Arnold Kling  

Elite Self-Perpetuation

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Elizabeth Warren... Rose D. Friedman, RIP...

Robin Hanson pulls together various threads and concludes,


So it seems the US has a finance and policy elite defined by college ties and related social connections, an elite with a strong sense that only people in their circle can really be trusted, and that their institutions must be saved at all cost at taxpayer expense if needed. These beliefs might be correct, but it is disturbing to realize they might well persist and be reinforced even if they were incorrect, especially if such elites thought that insiders who trust outsiders too much also cannot be trusted.

The book I am currently reading (for the nth time) is David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. Halberstam's theme is that a finance and policy elite defined by college ties and related social connections, an elite with a strong sense that only people in their circle can really be trusted, held all of the key foreign policy positions and took us blundering into the Vietnam war. I am re-reading the book as a guide to policy making during the financial crisis.



COMMENTS (19 to date)
david writes:

"...held all of the key foreign policy positions"

I thought Halberstam's book emphasised the weakness of the Kennedy administration over charges of weakness against communism. When you have to go to war just to defend yourself against charges of weakness, I don't think you can be said to be dominating foreign policy decisionmaking.

fundamentalist writes:

That was the main point of "Bell Curve", even thought the drive-by media completely missed it. An "aristocracy" has existed in the US for a long time. The wealthy all send their kids to the top schools so that they marry each other. Then they promote each other in positions in government and business.

I worked for the now defunk Cities Service Company before its collapse in the mid 1980's and learned that no one could get promoted to top positions in the company unless they were a Harvard grad. Of course, that's why the company failed.

As the consummate outsider myself -- grew up in rural Kentucky, father was a coal miner, have a Ph.D. in the humanities, but am a religious (raised Baptist, now Catholic) libertarian, part of a marginal arts movement (Frederick Turner's natural classical movement), Ph.D. is from a non-elite university, married to a Latina -- sounds to me like an interesting book. Any insights on how to get on the "inside" -- of at least something!

RL writes:

I believe fundamentalist is wrong in his association of The Bell Curve with the point being made here.

While The Bell Curve discussed a growing separation of the "meritocracy" defined by IQ (people that previously had mingled with the rest of society, now working, living, marrying each other, living in gated communities, not knowing those with significantly different IQs, etc), he is talking about a relatively large segment of society, including but much larger than the political elite.

Robin/Arnold/Halberstam are discussing a much smaller group, defined merely by their social ties rather than what might underlie their social ties.

SydB writes:

"US has a finance and policy elite defined by college ties and related social connections"

It seems to me this thesis is both true and somewhat trivial. People frequently hire who they know over who they don't know--everything else equal or near equal--or even unequal.

There is a technology "elite." A housing construction "elite." Etc.

There's an old proverb: the devil you know over the devil you don't know. That seems to be the issue here.

"took us blundering into the Vietnam war."

And let's not forget those who took us into Iraq. Including at least a few who consider themselves outsiders and libertarians.

Eric H writes:

My first reaction was: "and this is an insight how?"

Frank writes:

Your description (and Hanson's, if one excludes "that their institutions must be saved at all cost at taxpayer expense if needed") sounds like the way that, mutatis mutandis, government and society generally have almost always operated. "Old school tie" is not a recent coinage, and for earlier centuries I assume one could find sociological analogues that played the same role. Because the description applies both when things are being done well and when they are being done badly (the WASP Establishment that was so influential in America for a couple of hundred years did some things besides get us into Vietnam), it does not seem very useful for explaining the difference.
Could you be more specific concerning what it is you find suspect? If you have a far more reliable basis for deciding whose judgment you can trust when filling positions of great responsibility, what is it?

mark writes:

I find this ad hominem approach to analysis particularly unproductive. Major disasters have been committed by hewing to populist wishes not merely elitist ones. The Iraq war being the most obvious, but similar examples occurred during the financial crisis such as when the government sought to appease populist anger and held back from supporting the institutions they had effectively inflated -- wiping out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac preferred even though it was held as Tier 1 regulatory capital by numerous financial institutions, therby creating a cascading wipeout of capital throughout the system; failing to save Lehman, and creating a similar cascading crisis, etc.

ionides writes:

Regarding Vietnam, there is a bit of revisionist history that I have heard, from both a local radio commentator, ex-gi, and the historian Paul Johnson.

This was that in fact we won the Tet offensive, but lost one or more minor battles.

However the press, especially Walter Cronkite, reported the entire offensive lost; and this was a turning point that made real victory politically impossible.

The radio commentator went on to say that when North Vietnam refused to negotiate peace, Nixon stepped up the bombing until they came to the table. He (the commentator) made the point that we could have won decisively had this "stepped up bombing" have been utilized in the pursuit of victory rather than defeat.

So where does Halberstam stand on this?


I heard Halberstom interviewed once and he told a good story about Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn under Johnson. When Johnson was bragging to him about the "best and brightest", Rayburn said that he would feel more secure of one of them had been the sherriff of a small town.

SydB writes:

"Rayburn said that he would feel more secure of one of them had been the sheriff of a small town. "

I think arrogance and incompetence are fairly distributed from small town sheriff to Oxford scholar.

There's a meme floating around, particularly in conservative circles, sort of the Sarah Palin meme: the desire for non-elite of-the-people leaders. My response: I'd rather have a pilot than a bus driver piloting the jet I'm flying in.

Frank writes:

May I slightly refine my earlier comment?
To what extent were bad decisions made about Vietnam because of a systematically bad answer to the question, "Not everybody can run things, so how do we select those who will?", and to what extent because of a particular mentality that these particular people brought to that problem?

E. Barandiaran writes:

SydB,
I'm very sorry your nightmare has come true. I hope you've fastened your belt. I'll try to get a parachute although I'm afraid it's too late. BTW, Sarah is doing fine.

Colin K writes:

Frank: 'Uphold the status quo' can be the right answer for a very long time, until we come across a situation in which it is the wrong answer. There is an old joke that progress in science happens one funeral at a time.

However, I would still flip this back around to ask Kling what the alternatives to a self-perpetuating elite might be. Historically, it's a neutered technocracy a la the Chinese or Ottoman empires or the Catholic church.

SydB writes:

"ask Kling what the alternatives to a self-perpetuating elite might be."

The alternative is a marketplace that provides alternatives but--and this is always my argument--that marketplace already requires technocrats who can define the concept of property and the mechanisms to enforce it.

What bugs me is the maligning of technocrats and the elite when in fact everyone needs them except for anarchy or rule-of-the-fist.

macquechoux writes:

"I find this ad hominem approach to analysis particularly unproductive. Major disasters have been committed by hewing to populist wishes not merely elitist ones."

Mark, so you replace an ad hominem argument with a straw man argument? Where is it written, in logic or otherwise, that the only alternative to elitist wishes is populists ones?

E. Barandiaran writes:

SydB,
Before you crush, let me tell you that you're missing the elephant in your jet. It's a question of power and the problem is not technocrats or experts or anyone that may have knowledge relevant to public policies, but the ones that claim a right to power because of their "superior" knowledge. For a different view you may read T. Sowell's latest column
http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell081909.php3

Les writes:

It seems to me that this is a silly debate. We have not defined what an "elite" is or who is "elite" and who is not. Nor have we defined how an "elite" may or may not make decisions, or even what decisions we might have in mind.

We have not discussed how to rate a decision as wise or foolish. It is not even clear if any of these things are possible to define, let alone to agree upon.

All I read are opinions based upon little or nothing. Plenty of smoke and mirrors, but little or no substance.

ionides writes:

I agree witn SydB about arrogance being evenly distributed. What I took Rayburn to mean was that a Sherrif, to be successful, has to be a good judge of people, and that academics can rise to the top without that ability.

Troy Camplin writes:

The "elite" are the same old hacks found in every administration. A new GOP administration will have the same idiots GWB, GHWB, Reagan, Ford, and Nixon had, just as this administration has the same idiots Clinton and Carter had.

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