Bottom-Up Thinking: Solution or Revolution?

“Vote for the Crook, It’s Important” – Edwin Edwards bumper sticker, 1991 Louisiana Governor’s race

I caught part of an interview with New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman this morning. (Interesting when columnists are giving interviews.) Friedman is plainly a liberal/progressive, but he at least sometimes tries not to be a talking head pundit. He made some interesting and contradictory statements in the interview, that I’d like to unpack.

First, he praised “bottom-up innovation” – and rightly so. The interview was short enough not to be able to exactly discern Friedman’s definition, but it seemed clear that he was talking about individuals innovating at a “grass-roots” level to produce economic growth.

From a systems engineering standpoint, this makes a lot of sense, and is certainly the basis of free market thought. Individuals know well what their own interests and their own skills. They also have an ability to discern what their neighbors might want most in terms of an economic trade. Thus, the individual is a wonderful place to start with innovation. On top of that, self-organization (bottom-up) tends to be quite effective at reacting and adapting to changes in the economy, easing over hurdles with little-to-no fanfare.

The arguments can be extended well beyond economy though, great movements often start from the bottom up. A group of self-motivated people (sure, perhaps with a charismatic leader) will strive for solutions to the problems they see – and will do so without being prodded (did I mention they were self-motivated?).

What I find interesting is that Friedman and other progressives who will gladly glom onto populist rhetoric and cast themselves as “with the people” lack the courage of their convictions. If you truly believe in bottom-up organization, bottom-up economic activity, bottom-up solutions to our problems, then you will quite logically find yourself to be very much the libertarian. The whole notion of self-determination and freedom of association, the notion of human freedom, leads one away from progressive ideologies.

What progressives want from bottom-up thinking is a groundswell of public support and a direct-democracy takeover of the government. They want bottom-up organization of political movement to give themselves a majority stake in government. Then, they can apply their wisdom to bring progress to the nation. This is not bottom-up though, it is top-down at its core. This does not at all buy into the notion of self-determination, but rather revolution. As with so much of what progressives promote, it is antithetical to freedom.

(Not that they’re the only ones – theocratic forces on the right have tried just the same.)

Friedman went on to mention how the government needed to “invest” in this or that technology and education as well. This, of course, is not at all bottom-up thinking. In a bottom-up world, people would decide for themselves what technologies need investment and whether education is worth the price. So much for praise of the bottom-up. Even equipped with a great talking point, Friedman just couldn’t get away from the progressive notion that the poor, ill-informed, under-educated citizenry can’t make decisions for themselves and must be led and guided by a government consisting of their betters.

It was a fun interview …

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