Former Secretary of Defense Robert Strange (best middle name ever, by the way) McNamara died on Monday. McNamara arrived in Washington with JFK at the apogee of the old Progressive faith in the power of technocrats to plan the economy, end poverty, manage foreign affairs–in short, to centrally plan the whole world.
That belief first arose around the turn of the century as a challenge to the classical liberal belief in the power of free people and the invisible hand of the market coordinate most world events. In short order, the mindset gave this country the income tax, the FDA, and the Federal Reserve. When the latter failed to put an end to the business cycle as promised and instead produced one of the biggest bubbles in history, the answer for progressives was clear: more technocratic planning, and that is precisely what they got under both Hoover and FDR. But it was World War II that firmly ensconced this ideology in the minds of most Americans. In the popular telling, a combination of daring generals, wise politicians, steely-eyed bureaucrats, and brilliant scientists beat back two of the greatest war machines the world had ever seen (Italy doesn’t count) and mastered the mysteries of the atom to boot. Add in the theories of containment and mutually assured destruction, and there is little the government and its experts can’t handle.
McNamara firmly believed in the ability of experts to quantify and solve any problem that came their way, and he applied that belief in all his public roles whether it be scientifically wiping Japanese cities off the earth, calculating the speed at which a Ford steering wheel will crack a human skull, defoliating large chunks of Southeast Asia to spot the Viet Cong, or measuring the effectiveness of a World Bank loan to some African kleptocrat.
McNamara’s role in Vietnam did more than anything to crack the American faith in experts. Everyone believed that Kennedy’s Cabinet was composed of the best and the brightest, so how could they have blundered so terribly? Unfortunately, although that faith weakened substantially by the time McNamara stepped down as Secretary of Defense, it outlives him. While it never really went away, it made its first real comeback in foreign policy (surprisingly enough) with the rise of neoconservatism and the invasion of Iraq, and we see it now most obviously in the revival of Keynesianism and the concomitant bailouts and “stimulus” packages.
McNamara at least had the decency to apologize for most of his sins by the end of his life. Somehow, I doubt we’ll get the same out of his contemporary counterparts like Rumsfeld, Bernanke, and Geithner.
Cross-posted at my personal blog.