Arnold Kling  

Peter Berkowitz on Elites

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He writes,


today more than ever conserving liberty and maintaining democracy require an elite whose members possess advanced learning, professional expertise, and wisdom born of extended experience.

...To obtain the elites we deserve, nothing is more urgent than redoubling reform efforts at all levels of education -- returning to the fundamentals in K-12; renewing science, engineering, and liberal education at our colleges and universities; and replacing the inculcation of progressive shibboleths in graduate and professional schools with assiduous study of craft...

Neither the return to common sense nor the reclaiming of constitutional essentials will solve the vexing and complex public policy challenges we confront. To put millions back to work, control runaway spending, re-reform health care, meet our growing energy needs, protect the homeland, find the right course in Egypt, check Iran, compete with China, and foster an international order ever more favorable to freedom calls for the cultivation of excellence in a new generation of leaders.

If you detect a difference between his viewpoint and mine, you are not alone. As Jonah Goldberg says, there are two major varieties of conservatism. On the one hand, there are those who do not care so much about the size of government but care a great deal about the mindset of those who run it. On the other hand, there are who do not care so much about the mindset of those who run government but care a great deal about its size. Berkowitz's essay represents the first perspective, and my book Unchecked and Unbalanced represents the second.

Berkowitz is also the person who solicited me to write Unchecked and Unbalanced and saw to it that it was published.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Philo writes:

Berkowitz's definition is: "Elites — persons of the highest class or groups controlling the reins of political power." But I think he means the elite group to comprise not just politicians in office but politicians out of office, as well as the leading businesspeople, academics (including scientists), journalists, philanthropists (more generally: rich people), and artists--people whose hold on political power is more indirect than that of politicians actually in office. ('Social influence' might be a better term than Berkowitz's 'controlling the reins of political power'.) On that interpretation his essay is less objectionable.

One might still suggest that it is just as important to have wise and capable masses as it is to have wise and capable elites.

Daublin writes:

Philo, I wouldn't be so sure Berkowitz meant to talk about all influential people rather than the ones in government. Good people in the private sector tend to rise to the top without any need for a coordinated national effort.

Arnold, it's an incredibly annoying premise. Here it is again:

"Unfortunately, it is far from inevitable in free societies that those gifted in acquiring power will be the wisest and most adept at exercising it. Yet today more than ever conserving liberty and maintaining democracy require an elite whose members possess advanced learning, professional expertise, and wisdom born of extended experience."

For the most part, the only reason I see for us needing geniuses in the government is because the government keeps taking on fairy tale goals like never letting anyone be sick. If we took an approach of letting people take care of their own business, and at most redistributing hard cash to people who need it, then it wouldn't take particularly good people to run this stuff.

Looked at another way, the main need for geniuses in government is to stop the other geniuses in government from following through with their naive ideas. If we scaled down the whole thing, I expect we'd have *less* need nowadays for smart people in the government.

fundamentalist writes:

Berkowitz is a neo-con, which is very different from a traditional conservative and even more different from a libertarian. Neo-con's are like the left in that they want a large, powerful, intrusive state; they merely want it to do different things.

Hayek and Mises wrote that freedom does not exist in the absence of rules, but in the rule of principles as opposed to the arbitrary rule of men. Berkowitz, like the left, prefers the arbitrary rule of men who think like him.

MikeDC writes:

I don't understand how one could be concerned about the size of government and not the mindset of those who run it. They're two sides of the same coin.

If some geniuses came along and "scaled down the whole thing", we'd still need geniuses eternally fighting to keep it from scaling back up.

Yancey Ward writes:

One should always work harder for a smaller government than be more concerned about who runs it, because I simply believe the ones who run it will always be susceptible to the corruption of power.

MikeDC,

You don't need geniuses in government scaling it down, or keeping it scaled down. To believe that pretty much concedes the battle.

MikeDC writes:

Yancy,
Support your statements with evidence. On my side, I'll simply point out most of human history, and the damn unseemly size of our government.

It's a rare genius who influences things in the other direction.

How on earth could we work for smaller government without concerning ourselves with the mindset of the folks we elect to government positions or the mindset of our fellow citizens?

Government is on its best possible terms a negotiated agreement between people. In any negotiated agreement, peoples' opinions drive the negotiation.

Frank writes:

What is the approximate date when you expect government to be small enough that your implicit advice (to ignore Berkowitz's concerns) will become relevant?

If I win the lottery, a lot of things won't be problems for me anymore, but dwelling on that is not a useful way of dealing with them.

Yancey Ward writes:

Mike,

You are missing my point. It isn't the people we elect that keeps the government size in check- it is you and me acquiescing, and meekly, to the expansions themselves.

MikeDC writes:

Yancy,
I think you're missing Berkowitz's point (or at least mine) that there's an obvious relationship between the meek acquiescence of you and me, education, and the role of folks in positions of power, influence, and leadership in society.

Obviously power will always corrupt, but it's certainly worthwhile to try an make those in power a bit less corruptible and everyone else a bit less meek and acquiescent at the relevant margins.

MernaMoose writes:

On the one hand, there are those who do not care so much about the size of government but care a great deal about the mindset of those who run it. On the other hand, there are who do not care so much about the mindset of those who run government but care a great deal about its size.

And this is an either/or choice for what reason(s)? It shouldn't be, in principle.

But in the real world it seems we have little choice of either. And on average, the types who gravitate to government jobs will most often be some flavor of scoundrel. So yours is probably the more rational position.

Which means our biggest concern should be with devising methods to keep the size of government in check.


If we want to keep government small, the first thing we must do is kill democracy as it is now known. Election cycles turn government into an spectator sport that grants it far more attention and importance than it deserves.

Close the Coliseum and end the games!

MernaMoose writes:

Yancey,

You are missing my point. It isn't the people we elect that keeps the government size in check- it is you and me acquiescing, and meekly, to the expansions themselves.

Do you really believe that you or I, or "the voters", has the power to stop the expansion?

ObamaCare went through against popular will. The over-spending we've had at the Fed level, has gone on against popular will. The choice in the last election, between Obama and McCain, was arguably not aligned with the popular will.

The will of the people is of little consequence today.

The problem with democracy is not that "the voters are willing to put up with it". The problem is that democracy is a rotten concept that inevitably fails. I'm surprised the US has gotten so far, with this boat anchor tied around its neck.

MikeDC writes:

Yes, democracy is a pretty crummy form of government.*


* Except when you compare it to the other ones.

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