The Lessons of Engineering for Social Engineers

Have you ever wondered why seasoned engineers are almost invariably politically conservative? 

With a fresh-minted bachelor’s degree, enthusiastic on my first professional job, I was a committed liberal.  This was the Kennedy era and my attitudes were conventional among my contemporaries.  My older engineering colleagues just shook their heads and tolerantly suggested that my opinions would change.  Of course they did.  My story as an increasingly conservative engineer is one played out a multitude of times in a multitude of places within the engineering profession.   

Why are most engineers politically conservative?  The answer is that engineers fail most of the time. In engineering there is a cycle of design, test, test failure, diagnosis, and redesign, until a product is perfected.  Failure is the natural state of engineering new devices.  Through their repeated failures, competent engineers are forced to become rigorously honest and functionally conservative. 

This honesty is notably lacking in the ungrounded wishful thinking of the political left.  The great failure of liberals is that they never fail (according to them).

Learning to deal with failure changes one’s attitude from youthful idealism into a kind of skeptical realism about top-down liberal social engineering projects -- projects that, ostensibly, never fail.

There are three classes of top-down social engineering.  Government programs to restructure society is one class.  Government laws, regulatory mandates, and court orders to change behavior is a second.  The third is liberal social pressure, often with government complicity, to control thought.  We call this third method “political correctness.” 

Engineers have an expression:  KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid.  The simplest design solution is almost always the best.

Now, consider American society.  America has hundreds of millions of people.  Each individual is infinitely complex and unique.  Each has desires, intentions and needs that normally are incompatible with any master scheme.  And yet, the left has the arrogance to assume that a master planner can engineer a social system that best for all the people -- a “one size fits all” program.  There is no way, other than forcing everybody to be identical robots, that centralized social engineering can KISS.  This “my way or the highway” hubris is the signal hallmark of today’s progressive busybody bullies.

What about modern liberals?  Many of them optimistically go along with progressive ideas.  Their critical distinction from change-everything progressives is that most liberals really do appreciate the gifts our forbearers have given us.  Unfortunately, most political Democrats, and many establishment Republicans as well, have been seduced by a lifetime of pro-government experience into believing that top-down, big-government programs are the answer to all ills.  It is vanity to think that they are specially chosen to steer everyone’s life.

Of the seven deadly sins, theologians say the most deadly of all was Vanity.  The Greeks called it Hubris.  We call it Arrogance.  All the other deadly sins derived from Vanity.  This sin is really at the heart of progressive, or liberal, social engineering programs.  One can do no wrong if one’s heart is in the right place -- so liberals believe.

Our Founding Fathers thought otherwise.  They realized that no person, or selected group, could anticipate all circumstances.  They therefore created a Constitution that allowed for local adaptation within a protective framework -- a framework that inhibits vanity by enlisting contending interests in making the most important decisions.

The American Constitution was designed for a society whereby people manage their own affairs and solve their own problems. Beyond promoting trade among the states, protecting against foreign invasion, and ensuring the rights of property, the Federal Government really has no legitimate role in structuring society.  Society was intended to evolve social arrangements on its own within the protective framework of the Constitution.  Thus, this progressive idea that government has the right to impose social change is contrary both to the spirit and to the words of the Constitution.

Within America there exist highly complex and very successful social structures – the community, charitable, and economic structures that comprise civil society.  And they have come about independent of government direction.  How is this possible?  The answer is that successful complex structures grow organically:  Start small, and simple.  Find out what works.  Try adding features.  Edit out those elements that don’t work and build on those that do work.  But, for the changes made at each stage of increasing complexity, keep it simple!  Life evolved its many forms in just such a way.  Technology also evolves in this way.  Consider computers.  Computers today are far different, and vastly more complex, than they were at their beginning.  All successful innovations start simple and evolve complexity as discoveries are made about what works and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, we are supposed to believe that complex top-down liberal programs never fail.  They reach their goals and then either continue to provide popular benefits or are voluntarily terminated having done their job.  Actually not: I’m being sarcastic here.  Let’s test that assertion by recalling massive liberal social engineering programs which have been great successes: [crickets].  The usual excuses for these programmatic disappointments, and for the need for them to continue in perpetuity, are:  “not enough money has been spent,” or, “it’s someone else’s fault,” or “conservatives are sabotaging the program.” 

Actually there are a few government programs, mostly non-social in nature, which have withstood the test of time:  The National Parks program is a great success -- but it has always been an overwhelmingly popular initiative.  And, it started small.  The Interstate highway program was a centerpiece of the Eisenhower Administration and has produced major social benefits.  But that program was justified as for national defense, which is a legitimate function of the federal government. The resulting social benefits were developed through individual private initiatives.  Maybe that tells us something. 

I should add that many people, including many conservatives, believe that Social Security has been a success.  In fact, Social Security is a great, compulsory, Ponzi scheme.  But even it, too, started small: merely as insurance against personal catastrophe.  It has grown to be a monster that is devouring the national budget and jeopardizing national security.  There is no money in its so-called “Trust fund” and it is generally conceded that the program is on the verge of financial failure, the only dispute being when insolvency will occur.  What I receive in Social Security benefits is a small fraction of what I have actually contributed adjusted for compound interest growth and inflation.  Private pension funds, and 401k accounts, do much better than Social Security.

Contrast the few successful government programs with the many notorious failures.  ObamaCare is the contemporary classic.  But, what we have not yet seen is all the damage that ObamaCare has in store.  Examples of programs where we do see the wreckage are those “Great Society” antipoverty programs initiated by President Johnson.  Enough time has passed to validate the early warnings.  Senator Daniel Moynihan warned, all the way back in 1965, that liberal poverty policy was leading to disaster:  the breakup of families, crime, drug use, wasted lives and all the other horrid consequences that have followed.  The liberal community did not listen and, today, we are stuck with the predicted social disaster.

I am an antediluvian, troglodyte, knuckle dragging, Tea Party, politically conservative engineer.  Half a century of professional experience warns me to never believe in liberal social engineering causes.  I hear the promise that this time the program is sure to be wonderful.  No thanks, I’ll pass.