Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Role of the Elite

Megan McArdle in the Atlantic wrote this article, as an admitted elite, stating that, as word-smiths, the elite have a lot to learn about middle America. She tends to give them much more latitude, in the area of the need to control, than I would give, but, all in all, it is a fair analysis of the problems that the ultra-educated dump on us "less knowledgeable" citizens.

Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.

Elites are often missing crucial knowledge, and unaware of it. In some ways, that effect is more pronounced than it used to be, with more and more of the elites drawn from a narrow class of extremely well-educated people from a handful of metropolitan areas, few of whom have ever, say, been responsible for a profit and loss statement, or tried to bring a gas station into compliance with local and federal EPA regulations. In a world where your primary output is words, it is easy to imagine a smoothly operating process based on really smart rule-making. And there's a certain impatience with the grimy, self interested folks who complain about the regulations imposed for the good of society--a certain forgetting that in aggregate, those whiners are society. In essence, elites are always missing one vital piece of information: what it is like to be someone who is not in the elite.

Moreover, like all elites, the current meritocratic class is self-interested in numerous ways. It is easy for us* to recommend free trade, carbon taxes, and so forth; most of us live in cities where we don't have to drive that far, and/or command incomes that make the price of gas rather incidental to our budget. And think tanks, policy magazines, and congressional staffs--however threatened they may be by other forces--are not yet likely to be outsourced.

I'm not saying that these ideas are wrong; I myself support both of them. But I am also aware that I do not really emotionally comprehend what it is like to be trying to support a family of four on $38,000 a year in rural West Virginia. The problem is not that the elites are venal self-interested autocrats out to screw the little guy and give their group more power; the problem is that, like every other group, they tend to understand the costs of programs that restrict their autonomy very well, and to be somewhat less sensitive to the freedom of others. As Anatole France drily put it: "The law in its majestic equality refuses the rich as well as the poor the right to sleep under bridges and to beg for bread."

The Role of the Elite

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