Monday, February 16, 2009

Where do our ideas about elites come from?

This Ross Douthat post beget this Marginal Revolution post which led me to an Arnold Kling post which says something I don't quite understand:
Suppose that we could "out" the top policy wonks and leaders of both parties. My guess is that we would see a Democratic elite that views poor people with more disgust than sympathy. And I suspect that we would see a Republican elite that finds religious fervor more disturbing than congenial.
For all I know Kling has firsthand experience with the views of "top policy wonks and leaders of both parties," though he doesn't claim to be speaking from experience here. What I want to know is where this intuition about the views of elites -- which certainly did not originate with Kling -- comes from. Why couldn't Republican elites also be religious fundamentalists? Why couldn't Democratic elites be genuine populists?

The thing about elites is that there are very few of them compared to we hoi polloi. And yet this Kling is hardly the first to claim to know their "real" views. How does he know? It could be that the knowledge filters down -- the small group of people who actually know and interact with these people talk to a few more people who talk to a few more people and so on -- but I doubt it.

Here's what I think is going on. I think Kling's own opinion is that religious fervor on the right and populism on the left are both sub-rational, baser instincts, opium-of-the-masses-type beliefs. And he assumes that elites must necessarily be rational beings not governed by such base, reptile-brain instincts -- after all, they're the elites!

But as anyone knows, if there is one lesson to be learned throughout human history, it is that powerful people are still people, governed by the same ridiculous irrationalities as the rest of us. So I think some caution is in order when divining what our elites really, really believe as distinct from what they do and say.


Saxdrop said...

[ed. My comments here are based on knowing Arnold personally, though not for a long time]

I think when Arnold thinks of "elite" he equates it with "economists", or at least those who are familiar with tenets of neoclassical economics. This is a guy who uses the word reparations, not in reference to slavery, but the Treaty of Versailles. He's a guy who worked at the Federal Reaserve but doesn't mingle in politically connected Georgetown cocktail party circles.

He may overstate the economists' view by using "disgust" in comparison to sympathy, but rhetorically he gets his point across. Kling's elites (as may be many a fellow traveller) are generally not religious, but nonetheless worship at the alter of efficiency. Economic models (of a neoclassical kind anyway) do not have variables for relative poverty, but only efficient distributions which admittedly may call for more redistribution toward the poor, but not because they are poor.

John Dias said...

Must we bicker on the degree to which the state should control everything? Doesn't anyone ask the forbidden question anymore? Why should a public policy be the be-all and end-all of our existence?

We politicize everything, and then use political parties to determine the degree of state control after the fact. No one questions whether a particular measure should be in the purview of government at all. And so we see articles like this one, pitting political parties against each other, confounding the confusion with speculation about the impact of "smart people" on a Statist culture.

Hey! How about we stop passing so many laws?