The tinkerer’s disposition

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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13 Responses

  1. Erik, you’re definitely on to something with the two types of tinkerers. I would say the greater the change, the higher the burden of proof.

    I also want to say that my call for reasoned assessment of change is not a call for experimentation. I think the rhetoric of science is pretty unhelpful, actually. The good we lose or gain may not be measurable through the blunt and limited instruments of social science. Negative externalities are important, but they are not the only way we have of weighing goods. We also need moral deliberation and judgment about the goods we value for individuals, families and communities.Report

  2. agorabum says:

    How does this tie in to the military interventions in the 90s? It seemed like the Balkan actions (Bosnia, Kosovo) were less about democracy and freedom then about stopping civil war and ethnic cleansing. The lauded result was peace in Europe rather than the flowering of democracy.
    But then you talk about a “progressive impulse can lead people to believe they can build nations with bombs and remake totalitarian societies in our own Democratic image.” Is that “progressive” or radical and revolutionary? It just comes across as a cheap shot against democrats, trying to tar them with the worst excesses of a radical Republican government from the last decade. What happened was not progressive, which is about progress and necessarily incremental progress through governmental changes, but the attempt to implement a radical revolution in the mid-east like the early Grande Armee after the French Revolution. Universal rights of man, disparagement of sectarian bonds; radical social and political upheavel though military force.
    That is not “tinkering” or the tinkerer’s disposition. We dragged down the ancien regime, swept away the privileges of the elite (Baath) and executed the old king, Saddam.
    Tinkering is actual tinkering when amending the rules of society and letting developments organically develop. Welfare reform, which gave broad discretion to the states, is one such example. But again, it’s not just changes on the left. The collection of Bush tax-cuts significantly shrank the governments ability to collect revenue and laid the foundation for large, structural deficits. Tinkering would have tied tax cuts to spending cuts to see if that is the organic balance desired by society. Cuts with spending increases was a more radical change that introduced the growth of fiscal instability, and seems to expand outside of the zone of ‘tinkering’.Report

  3. Mike Farmer says:

    Top down, coercive tinkering is a different kind of tinkering, one which should be limited within the scope of government responsibilities. One of our biggest problems is government tinkering which transcends the scope of government responsibilities and causes uncertainty in the private sector. Regulatory changes geared toward industry engineering creates an environment in which businesses become overly cautious, when what we need is risk taking, innovation and entrepreneurial confidence. The major externalities have been addressed a hundred times over, and now government tinkers with equality and justice in the social realm, and they are using private enterprise as the vehicle to actualize their tinker-dreams. This socialistic direction is the tinkering which needs to end.Report

    • North in reply to Mike Farmer says:

      @Mike Farmer, The government has been very heavily intruding into the social realm with top down (usually Christian) tinkering for as long as the republic has existed. If all centralized tinkering is bad than so are the traditional intrusions that conservatives hold so dear.Report

      • Jay Daniel in reply to North says:


        Great, North. Glad we agree. So now that we agree that top down tinkering is bad and has always been bad, can we all agree to stop?Report

        • North in reply to Jay Daniel says:

          @Jay Daniel, Well I’m no libertarian (too many problems with the commons for my tastes) so can’t agree with you there. But I will meet you half way and say that if it could be done better by a private or decentralized entity or if it would be better if not done at all then government or centralized entities shouldn’t be doing it.Report

      • Mike Farmer in reply to North says:


        What Jay Daniel said. Can you imagine defending slavery on tradition and the fact that both parties have supported slavery — it’s just national tradition, so what?Report

      • Mike Farmer in reply to North says:


        Seriously, let me try one more time to make my position clear — damn the conservatives who tinker outside government responsibilities as defined by the Constitution,
        and damn progressives, liberals, socialists, moderates, left-center, right-center, middle-up, Presbyterians, Zoroastrians or astrologists who tinker likewise, top-down from central control. Damn them if they started in 1776, 1802, 1914, 1956, 1983, yesterday, last week, or one hour ago.Report

  4. Eric’s argument dovetails rather nicely with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

    In biological terms, bottom-up tinkering can be thought of as changes which occur at the level of the genome and is random, chaotic, prone to failure, and only occasionally wildly successful. But if carried out by enough members of the species over a long-enough period of time, successful innovation occurs and is rewarded by increased representation in the overall genome.

    In contrast, top-down tinkering can be construed as role played by the environment writ large. Under normal conditions, the environment is steady and reliable, providing opportunities for bottom-up innovations (i.e. genetic change) to be tested in predictable fashion. It is only when the environment undergoes cataclysmic change – and here I think of climate primarily, but other major environmental changes might apply – that the conditions for success at the bottom-up level are altered.

    The analogy is hardly perfect but can be instructive in the political sphere. Top down changes, such as major infrastructure investments, large-scale regulation, interest rates, and other policies with widespread effects, should be changes slowly and with caution. At the same time, the individual should be allowed – even encouraged – to innovate with the expectation that occasionally a breakthrough might occur. Evolutionary theory holds, however, that the big opportunities rarely occur at the level of individuals but rather when the environment changes and new niches are made available.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this model does not suggest, as libertarian thought does, that changes at the level of the individual are the best ones that the system can make. Certainly intelligent agents are more deliberate about pursuing their self-interests than an unthinking genome, but ultimately it is the interactions of individual members – the essence of communitarianism – that determines whether the system will thrive or no.Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    Weird question- does creative anachronism count as tinkering? When I think of tinkering, I think generally of innovation; however, I’ve seen a lot of creative revivals of old ideas, art forms, traditions, or beliefs that have been beneficial. I kept thinking this during the heated discussion of traditions and folkways. Certainly, there’s much of the past that is better left in the past, but I’d like to reserve the right to basically steal the good ideas from the past that have fallen into disuse, and to call that “tinkering” as well.Report