The Eudaimonist: Democracy and the Case for Intellectual Elites

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“The opinions of ten thousand men are of no value, if none of them know anything about the subject.” – Marcus Aurelius

Imagine this, you have just broken your arm and you want it fixed. You see two options in front of you. Option 1, go to the doctor, express your desire to be healed, and defer to his expertise on how this end would most prudently be accomplished. Option 2, go to a car mechanic, express your desire to be healed, and explain to him precisely how you want to be healed. In option 1, a person with no expertise goes to a person with expertise and allows that specialist to perform their job. In option 2, a person with no expertise goes to another person with no expertise and dictates not just that they want to be healed, but prescribes how they want to be healed, based on ideology mixed with little or no medical training. Surely we would consider it foolish to prefer option 2. Or do we?

As we gear up for the 2012 election I once again cringe at the thought that about 130 million relatively uninformed American voters will make a decision with extraordinary consequences for not only the other 170 million Americans, but for all seven billion people on this planet.

In a recent op-ed titled “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior,” the author, Eric Li, made the contention that the West “sees democratic government as end in itself.” I am inclined to agree; I think many people share the belief that democracy is in and of itself inherently desirable, not because of its results but because of the institution’s egalitarian nature. Of course, people also like to attribute many positive results to democracy as well, and when disaster hits, more democracy is called for. Yet, California’s experimentation with direct democracy has helped give it the highest debt per person and the lowest S&P rating of any state.

In many areas of economic and public policy, different opinions are not equally valid.

For instance,  poll after poll in the last three years shows that about 85 percent of scientists (1, 2, 3) believe humans are influencing global climate change, while at the same time this belief among the American public has declined from 60 percent to 48 percent. Meanwhile, Congressman John Shimkus,  a member of the House Energy Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, believes we do not have to worry about climate change because of the God’s promise to Noah in the Bible.

I am sure many students here believe in climate change, as do I. However, I do not know climate change exists because I do not directly collect that data and I am not a climatologist. The only reason I accept climate change is because the experts have presented us with compelling data and their seems to be a consensus among them, and that does not make my lay opinion equally or even approximately valid to theirs. Even if future generations can state unequivocally that a modern climatologist who denied anthropogenic climate change was wrong, so long as he was engaged in rigorous scholarship to offer evidence for this claim and we did not have adequate reason to believe that his scientific integrity had been compromised, his opinion would still be more legitimate, even though, objectively, I would be right and he would be wrong.

Then, there is the only thing people on the left and right seem to agree about these days – that TARP was one of the worst pieces of legislation in history, even though there is broad consensus amongst economists that it was necessary to stabilize the financial markets. In 2010, nearly 60 percent of Americans believed TARP was unneeded even as Moody’s chief economist, Mark Zandi, was providing quantitative analysis to show we likely would have gone into a second Depression without it. And, had our current Congress been in power at the time, we very well might be in a second Depression. We got somewhat lucky in this crisis, but we may not be so lucky in the future, especially as the increasing complexity of our problems will likely require increasingly sophisticated approaches to tackling them.

I do not believe that experts do not disagree, that they are free from bias, or that they are infallible. But they still have better substantiated opinions than laymen and they still offer us a better route of aligning policy with our present knowledge. In so many other domains we choose the outcome we want and hire professionals and specialists to deliver that outcome, yet in politics the inexpert vote for the inexpert, and both want to prescribe the means. I think we should re-imagine democracy as a chooser of very broad aims (like quality education and health care, technological progress, an environment which can support life and healthy living, etc.) and then turn to experts for the prescription most likely to achieve those aims, just as we do in so many other aspects of our lives.

Of course, we are more skeptical of expertise on social issues because they are, admittedly, much more intractable, especially while the Old Testament still provides ethical guidance for some. And different domains will sometimes conflict, like environmental and economic policy, which will require us to set priorities and call on interdisciplinary experts. There are obviously a myriad of other potential flaws, from selection to incentives to accountability, with giving specialists greater influence over policy making, which I cannot address here. But I think that if we truly care about what is best for our own well-being and the well-being of society as a whole, we should be looking towards ways in which we can safely and effectively allow experts to have greater sway over our political decision making process. I fear the world may not be able to adequately weather the challenges of the 21st century if we don’t.

Churchill famously said  “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” I am inclined to agree, but just because democracy is, arguably, the best form of government we have ever had, it does not follow that it is the best we can ever have.

0 thoughts on “The Eudaimonist: Democracy and the Case for Intellectual Elites

  • February 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Great article. I find it particularly disturbing that people this election season in particular are dismissal of elitism. This is especially prevalent in the United States, where controversies about vaccines and creationism are very anti elitism. Social issues are more complicated like you mentioned, yes, but the whole concept of elitism still holds. Economists might not know how to run the economy, but they know better than we/you do (unless of course you are one of them).
    Overall great article, I’m glad you brought this topic forward.

    • February 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      Great article. In particular, especially find the fear layoffs elite this election season. Pandemic vaccine controversy is creative’s anti-elitist, in particular, a uniform State. Elite is the whole concept of complex social problems Yes must hold is. You need to know. Thank you big Yue had everywhere, great article.

  • February 28, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Interesting points–but I’m a little worried about who takes responsibility for the elites’ decision-making. I don’t know a whole lot about biology and regularly trust my doctor, with a faith not only in her extensive training but the fact that the consequence of her making a mistake would be huge (i.e. loss of license, malpractice suit, etc.). Similarly, a business exec who makes the wrong call often quickly loses the corner office and fat paycheck. Economists and government advisors, however, are distanced from the ramifications of their decisions. A Princeton professor isn’t going to lose his reputation for supporting TARP, and the economic risk isn’t just his–the bailouts were distributed across taxpayers.

    I agree that anti-elitism sometimes goes to far. I like education, books, scientific inquiry, and all the rest…but we have to ask ourselves what an elite truly is. I think of a surgeon as pretty elite. As for the Soviet Politburo….not so much. I think the answer is generally reducing elitism in government and making government less dependent on an elaborate and specialized bureaucracy. Sure, not all voters are wise but do you really think China’s model is superior? Do you think Chinese political elites guard the answers? That’s a little scary.

  • February 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I think it’s inevitable for academics (like, presumably, you, like me) to want a society that refers decision-making to the ‘experts,’ and indeed, I am someone who passionately loves the idea of “rule by expert.”

    To a certain extent, we have this built into our system. We vote for representatives who hopefully know how to do their job better than the average citizen, and members of Congress refer to various committees of ‘experts’ to inform them on the merits and finer details of legislation. At the same time, Obama may be one of the first ‘intellectual’ presidents we’ve elected in a long time, after four terms of Presidents who were elected on the basis of whether you would have a fun friday night at the sports bar with them. It makes one consider whether we shouldn’t hand over the whole system to experts after all.

    And yet…who are experts? Politicians on both sides of an issue are usually able to find evidence to support their cause. As you mention, it is difficult to ascertain whether we should listen to a climatologist or an economist when we consider environmental legislation.

    In a technocracy, we could very easily become the test subjects for academia’s latest pet theory. Not to mention that the same woes that plague us now–that we may be represented by people who do not reflect the majority of Americans, and who do not feel the outcome of their decisions–would also effect a technocracy.

    This being said…I am all for increasing faith in the ‘experts,’ whoever they may be. I would just consider two things; 1) how much of our distrust/disregard for experts is a reflection of overall disillusionment with our government’s ability to fix our problems and 2) the distance between expertise and field experience. A doctor may prescribe me with a pill to cure my tummy-ache, but if I can’t afford it and there are no generics offered, or I’m kosher and it’s a shellfish pill, or, or, (work with me here), then there is something missing in that exchange.


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