National Security & Defense

Davos’s Destructive Elites

“None of us is as dumb as all of us.”

Convening to ring the alarm about global warming, our putative betters and would-be rulers gathered in Davos, Switzerland, filling the local general-aviation hangars with some 1,700 private jets. Taking an international commercial flight is one of the most carbon-intensive things the typical person does in his life, but if you’re comparing carbon footprints between your average traveler squeezed into coach on American and Davos Man quaffing Pol Roger in his cashmere-carpeted intercontinental air limousine, you’re talking Smurfette vs. Sasquatch. The Bombardier’s Global 6000 may be a technical marvel, but it still runs on antique plankton juice. The emissions from heating all those sprawling hotel suites in the Alps in winter surely makes baby polar bears weep bitter and copious baby-polar-bear tears.

The stories add up: Jeff Greene brings multiple nannies on his private jet to Davos, and the rest of the guys gathered to talk past each other about the plight of the working man scarf down couture hot-dogs that cost forty bucks. Bill Clinton makes the case for wealth-redistribution while sporting a $60,000 platinum Rolex.

The hypocrisy of our literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) high-flying crusaders against fossil fuels — who overlap considerably with our high-living crusaders against economic inequality — is endlessly annoying if frequently entertaining. And there is something unseemly about enduring puritanical little homilies on how we need to learn to live with less from guys wearing shoes that cost more than the typical American family earns in a quarter. When that obnoxious Alec Baldwin character from Glengarry Glen Ross informs that sad-sack real-estate salesman that his watch costs more than that guy’s car, he was trying to provoke him into getting richer, to the tune of a Cadillac Eldorado or, if not that, at least the second-prize set of steak knives. But our modern progressive versions of that guy are even more obnoxious: They demand that we lower our expectations while they live lives of opulence that would have embarrassed the Count of Monte Cristo.

Out-obnoxious-ing a guy with Alec Baldwin’s smirking mug takes a lot of brass.

These ridiculous hypocrites deserve every syllable of abuse that comes their way. I instinctively write off all denunciations of the wicked 1 percent coming from anybody unwilling to live at or below the median U.S. household income, which amounts to less than Clinton’s Rolex is worth. But there is something worse at work here than hypocrisy: stupidity. And stupidity is, like private-jet travel, shockingly expensive.

Our governments and our business and political elites are not mainly made up of stupid people. One of the shocking things about getting to know people in government, whether in elected office or in the bureaucracies, is that they are mostly bright, well-intentioned, and honest. Together they represent a sterling example of one of the most important and least understood of modern social paradoxes: None of us is as dumb as all of us.

There exists in every human being, in every human organization, and every human system a sort of epistemic horizon, a real and meaningful boundary on the amount of knowledge and cognitive firepower that that person or agency can bring to any given problem. This is a fact that is at some level known and understood across the political spectrum: It is the cornerstone of the progressives’ case for diversity, in that people with different knowledge inventories, different experiences, and different perspectives are more likely to discover effective solutions to complex problems than are groups that are more intellectually homogeneous. For conservatives of a Hayekian bent, this is the familiar “knowledge problem,” the understanding that markets will allocate resources more productively than political agencies will because markets are the only effective means of aggregating usable information about specific economic situations.

We understand the problem of the epistemic horizon, but we do not apply that understanding nearly broadly enough. Progressives believe that “diversity” increases when an organization dominated by white men who are overwhelmingly graduates of the same five law schools, who have read the same books, watch the same television shows, and hold the same relatively narrow range of political opinions adds to its personnel a white woman or a black man who is also a graduate of one of those same five law schools, who has read the same books, watches the same television shows, and holds political views within that same relatively narrow range. Conservatives, to their credit, generally understand that intellectual homogeneity is different from ethnic or sexual homogeneity, but they, too, are generally too unwilling to carry through the more radical implications of that knowledge.

The intellectual homogeneity of policymaking elites is a serious and underestimated problem. To take an obvious example: The American policymaking class includes both progressives and conservatives, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by college graduates and people in occupations that are largely open only to college graduates. Unsurprisingly, our educational-policy debate is almost exclusively focused on how to get more people prepared for college, how to get more people through college, and how to help college graduates deal with financial obligations incurred in the course of a college education. Even a celebrity like John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin of Cheers), whose background is in carpentry and whose interest is in cultivating skilled labor, has a difficult time influencing that debate. This is not a result of ill will, selfishness, or malfeasance on the part of elites; it is just that it seems natural to them that the sorts of problems people like them tend to have are the ones that we need to focus on, and that what worked in their lives will work for everybody else.

The people who gather at Davos are wildly successful. And while some of them are simply self-serving and self-aggrandizing twits, the great majority of them genuinely want to help others lead happier, richer, more secure lives. Whatever Bill Gates is about, it’s a safe bet that he’s not in it for the money at this point. But billionaire entrepreneurs in sufficient number become as intellectually homogeneous a group as any university women’s-studies department.

People whose profession is the crafting of legislation or the application of regulation reflexively (and understandably) assume that if you want more of something, then the thing to do is to pass a law mandating it, and that if you want less of something, then the thing to do is to pass a law punishing it. The bigger picture — that laws and regulations and other aspects of policy interact with one another in unexpected ways — is generally invisible to them. If you are a lawyer, then you understand most social questions as a matter of law; if you are an economist, you understand them as questions of economics; if you are a teacher, you think that the answer to many social problems is better schools. This habit is only natural.

Conservatives are generally inclined to make a moral case for limited government: that transfers are corrupting, that taxes should be collected only to the extent that they are essential, that regulation is a necessary evil and that as such it should be kept to a minimum. That is generally true and persuasive, but the more important argument is the problem of ignorance. Even if Congress were populated exclusively by saintly super-geniuses, there is only so much that 535 human beings can know and understand. The more that decision-making is centralized in political agencies, or even in elites outside of formal government, the more intensively those decisions will be distorted by ignorance. This is true of market-oriented institutions, too, in the sense that big businesses make big mistakes. One of the lessons of the 2007 financial crisis is that the guys who run the banks do not actually know that much about how banks work, even if they know 100 times what the banking regulators know. Free markets offer a critical, if imperfect and partial, corrective to that in the form of financial losses and business failures, which is why things like cars and computers consistently improve while schools and welfare programs don’t. Big markets with lots of competing buyers and sellers are the biggest thinking machines we have, offering the broadest epistemic horizon that our species has figured out how to achieve.

There is a deep philosophical challenge for progressives in that: Progressives say that they want inclusive social decision-making, but the most radically inclusive process we have for social decision-making is the thing that they generally distrust and often hate: capitalism — or, as our left-leaning friends so often put it, “unfettered” capitalism. And who should decide what sort of fetters are applied to whom? The view from Davos is, unsurprisingly: the people at Davos. 

The hypocrisy and material self-indulgence on display at Davos may rankle, but the deeper problem is the unspoken assumption that the sort of people who gather in Davos are the sort of people who have the answers to social problems. Historically speaking, there is little evidence to support that proposition. And that is why conventions like that in Davos end up being so frequently counterproductive. When elites get together to talk about the big issues, the discussion consists mostly of very similar people asking themselves what people like them can do. The answer is: A whole lot less than you think.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.


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