Arnold Kling  

Intellectual Arrogance

North on One Foot?... Douglass North, On One Foot...

Brad DeLong writes,

My view is that the neoclassical economics toolkit can be very, very useful--no, stronger than that, is very useful and necessary--for everybody from the center on left.

...By contrast, the neoclassical toolkit can be absolute poison for people right on center. It functions like a kind of crack, reducing their arguments to empty slogans: "the market takes care of that"; "acts of capitalism between consenting adults"; "they hired the money, didn't they?"; "it's not the government's, it's theirs." People right-of-center should be exposed to the neoclassical economics toolkit only after posting a $1M bond to cover collateral damage, and only under the supervision of trained professionals.

At one level, DeLong is arguing against intellectual arrogance. I, too, am against intellectual arrogance, which, at another level, Brad DeLong personifies.

I would note that DeLong's comments strike me as entirely beside the point when it comes to the issue at hand, which is how mainstream economics deals with dissident views. My opinion is that most dissident views are wrong, but occasionally they add value. The profession does not have a process for rapidly trying and discarding new ideas, so it does not take advantage of what is useful in non-mainstream thinking in a timely fashion.

But I was planning to post on intellectual arrogance before I read DeLong's post. The occasion for this was An Egghead for the Oval Office, today's piece by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. He touts Al Gore, who has a new book that supposedly shows off Gore's brilliant mind. Robinson writes,

Leave aside the question of whether Gore is even thinking about another presidential run, or how he would stack up against the other candidates. I'm making a more general point: One thing that should be clear to anyone who's been paying attention these past few years is that we need to go out and get ourselves the smartest president we can find. We need a brainiac president, a regular Mister or Miss Smarty-Pants. We need to elect the kid you hated in high school, the teacher's pet with perfect grades.

I disagree with this on so many levels. First of all, is Al Gore really smart? My guess is that his IQ is not significantly different from that of George Bush. It's just that by saying things that liberals want to hear, Gore comes across to them as way smarter than Bush.

For raw IQ among politicians, my sense is that you cannot beat Newt Gingrich. But I do not want Gingrich to be President, for the same reason that I do not want Al Gore to be President. Each of them greatly over-estimates the value of what he knows. To me, the most dangerous thing about politicians is their, well, intellectual arrogance. They think that they know more than they really know, and so they are too confident about ordering other people what to do.

I made the argument for intellectual humility in a piece I once wrote for the Washington Times on Michael Powell's tenure at the FCC. There is also a pre-edited version of the essay.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

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The author at Eli Dourado in a related article titled Insults: The Lost Art writes:
    One of the negative consequences of the deterioration of relations between the left and the right is that good insults are becoming a lost art.  “Bush is a chimp!”  “Ted Kennedy drinks a lot!”  “Laura claps like a drunk... [Tracked on June 1, 2007 5:09 PM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
aaron writes:

I noticed that, generally, being smart and being a good speaker are inversely related.

Matt writes:

What if they know that they know nothing? Does that make them super arrogant or just the man for the job?

trumpetbob15 writes:

I guess I don't believe Robinson that he wants an egghead. Smart people may have the knowledge, but those people generally do not have the skills to deal with Congress. Robinson says he wants people to have ideas on health care, but I actually wonder if any of the free-market, less regulation ideas would be acceptable to him.

Trying not to be partisan, but how is Al Gore smart? Look at a recent example. Gore went to Washington to testify about using less energy and global warming. Only, he didn't think that the first thing his political opponents would do would be to examine his energy usage. Not thinking about the critics' reactions does not seem all that smart to me.

Floccina writes:

I would like to see both sides in the debate avoid the word "Market".

The word is over used and has IMO become to vague.

Replace word "Market" with things like people will do this or people should not be allowed to do that.

AMD writes:

I believe Hayek said it best: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design."

Martin writes:


Overestimating the value of what you know isn't the key to determining intellectual arrogance.

Overestimating the value of the conclusions you draw from it is.

John Thacker writes:

I don't believe that DeLong even really means that. For example, I think he'd appreciate it if more people "right on center" appreciated the neoclassical economic arguments in favor of free trade and immigration.

Allison writes:

Bill Clinton was the super smart genius. Of all the things he's claimed to be by anyone on any point of the political spectrum, no one questions that. Does anyone really want another Bill Clinton? In fact, isn't dislike of Gingrich very similar to the dislike of Clinton, for nearly the same reasons? I don't remember anyone claiming that Gore was as smart as Clinton at the time he was VP.

Intellectual arrogance isn't just a personal arrogance. It's also the over valuing of solutions in general while denigrating the existence of long term, systemic, or otherwise difficult problems.

re: politics: the notion that people in government should be experts at all on anything is already pretty darn silly, but the ramifications of the legislation they write can't be understood by anyone except experts, and usually even then it's under debate. Is it the public that conflates their passing legislation on a topic with knowledge of it, or their own hubris, or the echo chambers of their staffs?

Eric H writes:

Smart, no, wise, yes.

Of my bosses, two stand out: one dropped out of school in about the 6th grade, the other went to a 1 or 2 year tech school. The former retired a millionaire, the latter built a world-class organization of engineers and physicists. You could say, terrible signaling: perhaps they would have done well in school. But neither was interested in intellectual pursuits (reading, high level analysis, etc.). They were interested in results, which generally comes down to rapidly sorting out what won't work and doing what's left really well.

Having written that just now, I wonder if the campaign and all it requires (raising money, building an organization) isn't a way of signaling who an actually do such a thing. But then, building an organization and raising money to convince people of your own charm is a lot different than making and enforcing laws with real consequences.

bee writes:

DeLong personifies an intellectual who subverts reason for his personal feelings. His decision to smear those who disagree with him intellectually is sad.

On the Gore front, I must say he is not brilliant. He has never demonstrated the ability to grasp complex issues. He merely parrots the "popular" liberal line (Global Warming, Cold War, Social Security).

Bruce G Charlton writes:

I recall Milton Friedman's view that Richard Nixon was one of the most intelligent men he had ever met, and yet Nixon wasn't an especially good President. MF said because he lacked the courage to do what he knew to be right. Maybe short-termism is the word for it, lack of integrity, weakness of character?

A President is usually tested in this respect, can they take the long term route, can they risk failing to ride out the opposition of interest groups to achieve something they believe will yield lasting benefits?

Of course, Presidents (and other leaders) have to have sufficient understanding to know what should be their priority, which policy is likely to be better in the long term, and they have to want the right kind of things. But what they can achieve is pretty limited, and if they push through one big thing per term of office they will be unusually good.

Policy wonks are usually poor leaders (speaking as a wonk who avoids any kind of leadership). Intellectuals often make the mistake of wanting someone like themselves to do a job to which they themselves would be poorly-suited.

The best political leaders are people who get a grip on the best idea to solve the main problem confronting their nation at the time they are in office.

jim mcclure writes:

"My opinion is that most dissident views are wrong, but occasionally they add value. The profession does not have a process for rapidly trying and discarding new ideas, so it does not take advantage of what is useful in non-mainstream thinking in a timely fashion."

The first sentence is pure speculation unless you can tell me how to quantify "dissident views" AND "wrong" and the "value" they "occassionally" "add. Good luck with that. The second sentence is incorrect; in the past, comments, replies and rejoinders were published in significantly larger numbers than today in top journals and for the past several years we have had (perhaps most notably) EJW as an outlet for critical commentary upon things published in the top journals.

prestopundit writes:

We know as a matter of record that Al Gore didn't get particularly good grades at Harvard, and that his test scores in the military where not particularly exceptional. It is worth noting that Gore got relatively poor scores in the natural sciences at Harvard, if I recall correctly. You can Google all of this stuff up.

The idea of Gore as a brainiac is a joke.

Steve Sailer writes:

Gore scored 133 and 134 on IQ tests in high school and his SAT score was 1330 (on the harder pre-1995 scoring system). Bush scored a 1200.

Hermenauta writes:

I wonder if you consider politicians that also are religious fundamentalists as examples of "intellectual humility" or not.

Jacob T. Levy writes:

It's just that by saying things that liberals want to hear, Gore comes across to them as way smarter than Bush.

Oh, come on. I share the sense that Gore's intellectual arrogance is a problem; he's too sure he's the smartest guy in the room. But one doesn't have to agree with Gore at all to thinkt hat he "comes across as way smarter than Bush." Bush seems to have a limited vocabulary and a limited ability to use the words that he does know; he mangles his sentences and syntax; and he always seems to have only one or two limited thoughts at his disposal. I still remember his first debate with Kerry, when he kept being unable to fill two minutes; sometimes it seemed like he couldn't get past two sentences on a topic.

And that's before you get to all the reporting and memoirs that show him to be so incurious, so unwilling to listen to new information, etc. Gore may come acros as unpleasantly sure of his own intelligence, but he still comes across as intelligent in a way that Bush simply does not.

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