The Magazine

The Problem of Technology

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Technology is a problem, not only for President Obama but also for Republicans and conservatives. In fact, technology is several problems, practical and theoretical, all relating to and interacting with one another. And none of them can be ignored.

Obamacare

The most immediate problem for the White House is obvious: Obamacare cannot succeed without mass enrollment. The glitches, bugs, and malfunctions in the federal exchange prevent individuals from signing up. And without enrollees, especially young and healthy ones, the program could enter a death spiral. Obamacare wouldn’t end in a bang. It would end in a whimper.

Here, finally, is a threat the Obama administration recognizes. Obama says he’s ordered a “tech surge” of experts to correct the website’s flaws. He’s told Americans to use a pre-Internet technology, the telephone, to register for benefits. He’s even called Verizon: Kathleen Sebelius will have to wait between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the technician to arrive.

This practical problem is everywhere in the news. It’s the subject of all the late-night jokes. But, in the final analysis, it’s a repair job. The question is when, not whether, the glitches will be fixed. 

What won’t be resolved is the theoretical problem of scientific administration. The dilemma is this: President Obama called for universal health insurance because he believes in government’s capacity to diminish the inequalities created by markets. But the disaster that is the rollout of Obamacare seriously undermines the argument for government competence and bureaucratic rationality. Government is good at writing checks. It’s nowhere near as good at carrying out major projects of social engineering.

The failure of the website also raises the possibility that Obama’s comparison of government to a business, and of Obamacare to a product, is seriously flawed. Businesses are not subject to political pressures when they develop new products and bring them to market. And government is not subject to market discipline. Google “Trabant” to see what we mean.

The mess at HHS is a symptom of a larger pathology: the widespread assumption that social phenomena can be easily manipulated and improved through the instrument of technical expertise as administered by bureaucracies. Indeed, this assumption is so widespread, so deeply held, that inevitably the remedy for government failure is said to be more government.

It is the modern liberal faith in scientific administration that has led to our paradoxical situation, in which confidence in government has fallen even as the reach of government expands. Normally, that would create an opportunity for the conservative party to make its case and present a choice to the people. But Republicans and conservatives seem to enjoy missing opportunities, partly because they have not addressed successfully the problems that technology presents to them.

Republicans and conservatives, like the Obama administration, face a practical problem in the form of the Obama-care exchange. The glitches create a false complacency among Republicans, and give rise to the daydream that the failures of Obamacare relieve the GOP of any responsibility to present a health care plan of its own. There is no health care equivalent of the Ryan budget around which to rally, no health care voice as influential and authoritative as Ryan’s is on fiscal issues.

This practical problem is related to a theoretical one: Republicans and conservatives have not made up their minds regarding scientific administration and the welfare state. The party and movement are torn. On one side are those willing to adopt technical expertise and bureaucratic administration for conservative purposes. On the other are those seeking immediately to restore a limited government of enumerated powers—none of which is the power to require health insurance.

The tension between the two sides is unlikely to be resolved as long as the Republicans remain a congressional party. But there is no reason it cannot be a creative tension, a force that directs the party to some unlikely places.

One day, for example, the GOP may find itself in the position of adopting technological means for constitutional ends. Put another way, conservatives of all stripes may learn that only through a degree of bureaucracy and the welfare state can they create the conditions, and educate the people, for a return to limited government.

Such is the problem of technology that vexes the Republican party. And it’s going to take more than the Verizon guy to solve it.

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