The Role of the Elite

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Jim Manzi has an absolutely outstanding post on the role of elites in public life.  It's not well understood, at least by Americans, that for many of the issues on which Europe and America are arguably quite divided, the general population isn't that divided at all.  Attitudes towards the death penalty and climate change aren't that different between the ordinary citizens of the two continents; they may not even be that different among the elites.  The difference is, in Europe, the elites have a much stronger role in shaping policy.


This inspired Ezra Klein to blog in defense of elites, and to an extent I think he's right.  But I'm much more skeptical of elites than Ezra is, for a number of reasons.  The first is that, as Manzi says, the elites aren't quite as smart as they think they are:

But I think this raises the crucial question in this debate: What is the valid scope of expertise?

In the case of climate change, there is actual scientific knowledge about the properties of CO2, but advocates of emissions mitigation schemes constantly attempt to drape the mantle of science, or more broadly expert knowledge, around public policy positions that, as I have argued many times, do not follow even from the core technical reports produced by the asserted experts.

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.

An aeronautical engineer can predict reliably that "If you design a wing like this, then this plane will be airworthy, but if you design it like that, then it will never get in the air." If you were to build a bunch of airplanes according to each set of specifications, you would discover that he or she is almost always right. This is actual expertise. I've tried to point out many times that the vast majority of program interventions fail when subjected to replicated, randomized testing.

Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.


Elites are often missing crucial knowledge, and unaware of it.  In some ways, that effect is more pronounced than it used to be, with more and more of the elites drawn from a narrow class of extremely well-educated people from a handful of metropolitan areas, few of whom have ever, say, been responsible for a profit and loss statement, or tried to bring a gas station into compliance with local and federal EPA regulations.  In a world where your primary output is words, it is easy to imagine a smoothly operating process based on really smart rule-making.  And there's a certain impatience with the grimy, self interested folks who complain about the regulations imposed for the good of society--a certain forgetting that in aggregate, those whiners are society.  In essence, elites are always missing one vital piece of information:  what it is like to be someone who is not in the elite.

Moreover, like all elites, the current meritocratic class is self-interested in numerous ways.  It is easy for us* to recommend free trade, carbon taxes, and so forth; most of us live in cities where we don't have to drive that far, and/or command incomes that make the price of gas rather incidental to our budget.  And think tanks, policy magazines, and congressional staffs--however threatened they may be by other forces--are not yet likely to be outsourced.

I'm not saying that these ideas are wrong; I myself support both of them.  But I am also aware that I do not really emotionally comprehend what it is like to be trying to support a family of four on $38,000 a year in rural West Virginia.  The problem is not that the elites are venal self-interested autocrats out to screw the little guy and give their group more power; the problem is that, like every other group, they tend to understand the costs of programs that restrict their autonomy very well, and to be somewhat less sensitive to the freedom of others.  As Anatole France drily put it:  "The law in its majestic equality refuses the rich as well as the poor the right to sleep under bridges and to beg for bread."

The other reason I don't necessarily trust elites is that they really like thinking big.  You don't get hundreds or thousands of people into a vociferous debate over making some modest improvement to Medicaid reimbursements; you get them animated by proposing a radical overhaul of the health care system.  Yet most innovation isn't big; it's continuous, incremental improvement.  Companies are forced to this by market discipline, but we don't draw that many policy people from business; they're viewed as tainted by the commercial association. 

So we get what most interests wordsmiths:  a succession of enormous plans (health care exchanges! privatize social security!), most of which fail.   We get very few mechanisms to improve them.  I'm not even sure the government can work on that sort of improvement--we've stripped so much autonomy from officials and civil servants in the name of equity that few people have any authority or will to push through reforms.  And in fairness, many (not all) of the things that government does are things that are hard to measure.

But all this makes me very skeptical of handing elites more power, particularly when they are given that power in order to reduce the autonomy of some other group.  (And somehow, that usually is what it's for--you haven't seen much lobbying for better regulation of university professor quality, even though a bad idea is probably more dangerous than a bad apple.)  It's like that old Woody Allen quote:  "I think my brain is my most important organ--but look who's telling me that!"


Yes, I am construing the word "elite" broadly enough to include myself in it, as well as thousands of other people who make their living thinking about how we ought to run the country.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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