Thanks, Howie, for joining the blog. En garde.
First, let me say that I loved the Whitehead quote (I may use it in my next book). But, your arguments against simple solutions are unconvincing. Oh, I agree that things are complex. But, these complex systems are subject to change through application of a few, simple ideas. This seems to me to be the underlying message of the quote -- choose the right ideas because you don't get many chances. One of your heroes, Ronald Reagan, was a genius of simplicity. I wasn't a big fan of his policies, but I give him credit for accomplishing many of the things he set out to do. His message was always imminently repeatable, and the way he delivered it made it seem like it was based on some basic American principle of freedom. The Soviet Union restricts freedom; the Soviet Union is evil. If we grow the economy (with supply side policies), all boats will rise. There ya go again (restricting our freedom with your policy-wonk gobbledegook).
But, hey. Howie. My friend. How. You've convinced me that Bernard Lewis is brilliant when it comes to the Middle East. But the article you sent us was mostly a paean to the man rather than a thoughtful presentation of the man's ideas. So, tell us a little about what you've learned from reading his articles and books. Link us to an article if you can. I admire your literary voracity, but find that I barely have enough time to keep up with Tech Review, The Economist, and some online articles. When Jane and I went to Maui in June, I chose to read a couple novels. I recommend "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo.
How and Bret, I must take issue with your contention: Most human progress does not occur directly from intentional design. I don't disagree that there's a lot of trial and error along the way. But, it's against common sense to think that there is no correlation between what we envision and what happens. Try telling that to Thomas Edison or Leonardo da Vinci. Problems crop up with any change -- whether technological or social -- when unintended, and often unforeseen, consequences are expressed. That, by the way, is the problem with incrementalism, too. If things take too long before benefits are realized, the negative unintended consequences (including the formation of naysayers) pile up and kill the change. Think of Clinton's 1st term attempt to reform healthcare. (This is an argument for speed of execution, with plans long ago worked out in private.) Nonetheless, for those changes that do get through, the consequences -- both expected and not -- are usually managed within bounds, and if they cannot be managed, the causal activity is discontinued (or at least that's how it seems to have worked so far, although one might question whether we could have gotten ourselves into even deeper shit on the CFC fiasco - lasts for 50 years in the ozone layer - what a great innovation that was).
The point is, many people on this planet live more fulfilling lives than their ancestors lived because people have had a great desire for things to be better in fairly specific ways. Most of them waited, but enough of them, thank god, took matters into their own hands. A number of them have had an effect. Scientists, inventors, statesmen, generals, home economists. Have there been bold political actions of generally salutary result in our American history? Of course. There have been purchases of vast lands, the end of slavery, women's suffrage, the crushing of fascism, the Marshall Plan, civil liberties. I wouldn't chalk any of these up to the spoils of incrementalism. They all took vision, intelligence, and patience. And, underlying them all -- values. Even before vision, what are the values that will sustain it?
If only, all along, Reagan-like, Bush had said that the only reason to get Saddam was to free the Iraqi people from repression, then I might have bought it. But, no, Saddam had to go --because he was cheating on inspections, because he was an imminent threat to our country, and because (and I really do think this is the main reason for George W) he threatened the president's daddy. (Remember when he actually made the idiotic comment about that!) The bottom line is that Saddam, harboring few capabilities relatively-speaking, was defying our will and shooting us the bird, and the people in our adminstration decided it was time for him to be dead. Freeing the Iraqi people was only an incidental justification, at best. Unchallenged stability seems to be the primary goal of the Cheney gang. Correcting injustice is far down the list. Further, I'm doubtful that current strategies will achieve the stability desired. The values are too obscure in every moment of the situation, including on the ground when a frightened GI opens fire on a group of innocent people.
Bret, in your praise for the rule of the majority don't forget that changes to the Constitution require 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states' ratifications. There may be many good reasons why the pulse of the majority shouldn't drive all action.
Finally, I, like Bret, am an optimist at heart. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet threat abated. These are proof that good things do happen through unpredictable incrementalism as well. These examples of incrementalism were associated with an eroding governmental system based on flawed values. Values of justice and freedom can be repressed, but like tree roots against a sewer line, eventually they break through.