Barbarians with Other People’s Resources

In his 5 November column (‘Our Reckless Meritocracy‘) Ross Douthat eyes the limits of ‘meritocracy’.

For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. 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.

Mr. Douthat is writing about the financial crisis and its causes. He teases this out into other areas, including wars mentioning the Whiz Kids of the Viet Nam era as a similar example. 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 than 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.’ He continues:

In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.

This is too straightforward, even for a newspaper column. Though it is easy to think of the Soviet Union and China as the best examples of one party rule, one can find plenty of historic and contemporary examples of one party regimes where the key factor in producing trouble was or is not ideology but stupidity, mismanagement coming from incompetence and corruption, personal capriciousness and similar, secular elements. Right now, Syria is a good example (the current crisis there is more the result of ‘stupidity and pigheadedness’ than Ba’thist ideology); so are Zimbabwe and Egypt. In 2006, Israel, ostensibly a meritocracy, showed how prejudice, pigheadedness (a awkward turn of phrase here) and ideology can conspire to produce failure in war (the refusal of many to admit this is another example all the same). There is just as much pigheadedness in one party states as in aristocracies or monarchies. The important thing is that ideology is not the sole purview of one party states and neither is stupidity and pigheadedness. That Mr. Douthat, for example, omits any mention of regulation whatsoever as a way to curb the ‘recklessness’ of upstart bankers and suggests is a good example of how ideology trumps good sense in non-authoritarian societies. What infinite success polities can hope to find in ‘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’!

These are difficult problems. Earlier in his piece Mr. Douthat laments the passing of the ‘WASP elite’ as the gates of power were opened to bright young barbarians from the Casserole-eating parts of America (and probably those uncouth immigrant families, too), and sympathizes with Calvin Trillin’s nostalgia for ‘blueblooded’ authority and responsibility. Nostalgia goes nowhere and Mr. Douthat cannot bring himself to directly endorse such a parochial and crass view as If only we didn’t have these ethnics and janitors’ sons running things life would be so much simpler. He touches on it lightly knowing it is unfashionable in centrist circles but that this line of thinking titillates a certain constituency in his readership, if not the writer himself. Mr. Douthat rejects the know-nothing tendency which appeals to mass discontent with elite plunder, the Bachmanns and the Cains and the rest (Three jeers for fools!). But one is left curious about what to do with the bright American barbarians whose inexperience and hubris he uses to point out the pitfalls of ‘meritocracy’. From his column the reader gets no real sense about what ought to be done to teach humility and modesty to those men from the interior or from upstart immigrant families. An answer there would be beyond the scope of a single column in an average newspaper. The stringent and misleading simplification of things into meritocratic, aristocratic and one-party tendencies may be structural, though such tendencies can be observed in Mr. Douthat’s columns on similar topics anyway so this is question of the writer more than the platform. (It should be noted that Mr. Douthat wrote an entire book on the arrogance of the American ‘ruling class,’ with few solutions (his next book discusses the broad consequences of America becoming a ‘heretic’ nation, where readers may get some solutions to the barbarians) and most newspaper columns tend toward this sort of open ended vulgarity on any issue of any complexity.)

In any case, Mr. Douthat’s point about elite arrogance is valid. Over confidence is a recurrent theme in American catastrophes, especially in the post-World War period. He mentions the Iraq War: ‘The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history.’ (The determinism in Mr. Douthat’s tone on Iraq and other Arab things is increasingly common and helps gloss his refusal to engage foreign policy problems in a rigorous way.) Paul Pillar takes this and expands, but brings out a more meaningful problem. It is quite easy to be reckless with other people’s money and other people’s lives. (In the same way it is easy to write carelessly about big problems when one has not seen their effects or has not been impacted by them himself; or to promote or give recommendations about such ideas when he is not likely to be affected by them.) The men who were so confident in the rightness of the Iraq War (and those who made certain that it happened and that arguments against it were marginalized or obscured) were often not especially competent or expert on the subject or necessarily the sons of meritocracy. The active contempt for those with specialized knowledge that is common now was also on display in the run-up to the war and its aftermath. Ideological obscurantism is, as Pillar writes, quite prominent in Mr. Douthat’s meritocratic America. Many problems have come because men at the top of things refused to consider the views of other men qualified to give them advice. And these were not problems of meritocracy or men too smart for their own good, but for a complex of obvious and obscure reasons quite opposite.

Ideology was a big part of what drove the war. You don’t need a one-party state for ideology to play such a role—just control for a time by one party of some of the functions of the state. And although the war makers certainly had excessive confidence that they knew what they were doing, the launching of the war involved the rejection of much relevant expertise. The excessive and misguided risk taking that was involved was due less to meritocracy than to some people getting in a position—through whatever means, not necessarily merit—in which they could place big bets with other people’s money, and in this case with other people’s lives.

[. . .]

The fact that those who are in temporary control of the government at any one moment are playing with other people’s money and lives is a further reason they should be cautious in placing any bets at all—in addition to Douthat’s sensible reason that decision makers need enough humility to realize that they don’t really know enough to be confident that their gambles will work out.

In foreign policy there are a couple of additional reasons for caution that do not apply similarly on Wall Street. One is that the policy maker usually is dealing more with incalculable uncertainties and less with calculable risks than the gamblers on Wall Street are. The other reason is that with any public policy the inconsistent and selective nature of political attention means that some risks get paid far more attention than others, regardless of the actual magnitude of the risks involved. Something like the risks from a disliked regime owning powerful weapons tends to get plenty of attention; the risks of using military force to try to do something about such a regime get far less.