Friday, February 3, 2012

Social Engineering Strawman

For awhile now, I've been hearing people, mainly libertarian types, warn against the evils of social engineering.  As far as I can tell, I think what they are mainly protesting are the imposition of social policies designed to get people to change behavior.  One big area that causes hackles to rise is urban planning. For example, implementing policies and practices that try to get people out of their cars and into public transportation and/or onto bikes is deemed 'social engineering' and is rejected for its attempt to infringe on freedom.  This article responds to that libertarian position in a way that I'd agree with.  To judge such an urban policy without contextualizing it historically is disingenuous because getting people into their cars in the first place required quite a bit of 'social engineering.'

I have written before how Utopian visions are dangerous and repressive (per David Harvey).  As it applies to the work I'm doing with urban agriculture in Africa, it's a real problem.  Certain ideas of 'what's urban,' which generally are reflective of a modernist, capitalist imaginary, mean that anything that doesn't accord with that vision, like urban agriculture, are deemed out of place, and therefore inappropriate, in an urban environment.  What must be recognized, however, is that there are multiple ways of being urban, and that cities can develop in highly varied ways and can look very different from each other.  Highly varied systems, which should be formulated and implemented via a process of (democratic?) urban planning, can be developed to facilitate situated notions of well-being.

But, I think what's important to understand is that people aren't just born with preferences.  They learn them, and they learn them by doing them; they learn them by living in their environments.  Then they get accustomed to them and don't want to change because change is difficult and they might lose something to which they've become accustomed.  But, what if the systems we created, which were originally based on an ideological vision of what would be better, turn out to have been a mistake?  What if our behaviors are killing us?  Does it not make sense that we should change our behaviors, which then can help us to change our preferences?  This is a fine line for me to walk because I really have become averse to government intervention into my life.  But, I also don't think that development should be left to market forces...because, there again, is a certain ideology in action.  Market forces are NOT the invisible hand (of god).  Certain forces predominate as a function of power, and power is enacted by people doing things and implementing systems that help them do those things.

Anyways, the picture that inspired this post is this one:

which I got from this blog:  We need to make our cities more sustainable, and some social engineering is going to be required. But, it's not the boogeyman/strawman that libertarians make it out to be. We engineer and create our environments and our futures. We always have. And things shouldn't stay the same.  In fact, they can't stay the same.  I think one critical thing we need to pay attention to, however, is where the power resides, and who is making decisions on behalf of whom.  And, if we re-distribute power more democratically, a commensurate shift in responsibility will also be required.  


  1. That looks like a good place to live! I don't know if I'm one of those libertarian types, but I do think individual liberty is important. What does 'sustainable' mean to you? If sustainability is the capacity to endure, then cities are sustainable as long as people invest in it, and live and work there, rather than leaving. Anything that gives people optimism and a higher quality of life is 'sustainable' because it makes them want to stay and invest.

    Urban agriculture could make a positive difference. I'm sure more people would eat fresh food if it could be made as cheap and convenient as chicken mcnuggets, and they would be healthier and happier. Living among growing plants would give me a sense of optimism.

    I like cycling, but I also like the freedom of owning a car. If social engineering your city takes the form of coercive policies, the 'libertarian types' may stay away because they value free will, and don't want to live under the thumb of those who know what's best for them.

    You're right about paying attention to where the power resides. We elect politicians to make the big decisions. Capitalists shouldn't be in charge.

  2. Yes...sustainability is one of those words that is used so often to be almost meaningless, and does need to be questioned. I think the words 'resilient' or 'regenerative' might be better. In general, we need to think about how to be less consumptive and wasteful, and that's where I'm going with the idea of sustainable. I don't think there's any hard and fast measure, but we do have systems that are capable of better leveraging natural forms of energy, we have systems that can better recycle resources,'s those we should be looking at.

    As I said, there's a fine line to be walked, and certainly there needs to be democratic participation. People are more likely willing to accept change if they know it's coming and how it will affect them. But, let me ask you this...are stop lights not coercive? Are zoning laws not coercive? We in the US live a coerced life....most people do in some way. I believe in freedom, of course. I also believe that living in a society requires negotiation (and struggle and contestation). Maybe some of the laws and policies currently in place are overly coercive and should be removed. If we want to move in a different direction, there will be change at an individual level, and not everyone will be happy. The point about where power resides is a key point, as is the point about participation and responsibility.

  3. People are willing to accept change if they think it's inevitable. They are more likely to accept new policies aimed at adapting to change; they are less likely to accept policies aimed at creating change.

    Stoplights are coercive, but they were an adaption to help with traffic congestion. The congestion came first, so stoplights were probably seen as a solution, not as a coercive attempt to create change.

    If new policies seem aimed at achieving naive hipster visions of utopian society, or at helping wealthy industrialists monopolize new markets, there are bound to be objections from some faction. The Tea Party types don't seem very rational, but their fear is real and shouldn't be ignored.