One of the reasons why blogging has been pretty light this weekend—in addition to my spending the Easter holiday with family in Memphis—is that I spent much of Saturday doing the work I’ve been trained to do, in this case anonymously reviewing the text of a forthcoming political science textbook for a publisher.
While the text doesn’t focus on ideology, as a way to motivate the material (am I being vague enough?) it discusses the ideological divisions of the American public, and the contrasts among conservative and liberal thought on economic and social regulation—one of the fundamental topics in the study of political behavior in the United States. After reading it, something about that discussion clicked in my head, and suddenly the debate over the August 6th PDB—and the conviction by liberals like Kevin Drum that it contained the key information needed to prevent an attack, despite the clear absence of any “new” information that would suggest an attack of the magnitude of 9/11 (despite the sensationalistic account of Middle Eastern men taking photos of a building in New York—mind you, it was a federal office building, not the World Trade Center complex)—made a lot more sense.
Steven Taylor apparently had essentially the same thoughts on the matter:
While clearly much (most?) of the wrangling over the PDB is partisan in nature, much of the debate may also be ideological. Part of what defines a conservative in the political vernacular of the United States is skepticism about government, while liberals tend to think that given the right people and information that practically any problem can be solved by government. ...
[O]ne’s view of government clearly colors how one interprets these events. As a conservative (and as a student of government, here and abroad), I am highly skeptical of the ability of governments to successfully execute policy. Hence, I am unsurprised by governmental failures. I am not saying that policy can never be successful—it can. However, it rarely is an efficient process, and the more complex the undertaking, the more likely failure is to happen. At a minimum I know full well that government is not very good at processing information. ... However, it would seem that from the liberal point of view the problem isn’t government and its complexity, but rather the people who occupy government at a given moment. Now, I am not saying that that doesn’t matter—it does. But, I do not think, and believe that empirical evidence backs my position, that government becomes more efficient and efficacious just because one set of persons occupy positions of power. ...
And no, I am not arguing that government always fails. Although I would note that that tends to be the default position. I am not an anti-government libertarian, but I am highly skeptical about the ability of governments to do what they set out to do. Hence, I am not surprised wen governments fail. Liberals in the US context tend to be more optimistic about the abilities of government, and hence are more shocked when it fails. And, as noted, that failure is usually attributed not to systemic problems of governing huge numbers of people, but, rather, to those who are doing the governing. Hence, the fault must lie with Bush and Rice must be a “moron”, etc.
Obviously, unlike Steven I’m not a conservative—but I share the conservative skepticism that government power can be universally effective, or that it can always stop bad things from happening. Governments are comprised of people, and people are inherently flawed: they make mistakes, they aren’t omniscient, and they tend to make decisions consistent with their own personal interests. Aggregating a bunch of fallible people in a government, while reducing the possibility that one person’s mistake won’t matter, doesn’t eliminate it entirely.
I think the disappointment of the 9/11 commission is that, rather than trying to figure out how we can prevent future attacks and ensure the mistakes of 9/11 aren’t repeated, its members have decided to engage in alternating displays of grandstanding and ass-covering, and are seemingly more concerned with their job prospects in future administrations sharing their party affiliation than figuring out what structural and practical obstacles stopped policymakers from getting even all the unclassified information that indicated a plot was afoot on their desks.