Crackpot Realism

by Don Boudreaux on November 22, 2007

in Politics

I have never read C. Wright Mills, but I’ve learned from Bob Higgs about Mills’s wonderful concept of “crackpot realism.”  Bob explains here (and below is an excerpt):

Lest you suspect that I am hyperventilating, I suggest that you proceed immediately to Max Boot’s November 14 article in the New York Times, “Send the State Department to War.” I cannot make up such stuff; you simply have to read it for yourself to believe it. Amid a plethora of harebrained proposals, Boot recommends a huge personnel increase at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And how does he pitch this wacky idea? “If we expand its ranks, it could become our lead nation-building agency, sort of a global FEMA, marshaling the kind of resources that have been lacking in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Just imagine: “sort of a global FEMA.” If nothing else, we now know why Boot has not landed a job on Madison Avenue.

Ordinarily, it is juvenile simply to dismiss someone whose views we abhor as a nincompoop, but in this case, what alternative does Boot provide us? Not only does he want to pump up the USAID’s ranks for global nation-building—a task at which the agency obviously has already
failed, despite its decades of trying and the hundreds of billions of
dollars it has dropped down nearly every rat hole in the Third
World—but he advises that USAID take on a legion of experts who will
stand ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, “like military
reservists,” to “bring expertise in municipal administration, sewage
treatment, banking, electricity generation, and countless other
disciplines needed to rebuild a war-torn country.” It seems never to
occur to these towering geniuses that a better idea might be not
bombing the country’s infrastructure to smithereens in the first place.

Next
in line come the “experienced police officers who can train local
counterparts.” Boot evidently imagines that Sergeant O’Malley can teach
Hamid how to keep the peace in the festering slums of Sadar City. Does
that idea have any basis in fact or logic? He also senses a crying need
for a “federal constabulary force—a uniformed counterpart to the F.B.I.
that, like the Italian carabinieri, could be deployed abroad”—along
with “a deployable corps of lawyers, judges and prison guards who could
set up functioning legal and penal systems abroad.” There’s more, but I
haven’t the heart to describe these ravings any further.

Has
anyone ever combined a more preposterously unrealistic set of proposals
with such boundless moral arrogance, not to mention the monumental
ignorance of how the world works? Does Boot have any idea how people
develop effective means of community policing, a viable
criminal-justice system, or a physical infrastructure for providing
reliable water supply, sewerage, and electrical power generation and
distribution? Does he imagine that one simply hauls in experts from
Dubuque and Dallas, sets them down in Basra, and—shazam!—everything
clicks into place and works like a diamond-jeweled watch thereafter?
Has he ever considered, for example, that keeping the electrical supply
system in working order may be impossible when various factions insist
on blowing up the power lines and other equipment that serve the
neighbors they despise on religious grounds? Might Kirkuk’s optimal
type of municipal administration differ in some important ways from
Denver’s, and do American “experts” have any concrete idea what the
critical differences are? Is it plausible that a society can be
substantially “reconstructed” in any useful way by outsiders who know
nothing about its history and customs, and who cannot speak or
understand its language?

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