The people in power need a reason why they are in charge. It used to be birth. The nobility were elevated over the rest of society because of their superior breeding, and they handed down authority from generation to generation. The US, at least in theory, is a meritocracy. Our elites weren’t born into their positions. They earned them. They went to better schools where they learned more about the latest advancements in human knowledge, giving them the wisdom needed to rule the country, if not the world. That’s what most people in Washington D.C. believe, regardless of political party. In The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell paints a disturbing picture of how that mentality has impacted our society, and what it means for the future.
The US government has gotten steadily more powerful over the last century, and it’s hard to see that dynamic changing anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t matter all that much which politicians are placed at the top. They are the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of an imperial bureaucracy whose tentacles stretch far beyond our own borders. What Barack Obama and Donald Trump have found out, to varying degrees, is that the tail wags the dog in D.C these days. That’s why there’s such a continuity of policy between the last few presidents, despite how differently they were sold to voters. If there’s a common thread running through most public policy, it’s increasing the importance of decision-makers in the federal bureaucracy over everyone else.
Justifying that power is easy when you believe the people wielding it are wiser, more knowledgeable and more virtuous than the unwashed masses. Eight of the nine current Supreme Court Justices went to either Harvard or Yale Law. The ninth went to Columbia. The tools to educate yourself have never been more accessible in human history, yet the pathways to the top are narrowing. While the internet and social media connect people from every corner of the globe, they also allows them to build echo chambers of like-minded people where they never have to listen to those who disagree with them. During the height of conservative opposition to Obama, liberal thinkers accused their opponents of “epistemic closure”, meaning they had created a belief system that didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge outside criticism. Of course, it’s a charge that can just as easily be turned back on the ones making it.
Political debate has become a stage where people try to prove their moral superiority. My favorite example from the book is the criticism of the Mercator projection, the world map most people used in school. It exaggerates the size of land masses near the top and bottom of the globe, making Greenland look nearly as big as Africa. It didn’t become controversial until modern times, when people criticized it for a Eurocentric approach that minimized the relative size of countries along the Equator. However, the reason those distortions exist is because the projection keeps latitude and longitude lines straight to make navigation easier. Practicality, not prejudice, is why it became popular. No mapmaker can represent every part of the globe accurately because they are trying to fit a 3-dimensional object on a 2-dimensional space.
Public policy, like mapmaking, is a series of trade-offs. Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to go to jail. The harder it is to convict an innocent man, the easier it becomes for a guilty one to get off. There are no right answers: how much additional crime will those 10 guilty men commit once they are released back into society? At some point, whether it’s 100 guilty men or 1,000, the trade-off no longer becomes worth it. The only question is where, as a society, we decide that point is. There is no way to create a perfect criminal justice system. That’s where the saying “hard cases make bad law” comes from. Focus on one circumstance which highlights the worst problems with a particular law and you can miss all of the situations where the law works well.
The problem is that not seeing the forest for the trees is the easiest way for a politician to get elected. They campaign as if trade-offs don’t exist, and there are cost-free solutions to societal problems. One great example is Obamacare, which was supposed to increase access to health care while also making it more affordable. However, there’s a basic tension between affordability, accessibility and quality that exists at the heart of any health care system. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to insure more people, but any dramatic change to the current system will have wide-ranging consequences, intended and unintended. “If you like your plan, you can keep it” was never an option, and a few years after Obamacare was passed, no one pretends otherwise. It may take decades before we know whether or not Obamacare was successful.
The ultimate effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, the education reform bill signed in 2003, and NAFTA, a free-trade agreement passed in 1993, are still hotly debated among scholars. For a politician, though, the long-term results are almost beside the point. They need something tangible they can sell to voters as proof they should stay in office, and they are always looking for accomplishments that will build their legacy. There’s a bias towards action over inaction, even though doing something can often be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Saddam Hussein was a problem for the US, but the power vacuum in Iraq created by removing him was ten times worse. Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean trying to fix it is necessarily a good idea.
The world is not an ideal place, nor will it ever be. Idealists confuse the difference between what is and what ought to be, and they think believing in an ideal is proof of their moral superiority, regardless of when happens when they apply that ideal to reality. Those who want to make society more equal just tend to accuse their opponents of being in favor of the status quo, even though their proposals often have the exact opposite of their intended effects. There is more poverty in the US today than when the War on Poverty started more than 50 years ago. Maybe things would be even worse without governmental intervention, but that argument is essentially unfalsifiable. If the only two possible outcomes are that a policy makes things better or stops things from being worse, we are assuming it to be true without any evidence.
The other word for that is faith. Modern people pretend we are rational thinkers who only believe what science tells us, but that’s because we assume science confirms what we already believe. No one really bases their worldview on what can be proven by scientific experiments. They start off with their desired conclusions and look for science that backs them up, rather than the reserve. The conclusions of the people in power these days only go in one direction: we are better than everyone else, so we deserve more power. Pundits can’t admit they are wrong because their sense of self-worth is based on being right. The cognitive dissonance is too intense. When reality differs from their beliefs, it’s not their beliefs that have to change, but reality.
The [presidential] aide says that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”