“Only an Intellectual Could Believe That”

Richard Fernandez reacts to President Obama’s description of “systemic failure” in our defenses against terrorism, and stresses the importance of decentralization and evolution within complex adaptive systems, while also pointing out that the lawyers in charge will never let responsibility be distributed in the way that success would require.

A new process will be invented. More ceremonies will be performed. Incense will be burned before the appropriate gods. The bureaucracy will try mightily to lay the egg, but in the end, despite best efforts things will not improve that much. What may actually help is giving lower levels more autonomy, letting them take risks even at the cost of making mistakes. But in an atmosphere of legal procedure where the incentives are adapted to the law enforcement model, where lawyers are king, there may little hope of that.

This seems right, and also cuts to a central issue dividing left and right on the political spectrum. Those on the left want centralization. They want to substitute their own judgment for the judgments of large numbers of other people. As John Stuart Mill, Hayek, and others have noted, that saddles them with the impossible task of obtaining and processing vast amounts of information and reflecting adequately vast numbers of preferences, all the while setting aside their own preferences. True enough.

But there’s another way of describing the problem. The left wants to characterize “best practices” in intelligence gathering, health care, economic issues, etc., and then mandate their use throughout the system. The difficulty isn’t just identifying best practices. It’s assuming that the problems being addressed are relatively simple. The real world isn’t like that. Problems are complicated. Solutions are context-sensitive. People need to use judgment. The left’s model can’t handle any of that.

Take a simple example. You see a medium-sized flying animal. Best practice: assume it’s a bird. Follow the best practice and, usually, you’ll be right. But there are bats; sometimes, you’ll be wrong. Apply the same thing to health care. The best practice will be to assume that a patient with certain symptoms has a certain disease. Most of the time you’ll be right. But there will be exceptions, and the system won’t be very good at identifying them. Something similar happens with intelligence systems. Once they reach sufficient size, the bureaucracy invents rules, and anyone who breaks them risks his or her career. Even if the rules are the best they can be, the system needs to adapt to new information; take context into account; recognize exceptional situations; and allow for individual judgment on the part of those closest to the circumstances.

Frenandez quotes Eric Raymond, who sees this as a failure of the educated elite:

I think the complexifying financial and political environment of the last few decades has simply outstripped the capacity of our “educated classes”, our cognitive elite, to cope with it. The “wizards” in our financial system couldn’t reason effectively about derivatives risk and oversimplified their way into meltdown; regulators failed to foresee the consequences of requiring a quota of mortgage loans to insolvent minority customers; and politico-military strategists weaned on the relative simplicity of confronting nation-state adversaries thrashed pitifully when required to game against fuzzy coalitions of state and non-state actors.

Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued tellingly in their 1994 book The Bell Curve that 20th-century American society had become a remarkably effective machine for spotting the cognitively gifted of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and tracking them into careers that would maximize their output. They pointed out, though, that the “educated class” produced by this machine was in danger of becoming self-separated from the mass of the population. I agree with both arguments, and I think David Brooks and Will Collier are pointing us at the results.

In retrospect, I think race- and class-blind meritocracy bought us about 60 years (1945-2008) of tolerably good management by Western elites. The meritocracy developed as an adaptation to the escalating complexity of 20th-century life, but there was bound to be a point at which that adaptation would run out of steam. And I think we’ve reached it. The “educated classes” are adrift, lurching from blunder to blunder in a world that has out-complexified their ability to impose a unifying narrative on it, or even a small collection of rival but commensurable narratives. They’re in the exact position of old Soviet central planners, systemically locked into grinding out products nobody wants to buy.

There’s a sense in which this is right, but another sense in which the problems really weren’t very hard at all. “Make a bunch of risky investments at once, and it won’t be risky!” “Let’s give mortgages to a lot of people who can’t afford them!” “Let’s treat an organized group of terrorists as if they were either governments (if you’re a Republican) or individual lawbreakers (if you’re a Democrat)!” Joe the Plumber, like many ordinary Americans, has no trouble seeing that these policies are foolish. As George Orwell said, only an intellectual could believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool.

It’s true that our educational system has isolated our elites from the opinions of ordinary people and thus from common sense. It’s true that leftists have taken over our educational institutions. And it’s true that educated elites like leftist ideas for self-serving reasons, since they enhance the power of the educated elites, giving them the power to direct society and substitute their judgments for those of others. But I think there’s another reason, too. The educated elites learn to love intellectual sophistication. They learn to love the complex over the simple, the indirect over the direct, the nuanced over the straightforward.

There are reasons for that preference, but, in many areas, it’s a recipe for error. The skeptic gives all sorts of sophisticated reasons for doubting the evidence of the senses; John Locke invites the skeptic to put his hand into the fire in front of him. Berkeley gives all sorts of sophisticated reasons for thinking that there are no material objects; Samuel Johnson kicks a stone. The intellectual ridicules these responses as crude, as unsophisticated, as missing the point. The ordinary person tends to find them persuasive.

Just so, the intellectual finds reasons for making large numbers of risky investments; the ordinary person thinks that’s irresponsible. The intellectual finds reasons to think that a government health care program will save money; the ordinary person scoffs, being unable to think of any other analogous case in which that’s been true. The intellectual thinks it would be good to treat terrorists as ordinary criminals; the ordinary person finds it an obviously bad idea. The intellectual thinks fighting terrorism just generates more terrorists; the ordinary person thinks you ought to fight back against people who are out to kill you. The intellectual has sophisticated reasons for believing that global warming is a dire threat to the planet; the ordinary person notes that it’s really cold outside.

I compare intellectuals and leftists to skeptics and idealists for a reason. The skeptic and the idealist find reasons for ignoring the evidence of their senses. The ordinary person takes that evidence at face value. Yes, sometimes we fall prey to illusions; sometimes, the evidence misleads us. But usually the ordinary person is right. We need intellectuals to identify the cases where common sense leads us astray. Just as hard cases make bad law, however, leadership by intellectuals, when codified in bureaucracies and rules, at any rate, can produce the inverse error and even systematize illusion.

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