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The Practice of Governing with Humility

Good evening everyone. I’m so happy to be here with you, thank you for coming.

Last year, I gave a lecture to a group of students about dignity and humility. I made the case that when it comes to governing, treating the governed with respect requires those in positions of power to start from a place of modesty—appreciating others’ goodness, appreciating our own fallibility, and understanding what that means for public life.

A natural question that emerged from those interested in politics—especially students and other Millennials who want to change the world for better—was, “But isn’t real government leadership necessarily immodest? Doesn’t leadership require deciding what is right and using government power to make that happen?”

Well, that can be true—there are instances when bold action from Washington is appropriate. But I want to make the case for why our default position should be skepticism of powerful, central leaders who claim to have the answers and who want to bring about dramatic change.

I’m going to make three related arguments about where most power should reside and how it should be used. First, there are important limits to what faraway, central authorities can know; second, the central government’s lack of knowledge requires a particular kind of policymaker (one who distributes power even at the expense of her own power); and, third, we should gladly put our faith behind individuals’ ability to solve problems and advance their own flourishing.

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I’m going to go about this by discussing how the work of the economist and public intellectual F.A. Hayek inspires my three core claims here. I was told that a number of you have been studying Hayek’s work, so I thought that would be a good jumping-off point.

As a more general matter, I work for a public policy think tank, a place at the intersection of research and government service. Personally, I think it’s terribly important that policy scholars get their hands dirty with actual policymaking inside of government. But I also think it’s critical that policymakers—those doing the public’s business—wrestle with big questions and do so publicly. I believe that doing so is formative for the policymaker and valuable to the public.

Now to be clear, I am not an economist. So I’m not qualified to provide sophisticated analysis of Hayek’s views on the price system or business cycles. But his work on knowledge, justice, liberty, and more has implications for a wide array of policy areas. And I do know a little bit about policymaking.

My views have been formed in large part by my work for six different government bodies over nearly 20 years—from a state legislature and Congress to the White House and US Department of Education to one state’s department of education and another state’s board of education.

Hopefully an element of my evolution will come through in this talk. I did at the start of my career, and still do now, consider myself a “conservative reformer.” What has remained constant over time is my belief in markets, an enduring moral order, limits on government power, and so on. But what has shifted a bit is where I put the emphasis in the term “conservative reformer.” I used to prioritize big, swift policy change, whether with regard to schools, welfare, Social Security, or other domestic issues—so I emphasized the “reformer” part.

But as I’ve gotten more experience inside of government, I’ve come to appreciate the risks of pushing reform too quickly, of pushing reforms that are too expansive, and of trusting that faraway government bodies know what reforms ought to be pushed. So I increasingly emphasize the “conservative” part of “conservative reformer.” In other words, I think I have been consistent in my views about basic governing principles, but I’ve become more prudent about how I think we ought to bring them to life.

So over the next 30 minutes I’ll discuss my three points (what central authorities can know, what kind of policymaker is needed, and why deference to individuals is sound) by weaving together Hayek’s work and some stories from my own government experience.

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The first insight from Hayek comes from his 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Although the piece is aimed at those advocating planned economies, its lessons speak to efforts to centralize other elements of domestic policy.

Hayek makes a profound argument: We must appreciate the limited ability of central authorities to collect and use information. That is, even if we made an agency of central planning lean, efficient, and staffed with able and selfless professionals, it would still struggle to achieve its ambitions.

The roadblock isn’t intentions; it’s information. As he writes, it “is a problem of the utilization of knowledge, which is not given to anyone in its totality.” No one can ever have all of the information necessary, much less all of the information that’s also smartly combined and analyzed, to make the right decisions. In his words, “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” In other words, the countless minds thinking about, engaged in, and influenced by a policy matter will always know more in combination than a single body.

From my reading of this article, I infer a tremendously helpful five-part test that could be used by government officials prior to acting:

1) Are you certain you have the information necessary to act wisely?
2) Who are the experts who could acquire all of the relevant information and translate it into smart policy?
3) Assuming such experts exist, how would you find them?
4) Can all of the relevant information spread across countless interested parties be translated into a form that can be used by a single authority?
5) Since conditions on the ground change constantly, can the necessary information be rapidly and continuously sent by the field to the governing body?

By simply asking the questions in this way, a number of things jump out.

For example, in my experience, government bodies often decide to act and then use the information that’s available to decide how to act. For instance, during the education accountability era, the federal government and state governments decided they wanted to hold schools accountable for results. So they primarily used reading and math test scores because, in large part, that was the uniform, comparable data that was available.

This list, however, suggests that the government should first decide what the right information is and then decide whether that information is accessible. Only then should the government determine whether it should act. In the case of education accountability, the federal government might’ve first asked, “What are all of things that we care about when it comes to school performance?” Then it would’ve asked, “Are we actually able to collect, analyze, and make use of all of that information for all of our schools?”

Another element that pops out from that list is that it’s much easier for small, local agencies to answer “Yes” than large, faraway bodies. An entity that oversees three nearby health clinics is better able to respond to changing conditions than a central body overseeing 3,000 clinics spread far and wide.

And “usable information” takes different forms based on the size and proximity of the government body. A small-town mayor could take a daily briefing call with his director of transportation to understand exactly what’s happening with traffic and construction and what citizens are experiencing. But if the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in Washington wanted information on the status of each city’s roads, she’d need a statistical analysis of available standardized data reflecting averages and themes and largely devoid of valuable personal accounts.

Hayek argues that free markets and the price system can help solve the “information problem” when it comes to economic issues. But there are analogous strategies for other policy domains. Federalism and subsidiarity push decision-making down—local police make most day-to-day law-enforcement decisions, not the US Attorney General. Similarly, tradition allows us to use knowledge accumulated over generations instead of constantly starting information-gathering from scratch. G.K. Chesterton astutely noted that tradition is like expanding voting rights to our predecessors—he called it “the democracy of the dead.”

And it is in regard to these forms of decision-making that Hayek’s article seems particularly salient for domestic policymakers. He argues that, scientific knowledge—knowledge of general rules of human behavior—isn’t everything. There is instead a “very important but unorganized knowledge” discovered and possessed in “particular circumstances of time and place.” This kind of local knowledge seldom lends itself to statistical form.

Let me explain how these issues actually come up in real policymaking scenarios. I was an aide to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives when the No Child Left Behind Act was under consideration in 2001. I tried to convince my boss, the congressman, to vote in favor. I was convinced the test data generated by this legislation would revolutionize education. We’d have academic information from all 100,000 public schools, we’d be able to quantify the performance of different student subgroups, we’d even have school categorizations.

But the congressman doubted the law’s narrow focus on reading and math scores. He thought those were poor indicators of school success. He didn’t think this data would necessarily enable experts to help schools improve. He thought the focus on standardized tests would obscure the invaluable knowledge that local practitioners possessed. He believed good educators continuously adapted to changing community conditions, student needs, and so on; and he believed any cumbersome federal framework would hinder that work. Obviously my boss didn’t refer to the five-part test I discussed earlier, but in hindsight, I recognize he was reasoning along those lines.

You see, he was a former high school teacher. He was dialed in to how much more knowledge local leaders have compared to those far away. I overestimated the ability of a central authority to choose the right measures, to collect the data, and to make use of it. He voted against the legislation and although it became law, many of his concerns, I think, were borne out.

A second quick example. I was involved in crafting the legislation to reform teacher evaluation in a state, a cause I strongly supported. It was the result of the view that districts were not subjecting educators to rigorous evaluations and meaningful consequences, meaning some students were assigned to the classrooms of ineffective teachers. The bill gave the state government substantial authority—at the expense of local decision-makers like principals and district administrators. The state constructed detailed rules on the percentage of the teacher’s evaluation that had to be based on student learning and the consequences for educators deemed ineffective.

There was one especially memorable moment. Negotiators were searching for the exact right word for how much weight should be allocated to a particular component of a state-mandated formula for educators’ evaluation. Everyone whipped out their phones to look up the precise definition of the words “prevalent,” “predominant,” “substantial,” “foremost.”

But wait. Did this group of ostensible experts sitting in a single room in the state’s capitol really know enough about the particulars of thousands of schools and tens of thousands of teachers across the entire state to make a single word a linchpin for a new pseudo-scientific system of evaluation?

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the facile view that all efforts to centralize decision-making are indefensible. That’s not what I believe. In fact, I offer these two examples precisely because they show how policymakers can be persuaded that centralization is the sensible answer. The pre-No Child Left Behind Act era was considered troubling enough that it begot the No Child Left Behind Act. The pre-teacher-evaluation-reform era was troubling enough that it begot the teacher-evaluation-reform era.

I’ve learned that if a central agency becomes convinced that conditions have deteriorated far enough, it will put aside the “knowledge problem” and act. That is not entirely irrational.

In my opinion, to combat this centralizing impulse, we need more policymakers who see that some area of public life isn’t working, appreciate the knowledge problem, and then figure out solutions that don’t rely on centralization. And that leads to the second part of this talk.

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The second lesson comes from Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. The book is known best for its argument that grand state planning leads to an increasingly authoritarian state.

But the element that I’d like to focus on is captured by the title of Chapter 8, “Who, Whom.” Who is in charge, who is not in charge; who gets to plan, for whom are plans made?

Parts of Chapters 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 combine to tell a particular story. As society increasingly believes central authorities can acquire enough knowledge to act ably, more decisions are made centrally and the state increases in power. As a result, those wanting to influence society increasingly see the attraction of working for the state. As Hayek writes, “as the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

That attraction is especially strong for those purporting to have technical expertise in an area of governing. They could use state power to bring about what they honest-to-goodness believe to be scientifically sound answers. As Hayek writes, “There is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity.” This potential to bring about very specific ends creates, Hayek says, “enthusiasts for planning.”

This sets up a point that has been hugely influential on how I see my work in public policy. Hayek helps us recognize two types of governing beliefs among government leaders. There are those who believe in “central direction and organization of all our activities according to some consciously constructed blueprint.” But in Chapter 3, he argues for a different approach: “It is better that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully” (emphasis added).

And that second model is my aspiration. I think of it as developing policy environments so individuals, families, and communities are empowered to govern themselves. Often it means using government authority to grow non-government authority.

The challenge, however, is if a central administrator is going to empower others, she must relinquish her own power. That means the state official must put her policy preferences to the side. In fact, those empowered by this distribution of authority may use that power to do things that this government official doesn’t like. But, in my experience, most people who seek positions of government authority do so because they want things to go their way, not someone else’s.

Let me give two examples of how these competing understandings of government service can collide. A decade ago, I was working at the White House, and the administration was contemplating new regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act. One issue was whether to categorize a particular set of schools as low-performing, which would make them eligible for intervention.

Personally, I was a huge supporter of this kind of tough accountability—aggressively identify and address failing schools. I was firm in my views, and honestly, the trappings of the White House do very little to instill self-doubt. Everyone likes you when you work at the White House. Everyone returns your calls. You got this dream job, so you must be smart and accomplished, right?

Sitting with my boss in his office in the West Wing… This was the chance to use our power to force an outcome that we liked.

But, in truth, it would’ve been a one-size-fits-all ruling from Washington. Did we know enough about the stories of the potentially affected schools? No. Did we know how families and educators would react? No. Could we have made swift adjustments as facts on the ground changed. No.

So we didn’t do it.

But I hope you can see how tempting it was to reach a different conclusion. If you believed there was a right answer to this issue, and you believed that you had identified that answer, and if you believed this issue was a matter of justice, then you probably would’ve acted. You might’ve considered it governmental malpractice to not act.

In another instance, after the state’s law on teacher evaluation was passed, we in the state’s department of education had internal debates about implementation. The toughest was about how swiftly and comprehensively to bring the law to life. You can imagine that some number of people had been attracted to work for the agency because they considered themselves technical experts. They believed that to do anything other than rapid, statewide implementation was an invitation for local delay and mischief.

But did we really know enough about each of the state’s hundreds of school districts, which assessments they used, what complicating provisions might be in their various union contracts?

Our debate about whether to pilot an implementation plan was illuminating. We all agreed that piloting—working with and learning from a few districts at first, then expanding from there—would broadcast our uncertainty, it would encourage local differentiation, and it would slow the pace of change. Interestingly—importantly—some people thought these features were absolutely ideal: admit doubt, allow local ownership, slow things down.

But others thought those three features would be worst-case-scenario. Admit doubt?! Allow local differentiation?! Slow things down?!

(For what it’s worth, the pro-pilot side won.)

I hope these stories reveal the fundamental tension: At times, the government leader must choose the swift, certain execution of his preferences or the creation of conditions allowing those closer to the ground to make decisions.

A few years ago, I wrote an article advocating for training what I called “school-choice technocrats.” These would be people who work inside the government to advance school choice. The term—“school choice technocrats”—was purposefully paradoxical. School choice may be the antithesis of state planning; it means not having the government run all schools and not having the government decide where kids go to school. It means empowering families. But technocracy means governing by elite technical experts who generally use their power to plan for others.

I saw my argument as an example of Hayek’s vision—government officials that don’t aim to control more and more but instead aim to foster others’ knowledge and initiative. In Road to Serfdom he offered a helpful binary—“planning for competition” instead of  “planning against competition.”

My point is this: When some area of public life isn’t working, we needn’t look for central experts to solve things. Instead we might empower public officials who find creative policy tools that broadly distribute authority so individuals and communities can use their knowledge and preferences to plan for themselves.

Governing with humility doesn’t require do-nothing-ism; it can mean empowering and energizing others.

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The third and final lesson comes from Hayek’s 1952 book, The Counter-Revolution of Science, which helps illustrate the dangers associated with focusing on the macro instead of the micro. I read Road to Serfdom as cataloging the consequences of experts consciously dominating individuals, while The Counter-Revolution of Science helps describe the dangers of overlooking or disregarding individuals.

Part One on “Scientism and the Study of Society” can be terribly challenging, but I’ve found chapters 6–8 extremely helpful as I think about the proper role of the policymaker.

These chapters serve as a warning about only studying “wholes,” namely big systems, instead of understanding their component parts. It’s a warning to not see human society as a single social being or a “superperson”; to not take only a distant, comprehensive view of social phenomena. As Hayek notes, there is a major difference between observing individuals’ actions as if through a telescope from far away and understanding what things mean to individuals on the ground.

The payoff, I find, comes in Chapter 8 on “’Purposive’ Social Formations.” When we lose sight of individuals and their countless motives and interactions with one another, we fail to grasp how complex and intertwined their lives are. We can miss that they are creating—without outside direction—systems, associations, and traditions that serve them well.

Instead, we can develop the view that all of our social structures were the product of advanced planning and conscious design.

I’ve found the differences between these worldviews to be profound. Looking to the daily lives of individuals, I can’t help but be humbled. I recognize how little I know about their activities, what they value and why, their goals and worries. I’ve found that it’s all but impossible to not be struck by what Hayek calls the “spontaneous” (or emergent or unconscious) order that results from individuals leading their vastly different lives together.

I liken it to the passive voice in English, when the writer emphasizes what has been done and deemphasizes who has done it. It’s not that a single brilliant mind created a social practice; it’s that a practice was created… through an unplanned process. Consider the difference between a national agency designed, through law, to solve poverty and the thousands of locally developed food pantries, shelters, health clinics, treatment programs, and on and on. Hayek gets at this point by differentiating the terms “institution” and “formation.” The former implies an actor—someone instituted. While the latter highlights the upshot—something was formed.

All of this leaves me thinking that I had better be modest when it comes to governing. If I know only the smallest fraction about individuals and their associations, and if their unplanned interactions are generating such social benefits, I should show great care before meddling. I view this as the policy equivalent of, “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” It is akin to the insightful formulation known as “Chesterton’s Fence:” Never take down a fence until you are absolutely certain you know why it was put up.

But as Hayek notes, if we instead believe that all valuable institutions are the work of human planning, it’s a short step to the view that we have complete power to refashion them. If we built the machine, then there’s no harm in adjusting the knobs. Tinkering is just good as engineering.

I was once on my way to becoming this kind of engineer. I’d gone to graduate school for policy. I was taught how monetary and fiscal policy can change the economy. I collected data and ran regressions. I worked for a state legislature and Congress where I learned to think in terms of laws and regulations. I was developing what Hayek called a “synoptic” and “telescopic” view—comprehensive and from far away.

But then I ran for public office—the state legislature.

In the course of that campaign, I knocked on over 10,000 doors. My district had farms, trailer parks, and public housing; it had middle-income townhouses and apartments; affluent suburban neighborhoods with huge yards; densely populated row houses on tight city streets. I met government workers who played in cover bands in their spare time; entrepreneurs working at home in pajamas; people taking care of sick family members. I met folks who loved their local schools and the local library; three times I was asked if I wanted to join the Knights of Columbus.

I noticed that a surprisingly high number of people had a “beware of dog” sign even though they had no dog. I noticed older women disproportionately looked at my left hand to see if I had a wedding band. I learned to know what to expect when I approached a house with an American flag and a Semper Fi sticker on a car’s bumper. I was asked my views on abortion, the death penalty, and guns. But just as often I was asked about dredging, the state’s policies on midwives, and that new speed bump the county put on the road outside the neighborhood.

That experience was absolutely invaluable—meeting so many different people, seeing so many different situations. It taught me the dangers of zooming out, of abstracting. It showed me how arrogant and disruptive it would be to plan for so many different people. It showed me how people used rules of thumb, traditions, family, and voluntary associations to thrive.

Remarkably, it was through retail politics, not graduate school, that I learned the difference between an “institution” and a “formation.”

To this day, if aspiring policymakers want to lean heavily on empirical analyses of social phenomena, trust in their own intellectual and moral powers to solve every problem, and believe that human institutions need to be designed, my response is: “Go knock on 10,000 doors.”

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Let me end by focusing in and then pulling back—by giving you a couple specific examples of how these concepts can be actualized and then finishing with an overarching thought that you might take with you.

Regarding specifics, I alluded to a few lessons earlier—that a mayor will inevitably know more about her local roads than the U.S. Secretary of Transportation; that a teacher will know more about her school than the U.S. Secretary of Education. That in most communities, a web of social-service organizations form to alleviate poverty.

And there are examples of federal laws that recognize Uncle Sam’s limited knowledge and clumsy hands and therefore push authority down to states and communities—at the top of that list are the welfare reform act of 1996 and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.

But the education-related approach that might exemplify the arguments I’ve made tonight is “chartering,” the process that has enabled charter schools to come about. The traditional policy approach to public education has been to have a single government body, the school district, own and operate all schools in a geographic area. In some cities, this meant that one set of central-office experts made decisions related to hiring, contracts, purchasing, and much more for hundreds and hundreds of schools. And in instances where that urban district was failing, the typical response was to centralize—give more power to the state or federal government.

But chartering went in the other direction. It empowered a vast array of community-based organizations to create different types of public schools. It empowered families to choose from among them. It was a policy device that distributed authority. It appreciated the valuable differences among us. It allowed individuals and communities to plan for themselves. And it is helping create in America’s cities high-performing, nimble, dynamic, responsive systems of schools.

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In a sense the last 35 minutes or so have been a long response to the question I raised at the very beginning, the question I got most frequently after my previous lecture: “Isn’t real government leadership necessarily immodest?”

The answer I’ve tried to offer here is, “No.” If you appreciate the limits of central agencies; appreciate the complexities of individuals’ lives; appreciate the spontaneous, positive order around us; and appreciate that public officials can have as their North Star the empowerment of others, then government leadership can be meaningful, it can be exhilarating, it can be inspiring, but it can also be deeply humble.

Thank you.