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Governing The Deplorables

Hillary Clinton, epistocracy, and rule by a cognitive-elite oligarchy

On the day she is said to have been diagnosed with “pneumonia,” Mrs. Clinton delivered a notorious speech in which she denounced “xenophobes,” among others, as fit for a “basket of deplorables.” People who are for open borders and globalism have a habit of dismissing their opponents as xenophobes — that is, people who fear (and therefore loathe) foreigners.

A reader has sent in an essay by Georgetown professor Jason Brennan, in which he argues that we can avoid stupid decisions like the Brexit vote if we institute an “epistocracy,” system through which smart people who know things rule. Excerpt:

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge.

A literacy test as a requirement of holding the franchise? How could that possibly go wrong? More:

Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

During the Cold War, some of the smartest people in the West believed the most monstrous things. In 1982, the leftist intellectual Susan Sontag said this at a gathering of the left in New York City to show support for the Solidarity trade union:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Any reader of Tolkien understands that simple Sam Gamgee is more important to the good of the world than the brilliant Saruman — and why. Knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing.

Jason Brennan further articulated his epistocratic views in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay that’s paywalled. Here’s an excerpt:

Voters are dumb because democracy makes them dumb. Democracy spreads power among a vast number of people; everyone gets an equal but tiny share — expressed through our vote — so small that none of us have an incentive to use our power wisely. The chance that an individual vote will make any difference in a national election is on par with the odds of winning Powerball. Voters have every incentive to remain ignorant about politics and to indulge their worst biases.

We cannot “fix” democratic ignorance, because we cannot change the incentives built into
democracy. But perhaps we can mitigate the problem by changing our political system. What if instead of trying to make voters better informed and more reasonable, we tried to screen out the least reasonable and most misinformed voters? What if instead of a democracy, we had an epistocracy?

Brennan is not wrong to criticize the flaws in democracy. Giving people the vote is no guarantee that they will use it wisely. But restricting the vote to the cognitive elite is no solution. I would rather be ruled by the first thousand people through the gates at the Daytona 500 than the people in that room Friday night with Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand. Guess who holds more power already in our society? That’s right: the cognitive elite. That’s how it works in a meritocracy. Prof. Brennan’s epistocracy would only give them more — for our own good.

Anybody stupid enough to think that rule by experts, by “the best and the brightest,” would make America a better place ought to be compelled to watch Errol Morris’s great 2003 documentary The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara. And it’s less impressive but still interesting sequel, of sorts, The Unknown Known, about Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War. McNamara was tragic; Rumsfeld is simply smug. Neither man was stupid, nor were the people they surrounded themselves with, who took the nation, and people far less intelligent than they, into two foolish and unwinnable wars.

The reader who sent me the link to the Brennan essay is a professor at a major university. He writes:

Sad that an academic would trot out this tired old elitist b.s. at a time when we ought to be demonstrating some sort of ecumenical concern for our society rather than further distancing ourselves from any and all who don’t share our “enlightened” views. But I guess I’m not surprised.

I am no fan of racism, sexism, and the litany of deplorable thoughtcrimes that Mrs. Clinton mentioned on Friday. But I am genuinely frightened of powerful people like those gathered in that room who get to define what constitutes racism and all the rest, and use that as a way to destroy heretics who deviate from their puritanical gospel.

The denunciation of “xenophobia” by globalist elites is part of the broader project of what Roger Scruton calls “oikophobia,” or fear of the familiar. Rusty Reno elaborates on that point:

Today’s emphasis on multiculturalism and “diversity” participates in this vision of the future, one in which differences are overcome and borders are irrelevant. It’s species of utopianism, to be sure, but it has a powerful grip on the moral imagination of the West.

In this view, national interest is an impediment to progress. Concerns about identity are, by definition, forms of ethnocentrism bordering on xenophobia. This is why the upsurge of populist concern about immigration—which I take to be a synecdoche for wide-ranging anxieties about the long-term significance of many social changes—are so vigorously denounced by mainstream politicians, journalists, and political commentators. It’s also why Hillary Clinton doesn’t isolate Trump by employing a more moderate and sensible nationalist rhetoric. The same goes from Angela Merkel. She is almost certain to persevere, in order to remain true to what she believes will best serve the common good, not just of Germany, but of the whole world.

Globalization has a unifying dimension, which we rightly applaud. At the same time, though, globalization is associated with economic and cultural changes that are dissolving inherited forms of solidarity—the nation foremost, but local communities, as well, and even the family. This dissolution encourages an atomistic individualism, which in turn makes all of us more vulnerable to domination and control.

By my reading of the signs of the times, the dangers of dissolved solidarity in the West are far more dire than our present upsurges of ethnocentrism and nationalism. It is atomized societies that are susceptible to demagogues—not societies that enjoy strong social bonds and organic communal solidarity. Islamic extremism thrives where traditional Muslim societies are disintegrated by the pressures of globalization.

And so does Trumpism. As distasteful and even as dangerous as I find Trump, Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment to her Manhattan contributors reminds me that she is in some ways even more distasteful and dangerous, because she speaks for the Establishment, and all its collective power. If you are any kind of social or cultural conservative, or immigration restrictionist, and you think Hillary was not talking about you, but only the rough people, you had better think twice. She speaks for those who like to think of themselves as epistocrats, but who are really cognitive-elite oligarchs.



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