The Positive Role of “Negative Feedback”

by Craig Bernthal

Private Papers

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”  Winston Churchill

One of Victor Hanson’s most persuasive arguments about why democracies have an advantage over despotisms in fighting wars is that democracies are much more likely to correct their own mistakes. You may start with McClellan, but eventually, you end up with Sherman and Grant. You may get caught napping at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, but finally Patton roles into Germany and Lemay flattens Japan. You may start behind the Russians in rocket science, but eventually, you pass them and go to the moon. Why? Negative feedback. Democratic government is a hornet’s nest of complaint and experiment, and that’s a good thing.

Conservatives understand that the bigger government grows, the less chance “negative feedback” has of doing its job. The super-centralized state, like the Soviet Union or China, is tremendously destructive of its own resources because it is beyond the influence of any feedback mechanism: free speech or free market. These states produced the biggest economic mistakes and the worst ecological damage on the planet.

Big business often wants to behave badly, and gets away with it for a while. When it sees a competitive advantage, it will edge toward monopoly and crony capitalism, and then, aided and abetted by legislation, it becomes a de facto part of the government. Its point is to evade the market and avoid restraint. One of the most irresponsible forms of big business is the multinational corporation, which in its peripatetic global existence tries to place itself in the weakest regulatory regime possible.

What we want is a government just big enough to effectively regulate businesses and accomplish other legitimate government tasks. Businesses like to externalize their costs. It is one of the roles of effective modern government to reduce that externalization. A rational conservative acknowledges that government has an important role, but leans toward the private sector as being less dangerous and more productive to the health and welfare of the country. It is not easy to get businesses to act responsibly, but it is even harder to get big government to do it. The trick is striking a sane balance between government regulation and business. Somewhere around that balance point, both the market and the market place of ideas are very effective in curbing mistakes because they provide the necessary feedback, although as Churchill notes, Americans may have to try everything until they hit upon the right thing.

The truth of all this came home to me in a striking way at the end of May, when the governmental agency that I work for, California State University at Fresno, cut down 164 trees, many of them old and magnificent, all of them healthy, in a parking lot remodel. This was done with no announcement to faculty or community until after the cutting had begun, and then only in an obscure email, which said, as the trees were coming down, that cutting would begin the next day. Although there is a faculty senate, and several committees with faculty membership that should have been consulted, none were. Negative feedback was utterly disabled.

After the deed had been accomplished, the university started offering rationales. We needed more parking. (The enrollment, in the wake of the California budget crisis, is substantially shrinking — I guess we can expect that to turn around when the state gets its spending under control.) The trees were old and diseased. (Not true according to biology and plant science professors who inspected the trees as they came down.) The trees were inadequately irrigated. (Not true. Their roots were in the water table. They needed no irrigation.) Parking lots with trees are unsafe. (Show us some crime statistics. Some studies say they are safer.)

Lack of consultation in violation of standing university rules and even state law has been a continuing source of frustration for the faculty at Fresno State, on a number of issues, and this year the complaints have been long and loud.

My colleagues tend to see this style of governing as “corporate,” and have some justification for their characterization. CSU leadership in Long Beach has decided the system is threatened by competition from National, Phoenix, Kaplan Universities and the whole for-profit university venture, and they seem to be copy-catting much of what these organizations do, including their management style. But, however “corporate” our managers want to be, we really work for a government agency run by bureaucrats, and it is doing just the kinds of things that government agencies entrusted with resources do.

Roger Scruton admirably explains this in his thought-provoking new book,How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism.

Scruton cites the example of Ravenna Park, which I am familiar with as a former resident of Seattle. He relates a history very similar to the tree wastage at Fresno State:

Even in a democratic society in which private property and the rule of law enforce a proper separation between the one who threatens harm and the one who prevents or punishes it, the evidence is that state bureaucracies become a danger to the environment as soon as they acquire the role of controlling rather than containing what is done. A nice illustration is provided by the story of Ravenna Park in Seattle. This was established in 1887 by Mr. and Mrs. William W. Beck, who bought several parcels of land on the outskirts of the city, in order to preserve and provide public access to the giant fir trees growing there — some 400 feet high and 20 feet in diameter. They built a pavilion for concerts and nature lectures, and charged a 25¢ entrance fee to the park, which would be visited by around 10,000 people per year. In 1911 the city, in response to conservationist pressure, bought the park under a compulsory purchase order for $135,663. Almost at once the giant trees began disappearing, cut down and sold by park employees, sometimes with a bureaucratic rubber stamp that condemned a particular tree as a ‘threat to public safety.’ By 1925 none of the trees remained. An effective private investment that had conserved an important environmental asset, and created a lively public interest in maintaining it, had been destroyed by public ownership in a matter of fourteen years. [My italics]

In the next few months, we are going to hear an enormous cry from the California State University system about how it needs money. And truly, it will need money, as California is confronted by its out-of-control deficit. Yet, our university recently spent $4 million on a new swimming pool, $4 million on this parking lot remodel, and spent $1.8 million at the end of this year on a miscellany of proposals rather than putting the money where it belonged, at the beginning of the year, into classes. Some of these funds, administrators tell us, are “dedicated” to these projects. We need to find a way, then, to un-dedicated them.

Private contributors to our university have to face a big problem, and Scruton defines it: “Public bodies are able to externalize their costs in a way that private bodies seldom manage, and this fact alone makes them unreliable trustees of our collective assets.” In this case, our university unplugged itself from all the feedback mechanisms that could have prevented it from making a big and wasteful error. It had those mechanisms, but management chose to ignore them. It has been doing that for a long time. It is, unfortunately, operating just like the kind of governmental agency that Scruton describes, and if I were a donor, of land or any other resource, that would worry me immensely. I’d think twice about donating anything with a tree on it.

©2012 Craig Bernthal

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