Saturday, March 17, 2007

In Defense of Elitism

Elitism has become something of a dirty word over the past several years. It first came under attack by the Know-Nothing wing of today's GOP, who sneer at higher learning, science and rationality. As has been noted before, the GOP and its mouthpieces in the media have used appeals to "common sense" as brickbats to discredit expertise and the scientific process. But lately the progressives, at least as represented by the netroots community, have launched attacks on notions of elitism. The critique from the progressives is substantively different, as they are generally predisposed to science and rationality.

Perhaps what is actually happening is that the two sides are fighting two different classes of elites. To the Right, the elites are intellectuals, experts, artists and other sundry learned folks. The criticism directed at these elites is based upon said elites' policy differences with the conservative worldview. For example, the conservative movement has made the corporate agenda primary in their politics. Now, science has shown that global warming is real and that it is driven by human factors. Because all but a few scientists accept this as fact, the Right is left with little defense to support its corporate compadres. Therefore they attack the basic notion of fact and scientific process that has been a bedrock of society since the Enlightenment.

Of course, there is the argument that the leaders of the Right are merely using anti-elite rhetoric as a way of driving low information and less educated voters to their corporate and Christianist causes. There is ample evidence to suggest that many conservative leaders view their followers as rubes, easily led into voting against their own best interests. Certainly the corporate and religious leaders of the Right qualify as a type of elite class.

And that is what the progressives are fighting against. They are not railing against scientists, public policy analysts and other rational decision makers. They are trying to dismantle the corporate elite. The progressives truly believe in people-powered politics. They think that the collective wisdom of the masses is greater than the wisdom of the elites. There are no calls to ignore science and experts on the Left. In fact, central to their people-powered politics is good information that would drive good decisions.

This where I part ways with the netroots progressives. I believe in the idea that there is a distinct class of people more suitable to governing and making decisions for the masses. I do not trust the average voter to make good choices, partly because there is simply no way to ensure that all voters have high quality information. And this information asymmetry creates distortions in politics, just as it does in markets.

In addition, some people in our society are simply not equipped to handle objective decision-making. They have inherent biases that tend to amass in crowds, rather than be diffused and diminished. The push back argument is that elites would also have biases, unless we're dealing with some Platonic ideal of elite citizens. To that I say the notion that the masses will all be well educated and informed is no less of an ideal. The ability of people-powered politics to drive good policy outcomes is premised on the conditions that people will be informed, that they will take the time to become informed, and that they have access to information. To me, those are unattainable and unrealistic conditions.

Even if a small, but significant, portion of the population fails to meet these conditions, outcomes are skewed and suboptimal. If our goal is good educational policy, then it should be made by experts. The same is true for other policy areas. It does not follow, however, that there ought not be democratic checks on these elite decision-makers. As we do not live in a world of Platonic ideals, these elites would be susceptible to bias, driven by protecting their entrenched interests, etc. And we need a strong democratic process to keep these behaviors under control.

But we do not need some sort of uber direct democracy, where policy decisions are made by the masses. This is why I oppose lawmaking by referendum. Direct democracy begets the trampling of minority rights.

I think that the netroots should look at what the people have supported for the better part of the past seven years. Do we really want to turn the reigns over to them? I certainly do not.


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