Liberalism and the Clean Slate

A few years before her death, in 2000, Jane Jacobs gave a really fascinating interview with Jim Kunstler. It’s a long interview, but it’s packed with interesting ideas from a woman who was still in her intellectual prime well into her 80s. I was particularly struck by this passage about the Garden City movement, which was one of the major inspirations for the baleful urban planning trends of the 20th Century:

What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And [urban planning intellectual Lewis] Mumford fell for that and the whole “this is the twentieth century” thing. The notion that you could discard the old world and now make a new one. This is what was so bad about Modernism.

The intellectual error that drove much of the bad urban planning decisions of the 20th century was to underestimate the value locked up in existing urban neighborhoods. People build complex networks of friends, families, and professional contacts that knit the city together and make it more than the sum of its parts. They make long-term investments in their homes and businesses on the assumption that those investments will pay off over decades. The form psychological attachments to people and places that can’t easily be replaced.

None of this value could be seen in the scale models and conceptual sketches that urban planners used to map out the future of urban neighborhoods. And so plans were made based on superficial engineering and aesthetic criteria. Tremendous damage was done by people who underestimated both the value of what they were destroying and the difficulty of building adequate “clean slate” replacements.

This is not, of course, an intellectual error that’s unique to urban planning. The same error can be seen in the Bush administration’s fantasy that we could transplant democracy to Iraq by force of arms. We quickly learned that there was no “clean slate” in Iraq; old animosities quickly re-asserted themselves, tens of thousands of people were killed, and millions had their lives turned upside down. A similar story can be told about the Vietnam War, which Jacobs strenuously opposed. (she wound up moving to Canada to ensure her sons would not be drafted)

F.A. Hayek drew an important distinction between two different strands of liberal thought, which he termed the “Continental” and “British” strains of liberalism:

The one tradition, much older than the name ‘liberalism’, traces back to classical antiquity and took its modern form during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries as the political doctrines of the English Whigs. It provided the model of political institutions which most of the European nineteenth‑century liberalism followed. It was the individual liberty which a ‘government under the law’ had secured to the citizens of Great Britain which inspired the movement for liberty in the countries of the Continent in which absolutism had destroyed most of the medieval liberties which had been largely preserved in Britain. These institutions were, however, interpreted on the Continent in the light of a philosophical tradition very different from the evolutionary conceptions predominant in Britain, namely of it rationalist or constructivistic view which demanded a deliberate reconstruction of the whole of society in accordance with principles of reason. This approach derived from the new rationalist philosophy developed above all by René Descartes (but also by Thomas Hobbes in Britain) and gained its greatest influence in the eighteenth century through the philosophers of the French Enlightenment. Voltaire and J.‑J. Rousseau were the two most influential figures of the intellectual movement that culminated in the French Revolution and from which the Continental or constructivistic type of liberalism derives. The core of this movement, unlike the British tradition, was not so much a definite political doctrine as a general mental attitude, a demand for an emancipation from all prejudice and all beliefs which could not be rationally justified, and for an escape from the authority of ‘priests and kings’. Its best expression is probably B. de Spinoza’s statement that ‘he is a free man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone’.

In the 20th century, of course, this intellectual error led to the horrors of communism. The problem with trying to make society conform with reason is that society is a lot more complicated than most planners realize. So what looks on paper like a perfectly rational social order—8-lane freeways, US-imposed democracy in Iraq, the dictatorship of the proletariat—turns out to have fatal flaws when put into practice. This is why wise policymakers recognize that their knowledge is limited, and take a pragmatic, incremental approach that improves peoples’ lives without turning them upside down.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Liberalism and the Clean Slate

  1. Rhayader says:

    I can’t help but extend the analogy to the drug war. Humans have been getting high for all of recorded history, and all of a sudden people decided that taking drugs really doesn’t make objective sense and tried to construct a new societal reality around that reasoning. The results speak for themselves.

  2. Brian Moore says:

    I think this is pretty interesting, especially since you titled it “Liberalism and the Clean Slate” — since I would say that the anti-Clean Slate position is essentially “conservative.” I don’t mean that in the modern sense, but rather in (I guess) the dictionary sense. Or maybe what it used to mean back in those days that liberalism was being defined.

    But I think this leaves things a little murky, because to take Rhyader’s example (which I agree with him on), is that a break from the past or a continuation of it? There have always been drugs, true, but there have always been people who have tried to stop people from ingesting certain things, including far more innocuous things like pork or beef. Is our drug policy a continuation of that paternalistic control, or a break from our long use of drugs?

    For urban planning, it seems like this would largely be echoed through property rights. The people who own the place the “old slate” exists on would seem to want to keep that scenario, unless some persuaded by money to sell for a “new slate” idea. But then, it probably couldn’t be the whole slate without eminent domain powers.

  3. Rhayader says:

    Is our drug policy a continuation of that paternalistic control, or a break from our long use of drugs?

    Yeah that’s a good point — it’s likely a bit of both. Of course there are zero historical examples of drug prohibition until right around the turn of the 20th century, so at the very least the idea of using government power to restrict drug use seems to be a “clean slate” type of idea. There’s also the emergence of a secular, utilitarian ethos in favor of drug prohibition, whereas most historical moralizing was rooted in religious belied. But yeah that’s a good point to chew on for sure.

  4. Brian Moore says:

    “There’s also the emergence of a secular, utilitarian ethos in favor of drug prohibition, whereas most historical moralizing was rooted in religious belied”

    That’s a whole ‘nother field of study too — the transfer of regulatory (de facto, rather than official) power of behavior from religious to secular authorities, for better and worse.

  5. Brian, the “clean slate” vs. “anti-clean-slate” argument is an argument about means rather than ends. It’s true that “clean slate” people are usually liberals, in some sense, because liberals are more likely to be seeking social changes, but many liberals are not “clean slate” thinkers. Jane Jacobs was clearly a non-clean-slate liberal, as were most of her allies in the fight against the lower Manhattan freeway. (not a lot of conservatives in Greenwich Village) Similarly, in the Iraq War debate there were “liberal hawks” who advocated a “clean slate” approach to bring democracy to Iraq, and war opponents who realized that doing so would have terrible humanitarian costs. The two kinds of liberal may agree about an end, the difference is that the “clean slate” people are less squeamish about breaking some eggs to get there faster.

  6. Jed Harris says:

    I don’t think the various meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” are all that useful in understanding this issue.

    Tim’s point is extremely important, and important to understand clearly. I think it turns on on whether one gives more weight to models or observations. The modernist architects and planners had very strong models, and ignored or had contempt for actually existing social reality, so they didn’t work very hard to observe or understand it. They didn’t feel any obligation to test their theories in the small before trying to apply them in the large. They didn’t have to listen to “the little people” who didn’t understand the theory and only knew what they personally observed. Etc.

    There are lots of “conservative” political positions that rely just as heavily on theories and have just as much contempt for messy reality. Of course we could argue about what is “really” liberal or conservative, but I don’t see any use in that. With more time I’d enjoy putting together a small compendium of phrases people of all political flavors use to dismiss observations in favor of theory.

    These days the most serious threat from theory run amok at the expense of observation seems to be neo-classical economics. I mentioned in a previous comment that a big part of the problem with appreciating the value of these neighborhoods was that the kinds of value Tim talks about can’t be translated into monetary terms — it can’t be priced. In that case the economic filter basically says there is no value. This is a case where theory has ways of processing a lot of data (e.g. real estate prices, per square foot store revenue, etc.) but deliberately throws away huge categories of other observations that would indicate other kinds of value.

    So one point we have to keep in mind is that observations do not equal data. Data is already always processed to conform to a theoretical framework. Jacobs and others writing in her vein start from ethnography — finding ways to capture their observations without schematizing all the life out of them — and then work upward toward a somewhat loose and patchy theoretical account.

    Unfortunately this is not just an academic or theoretical issue.

    Just as we now look back on the modernist period with horror — Soviet planning, freeways destroying neighborhoods, high rise housing developments destroying thousands of families, lifeless cities like Brasília and Chandigarh, etc. — I think we will look at the social consequences of neo-classical economics with at least as much horror. The amount of social destruction driven by e.g. the shock conversion of the Soviet Union to “capitalism” (actually kleptocracy) for example, rivals just about any modernist atrocity.

    Maybe the key point is humility. If the people arguing for a policy don’t have the humility to fully engage with their critics, or to admit that they don’t fully understand the social fabric they are proposing to change, or to observe the details of the lives they will disrupt, they don’t deserve our trust.

  7. Jed Harris says:

    Thanks Tim!

    A few follow on points.

    A valuable voice exploring these issues is James C. Scott; he is much more radical than Jane Jacobs and works on a bigger canvas. Seeing Like a State is a good place to start with him.

    Maybe these bad dynamics can be consistently identified by a simple touchstone: “Do the advocates for this policy show contempt for a lot of the people affected?”

  8. Jess says:

    Jed, humility is definitely an under-appreciated virtue! That said, I don’t agree with your accounting of neoclassical econ. While it might say particular things about how idealized market participants act in a given situation (which might be more or less accurate depending on how closely the situation mirrors neoclassical’s underlying assumptions), neoclassical econ says nothing about how public officials will decide to bulldoze neighborhoods and build roads (you might want to look at public choice theory for that, but then again, you might not).

    I don’t think that public officials were thinking about the value of the community at all (whether that’s measured in dollars, smiles, or electron-volts), but not because they were seduced by neoclassical. Rather, since they were (are?) human beings, they considered their own personal interests. I wasn’t around back then, but having witnessed how things work in this state (and in all other states and nations in which I’ve resided), I’ll speculate that developers, builders, and construction unions made it worth their while to run I-44 exactly where it sits today. Don’t disregard, either, how much cheaper it is for MoDOT to buy older homes from poor people than, say, riverfront land from a single well-connected owner. They’re just protecting the taxpayers, you know.

    Also, if you’re going to compare Yeltsin’s rule to Stalin’s, you’re going to have to find a lot of mass graves. IMF people typically give bad advice without understanding the local situation, but they’d have to kill millions of people to catch up with the communists.

  9. Jed Harris says:

    BradJess’s comment deserves a longer response than I have time to give right now. A couple of quick points:

    I didn’t intend to “compare Yeltsin’s rule to Stalin’s”. There are major social factors besides the one that Tim is raising here. The bombings of London or Dresden are not examples of modernist city planning run amok. Gengis Khan wasn’t a theorist.

    Conversely, in the context of this discussion it is interesting to compare the years of healthy life for Russian citizens pre and post Soviet Union breakup. Death camps aren’t the only way to kill people.

    The issues around public decision making are more complicated and I can’t even sketch how I’d want to address them right now. But the language of BradJess’s paragraph is entirely infused with assumptions of “rational individualism” — people act in their own material interest, they approximate rational choices that maximize that interest, etc. These are theoretical assumptions that are not very well empirically supported, and don’t mesh well with fine grained observations of the social fabric, but that are strongly advocated by neo-classical economics.

    Specifically, BradJess mentions public choice theory. This is not an alternative to neo-classical economics. It is derived from neo-classical economics — both theoretically and historically — and shares the same biases. Both sets of theorists have lot of contempt for observations that don’t conform to their theories. The public choice theorists’ campaign to take over political science departments and drive out the (contemptible) institutionalists is a great current illustration of how theorists run amok can become so powerful, and how theory gives them rhetorical leverage. This episode should be studied in detail, so we can learn how to detect incipient theory takeovers before they pick up momentum and defuse them, rather than having to clean up after they destroy a lot of social value and ultimately themselves.

  10. X. Trapnel says:

    I’ve often thought that we need to make reading Seeing Like a State a requirement for every college diploma–heck, every high school diploma–handed out in the country. I suppose we’d have to come up with a multiple-choice test on it, too…

    *rimshot* Thanks, folks, I’ll be here all week…

    (But seriously, I’d like to endorse everything Jed said. I just couldn’t resist the bad joke.)

  11. Wonks Anonymous says:

    A number of people have complained about the geographic dichotomy Hayek posed. Jacob Levy in “Liberalism’s Divide” writes that the end of socialism exposes a philosophical split within liberalism that dates back to the classical era: the tension between rationalism and pluralism. James Scott’s “High Modernism” is a form of rationalism. I imagine that Karl Polanyi would dub Hayek’s vision of the market order to be rationalism (haven’t read Polanyi himself, but that’s the gist I get from summarries). I know that Oakshott did.

  12. Jess says:

    Jed, I’ll assume you were responding to me, since I don’t see anything here from “Brad”. My last comment may have been too harsh, but the phrase “modernist atrocity” has specific connotations for me, which have not previously included Russia’s dalliance with oligarchy. I realize that life has not been a rose garden in Russia for the last couple of decades, but then it hasn’t ever been. I hope the Russians can come up with something that will work for them in the long term. I don’t think that Putinism will be the answer, but that’s not for those of us outside of Russia to decide, at least not until their demographic collapse leads to colonization, which colonization probably won’t happen for another 75 years at least.

    I sympathize with your rejection of neoclassical and public choice theory, although I do see some value in them. I doubt that rationality is a helpful characterization of human beings, except in the very simplest situations. The many-producers many-consumers perfect-information “perfect” market is a crude idealization (then again, so is Newtonian physics). In its defense, most of the actual progress in economics over the last fifty years has built upon that crude idealization, even if in opposition. For example, the work of the most recent Nobel winner, Ostrom, is in a sense a reaction to the flawed metaphor of “the tragedy of the commons”, itself something of an unempirical misapplication of neoclassical concepts. (To be clear, the Nobel is no great stamp of quality [AHEM! Merton COUGH! Scholes], but Ostrom at least seems to be on the right track.)

    I’m not an economist myself, but perhaps I’m more tolerant of neoclassical and PCT because I see economics, like all good social science, as more descriptive than normative. When it stops being about what is and starts to be about what should be, I stop paying attention. (Many economists violate this sensible restriction, but I suppose they don’t particularly care for my attention.) If they tell me that all market participants have, or should have, perfect information, that seems pretty irrelevant to life on Earth. But if they tell me that humans seek their own interest, well, I see confirmation of that on a daily basis.

    What I request of you, Jed, is to be more specific. What tenet of neoclassicism led to the current route of I-44? Is it the same one that led to Russian oligarchy? Is there a way to prevent repeats of these unfortunate events without pretending that humans don’t seek their own interest?

    Incidentally, the segue into internal social science academy politics is mildly revolting. Those who insist on framing intellectual disagreements as Manichean struggles for scarce academic resources are probably doomed to lose the debate on the merits of their ideas. If PCT is empirically wrong (it probably is, in many ways!), its detractors should point that out. If they can’t make that argument, “theory takeover” meta-theory is a poor substitute.

  13. Matthew J says:


    I read Jed’s points in a different way. I don’t believe he was implying a causal link between neoclassical economics and bad modernist planning. Instead, I think he was expressing skepticism at the kind of utopian project that both modernist planning and neoclassical economics represent (though of course in different spheres of life.) I took him to mean that we should be wary of people and projects that attempt the blank-slate ethic that Tim Lee was referring to above, which are almost always utopian and more often than not megalomaniac in their willful ignorance of concrete evidence. Like Jed, I’m deeply skeptical of Utopian projects and thinking, though not of idealism when it’s grounded in dirty reality. This is why the neoconservative project to remodel the Middle East (the world?) scared me from the outset.

    On the issue of modernist planning and architecture, one could argue that many modernists in the US and Europe sort of learned their lesson from the terrible urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s, and now pursue a more humble form of practice, what I often think of as plural modernism—working within the existing context, acknowledging constraints, surroundings, users, etc.

    (On this note, there’s a quote from the architect Aldo Rossi that I’ve always liked, responding to Daniel Burnam’s edict “‘Make no little plans”: “To what then could I have aspired in my craft? Certainly to small things, having seen that the possibility of great ones was historically precluded.”)

  14. Alan says:

    There is a lot of wisdom in this post, and in the comments as well. I happen to be reading “Seeing Like a State” at the moment, and it is an excellent investigation into this type of policymaking.

    That said, as an urban planner, I need to defend my profession. This post treats the planning profession as if Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses were still duking it out. Planners are largely taught and trained to be overly cautious of exactly these types of fallacies. The profession and the discipline at large bear a lot of guilt for their past mistakes, and that guilt has informed many, many changes. You are more likely to find graduates of urban planning schools working with social equity groups, community development groups, or coordinating between city agencies and neighborhood representatives than you presenting modernist visions of the city’s future.

  15. Jed Harris says:

    Wow, a lot of great comments! Good to see so many people endorsing and reading Seeing Like a State.

    Just to be clear, I’m not attacking professions like economics or urban planning. There are lots of very good practitioners as well as ideologues, fools and the usual mix of other characters. I was painting with a very broad brush some patterns that seem worth investigating more closely.

    Jess is right that I was responding to him/her — my apologies for the glitch.

    Jess’ follow up comment shows we’re closer than I thought, but I still think not all that close. Getting our agreements and disagreements sorted out would take quite a long conversation, which I, at least, would very much welcome — but this is not the right format. If you want to contact me directly, Jess, my email is given on the sidebar of my blog.

    Matthew J. pretty much gives the reading of my comment that I intended. Specifically I was referring to neo-classical economics as a normative framework that has been very explicitly used to justify (and I think direct) the imposition of many massive policies, including austerity programs in developing countries, free capital flows, shock transitions to “market” economies in some Eastern Block countries, etc.

    How much neo-classical ideas, techniques, etc. have contributed to our useful understanding is of course much more complex and probably not even decidable. At a minimum, to answer it we’d have to know what would have happened if the neo-classical synthesis had never achieved hegemony in micro-economic theory. But anyway this seems like an entirely separate question that we can sidestep.

    Jess and I seem to be talking past each other to some degree. I didn’t assert that any “tenet of neoclassicism led to the current route of I-44”. That seems pretty clearly to be due to modernist planning ideology, and I don’t know that the planners had any love for free markets etc.

    Jess also makes a legitimate request that I be more specific, but this is getting pretty long. I’ll try to address that request in another comment soon.

  16. Matthew J says:

    Alan, as an architect, I’m definitely in agreement that the legacy of Robert Moses and his inheritors have been exorcised from modern planning. And with good reason.

    But I would also say that, perhaps as a result, planners in the US often seem overly cautious about urban issues. You hint at this in your post. Sometimes cities need bold initiatives, but my perception is that the the ethos of planning now is an aversion to risk and an orientation toward community development and buy-in, rather than thinking about urban systems and their future. I’m not talking about the megalomaniac risk of ruining the entire east side of Manhattan with the FDR freeway—these kinds of overblown projects were always bad.

    But has planning become overly cautious? Is it afraid of even minor acts of boldness because of what happened in the last century? My feeling is that planners need to get over their guilt and articulate a new vision that is perhaps more sensitive to actual human needs than the high modernists were, but that doesn’t fall back on the nostalgic stylizations of the New Urbanists (whose entire movement, in a funny way, is an atonement for modernist urban planning.)

  17. John says:

    There’s alot of confusion in this thread about the word, “rational”. In common English parlance it means acting cooly and logically. Since we observe many people behaving in emotional ways or in ways that don’t appear to be to maximize their interests, many take this as some type of proof that microeocomic theory is inhearently flawed.

    However, in economics, “rational” typically means people acting according to their own preferences, whatever those may be. If we deny that people have preferences then we are denying that people know their own minds. Its not a very big leap from that type of thinking to a paternalism in which experts (or the state) know what’s best for people. And, often these experts do not have a humble epistomology. They think that everything can be known.

    So, I disagree with Jed’s critique of neo-classical economics (which is basically synonimous with microeconomics). As a theory or world view, it does not propogate an “economics filter” in which things that can’t be priced have no value . That is simply false. It may be true that some individuals or self-described economists might think that way, but that is not the fault of neo-classical economics.

    The danger comes not from microeconmics, which is much more humble and tolerant of messiness and the absence of information than many give it is credit for. Rather it from idealogues of various stripes who lack humility and profess some certainty about how the world behaves.

  18. Peter T says:


    But there is plenty of evidence that people do not know there own minds. People’s minds are embedded in their social contexts, constructed by their social inter-actions from earliest infancy (and no, I am not supposing a clean slate approach to brain development), and always very much open to social cues. Hence argument, persuasion, advertising, propaganda, the information coded in the built environment and public art and much else (including panics, bubbles and other evident economic happenings). To deny this is to deny our sociality, as well as everything we know about human development.

    The individualism at the heart of much economic theorising is mostly a mathematical convenience. It bears little correspondence to human reality.

    This no more opens the way to paternalism than the existence of axes opens the way to murder.

  19. Gene Callahan says:

    “I imagine that Karl Polanyi would dub Hayek’s vision of the market order to be rationalism (haven’t read Polanyi himself, but that’s the gist I get from summarries). I know that Oakshott did.”

    Oakeshott was much more enthusiastic about later Hayek — he wrote a lowing review of The Constitution of Liberty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.