Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Elitism of the 80th Percentile

It’s been a while since Socrates recommended understanding the state as the soul writ big, but a host of philosophers and psychologists have followed his suggestion right up to the present. It has recently been suggested, for example, that the political pattern of the executive who decides among the options presented to him by his counselors mirrors the way that decisions are actually made in the brains of individuals as the frontal lobe presents alternatives to some central coin-flipper. In another version of the theme, one more faithful to Plato, the various classes of political actors are related to levels of mental functioning in an updated, psychometric version of the divided line. In this rendition, the public at large just has to be manipulated since it can only be register images and emotional appeals— inexplicable dumb shows and noise. Expecting to get anywhere with even straightforward arguments makes about as much sense as erecting Braille billboards to reach the blind market. Full rationality only sets in somewhere North of 120 and only applies to a small fraction of our species. Since individuals of normal intelligence are simply incapable of operating at a fully adult level, they must be governed by rigid rules backed up by overt rewards and punishments and can never be expected to govern themselves by universal rational principles, even assuming, as many people don’t, that there are universal rational principles of right and wrong.

Stated thus baldly, IQ elitism makes a bad impression; but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t appeal to a great many individuals, including quite a few who go out of their way to come across as just plain folks when they’re playing to the cheap seats. Anyhow, to be fair, everybody recognizes that children have to be trained before they are educated and that prohibitions have to come before explanations if you don’t want your kids to run over somebody or to be run over themselves. It isn’t much a stretch to conclude that the mass of the population will never grow up and that politics has to take this fact into account. Indeed, in my experience, the familiar denunciation of liberal moral relativism has nothing to do with asserting the objectivity of ethics and everything to do with pedagogic realism, especially since so many conservatives are committed to an irrationalist theory of ethics anyhow. It is the liberals who are more likely to be rigorous moralists of a Kantian or semi-Kantian stripe.

I hardly have democratic instincts, and I certainly think that de facto intellectual incapacity of the majority of mankind has all kinds of implications for practical politics. Unfortunately, assuming that most people cannot make reasonable choices about their own lives quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as the public is saturated with violent emotional appeals conveyed by the latest in high-tech propaganda techniques. No fair spending billions to make people worse so your pessimistic assessments will be proven right or to denounce their stupidity after so many years of attempting to stupefy ‘em. Fact is, we don’t know how enlightened the mass of humanity may become. I expect a philosopher of the Roman Empire would have scoffed at the notion that the mass of people could ever be literate.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Extractive Industries

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, miners believed that precious metals would grow back in exhausted mines if the digs were left fallow long enough. The Republican Party, perhaps because it harbors so many mining interests, seems to have a similar notion about the American middling classes. To judge from their taxation and debt policies, the Conservatives seem to think that they can indefinitely go on extracting a disproportionate share of resources from the ordinary folks without bringing about the permanent impoverishment of the class. Or maybe they figure that the middle-income stratum is as doomed as the Atlantic cod, and they may as well harvest as much of the wasting resource as possible. The bit about the fools rushing in does not apply either to fishermen or vultures.

For all their rhetoric about limited government, moneyed interests need a large and expensive government to protect them from enemies foreign and domestic, to keep the corporations from eating their own kind, and to subsidize the scientific research indispensable to economic growth. They also need the government to provide welfare services to the working poor because absent free clinics and public housing they’d eventually have to pay higher wages out of their own profits so that the proletarians can go on producing proles. The trick is to get all these benefits at a discount instead of bearing the costs of big government through an equitable tax system. Resources must be mined from somewhere, and the only available store of wealth is in the middle—not enough meat on the poor.

You’d think that the folks in the middle would eventually catch wise to all this; but the one tax that has gone up in every year of the Bush administration is the tax on stupidity; and the people in Kansas have yet to notice what a high bracket they’re in. They probably won’t notice for a while longer, either, because there are still family savings to go through to send the kids through college and home equity to borrow against. Above all, the Republican program is protected by the vanity of the small fry, who persist in believing that they are genuinely bourgeois when they are really just working people who have been flattered into thinking they are something grander.

The interesting question to me is what the right does as we pass the peaking point.