A New Declaration of Independence

How to win back our freedom from the technocrats

| July-August 1996

America is at a crucial turning point. We have taken the distinction between progressives and conservatives so much for granted that it is now hard for us to think about politics in any other terms. Yet this way of looking at things was invented 200 years ago, at a time when modernization and progress were sweeping away entrenched privilege and challenging the status quo. It is no longer relevant now that modernization and progress are the status quo.

In this sense, the American left today is strangely split. Because environmentalists have become an important part of the coalition since the 1970s, the left is now suspicious about the effects of modernization on the physical environment. When it comes to development issues, those who call themselves progressives act like conservatives: They oppose change and want to preserve existing neighborhoods and natural areas. But when it comes to social issues, the coalition is still dominated by people who believe in the classical progressive ideas that were common early in the 20th century when technological optimism was at its height, people who demand that the government provide more child care, education, social services, and jobs to cure social problems. These people, who consider themselves forward-thinking progressives, are, in fact, living in the past.

A few of the most incisive thinkers on the left—including Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich—began to criticize classical progressive programs, such as housing projects and public education, during the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time that the environmental movement focused on the destructive side effects of technology and economic growth. Yet these new ideas have not yet cohered into a new political perspective to replace the left’s old modernist faith that more technology and bureaucratic planning will solve our social ills.

Our problem is not modernization itself but technocratic modernism, the blind faith that technology can do everything better. This fascination with technology and growth transformed America during the postwar period when we were the only country with a strong enough economy to move at full speed toward the technological ideal. Mamie Eisenhower would not serve fresh vegetables in the White House because she considered canned and frozen vegetables more modern. Federal, state, and local governments did all they could to promote the construction of freeways, housing subdivisions, and shopping malls rather than neighborhoods where people could walk. Suburban parents sent their children to nursery schools, where they could benefit from special programs designed by experts in educational psychology.

Without question, modernization has had great successes—among them, curing disease and reducing poverty—but now we can see that the modernist faith has also failed in many ways. For example, we spend more than twice as much on each child’s education as we did in 1960 (after correcting for inflation), but standardized tests show that students learn less than they did then. Or consider this: America’s per capita national income is about twice what it was in 1950 (after correcting for inflation), but Americans do not feel that they are twice as well off as they were in 1950. In many ways, we feel worse off.

Yet we have not come up with a new political direction that responds to the failures of modernization as it relates to four important aspects of our lives: the physical and social environment of our neighborhoods, our places of business, our families, and our sense of personal autonomy. Instead, we are still calling for more technology to solve the problems caused by technology itself.