Progressives introduced a new determination to organize and improve modern life by applying, vigorously and if need be forcibly, the insights being uncovered by a clerisy of social scientists. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, believed that the emergency posed by World War II called for government experts to rationalize every aspect of national life. Three months after Pearl Harbor, she contended that “all of us — men in the services, and men and women at home — should be drafted and told what is the job we are to do.” Only through such regimentation could each of us confidently gain the satisfaction that comes from knowing he was “complying with the wishes and doing the things which those in authority thought should be done.”The "liberalism" to which Mr Voegeli refers is the radical chic version, which sometimes these days flies under the rubric of "progressivism" new style, in which the regimentation is tempered by lip service to "diversity" or "inclusion." But it's still about the Wise Experts. Robert Moses, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Jonathan Gruber, policy failure is policy failure.
The -ism of progressivism is the belief that movement toward a better future is a goal, a right, and the highest imperative. “Progress,” in its most direct, literal sense, simply means getting closer to some objective, one both comprehensible and manifestly superior to the current state of affairs. The early progressives believed that ascertaining and mastering the processes that shaped society and history would move mankind to a better future, just as understanding the natural laws of the physical universe had improved the human condition through steam engines, telegraphs, anesthetics, and other modern marvels.
Liberalism, however, came to regard its faith in progress as untenable. The rejection was, in part, a reaction to historical developments. Complying with the wishes of those in authority lost much of its appeal when the authorities turned out to be men such as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, smart fools who provided detailed charts and graphs to justify each augmentation of America’s catastrophic misadventure in Vietnam. At home, liberals came to detest the progressivism of Robert Moses and other power brokers, experts whose idea of urban renewal was to bulldoze any city block that had the temerity to evince charm or social cohesion in ways not part of a government agency’s master plan.
And perhaps that Governance by Wise Experts is not enough, as the People have too much freedom to choose who appoints the Wise Experts. Thus Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan makes a modest proposal.
The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.Let's leave aside the echoes of #BasketofDeplorables and take the proposal seriously, as Rod Dreher has. (Property qualifications? Literacy tests? Weren't we there earlier?)
In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.
In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.
All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.
Brennan is not wrong to criticize the flaws in democracy. Giving people the vote is no guarantee that they will use it wisely. But restricting the vote to the cognitive elite is no solution. I would rather be ruled by the first thousand people through the gates at the Daytona 500 than the people in that room Friday night with Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand. Guess who holds more power already in our society? That’s right: the cognitive elite. That’s how it works in a meritocracy. Prof. Brennan’s epistocracy would only give them more — for our own good.Never mind that single-use zoning is for our own good, as is uneven regulation of controlled substances and Common Core. That the epistocracy can be as subject to preference cascades and group think ought be reason enough to limit their powers.
I am no fan of racism, sexism, and the litany of deplorable thoughtcrimes that Mrs. Clinton mentioned on Friday. But I am genuinely frightened of powerful people like those gathered in that room who get to define what constitutes racism and all the rest, and use that as a way to destroy heretics who deviate from their puritanical gospel."Heretics" is about right. But by their fruits, whether parking craters or health insurance collapses, shall we know them.