Mr. Brooks, Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume On Innovation and Policymaking

David Brooks has authored a somewhat amusing column on the future of innovation policy in the United States. He tells a story of Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume, each of whom has a distinct approach to innovating toward solutions to major governing challenges. Bentham, the expert, designs complex, wonk informed solutions to the challenges of the day, while Hume, the underachiever, admits that he has no idea how such things work, and just tries to create markets that do the job for him. Here's Brooks' conclusion:

I've introduced you to my friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume because they represent the choices we face on issue after issue. This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.

The people on Mr. Bentham's side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I've taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)

The people on Mr. Hume's side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don't think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.

So let's have the debate. But before we do, let's understand that Mr. Bentham is going to win. The lobbyists love Bentham’s intricacies and his stacks of spending proposals, which they need in order to advance their agendas. If you want to pass anything through Congress, Bentham's your man.

In all fairness to Congressional efforts, it's important to note that both Health Care and Energy/Climate legislation include the market based, low government involvement ideas that Brooks/Hume seems to prefer – health care in an exchange and climate in a market based carbon pricing regime.  

The truth is that it’s not as if the Bentham-esque details of reform proposals are some sort of new arrival to policymaking; rather, many are sought to counter decades of policies that benefit incumbents. For example, fossil fuels are still massively out-subsidized compared to clean technology, so of course clean tech advocates should fight for theirs. (Many policy intricacies obviously still do help incumbents – climate legislation does give permits away to energy intensive industries as opposed President Obama’s desired 100% auction.)   

Rather, the question for Brooks is: Who will make Mr. Hume's case? I feel for Brooks, I want his debate to happen now (Can Mr. Hume have Glenn Beck's pulpit?), and I'm all for elegant policymaking. I'm also pretty sure Brooks is right that complexity is going to win because legislating is complex. And the likeliest outcome is that Mr. Hume isn't even going to make it to the table. What I know for certain is that Brooks can't possibly be implying that this Republican Party is capable of assuming the role of Mr. Hume. That would be a party worth having.