Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Son of Elitism for the Masses

One of my right-wing acquaintances -- let's call him RWA1 to distinguish him from RWA2, though there's not much to distinguish them aside from a quarter-century in age -- just posted a Facebook Like to a National Review article called "Our So-called Experts," by one Jim Manzi. I was going to make a little joke to the effect that the so-called experts would be NR's -- that's the magazine that gave the world George Will and other great intellectuals -- but it was a bit too labored even for me.

So anyway, what have we got here? The topic is really climate change controversy and skepticism about global warming. Manzi claims that, although "public opinion in many major European democracies is surprisingly similar to that in the U.S.",
the U.S. political system is the only one that gives voice to this skepticism. After all, in a democracy, when 40–50+ percent of the population has an opinion on a topic of immense public importance, one of the parties will normally reflect this, if only to get votes.
Manzi sees "significant structural advantages for the non-elites in the U.S. versus the UK, two stand out: open primaries, and lack of membership in a supra-national organization like the E.U." Well, the US is also theoretically subject to "supra-national" constraints like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, and our "open primaries" don't work all that well in the long run at keeping "elites" (Manzi's word) from running things. "Of course," he quips, "the reply of a progressive to this observation is presumably: Bravo, the system is working as intended." "Presumably"?

Unfortunately I must agree that there is a lot of elitism among "progressives," but this doesn't distinguish them in any important way from "conservatives." Manzi, who is "the founder and chairman of an applied artificial intelligence software company... [and] a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute" (which I guess does make him one of NR's so-called experts!), links to an article he wrote for City in which he talks about the limitations of the social sciences in making testable predictions. For an opening example he mentions liberal economists like Paul Krugman and Obama's 2009 stimulus package to support his contention in the NR article that "the elites ... have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that worked when subjected to rigorous testing." He might also have mentioned Reaganomics and its 1981 interventions that drove US unemployment up to Depression-era levels, a result from which the country has never really recovered. He might have mentioned the neoliberal policies, called Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein, championed by Milton Friedman and other elites, which have generated huge corporate profits at terrible cost to most people. Or the deregulation policies, popular among elites of both parties, that brought the US economy crashing down in 2008. Of course, the reply of a conservative to this observation is presumably: Bravo, the system is working as intended.

Manzi might also have mentioned the opposition to genetically modified foods, which is much more widespread, organized and effective in Europe than the US. I don't know how public opinion on the matter compares, but I do know that US corporate elites blocked Congressional plans to require labeling of GM foods here. For our own good, of course.

Manzi quotes (and agrees with) William F. Buckley's disingenuous quip that he "would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty", and concludes: "Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge." Would the elites at the National Review or my RWA1 approve of this claim if Manzi included right-wing "so-called experts"? I doubt it. I, on the other hand, have often expressed my own reservations about our so-called experts and my criticism of elitism. (As an old-fashioned gay liberationist, I'm wary not only of antigay experts but of gay ones.) I could also point to numerous writers on the left (or "cultural left") who've been critical of expertise and argued for more democratic controls on social policy, including that informed by "science." And c'mon, with its billionaire bankrollers and exaggerated numbers drawn from the losing side of the last elections, the Tea Party Extended Tantrum is an elite group itself.