologies, which has allowed agricultural productivity to keep up with (and of course to permit, as well) exponential population growth, in a continuing repudiation of Malthusian pessimism. So is an array of basic medical technologies, from vaccines and antibiotics to obstetric forceps and Cesarean sections.

The fact that these technologies are not perfect, may have adverse environmental impacts, are sometimes misused or overused, and are accompanied by some degree of risk, does not in any way undermine what they have helped to achieve.

Yet technologies are something of an embarrassment to postwar liberal ideological tendencies. An effective technological intervention can advance liberal social goals without requiring the sorts of social change that liberals desire. Science can guide politically progressive policies toward such goals, but technology threatens to make the policies unnecessary.

Consider the entrenched inequities in birth outcomes that continue to be a stark symbol of injustice in the United States. Infant mortality among African Americans is roughly twice what it is among whites. The overall rates of US infant mortality have long been unconscionably high relative to other rich countries, mirroring America's greater levels of socioeconomic disparity. From this perspective, America's unaffordable, high-technology medical system ought to be an affront to liberal sensibilities.8

But there are, it turns out, two twists to this tale. First, over the last few decades, infant mortality rates among poor and minority babies in the United States have declined at about the same rate as among the babies of more well-to-do parents. So, while the disparities remain distressingly resistant to change, the absolute outcomes have improved more or less equally for everyone. These declines are apparently explained almost entirely by prenatal, neonatal, and obstetric technologies that benefit poor and well-off alike.

The second twist is that substantial efforts to address unequal birth outcomes through public policies have largely failed. More than forty years of science-based progressive policies aimed at increasing the quality of prenatal and maternal health care and nutrition among poor women in the United States have had little or no positive effect on birth outcomes nationwide.9 The causes of high infant mortality rates among poor people are complex, and deeply embedded in broader problems of socioeconomic inequity that continue to resist political solutions and policy intervention.

The technological path may seem less ethically and psychologically satisfactory than the political path because it leaves unaddressed the underlying social failures that contribute to inequity. This may create some reasonable sense that the technological path provides us with an excuse for not taking the political path -- that the available means distract us from the more important end, from doing what is right, which is to solve the problem by making society better, by reducing inequality, rather than by separating the problem from its social context through a technological fix.

Yet, when the essence of a problem is amenable to capture by a technological intervention, real progress can sometimes be made very rapidly, whereas political paths to solving a bigger, underlying problem will almost always be much slower, more uncertain, and less effective. This is what we are seeing in the infant mortality case.

The technological path also offers political opportunities. Technologies that solve a problem can also act as an organizing tool to bring diverse political and institutional players together. Consider, for example, how the vaccine industry, medical practitioners, health insurers, government regulators, school systems, local governments, and individual families have all recognized a common interest that allows them to work together to ensure that almost all children in the United States get vaccinated.10 The gravitational center of the near-miraculous degree of cooperation among these fractious institutions and interests is the technology itself -- vaccines that yield reliable and desirable outcomes, and thus motivate and justify the cooperation necessary to achieve an enormous public benefit. To get a sense of how miraculous this degree of long-term cooperation really is, imagine what it would take to coordinate a similar diversity of interests on behalf of some broader political agenda like health care or education reform.

The suspicion of technological approaches to social problems is self-defeating, both because it prevents liberalism from exploiting the built-in political logic of effective technological interventions, and because it actually commits liberals to political pathways of social intervention that are not very likely to succeed. When combined with the strong faith in science as a foundation for progressive policies, liberal alienation from technology results in the sort of dumbfoundingly misconceived policy prescriptions that have arisen around the problem of climate change. It was, however, not always thus.

In 1944, David Lilienthal, the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), published Democracy on the March, a passionate expression of the scientific and technological optimism that existed amidst the social and economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Lilienthal was an archetypal New Deal figure, confident that the combination of science, technology, rational planning, and democratic government could help bring the nation back to its feet. His book was an explanation and defense of the TVA, a New Deal initiative aimed at bringing electricity, flood management, river navigability, improved agricultural practices, better health and education, new jobs and economic opportunity, and restoration of the environment to an impoverished region of the United States.

While Democracy on the March seems quaint, if not somewhat scary in its unvarnished confidence in grand technological schemes, Lilienthal was no technological utopian. He treats technology's power as complex and ambiguous, requiring holistic thinking and democratic oversight in order to fulfill its promise. The TVA he describes was democratically responsive and administratively decentralized. Authority lay not just with formally trained technocrats, but also with those who had local, real-world experience and expertise.

In many of its elements, Democracy on the March reads like a 21st century primer for sustainable development. Lilienthal articulates ideas equivalent to what today we would call systems thinking, sustainable business practices, comparative effectiveness research, devolution of governance, public-private partnerships, adaptive learning, and democratization of science and technology.11

If Lilienthal's technologically optimistic vision nonetheless sounds naïve to today's liberal ear, perhaps the problem is with the liberal ear, which seems to find greater political resonance in abstract scientific diagnoses of risk than technological opportunities to improve human well-being. Thus was TVA advanced on exactly the opposite political rationale that liberals adopted, half a century later, for climate change. For TVA's core idea was this: the best and most direct way to improve the quality of life in the Tennessee Valley was to make electricity -- energy -- cheap and universally available. What if we imported this outmoded strand of liberalism into the present, and tried to apply it to the climate change problem? The starting place for formulating a politically attractive strategy that honors core liberal values might be this particular fact: 1.4 billion people lack access to reliable energy (and billions more are economically and socially vulnerable to increasing energy costs).12 This number needs to decline in the future, not increase, meaning that the shared human dignity of a growing global population will require more energy in the future, not less. A commitment to increasing rather than eroding energy equity is a necessary precursor to exploring new technological paths for delivering energy that is clean, reliable, and affordable. This was the argument advanced in the "Hartwell Paper," which I coauthored with a small group of scholars in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Energy equity, we concluded, is a globally unifying goal, whereas increasing energy prices is globally divisive.13

Action therefore begins with the quest for more, cheaper, and cleaner energy technology, not raising energy prices. And in this regard, the opportunities for making progress are actually quite expansive. Technological advance is largely a process of gradual improvement of existing technologies, and many potential options for clean energy technology already exist as platforms for further improvement. What has been lacking have been a serious, strategic commitment to the appropriate policies and necessary levels of investment that can catalyze clean energy innovation. While technology has always been a faddish, if marginal, presence in the climate policy agenda (we liberals do love hybrid cars and solar power, however expensive), innovation policy has never been taken seriously, and technological progress has generally been treated as if it would automatically and miraculously appear as necessary.14

Moreover, it may turn out that the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more quickly and decisively than can be achieved even with an aggressive commitment to clean energy innovation. Here liberals have another tool in their arsenal that they have forsaken as a consequence of their technoskepticism. The government has often been a primary investor and customer for new technologies that advance public well-being. The TVA was based on the belief that governments had an obligation to directly invest in public works that could level the social and economic playing field.

Treating greenhouse gas reductions as a public good, like investments in rural electrification, transportation, water and sewerage, national parks, and national defense, would exploit a historically powerful liberal rationale for directly addressing technological problems that lack marketplace solutions. This public good-public works approach has the political benefit of being relatively transparent in terms of motives and costs, unlike the ridiculously complex, too-clever-by-a-half approaches to climate policy of the past 20 years.

A public goods-public works approach could provide new political options for attacking climate and energy problems directly, for example through the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from power plants. Here our friend the TVA, a public enterprise that operates 11 coal-fired plants with nearly 60 generating units, may offer opportunities.15 Congress could direct and fund TVA to explore carbon dioxide capture technologies and to demonstrate them at increasing scale.16 This would be an appropriate next generation public good mission for a public works program rooted in liberal values and a commitment to the role of technology in advancing those values.

Since the decisive crash of the international and US climate policy frameworks in 2009, liberals have at last begun to more seriously embrace energy innovation in the United States, but with some palpable sense that they are regretfully adopting "Plan B," rather than doing what they should have done from the beginning. Unfortunately, 20 years of fruitless fighting over the science and politics of reducing risk by making energy more expensive has so utterly alienated conservatives from the very idea of climate change, that a program of energy innovation that would once have been potentially appealing to many conservatives for its wealth-creating, competitiveness-enhancing potential now risks being viewed on the Right as a Trojan horse for failed climate policies.

Thus, the political debacle of climate change illustrates with excruciating clarity the price that liberals have paid as a result of their overdependence upon scientific rationality and their alienation from technology. Yes, much technology is aimed at countering the unexpected effects of past technologies. Yes, technology creates new risks and uncertainties, reinforces power asymmetries and anomie, and continually destabilizes social arrangements and even moral frameworks. But humans are an innovating species, and we are utterly committed for our survival to an unending technological journey. In acknowledging this perhaps uncomfortable fact, liberals would do well to recover the message of pragmatic optimism in David Lilienthal's Democracy on the March: that technology tempered by democracy can be an incredibly powerful tool for
social betterment. /

Further Reading

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "The Dark Side of Scientific Rationality," The Breakthrough, Summer 2012

1. Swift, Jonathan. 1729. A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents or the country, and for making them beneficial to the publick. Friends of Harvard College Library. (back)

2. Buck v. Bell, 1927; see: Kevles, D.J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics. University of California. (back)

3. Sarewitz, Daniel., and Roger Pielke, Jr. "Breaking the Climate Change Gridlock." Atlantic Monthly. July 2000. (back)

4. Brown, Mark. 2009. Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. (back)

5. Lippman, Walter. 1922. Public Opinion. Harcourt, Brace and Company. 233-234 (back)

6. Hughes, Thomas P. 1989. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970. Illinois: University of Chicago. (back)

7. Ibid. (back)

8. Allenby, Braden R., and Daniel Sarewitz. 2011. The Techno-Human Condition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. 58. (back)

9. Lantz, P., Shultz, C., Sieffert, K., Lori, J., and Ransom, S. "The Impact of Expanded Models of Prenatal Care on Birth Outcomes: A Critical Review of the Literature." (ms. in prep); Gortmaker, Steven, and Paul Wise. 1997. "The First Injustice: Socioeconomic Disparities, Health Services, Technology, and Infant Mortality." Annual Review of Sociology. 23: 147-170. (back)

10. CDC Media Relations. 2011. "CDC National Survey Finds Early Childhood Immunization Rates Increasing." Center For Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: www.cdc-gov/media/releases/2011/p0901_cdc_nationalsurvey.html (back)

11. Lilienthal, David. 1944. Democracy on the March. Pocket Books. (back)

12. International Energy Agency. 2010. Energy Poverty: How to make modern energy access universal? Special early excerpt of the World Energy Outlook 2010 for the UN General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals. France: IEA (back)

13. For more complete articulation of this logic, see: Prins, Gwyn, et al. 2010. The Hartwell Paper: A New Direction for Climate Policy After the Crash of 2009. UK: LSE Mackinder Programme. (back)

14. For example, Pielke, Roger Jr., Wigley, Tom, and Christopher Green. 2008. "Dangerous Assumptions." Nature. 452: 531-532. (back)

15. Tennessee Valley Authority. 2011. TVA At a Glance. Accessed: (back)

16. For more on the public works rationale, see: Alic, John, Sarewitz, Danial, Weiss, Charles, and William Bonvillian. 2010. "A New Strategy for Energy Innovation." Nature. July 2010. 466: 316-317. Also: Sarewitz, Daniel, and Armond Cohen. 2009. "Innovation Policy for Climate Change: A Report to the Nation." National Commission on Energy Policy. Accessed: (back)