It's the Elites, Stupid
How are we going to build anything if we’re trapped beneath the rubble produced by those in control?
James B. Conant—first chairman of the National Science Foundation, scientific advisor to the Manhattan Project, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and Harvard’s 23rd president—did much to make Harvard a recognizably modern, elite university. He introduced the SAT, dispensed with mandatory Latin, and built out professional schools around the undergraduate college. In his meritocratic ideals and insistence that it was better to “advance” than to “perpetuate” learning, as well as his application of his own learning to the scientific and political challenges of the day, Conant helped push the country’s top talent and institutions towards the uniting of technological achievement and the national interest.
As recent events have exhibited, Harvard’s 30th president had no such talent or intelligence herself. Nor is Harvard’s fall in the competence of its leadership, if not in its prestige, unique: every day brings further proof that our nation is run by fools, flying blind and making it up as they go along. But our top institutions haven’t seen a corresponding decline in their importance; how could they? Our government, schools, and military don’t stop mattering just because the people running them don’t know what they’re doing (until the whole system collapses, that is).
For those wishing we could ignore the latest scandal and get down to the task of making things work again, the ever-more apparent gap between the ability of those who built up America’s great institutions and that of those now managing their decline raises an uncomfortable question. How are we going to develop the next Manhattan Project, do the “hard things” President Kennedy called us to do, undertake the ambitious endeavors that figures like Conant made possible, when the very institutions that ought to be leading and staffing such projects are run by mediocrities? We won’t. The advance of new industries, the construction of new monuments, the realization of technological and economic breakthroughs—even just a return to a basic level of functioning across society—will not happen without a wholesale response to the competence crisis within our top institutions.
This fact poses a serious challenge for one of the most promising responses to this collective desire for something better: the emerging movement to craft an “abundance agenda.” Since The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson coined the term in 2022, a group of wonks and writers, including such figures as Ezra Klein, Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison, and Marc Andreessen, have coalesced around a recognition that America just doesn’t have enough of the stuff it needs to support a rising, or even steady, quality of life. And they’ve identified the culprit, fingering self-imposed scarcity as the master problem behind every other in contemporary America: inadequate housing, expensive health care, limited clean energy, and more. This crew of “supply-side progressives,” market-oriented conservatives, and less political “Progress Studies” advocates who want faster transportation and enough COVID tests, argue rightly that the primary obstacle today to higher living standards, a cleaner environment, better jobs, and more is not inherent technical constraints on our resources.
Rather, more prosaic obstacles are behind our stalled material progress: regulatory capture, misguided red tape, NIMBY-style blockage, too many veto points at every level of government, and a policymaking process that favors loud minorities over broadly popular demands. Most simply, our shortage of stuff stems from a failure to “build,” to use one of their favorite words. As a public-spirited, meritocratic scientist, Conant should be a natural hero for this movement.
The abundancers have hit on something important, and have the early makings of a bipartisan coalition. Progressives are waking up to the value of creating more of everything, rather than fighting over how to redistribute what’s already there; and conservatives are realizing that as long as we’re going to have a government, we should have an effective one that furthers national priorities through support for technological innovation and R&D. Yet because the abundance agenda is so focused on cases of unnecessary, self-imposed scarcity, it has so far shied away from one area in which there is genuine, unavoidable scarcity: institutional governance and the management of our elite institutions.
Claudine Gay’s departure, and the preceding exposure of her mediocrity, are only the most recent reminder that we can’t afford to ignore this domain. Great ideas and white papers don’t themselves do anything; they need to be implemented, which is to say, implemented by people, which is to say, people at organizations; renewal is not likely to happen simply through solitary garage tinkerers and itinerant preachers, and those people will often be those running our top institutions, whether they be executive branch officials, Fortune 100 CEOs, or university presidents. Yet, as no one can avoid noticing anymore, when it comes to the leadership of many of the country’s most influential organizations—precisely the ones that should be carrying out, or training the people who will carry out, an abundance agenda—we’re not sending our best. Our leaders’ incompetence trickles down through the ranks, producing federal agencies that can’t respond to new challenges, companies that regurgitate old products, and universities that don’t push the boundaries of our knowledge. How are we going to build anything if we’re trapped beneath the rubble produced by those in control?
Like it or not, these institutions matter. Scarcity here becomes unavoidable: with better policies, we could have more houses, more physicians, more nuclear plants; but there can be only one president of Harvard, one presidential cabinet, and so on. In the case of our most influential organizations, there just is going to be someone in charge, and for the good of everyone else, we need that person to be the right one. What’s more, while building new, alternative institutions could conceivably succeed at displacing older, sclerotic ones in some areas, in others this approach simply isn’t an option; there’s only going to be one federal government, after all. As so many realized during the pandemic, exit from even the most blundering regime isn’t possible; we are stuck with what we’ve got. Those in charge might be wrecking their own institutions, but as long as they can influence—whether through law, patronage, or prestige—what the rest of us are able to accomplish, there will be hard limits on what even the most fervent desire to build can achieve.
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In the exception that proves the rule, there is one area in which the abundancers have recognized a necessity of filling big roles with the arguable best: high-skilled immigration. Attracting talent from around the world, they reason, is a great way to cultivate human capital in vital industries, particularly in specialized fields for which the U.S. simply does not have enough domestic workers, such as semiconductor manufacturing. And especially when there are domestic shortages, and therefore no real competition between current and would-be citizens, the attraction of talent to the U.S. really is positive-sum (at least for America). Why is it, then, that this objective—ensuring that the most important positions in the country are filled by the most capable people—is applied to international human capital, but not to domestic?
It’s an understandable omission. Zero-sum fights to expose and out incompetents, and replace them with greater talent, puncture the enticing hope that if we simply renewed our will to build, everyone could enjoy more of everything. In the case of high-skilled immigration, one can plausibly argue that everyone will benefit. But point out that positions as high as vice president of the nation are now selected without regard to knowledge, proven ability, or any other worthy trait, and one is immediately jolted back into reality, with all its unpleasant, but inevitable, politics. And if politics means the contestation over which ends we will pursue, and which we will not, then the political realm faces perhaps the most inherent scarcity of all.
Surveying the movement, the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle has observed, “Many promoters of the abundance agenda would add that we’ve become increasingly prone to shortchanging future progress in favor of current consumption.” But a studious avoidance of the human, political problem of scarcity in the running of our elite institutions is its own costly form of short-term consumption. To borrow from Engels, the abundancers have so far focused on the administration of things, but as long as we continue to have a government of persons, no agenda that ignores those (mis)governing persons is likely to succeed. Unless the abundance mindset is expanded to focus on getting the right people in the right positions—and getting the wrong people out—we are likely to be left continuing only to study progress, rather than achieving it.