Bryan Caplan  

Elitism: The Lesser Poison

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Now we're getting somewhere. Arnold writes:

One can argue, as Bryan does, that populism is more dangerous because the people are really, really ignorant. [Actually, I argue that the people are really, really irrational! -B.C.] However, my counter-argument would be that non-libertarian elites may be more dangerous, because their additional incremental knowledge is exceeded by their incremental arrogance.

The key thing, though, is that most non-libertarian elites are still markedly more libertarian than the general public. Once you keep that in mind, why does arrogance per se worry you? Arrogance might lead elites to go full speed ahead with popular statist measures, on the grounds that "We know how to get things done." But it could also lead elites to turn a deaf ear to popular statist measures, on the grounds that "The people don't know what's good for them." When you look at all the popular statist policies that don't happen - or happen only in a watered-down form - it's hard not to give some credit to elite "arrogance."

Just off the top of my head, a good example would be wage-price controls, which the elite were enamored of in the 1960's and finally got to experiment with in the 1970's. Bryan may be a bit young to have as vivid a memory as I do of how that played out.

I bet that Arnold's right that the elite favored wage-price controls. But I also bet that the elite favored them less than the public. At least among the elite, there's some sense that controls cause shortages. For the public, controls and shortages are practically unrelated.

A year ago, I bet that an referendum would have imposed price controls on gasoline. It's thanks to "arrogant elites" that we avoided a re-run of the '70's.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Andrew writes:

Viewed from the UK (or Europe), the two most striking things about the USA are its high level of populism, and its high level of libertarianism (not high enough, sure, but very high compared to the rest). Despite what Bryan says, the two might be linked - but in the opposite causal direction. One could plausibly argue that being run by an elite would tend to push opinion (both popular opinion and in the long run elite opinion) in the direction of collectivism and protectionism, via what Paul Graham calls the Daddy model of wealth.

Jason Briggeman writes:

If a referendum would have imposed price controls, then presumably a majority favors price controls. Hey, look, a policy that the majority favors that we don't have...

Zhu Benben writes:

It never is the people who rule. It's always some individuals using some mechanism to affect some other individuals.

Liber is to not to force others to agree with you. It says nothing about what you can think or can say. Not to force others. That is the essence of liber. Liber is not to force others because I know I am right. Liber is not to force others because I know I am with the people.

This of course is not mathematically defined. There are of course loop holes. The point is there, however, as I so believe.

So far today, democracy plus constitution and popular belief in freedom, that is the most effective way known to us that preserve liber. We don't know better systems that could preserve more liber, yet.

Elitism is something totally different. The weakest link in elitism is how we could decide who is elite. Einstein is definitely one of the elites. I suppose. But if we follow his economic ideas, we would have suffered. To be fair, Einstein didn't give to many econ suggestions.

Maybe you think the academic system is a proper way to define elite. Econ professors are the elites to decide econ stuff, maybe? The only things that not only the econ profs agree with this. And we have many examples, that at a time, many if not the most of the econ professors believes socialism.

Unless we can find who should be regarded as elite, elitism is a bubble.

Confused writes:

Bryan, could you please dedicate one post to the distinction between irrational voters and ignorant voters? Can't seem to wrap my head around it, maybe because English is not my native tongue. Or if anyone else cares to explain, thanks.

RogerM writes:

We have a group of elitists in the Federal Reserve Board. How's it doing?

TGGP writes:

Confused, just read this on rational irrationality. He explains why it is different from rational ignorance.

RogerM, does the public advocate a gold standard? I recall the original "populists" were quite unhappy with the "cross of gold".

RogerM writes:

does the public advocate a gold standard?

No, but neither do the elites. The Board of the Fed is a group of elite economists and I'm not impressed with their wisdom. The US Senate is also a group of elites. Bryan wants elites to dictate policy to the public, but which set of elites? Who will choose the members? How do you guarantee that the elites will always be libertarian? How do you guarantee that the elites will do the right thing, because many elites believe in free markets but for for market regulations for political reasons?

I'm just not as impressed with elites as Bryan is. At this point in time, members of the AEA may be more libertarian than the public, but there is no guarantee that they always will be. Haven't they been more Keynesian in the past? What if they drift toward socialism?

Finally, if you gave the AEA political power, everyone would want to be a member and the AEA would have to restrict membership. On what basis would they restrict it? What if they decided everyone had to be a socialist to be a member?

mjh writes:
The key thing, though, is that most non-libertarian elites are still markedly more libertarian than the general public. Once you keep that in mind, why does arrogance per se worry you?
My concern is that elite arrogance is static: it's unlikely to change. But populist statism is very likely to change under the right circumstances - e.g. if the consequences of policy choices fall directly to those people advocating them.

Put another way: vote for policy X and you win if it wins, you lose if it loses. Unfortunately, currently we don't have that. We don't even get to vote for policy X. We get to vote for candidate W who we hope really does support policy X. And the consequence of policy X is spread out to everyone - even those who didn't vote for candidate W.

It's this seperation that keeps the multitudes ignorant and irrational. Perhaps the solution requires the short term imposition of an elite policy for the longer term benefit of everyone. But I don't know that's true. It may very well be that if you asked the question the right way, that people would vote for less insulation from the consequences of policy X.

It's not obvious to me that the *only* way to a more libertarian world is through an elitist means.

liberty writes:

"The key thing, though, is that most non-libertarian elites are still markedly more libertarian than the general public. "

-- So that explains all the near-libertarian dictatorships we always see, huh?

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