In comments about the deep-bore tunnel in The New York Times last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire characterized policies to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as “social engineering.” The governor's own policies and bills she signed into law require the state reduce VMT over the coming years.
So, it seems odd that Gregoire would say to a national audience “social engineering works in some places . . . [but] telling people you no longer can ride in your car isn't going to work.” Her comments put her at odds with her own policies, party, and a century of social science.
It would be hard to try to argue away the large debt that liberals, progressives, and Democrats owe to social science. In fact, long before the term became identified with conservative criticism's of the policies of “big government,” social engineering was a sincere effort to use science to improve people’s lives.
The term "social engineering" has its origins in an article written by a Dutch industrialist named J.C. Van Marken in 1894. Van Marken was a progressive industrialist who supported worker rights to organize and strike. His use of the term was intended to describe how science could solve human problems in the work place in the same way it had solved engineering problems, hence the term social engineering.
The idea gathered steam, and in 1911 sociologist Edwin L. Earp published a book called The Social Engineer. Here’s Earp’s vision of social engineering:
All human life today is being socialized in consciousness and activity. In considering its ethical phase it should be understood at the outset that that modern movement for social service does not differ from other religious movements for moral reform so much in aim as in method or points of emphasis. It is a movement that involves organization of individuals, cooperation and federation of groups in mass-effort for the accomplishment of social tasks. It recognizes that the powers of evil today are socially organized, and therefore the salvation of society involves social methods and machinery in order to overthrow the organized powers of evil.
Such a view was no less controversial then than it would be today, and Earp’s theory was a decidedly religious one intended to intellectually and scientifically buttress the social gospel movement. But Earp wasn’t alone and was followed by others like Dorothy Day, Langdon Gilkey, and Reinhold Niebuhr, each of whom argued that confronting evil meant engaging in positive social action against the greed of corporations, racism, fundamentalism, or the violence of dictators.
And thinkers in other fields didn’t shy away from the idea of social engineering either. In his seminal work The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, Rene Dubos titles the last chapter of his book on the history of TB, “Tuberculosis and Social Technology.” In it he writes, “We need to develop a new science of social engineering that will incorporate physiological principles in the complex fabric of industrial society.” Dubos argues quite effectively that the greatest impact on the decline of TB was attributable not to pharmacological but social intervention.
It was these traditions of social engineering — from religious social activists and social scientists — that served as the moral and intellectual basis of the Democratic Party’s embrace of labor unions, civil rights, and universal access to health care. But Washington state's leading Democrat doesn’t seem to believe that those principles include sustainable transportation solutions.
Such thinking isn’t just inconsistent with the bedrock of her political party, but it puts her in the company of some very unusual political bedfellows. Here’s Margaret Thatcher, Conservative British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, on society:
I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.
Thatcher’s comments brilliantly drew a distinction between liberals and conservatives: Conservatives are all about personal responsibility. Liberals believe in engineering something that doesn’t even exist. So, in this view, liberal social programs — like convincing people to “no longer ride in their cars” — would be funny if they weren’t such a serious misallocation of government resources at the taxpayers' expense.
What Gregoire and Thatcher seem to agree on is that some things simply can’t and shouldn’t be engineered. One must not put the environment in front of the economy. According to Gregoire, the tunnel can’t be stopped because it would be social engineering and trying to encourage alternatives “isn’t going to work because this city is going to grow.” The tunnel has to happen because we have to pick between sustainability and growing our economy — we can’t do both.
And, of course, the fact is that Washington is already engaged in a massive social-engineering project called the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. It provides incentives to drive rather than take transit, and it channels billions of scarce resources into a highway transportation solution that, based on the governor's own policies, should be the last option. Whether she likes social engineering or not, the governor's stubborn support of the tunnel still picks winners and losers. The winners are people riding in their cars, and the losers are the taxpayers of Seattle — and the planet.
And, of course, the fact is that Washington is already engaged in a massive social engineering project called the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement project. It provides incentives to drive rather than take transit and it channels billions of scarce resources into a highway transportation solution that, based on the governor's own policies, should be the last option.
Whether she likes social engineering or not, the governor's stubborn support of the tunnel still picks winners and losers — and the winners are people riding in their cars. The losers are the taxpayers of Seattle and the planet.