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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government Hardcover – November 8, 2011
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"Liu and Hanauer have proposed a powerful new way to think about how society works and there is a lot here for conservatives to work with and debate." --Noah Kristula-Green, The Daily Beast
The Gardens of Democracy provides a refreshing new conceptual approach to understanding our economic and political situation, and it will help us move past the fossilized ideas in today’s public debates.”--Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order
“Society is a garden. Liu and Hanauer’s simple metaphor makes the complexities and limits of social policy emerge before your eyes. Statists can’t see the interconnections of organic systems. Free marketers can’t see that a garden needs some tending. If you’re looking for a way forward out of America’s dangerous gridlock, read this wonderful book.”--Jonathan Haidt, Professor of psychology, University of Virginia and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
“Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are progressives who always think outside the box, and that’s why everyone should pay attention to them. The Gardens of Democracy shakes up our stale debate over government’s role in a dynamic society, and in a thoughtful, creative and inventive way. Everyone will find something to disagree with here, and that’s the point: getting us out of our comfort zones is an immensely useful democratic undertaking.”--E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Why Americans Hate Politics
"I just read a remarkable book by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer. It is The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government. I highly recommend it as a big gust of fresh air to clear out the dense, stale, gases we have all been breathing when it comes to how we talk about politics and citizenship. It is time to break out of the prison of left/right thinking that has made politics so mean spirited in recent years... There is something in this new metaphor for both the left and the right."--Ray Smock, Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies
"Even if you don't agree with everything the authors propose, you will find 'The Gardens of Democracy' to be spirited and thought provoking."--The Bellingham Herald
"We’d do well to shift our political and economic metaphors from images involving machinery toward more organic ways of thinking… [A] nifty way of rethinking metaphors for what government does."--Wonkette
About the Author
ERIC LIU is the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, The True Patriot, and A Chinaman's Chance. Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a regular columnist for CNN.com and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com.
NICK HANAUER is a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, author and activist with a knack for identifying and building transformative business models. In 2007, he co-authored The True Patriot with Eric Liu and co-founded The True Patriot Network, a non-partisan group committed to furthering patriotic ideals. He also co-founded the Washington State League of Education Voters (LEV), a non-partisan statewide political organization focused on promoting public education, where he serves as co-president.
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The idea of the economy as a garden is, of course, a new way to say that there is a role for the planner (the gardener) in making the economy work. It is nice to have a new name for this, and it correctly implies that an unrestrained free market economy must go to the weeds. This is very true. The idea also is in opposition to the mechanistic notions of intervention proposed in the past by the Left (five year plans, price controls, and the like). So I like very much the garden metaphor, which I heard first in a speech by Bill Clinton some years ago.
A second important idea is that there is narrow self-interest and real self-interest. Real self-interest is considerably prosocial and altruistic. In my work I drop the word self-interest because it is confusing. If we are happier and healthier by giving to others, then giving is self-interested. But we don't feel calculating and selfish when we give, so the word is confusing. I use the terms self-regarding and other-regarding. A self-regarding motive is one that directly affects one's material well-being (what I earn, what I eat, how I enjoy my recreational time, etc.). Other-regarding motives look beyond myself to other people, the environment, issues of justice, fairness, and basic character virtues, such as honesty and loyalty. The authors' discussion of this is very nicely done.
The weakness of this an other books of this genre is that it does not lead to clear policy conclusions. What does it say about financial reform, educational policy, income redistribution, and the other myriad policy choices that we face? Not much, I am afraid.
The conservative view of economics, particularly the libertarian one, takes a serious beating since, in the authors’ view, it is based on the incorrect underlying belief that “Markets are always efficient. The market is always right and self-correcting”. But actually what happens when leaving the market to itself is that inequality is introduced and because of network effects it becomes self-reinforcing. Liu and Hanauer counter that markets are effective only if they are well constructed, and like gardens, they must be tended, and among the main things that need attention is distribution of wealth, stating that recirculation of wealth is as important to an economy as recirculation of blood is to the economy. That does not mean, however, that they advocate for the kind of top-down, big government solutions that many liberals favor. Instead, they called for an approach they refer to as “big what, small how”, in which government sets big goals, provides some incentives to accomplish them, and lets the people figure out how to work towards them.
This is a fairly modest 165 page work by two Seattle based thought leaders. I would call it a pamphlet in a good sense, so it only goes so far. Among the limitations I see is that it is too US centric and assumes the US exists on its own. In a world where money can easily move across borders, it’s not easy to implement a redistributive tax system like the one they advocate. Case in point France, where a recent increase in the top marginal rate to 75% has led to mass defection of millionaires to Russia and other countries. It also doesn’t consider the disruptive impact digital technology is having and how it reinforces inequality even more. Also, its vision is too secular, it doesn’t consider the role religion can play both for and against the vision they advocate.
That being said, this book articulates quite well the change in paradigm of society from a machine to a clock, and parallels the move towards agile development and lean management in the fields of technology and business, where top-down control, predictiveness and optimization is let go in favor of bottom-up change, adaptability and agility. As a middle manager I found a lot of inspiration in seeing my role as that of a garden tender, removing obstacles and setting conditions for things to happen on their own and people to grow and develop professionally while letting go of tight control and micromanagement, and I am sure that, if anything, it can help others see their relationship to others in a new light.
So far, so good. But the book also has two serious limitations: 1) it has a naive view of how deep the pull toward selfishness (evil) is in the human heart (consider Solzhenitsyn, "... the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being"). Instead, the authors seemingly believe that a well-argued explanation of why selflessness works better for everyone in the long run will prove a sufficient antidote to human selfishness and 2) a view that the wisdom of selflessness instead of selfishness is effectively a newly-discovered truth based on a variety of recent scientific advances. In actual fact, the world's major religions have all taught the foundational wisdom of 'Love your neighbor' for millennia.