Railing against the ‘Intellectual Yet Idiot’

Image from The Commentator.

I’m just catching up with a post from “Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb about a certain elite class whom he dings for having “no skin in the game.” He calls them a variety of names: the “intelligenzia,” “academico-bureaucrats” and the one that gives his post its title, “Intellectual Yet Idiot.”

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

Though I think Taleb makes some worthy points, I wonder if he’s throwing the academico-bureaucrats out with the (no doubt artisan) bathwater. Yes, the so-called meritocracy creates its own viciously clubby circle, full of Ivy Leaguers who only listen to (and hire) other Ivy Leaguers. It’s a hard habit to break. Just yesterday, Frank Bruni’s New York Times column lamented the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which tend to list the same top schools year after year after year.

The rankings nourish the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education; don’t adequately recognize public institutions that prioritize access and affordability; and do insufficient justice to the particular virtues of individual campuses.

Of course, as a society this is what we do. We’re tribal, and we elevate certain people with certain skills within our tribes. So Beltway insiders tend to attract and breed other Beltway insiders. Coastal dwellers are sneered at by the Heartland, and vice versa. Anti-elites create their own leadership to take on the elites. Sometimes they succeed and become the new elite. (“Animal Farm” isn’t just a fable about the Soviet Union.)

I do agree with Taleb on his main point, though, which is that the elites (and he notes that IYIs are a tiny percentage of that caste) rarely venture outside their bubble, whether it be about geography or ideology, and can often be high-handed about doing so. It’s an update, of sorts, of William F. Buckley’s old line about preferring to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.

I’d like to think that’s being recognized. Hell, even David Brooks — who’s nothing if not a spokesperson for the New York-D.C. corridor — wrote a column in which he admitted he’d become too attached to his insidery life. (He was immediately scoffed at by people outside his insidery life.)

They don’t have skin in the game, unless the game is increasing their own access and power.

At the same time — and maybe this is my elitism showing — the United States isn’t a pure democracy. It’s a democratic republic, in which our representatives — who presumably act in our interests but also for the region/state/country’s Greater Good (and yeah, the Greater Good is in the legislation of the beholder) — sometimes have to vote on things based on their own knowledge and intelligence. Is it for their constituents’ own good? Possibly. Sometimes not. Regardless, I’d like to think that not every IYI is an arrogant, cloistered fool. (Though maybe being arrogant and cloistered is a prerequisite of an IYI.)

Well, there’s always pure libertarianism.





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