Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm Not An Elitist, Although I Play One On TV

The blogosphere is having a big debate about elites and their role in society.  It started with Ron Brownsetin at National Journal and Jon Chait at The New Republic lamenting what the left sees as improper climate change skepticism by conservatives here in the U.S., whereas conservatives in other Western nations, particularly in Europe, are far more willing to accept the case for climate change.  Ross Douthat demolishes Chait's belief that the predominance of libertarian economic dogma in U.S. politics is the driving force.  As Douthat accurately notes, the real reason for more skepticism among American politicians is because American democracy is far more responsive to the people -- and in both Europe and the United States, the populace at large are equally skeptical about the case for climate change.

This led to a bit of honesty from Ezra Klein, followed by the usual tripe...
This isn't a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That's why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander to the desire for free tax cuts and the hostility to Al Gore than make tough and potentially unpopular decisions to safeguard our future.
Forget the last sentence, which is the usual hyperbole of liberal certainty that they're right and conservatives are just denying reality by refusing to agree.  The first three sentences are a fascinating way of summarizing modern-day liberal governance.  Jim Manzi's response is fantastic and worth reading in full, but here's a great excerpt...
Bill Buckley famously said that he “would rather by governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.” So would I. But I would rather fly in an airplane with wings designed by one competent aeronautical engineer than one with wings designed by a committee of the first 20,000 names of non-engineers in the Boston phonebook. The value of actual expertise in a technical field like wing design outweighs the advantages offered by incorporating multiple points of view.

The essential Progressive belief that Klein expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.

This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.

Let's start with an admission.  Look, I love the Tea Party's energy, I love its ideas, I love its objectives, I love its candidates (by and large), and I love the fact Tea Party adherents are by and large bracingly honest.  This is a citizen movement where citizens are actually demanding better, and participating more.  That's a good thing in just about every way.  At the same time, I'm someone who is wary of populism, and the Tea Party is a populist movement, even if it's the rare movement that is both populist and largely libertarian.

But I'd rather live in a country governed by Tea Party populists than Ivy League elitists.

This is not a rebellion against expert opinion so much as a belief that experts are far more likely to be inflexible and more convinced of their own brilliance, without a real world appreciation of why their approach may create more problems.  In addition, since the experts are so brilliant, I'd rather have them convincing the non-expert leaders than the non-experts trying to convince the experts why they are wrong.   Megan McArdle says this to some degree as well, but I think it really is the key for my own preference.

As for the public's preference... look, democracy can be a bitch, because you're stuck with the decisions of an electorate that by and large may not pay attention to what's going on enough to be able to agree with your brilliant idea.  But if you're so smart that you can solve all of the problems, you should be smart enough to convince your fellow citizens of your brilliance. 

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home