Champions of Ignorance and Mediocrity

The world is down on merit, it seems. In addition to the post I wrote on the subject, three separate articles this week have argued that the decline of the meritocratic society and rejection of current elites is proof that something has gone very wrong. But it’s not our meritocratic society that’s the problem. It’s the way we feel about it.

Whither Elitism?

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times writes that Sarah Palin and her ilk are “making ignorance chic” by disparaging the cold and cowardly “elites” who went to Ivy League schools and “refudiating” proper English. As Dowd writes, Palin “believes in American exceptionalism, but when it comes to the people running the country, exceptionalism is suspect; leaders should be — as Palin, [Christine] O’Donnell and [Sharron] Angle keep saying — just like you.” Presumably, the “you” in this case is also ignorant, and proudly so.

It’s enough to make any politician shy away from a good education, lest he or she be labelled another spineless member of the establishment. At best they face the charge of wasting their potential and failing to implement good ideas, like Obama’s heath care plan, or just about anything in Miller’s original plan for Toronto. At worst, they are humiliated, losing their seat (or their legacy) to candidates who think homosexuality is caused by brainwashing or who refer to fellow elected officials with racial slurs.

It’s a sad decline for a noble idea, and it might be just the beginning.
Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post that “In America, the end of the meritocracy will probably come about slowly: If working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won’t go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country — and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.”

She’s right. To listen to mainstream media and many current polls, the most successful option in politics today is to be an underachieving everyman. I hope history will look back on this age as the nadir of global politics: sound bites instead of full sentences, a proliferation of vile, ignorant and untrue abuses hurled among candidates, a media obsession with the attention-getting fluff over the serious and substantial, and a general race to the lowest common denominator of voters. It’s hard to imagine how things could be worse. It seems that our worst fears about democracy have come true.

For a historical dimension, consider the following quotation:

Any section which holds out more obstinately than the rest can compel all the others to adopt its nominee; and this superior pertinacity is unhappily more likely to be found among those who are holding out for their own interest than for that of the public. The choice of the majority is therefore very likely to be determined by that portion of the body who are the most timid, the most narrow-minded and prejudiced, or who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class-interest; in which case the electoral rights of the minority, while useless for the purposes for which votes are given, serve only for compelling the majority to accept the candidate of the weakest or worst portion of themselves.

Sound familiar? It’s from Representative Government, by John Stuart Mill (a personal favourite). But the trouble is not with a particularly strident and selfish minority, as Mill identified. The trouble is with the majority, those who are by definition not the elites. They too believe that they are railing against the rule of the few – the few who are Harvard-eduated, entitled, socialist disasters.

And Now For Something Completely Different

But, some say, perhaps we should be wary of elites. After all, the Economist’s Schumpeter writes, graduates of top schools are largely to blame for our current dismal global economic situation. As he says, “The past few years have seen the best and brightest, obsessed by clever academic models, wreaking havoc in one area after another.” Can we really trust them to put things right? The majority, it would seem, thinks not.

I don’t see this as a damnation of meritocracy, however. America is not a meritocracy. Meritocracies are not places where, as Schumpeter writes, the ruling cadre is “a caste, decorated with a few members from favoured minorities, but cut off from the great mass of the population.” Meritocracies don’t require a certain type of skin colour, or specialized primary education, or family connection to succeed (or, in the latest incarnation of this idea, the money to afford to volunteer in Africa to build orphanages in senior year in order to gain admittance to a top school). A creeping credentialism is just the new form of gentlemanly status: exclusive, often unrelated to actual talent, and largely conferred over earned. America may be a meritocracy in theory, but not yet in practice, despite the ascent of Obama or affirmative action policies at Ivy League schools.

It is also not a rebellion against elite education, intelligence or sanity, or an endorsement for ignorance as a way of life.  Instead, it is a rebellion against the status quo, which has been effected by a generation of intelligent, well-educated leaders who largely achieved their status by virtue of these merits and not their backgrounds. It is little more than a rapid and decisive pendulum shift, a temporary overcorrection. Toronto voters haven’t lost their minds. There is little danger of a permanent shift toward preferring angry, inarticulate, reactionary politicians over rational ones with positive and progressive ideas for the city. Instead they are responding to the perceived failure of the status quo.

Similarly, most Americans are reasonable people who want to see their country run by people who are competent and intelligent. They’re just feeling overwhelmed by what they see as a fundamental and unprecedented overstepping of the role of government in their lives, and have resorted to rallying around the other extreme, small-government libertarian types like Ron Paul, whose ideals have not changed but who are now palatable to a mass audience simply because they are the opposite of what they have now.

Going to Extremes

Unfortunately, the other extreme is home of, well, extremists. And (with a few exceptions) extremists are outside of and opposed to the mainstream establishment, including politics. This makes them ignorant in the true sense of the word, in that they have not been exposed to the inner workings of Congress, or the intensive study of management or economics at a top school. They are also self-avowedly mediocre, ordinary citizens “just like you.”

This is certainly not Aristotle’s rule by the best (the aristos) by any stretch. It’s proposed rule by the average, electable by virtue of this very trait. Is this for the best?

Mill would say absolutely not. In a passage (again from Representative Government) that is worth quoting at length, he notes that it is imperative for an electorate to

obtain, in the greatest measure possible…the benefits of superior intellect, trained by long meditation and practical discipline to that special task [of governing]. If this second purpose is worth attaining, it is worth the necessary price. Superior powers of mind and profound study are of no use if they do not sometimes lead a person to different conclusions from those which are formed by ordinary powers of mind without study: and if it be an object to possess representatives in any intellectual respect superior to average electors, it must be counted upon that the representative will sometimes differ in opinion from the majority of his constituents, and that when he does, his opinion will be the oftenest right of the two. It follows that the electors will not do wisely if they insist on absolute conformity to their opinions as the condition of his retaining his seat.

Electorates worldwide have fallen into the pattern of requiring their elected officials to follow their wishes exactly – cutting taxes, keeping the retirement age low, staying out of health care, getting rid of bike lanes on Jarvis Street – in order to have a hope of re-election. Voters think they are right, and politicians, with their elite educations and merit-based achievements, maybe even their “superior intellect, trained by long meditation and practical discipline to that special task,” are wrong. People want a more direct form of democracy, not a trustee-model representative one.

Are these electorates right? Or are they jeopardizing the comfort and prosperity of future citizens for gratification of their wishes in the present? The trouble is that nobody knows. Recent events might be a temporary aberration in good economic management, or even a necessary failure to pave the way for future efficiencies in government and the economy in general. Or they could be a step on the road to further mismanagement and eventual ruin. It’s difficult to say with conviction that those in power today are the best people for the job.

But it’s a trial and error process, and the one definite is that people will always find new reasons to rail against whomever forms the ruling (political and economic) class, whether they got there by virtue of primogeniture or Harvard Law. They’ll couch their opposition in the rhetoric of the virtues of ignorance and mediocrity, the foundation of their “outsider” status. But sooner or later all outsiders become insiders, and everyone involved in making decisions is turfed out for this very reason.

So, to all those who are terrified of what the next two or four years will bring, breathe easy, for this too shall pass.

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