Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Inequality of Smarts

According to Derbyshire, we don’t resent rich people, but smart people. That may be because our high-tech aristocracy of brains isn’t particularly lovable. In the good old days, people actually loved--or at least saw admirable personal qualities in--their rulers. (Thanks to Ivan the K.)

Discussions - 9 Comments

Do you think the smart people resent rich people (especially if the rich in question are not smart, or the smart in question not rich)?

Cultivating in elites the virtue of magnanimous condescension would of course require a great deal more than increased social mixing (Derbyshire’s recommendation). The constant striving and jockeying for position whereby the (fluid) composition of our smartocracy is determined is in every way opposed to the development of this quality--which flourishes only in social conditions in which the gap between the classes is wide and permanent. Absent such conditions, a few noble spirits will learn the art of speaking across the IQ gap—most will not given their preoccupation with status security vis-à-vis their fellow elites.

Provided they're at least middle-middle class, I think (average) smart people tend not to resent rich people. Indeed, the assistant professor of art history might experience the occasional flutter of self-satisfaction when he reflects on the fact that his position is not particularly well compensated.....

I think we should all resent tall people, defined as anyone taller than ourselves.

Malcolm Gladwell, I think it was, wrote something a while back on how statistically overrepresented men over 6 feet tall are in the ranks of corporate CEOs. Maybe there really was something to John Adams's complaint that George Washington always got picked for the bigtime jobs because he was perennially the tallest man in the room.

I don't think that we have a "high-tech aristocracy of brains". This is just more Derb on his latest hobby-horse - the belief that "scientists" should rule the world. They don't and won't, which we should all be thankful for.

Derb : "very likely is the case that some people have higher net worth than others". I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. If it means "some people have a greater financial net worth than others", then it's a banal observation. There has never been a time or place where that was not true.

Derb : "U.S. society today is very nearly a pure meritocracy, perhaps the purest there has ever been". Again, this is gibberish. All societies are meritocracies. They may decide that different things are meritorious of course. In 14th century Europe a good sword arm was a sign of merit. In other times and places it was meritorious to be a devout man of God, or a merchant, or a farmer.

I just don't think that a meritocracy (defined as status attained by use of intelligence and effort) is more resented than others (for instance status based on parentage, or race). There is little call to have the last chemical engineer strangled by entrails of the last medical doctor. But some points on meritocracy and inequality...

1. People will probably put up with more inequality if it is combined with clearly rising living standards at every level of the income distribution. This is especially true if the inequality is presented as a condition of the broadly rising living standards. but if living standards stagnate for much of the income distribution, many people will conclude that the system is gamed against them.

2. People will especially despise this inequality if groups at the top of the meritocracy use their influence to rub the inequality of staus in the faces of lower status groups. Much of the rage of working class groups over issues like gun control or busing was the sense that upper class liberal were lording it over the working class.

3. If the problem of inequality seems worse today than six years ago, it is partly because higher energy costs act as a regressive tax. Cheap energy is now a populist issue.

4. For reasons that Prof. Lawler has pointed out, people feel more "on their own" because of the relentless search for productivity. In many ways people (especially people in the working and lower middle classes) have less security than they did forty yaers ago. They have a right to ask what they are getting back. Supporters of free markets will be expected to provide plausible and relevant answers.

I recommend three authorities on this topic. 1) Ortega y Gasset: Revolt of the Masses(haven't read it in a long time, but the force of what the "curse of specialization" means for being able to communicate effectively has always struck me as determinative beyond particular arguments, if you want you can consider the biblical story of the tower of babble.

2) David Hume's essay On Taste. 3) Ian Ayres: Supercrunchers.

John may be smarter than I am, but certainly he might concede that what is meritorious at previous times in history has been based at least upon a certain sense of necessity. A good sword arm being a sign of merit was necessary when Vikings roamed, as was Chivalry necessary to restrain the sexual urges and brash behavior of men with swords. The strong do as they please and the weak suffer as they must, so say the Melian Dialogues, and Thrasymachus reminded Socrates that he could speak all he wanted but couldn't force listening.

When John says: "All societies are meritocracies. They may decide that different things are meritorious of course." he is right, but the question is always who the "they" is. If people resent "smarts" then they resent the "smarts" as the "they" who determine what is meritorious.

The standard for the plumber who does work for John Derbyshire is rather straight foward. The plumber doesn't need special smarts to know what constitutes a good job, and if the plumber tried to snow Derbyshire about a shoddy job, odds are good the plumber would be fired, not rehired and possibly pay would be held back. The plumber is thus forced to adhere to a standard in his work. But John Derbyshire is a political columnist, as a smart gent who is part of that class that is the "they" who determines what is meritorious, he is nevertheless not really held accountable for anything.

In this sense then I say that people resent smarts, as the smarts that stand in as creators of authority and standards of meritoriousness. This "they", in the formulation of Derbyshire is the "smarts", in my read of Hegel this is "critical consciousness vs. way of the world", people that are greater authorities tell me that this is simply "authority vs. subjectivity" and this certainly seems one of a few of the manifold ways of understanding it.

The american people by and large do not resent merit. In fact the american people worship merit. Americans and especially the typical average american loves sports. Sports are games, which means that they are contests with rules as parameters for determining the victor. Derbyshire can say anything he likes, but the plumber knows that New York won the most recent Superbowl, and no authority can stand above that fact.(I suppose that a Cartesian philosopher might bring in the evil genuis, but it is likely the plumber would tell him to get fucked, and with good reason.)

Americans love the Olympics, or at least they respect gold medals, and while many events allow for some subjectivity, we assume that the judges are competent experts whose refined judgement stands above our own.

If only what counted as "smarts" could find an objective basis for resolving disagreements, you might find that no american would resent it. I mean that the american people will always hate referees, and if you go to any sports event you should be able to understand. But by and large we know that referees are impartial and do the best they can. Far from hateing "smarts" americans love them, and we will come to like and respect a referee if we see that despite having hurt our team on a key call, the sum total of his calls demonstrate extreme competence.

What the american people could not stand in smarts for long, would be a game in which the referees changed the rules to accomodate those they wished to win. In this sense the american people hate the smarts in politics, and perhaps also the smarts on Wall Street. In this sense smarts is a stand in for cleverness, and would be to David Hume's wine parable what comming to the end of the cask and discovering nothing would be to the credibility of the experts. It is one thing altogether to grant that refinement in taste, judgement and smarts is unequal when upon reaching the end of the cask one discovers that the expert who detected metal and the expert who detected leather were correct, but it is altogether a different matter if the cask reveals nothing. It might at this juncture be interesting to set Hegel up against Karl Popper, except no doubt that others have already done so. But what is interesting from a common perspective is that the particular claims that christian apologetics has made have commited christianity to speak in such a way that it could be refuted. Of course few if any have the authority to ground christianity, but this in general has not prevented those seeking authority from grounding entire constructs in ways that leave them open to refutation. After all it seems that subjectivity does not accept an open ended authority, and the american people are not going to see admirable qualities in rullers so long as a memory of worshipful Stalinists remains.

Subjectivity or populism thus requires of authority or smarts that they stipulate clearly what counts as a refutation, but smarts knows too many games and gaps in american consciousness, and plays constantly upon the limits of what we are capable of knowing.

Because it isn't just that supporters of free markets should be expected to provide plausible and revelant answers, but that such plausible and revelant answers if they existed would only be accessible to experts in particular fields. Thus we are back to Ortega or whoever the more modern and scientific friend of Derbyshire is.

But we must remmember that politicians are among those who are most able to speak across expertise, but that in doing so politicians will never approximate the degree of refinement that particular experts have. The question of hatred of smarts then resides in the impossibility of a comprehensive liberal arts education. It is the knowledge that smarts stipulate both what the wine taste like and when the proverbial bottom of the cask is reached. Smarts cuts the cake and choose which piece it gets to eat.

In all fairness populism simply requests that if you stipulate that your taste is superior, you prove it by finding a key at the bottom of a cask. That if you cut a cake, you let the other person choose the half he wants. Populism is the Missouri motto: Show me(made modern by adding bitch to the end). Some might say that this is the doubting Thomas state, the state opposed to the high moral considerations of a Kierkegard and they would be damn right.

Show me is the populist root of subjectivity against authority. Show me demands reasons and justifications from the market. But the justification of the market is ultimately a justification of epistemology itself. Market players/speculators have particular views and opinions about where the market is going for every piece of cake cut there is someone who thinks his slice is bigger. In a sense the market provides an objective or at least agreed upon format for determining winners and loosers of the sort that could never be achieved politically. Nothing that is put before the market is uncapable of dying. Anything that is sophistry and illusion is commited to the flames. If Wall Street allows some fund managers to make money even when they are wrong it is because they judge them human but superior to other humans in judgement, but those who think themselves gods die quickly.

Politics is incapable of providing for itself a market solution or a determination that puts an idea into its death throes anymore than christianity could be proved or disproved by facts for or against it. politics is really thus not like the market, because the reasons and smarts employed on its behalf are moral claims whose belief does not foundationally rest upon facts in the same sense that facts are given winners and loosers in the market.

The hatred then of smarts is a hatred of the status of moral claims that appear to be hidden behind smarts stipulating what can and cannot be market determined.

The plumber in his job is market determined, while Derbyshire appears not to be, in so far as he maintains expert status.

In the good old days, people actually loved--or at least saw admirable personal qualities in--their rulers.

The older aristocracy at least aspired to be "good" and to be the steward of the whole society. The modern one does not pretend to care about anything but itself. It's like having an officer class that despises the enlisted men.

The hatred then of smarts is a hatred of the status of moral claims that appear to be hidden behind smarts stipulating what can and cannot be market determined.

Yes, I think that gets to the heart of it. The Overclass expects everybody else to be subject to the principles of laissez faire, but not themselves. To be an Overclass is to be exempt from the rules you impose on others.

our high-tech aristocracy of brains isn’t particularly lovable.

If you judge an aristocracy by the society it creates, then it's doubtful that ours is even well-endowed with brains. At least with brains beyond those required in banal problem solving.

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