Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Arrogance of the Articulate: Introduction

Bush Derangement Syndrome. The Obama/Clinton foreign policy. Hoplophobia. The tendency (over time) for non-profit foundations to drift Leftwards. Admiration by our cultural elites for dictators like Fidel Castro and Cesar Chavez.

What do all these things have in common?

Many who write or speak well believe they deserve the power to rule everyone else.

It all goes back to the age-old question: "who shall rule?" In general, people naturally want power over others, so they justify that quest for power on the basis of some unique attribute they possess.

Greek philosophers argued that philosopher-kings would best lead society. Egyptian Pharaohs weren't just heads of government: they claimed actual godhood and required everyone to worship them too. In Iran today, the clergy claim ultimate civil power by appealing to divine scriptures, and by asserting the exclusive right to interpret and apply the writings of the prophet Muhammed. Similarly, the Christian Bishop of Rome claimed the right to appoint and depose civil authorities as the earthly "Vicar of Christ". The "divine right of kings" has a long history in Western civilization.

In this series of blog posts, I will try to show how this explanation fits with (and predicts) lots of things we see in contemporary American public life. My goal is to educate people so they can see this argument in its various forms, and appropriately evaluate claims to authority.

The Fallacy that Intellectuals Believe

In a recent interview, Thomas Sowell describes what intellectuals believe:

That intellectuals should influence--if not control--the kinds of decisions made in society. More specially, they should promote the transfer of decisions from the masses to those who have 'more intellect'.

Throughout the interview, he goes on to explain that this assumes that the knowledge necessary to make those decisions can be collected and processed by the intellectual elite. But in reality, the knowledge necessary to make those decisions is distributed widely throughout society. He estimates that 99% of the knowledge is not available to would-be central planners, so top-down command-and-control strategies will inevitably fail.

Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs television show, illustrates this point viscerally and memorably in this 20-minute talk:

Dr. Sowell and Mr. Rowe are right. Intellectuals do not (and can not!) know enough to organize society. We are better off when individuals make decisions based on their own local knowledge.

Monday, January 19, 2009

America's Unique Exceptionalism

In a Forbes Magazine op-ed, Tunku Varadarajan writes:

The creed of American exceptionalism is distinctive because it is tied closely to the creed of American individualism. There are other societies or people that are adamant believers in their own exceptionalism: The Chinese have their conceit of the Middle Kingdom; the Jews hold that they are Chosen; Hindu Brahmins believe that they alone are born from the head of God; and the Britons have believed that they rule the waves, and that they never, never, never shall be slaves (and what is that if not exceptionalism?). But only the American brand of exceptionalism is not tribal; it allows Outsiders to become Insiders.

American exceptionalism is, paradoxically, all-inclusive, for it encourages salvation through assimilation. I speak, here, of a civic salvation, of a sense of joining a citizenry whose rules are the product of a bold and bracing experiment in perfectibility. This experiment, while yielding a most stirring result in the election of Obama, is as yet far from complete. And still the world watches it--watches it, I should say, with no small amount of awe.

Exactly right. I am unabashedly proud of my country, particularly because it doesn't mean putting anyone else down. Anyone can become an American in spirit, and millions of people have given up everything to do so.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Frosty Candy Mountain

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Thomas Sowell nails it:

How have intellectuals managed to be so wrong, so often? By thinking that because they are knowledgeable-- or even expert-- within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rationalistic Politics: A Dangerous Pipe Dream

Miklos Hollender's comment on a Dr. Helen article is the quote of the day:

Jim M,

You need a coherent rational philosophy.

No. That’s the whole point: currently we have so little scientific knowledge about the human mind and human society that any kind of rationalistic politics is a dangerous pipe dream, because we pretend to know stuff we do not know. This is why we have to rely on common sense, tradition etc. - generally, pattern recognition, as opposed to theoretization.

What he said.