America's Elites Care About Ideology, Not 'Merit'

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Our problem isn't that we're led by self-satisfied technocrats; it's that we're led by people who can't connect with reality

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In a much talked about column, Ross Douthat, normally an incisive critic of the American meritocracy, argues that "by elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we've created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history. And for the last 10 years, we've watched this same elite lead us off a cliff -- mostly by being too smart for its own good." He proceeds to claim that "in hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness," whereas in meritocracies, "it's the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world."

I have my doubts about this thesis.

Ten years ago, George W. Bush was president. Much as I agree that there is a strong critique to be made of America's "meritocratic elites," surely Bush, son of a president/vice-president/CIA director, was more of a hereditary aristocrat than a high I.Q. meritocrat, a man who'd never have made it to the presidency if not for a combination of family connections to the ruling class, name recognition, and luck. Dick Cheney, whose I.Q. was presumably higher,  fits neither the archetype of the meritocratic elite nor the aristocrat. A capable public servant in previous administrations, with successful stints as White House chief of staff and secretary of Defense, he worked his way to the top, and seemed to perpetrate the follies and excesses of his last years in public life because power and certain of its responsibilities weighed on and corrupted him.

Elsewhere in his column, Douthat writes that "in one-party states," debacles "tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China's Great Leap Forward, or Stalin's experiment with "Lysenkoist" agriculture." The United States isn't a one party state, but both the Iraq War and the financial crisis would seem to owe as much to ideological blindness as anything else. As Daniel Larison notes, "Experts and technocrats can get things badly wrong, but the Iraq war is a good example of what happens when people embark on a large project while ignoring all the many experts who said that it was folly." Elsewhere he observes that "the people in and around the Bush administration decidedly were not experts in the politics, culture, or history of the Near East. For the most part, the people who were most knowledgeable about this part of the world were the ones shouting loudest not to invade." If only they'd listened to "the reality based community."

The financial crisis had many causes. One was a bipartisan ideological attachment to home ownership. Another was high-level regulators who were excessively optimistic about the complicated world of Wall Street resembling introductory economic texts. Douthat mentions Alan Greenspan as someone who thought he had reduced economics to an exact science, but recall this piece, which suggests Greenspan's failure wasn't applying a rigid formula so much as presuming that no oversight was needed:

For years, a Congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage. Markets jumped up or down depending on what he said. Politicians in both parties wanted the maestro on their side. But on Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.

"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief," he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Now 82, Mr. Greenspan came in for one of the harshest grillings of his life, as Democratic lawmakers asked him time and again whether he had been wrong, why he had been wrong and whether he was sorry.

Critics, including many economists, now blame the former Fed chairman for the financial crisis that is tipping the economy into a potentially deep recession. Mr. Greenspan's critics say that he encouraged the bubble in housing prices by keeping interest rates too low for too long and that he failed to rein in the explosive growth of risky and often fraudulent mortgage lending.

"You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others," said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. "Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?"

Mr. Greenspan conceded: "Yes, I've found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is. But I've been very distressed by that fact."

Douthat concludes his column by writing that "we need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way." Agreed. But I'd put it a bit differently. What we need are politicians, media professionals, and citizens who deal less in abstractions. Talk of the federal government creating "an ownership society" or the U.S. military bringing democracy to Iraq because yearning for self-government is universal should be treated with skepticism insofar as they're ideological statements as opposed to pragmatic judgments grounded in observation mediated by wisdom. The same can be said of "green jobs" or "bending the cost curve."

A meritocracy would likely have all the flaws Douthat ascribes to it, if we had one, but it seems to me that what we're living under is actually an extremely ideology-driven government, one that isn't applying a carefully constructed formula for success so much as pretending to do so, which is even worse.


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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