The 50th Anniversary of The Answer: Muddling Through

John Kay in the Financial Times today celebrates the 50th anniversary of a classic article by the American political scientist Charles Lindblom, “The Science of Muddling Through.”

Prof Lindblom contrasted what he called the “root” method of decision-making with the “branch” approach. The root method required comprehensive evaluation of options in the light of defined objectives. The branch method involved building out, step-by-step and by small degrees, from the current situation. Prof Lindblom claimed “the root method is in fact not usable for complex policy questions”. The practical man must follow the branch approach – the science of muddling through.

John Kay applies Lindblom’s insights to business strategy. Lindblom sharpened and elaborated a distinction that shows up in many fields: politics and economics especially. The “root method” is similar to what Karl Popper called “utopian social engineering” while the “branch method” was what Popper called “piecemeal democratic reform.” In the reform debate of the 1990s on ex-Communist countries, this debate showed up as shock therapy versus gradualism. In foreign aid, Lindblom’s work influenced me a lot in formulating a distinction between “planners” (who want to comprehensively change everything at once) and “searchers” (who look for incremental improvements one step at a time).

The “root method” has always been more politically popular in aid circles than the “branch method”, even though we rich people follow the branch method in policymaking in our own societies.

Is the “root method” kind of a straw man? Surely nobody could be that extreme? Well nobody except for Professor Jeffrey Sachs and his many followers. Professor Sachs wrote a column in the New York Times last week about agricultural aid (Sachs seems to have at least briefly returned to aid after a prolonged foray into global warming and commenting on rich country macroeconomic policy vis-à-vis the Crash). A bit of the “root” planning method seems evident:

The {aid} recipient countries should be invited to prepare plans and budgets that would be reviewed by independent experts. These plans would describe the inputs needed by the farmers, the expected increase in production, how the strategy would be put into place and how much money would be required.

So I guess Professor Lindblom’s battle is still not yet won. I salute the 92-year-old Professor Lindblom, and hope he is hearing about some of the 50th anniversary celebrations by his many fans.

Originally published at Aid Watch and reproduced here with the author’s permission.