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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I Laughed and I Cried

Here is a review I wrote on for the book "The Gardens of Democracy" by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer:
I found this book to be contradictory, incoherent, and wildly naive. An example of the contradictory nature of this book is linked to the title and depicted in the book cover's illustration. The authors switch back and forth between a garden metaphor and an ecosystem metaphor as convenient to make their points. The problem is that a garden and an ecosystem are nearly exact opposites. An ecosystem is robust, resilient, and self sustaining while a garden is what you get after you annihilate an ecosystem and plant a limited number of flora. The garden is fragile and not self-sustaining and needs constant tending. Given that parts of the book are argued using the metaphor of the garden as depicted on the front cover (notice the neat and regular rows of crops) and other parts of the book are argued using the metaphor of the ecosystem, it's not surprising to me that it seems contradictory and incoherent. 
I laughed out loud several times when encountering incredibly simplistic and blatant use of strawman arguments. For example, the authors write, "Libertarianism ... rests ... on the falshood that humans are reliably and inherently rational, calculating, and selfish." Libertarianism rests on no such assumption. After setting up and beating down numerous such strawmen, the authors look across the resulting field of straw and claim that since none of the strawmen are left standing, their arguments must be right. 
I cried (not literally) when I then noticed the overwhelmingly positive reception this book has gotten. The positive reception is not only from amateur reviewers such as the ones here at Amazon, but also from well known thinkers and writers such as Francis Fukuyama. As a result, I fully expect that anyone reading this negative review will treat it with suspicion and/or skepticism. That's perfectly fair and I only ask that when you read the book you do so with your eyes open and your critical thinking skills fully engaged.
The good news is that I stumbled onto the book at scribd while looking for reviews so at least I didn't waste any money buying the book.  The book is just yet another call for a large, activist government that "tends" the citizenship, economic, and social "gardens" (or ecosystems, depending on what page you're on) of society.


Anonymous said...

They don't even bother with disguise anymore - although it's a truly excellent example of what I call "logo-realism".

erp said...

Ironic doesn't half explain it.

We're the ecosystem that supports it all and they're the effete pretty gardens that need to be constantly watered and tended by the fruits of the ecosystem and yet they fancy themselves the custodians of "nature" while we want to poison and pollute.

I give you guys credit. I'd rather eat ground glass than read a book by a leftie.

Bret said...


Yeah it's painful to read, but I do it for my loyal readers. :-)

Peter said...

Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden.

You have to admit it's the perfect metaphor for a leftist activist. So inspired are we by these dreamy, alluring images of floral beauty and ordered fruitfulness that we forget 90% of successful gardening is pulling weeds.

Bret said...

Exactly so.

A society that is not in the least bit self-sufficient and requires constant tending (not only weeding but also watering, seeding, etc.) lest it wither and become barren and lifeless in short order with the intention that it be harvested for the benefit of those in power.

Hey Skipper said...

Liu and Hanauer condensed the book into an NYT Op Ed a couple days ago.

There wasn't enough content for 750 words, never mind a whole book.

Anonymous said...

So they want us to be the Eloi, but who is marked for being the Morlocks?

Bret said...

From the NYT article Hey Skipper linked to: "Call it the “Machinebrain” picture of the world: markets are perfectly efficient, humans perfectly rational, incentives perfectly clear and outcomes perfectly appropriate. ... This self-enclosed metaphor is the gospel of market fundamentalists."

Another example of the unrelenting sequence of strawmen these authors put forward. Few, if any, "market fundamentalists" believe that "markets are perfectly efficient", etc. and no modern economic theory is in anyway dependent on such assumptions.

Bret said...


It's been 40+ years since I read The Time Machine, but wasn't the eloi thought (by the time traveler) to have descended from the upper class. I'm definitely not upper class, but I have a hunch that nonetheless, I'm on the menu.

Peter said...

I confess that I'm absolutely fascinated by the metaphor and how brilliantly it combines a beautiful comforting image of great visceral appeal with total ahistorical drivel. It's a little bit like "planning", isn't it, but I don't imagine one can paint a compelling artwork of planning.

Quite apart from the authors' legerdemain in their use the word "tending" (more soothing than "educating", another traditional favourite of the left), I think at bottom much of the appeal lies in the inherent perennial stability of a garden. Gardens don't grow or expand on their own and they produce pretty much the same predictable things every year, all chockfull of wholesome goodness. Slurpies and Big Macs are just so MachineBrain. It's a nostalgic appeal to zero-sum, self-contained, neo-feudal notions of society and wealth, and a rejection of dynamic change and uncertainty. What cantankerous misanthrope would distract from the bucolic dream with spectres of droughts, blights and infestations?

I fear we are headed for another era of leftist hegemony, at least in the popular zeitgeist. There seems to be a growing widespread popular fear and fatigue with the uncertainties and change inherent in economic growth, and a concommitent yearning for ordered protection and security (and isolation). Wall Street hasn't helped. Maybe it's also because of frightened aging Boomers, but self-reliance is just sooo... 'oughts. These things tend to go in cycles and we've had a pretty good thirty-year run, as least with economic orthodoxy. Plus, admit it fellows, as the GOP primaries showed, the right is becoming too wacky for the decent muddled middle. We haven't done a terribly good job reining in and disowning our nasties and fruitloops.

Up here, Harper and the Cons are doing a very good job with economic management, international affairs and other macro-issues. But they are governing too heavy-handedly for the public without bothering to defend themselves and too many of his ministers are suffering from foot-in-mouth disease. They are increasingly coming across as mean, flinty and divisive (not to mention cerebrally-challenged in too many cases) for absolutely no good purpose, not a smart strategy for us "nice" Canadians. Meanwhile, the left has become the party of traditional values and nostalgia, making inroads with the argument that grandma's ways are best.

Peter said...

Of course, the grandma they are referring to now looks back wistfully to her days of protest marches, drugs and casual sex at Woodstock, but they just talk about her organic home baking.

Howard said...

James Taranto touches on The Little Blue Book, Gardenidiots and other related items in the aptly titled The Politics of Cognitive Dissonance:
Why closed-mindedness is an imperative for the left.

He uses the term "willed ignorance" which is essentially the same as the term "willful ignorance" that I've used for quite some time.

And this section touches directly on the post by Bret:

And here's another op-ed from today's Times, this one from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer:

What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren't simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn't a machine; it's a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it's every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we're all better off when we're all better off.

OK, now we're sure somebody is putting one over on the Times's editors. This is obviously a satire of "Being There."

Funny, I've called this president Chance from time to time.

Anonymous said...


You're not the only one, I have heard that quite a bit. My favorite though is Orrin Judd's "the clothes have no emperor" comment. So apt!

The whole "economy as ecosytem" was done much better in Bionomics. That takes much more of an Intelligent Designer / Spinozan view, that management of the economy consists of setting the laws, not direct intervention.

The "willful ignorance" is a big part of the attraction to logo-realism by the tranzis. You don't have to know if you can just make it so by sufficiently clever rhetoric.

Bret said...

"We're all better off when we're all better off" is a subtitle of one of the chapters in the book and it was definitely a laugh-out-loud moment when I encountered it. But that, and terms like "machinebrain" and "gardenbrain" (I titled my amazon review "Vegetative Thinking") are meant to be funny (I think). At least it was humerous.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I fear we are headed for another era of leftist hegemony, at least in the popular zeitgeist. There seems to be a growing widespread popular fear and fatigue with the uncertainties and change inherent in economic growth, and a concommitent yearning for ordered protection and security (and isolation)."

Yeah, I can't really blame anybody for that fear. The "destruction" part of creative-destruction can be very hard on individuals and even a whole society if it becomes too fast and we may be seeing that now.

I'm not sure there's a solution to that problem.

BTW, Peter, are you blogging again?

Peter said...

If you mean do I have a blog, no. My short-lived career was far too engaging for my good. One day I was walking to court and instead of thinking about the motion I was set to argue, I found myself composing a reply to Skipper's latest comment. A little voice inside had a stern word with me that day.

I actually spend a fair amount of time playing gadfly on a leftist site up here (there is a personal connection). Some interesting discussions, but man, do I take a lot of crap! I don't know whether it's the left or blogging, but the contempt and vitriol that gets spewed continuously is eye-opening.

It hasn't changed my views on anything substantive, but it has made me much more suspicious of ideology generally and sensitive to parallels on the right. Ideology is like iodine. We can't live without it, but too much will kill us quickly.

erp said...

Peter, define what you mean by ideology. Either you believe in freedom for the individual or you believe that the state should dictate to us "for our own good" of course.

I fear that even the good guys here are buying into to the notion that the state should get into whether or not we buy a new knee or save the money for the grandchildren. That's a decision I'll make for myself thank you.

IMO the debate should be how best to get the socialists out and reverse the entitlement mentality, so we can buy whatever health insurance and everything else we want and not have a bunch of self-serving bureaucrats making decisions for us and in the process making even the most intelligent, nay brilliant, among feel guilty for not "caring" enough.

Real caring aka charity is giving of ourselves and our own treasure.

Confiscating from the "rich" to buy the support of the "poor" is a proven formula for disaster.

Better than leaving our children the crippled remains of our estates, we leave them the same free country that was left to us, so they can seek their own fortunes.

If we have a few bucks left, so much the better. If not, they'll be no worse off than we were when we started our journey.

erp said...

I rest my case.

Peter said...

Yes, yes, erp, long live individualism and down with statism. But let's try to remember we aren't fighting the Final Battle of Good and Evil here. North Americans have won the lottery of life despite all those pesky leftists screwing things up, and we would all do well to take a daily walk and listen to this on the old iPod.

Plus, I'll bite. Speaking very generally and even dismissing their noxious solutions, I think there are some issues where the moderate left can be more clear-headed than we about the nature and intractability of the problem. Urban planning and the urban poor and dysfunctional are examples. Many on our side have become very naive and stridently ideologically hidebound about how swiftly and easily we could turn everybody into Horatio Algers through radical welfare and tough-on-crime reform. Look Ma, no hands! Shall we push it to the limits and risk watching them die in the streets like they used to? Plus, I don't care what Patrick Henry said about liberty, I don't want a massage parlour next door to my house. And I don't see Jeffersonian notions of freedom of speech as encomposing my right to menace, degrade and humiliate my co-citizens.

erp said...

I don't know about Canada, but urban planning here has been a disaster. The old slums were palatial compared to the projects and removing the urban poor from the inner cities and building cultural centers, etc. haven't worked either for culture or the poor.

Zoning has been used by communities to restrict activities to commercial areas or ban some altogether, so residential areas can stay residential. Problem solved.

Dying in the streets? I grew up in NYC during the 30's, 40's and 50's in a very middle to lower middle class area and I never saw or heard of anyone dying in the streets because there wasn't enough government to take care of their needs.

In those days public drunkenness (drugs were unheard of for the common folk) was a crime, not an excuse and seldom seen in streets with notable exceptions like the Bowery.

Heroin was a problem, but few junior high kids were able to get their hands on it unlike now when 12 year olds have access to whatever they like.

Problems of juvenile delinquency as it was quaintly called back when, was dealt with and malefactors weren't returned to the streets to continue to inflict themselves on the law-abiding.

Things were certainly not perfect, but they were far better than now (the segregation laws being the glaring exception) and I would argue that the black ghettoes of today are far worse than those of back then. Then people had hope that things would change and they would have changed in an orderly way if the left hadn't made it so lucrative to go on the dole and encouraged people to give up their self-respect for a handout.

erp said...

I rest my case, vol. 2

Peter said...

You seem to think I've gone over to the dark side, erp. I'm simply saying that not all issues can be addressed successfully by simply taking a template called individualism and private property and applying it willy-nilly.

I'm not sure nostalgia for those better days of the 30's is going to take us far on the hustings.

erp said...

Applying what willy-nilly?

The left applied their template to what was working pretty well and changed things for the far worse.

It's not nostalgia for the 30's. I was only six when they ended. Other than technology and modern conveniences, I've watched society go down hill over the last 70 years and it pains me that even you guys who are smart and have your hearts in the right place have bought into the idea that the collective/government should get into our lives to make thing better.

erp said...

I rest my case V.3