Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Success Through Failure

We will discuss Megan McArdle's "10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years" article in Time very soon, but in the mean time let's look at another of Time's Ideas. Christopher Hayes tells us that the problem with the stranglehold the elite holds over us is that we need better elite. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but instead of realizing that authoritarianism is based on power inequality, exploitation, fear and submission, our authoritarian elite tell us we just need more authoritarian elites, only better. Because he cannot think beyond the bounds of authority, Hayes incorrectly assesses the current crises and comes up with ineffective ways of dealing with failure.
Such [poll] figures show that the crisis of authority extends beyond narrow ideological categories: Big Business and unions, Congress and Wall Street, organized religion and science are all viewed with skepticism. So why is it that so much of the country's leadership in so many different walks of life performed so terribly over this decade? While no single-cause theory can explain such a wide array of institutional failures, there are some themes — in particular, the concentration of power and the erosion of transparency and accountability — that extend throughout.


Of course, it's not really news that very gifted and talented people can make poor, even colossally catastrophic judgments. But the fact is, a complex society like ours requires many tasks to be performed by experts and élites, and tackling some of the most difficult and urgent problems we face requires repositories of authority that can successfully marshal public consensus.

We need experts but we don't need elites. Elite status is given, not earned, and therefore to be an elite is no guarantee of competence or desire to work for the common good. Any morally slothful dolt with money and connections can be part of the elite. Any half-educated, self-satisfied, opinionated blusterer can as well. Any vacuous elite-worshipping or vacuous self-worshipping barnacle on the ship of state can set themselves up as a wise and moral leader. The problem is not the experts, it is the elite who ignore the experts to attain their own agendas.
The élites' failures of the past decade should teach us that institutions of all kinds need input from below. The Federal Reserve is home to some of the finest economists and brightest minds in the country, and yet it still managed to miss an $8 trillion housing bubble and the explosion of the subprime market. If, say, the Federal Reserve Act required several seats on the board of governors to be reserved for consumer advocates — heck, even community organizers — it would have been harder to miss these twin phenomena.

A non-authoritarian might say that the bright minds deliberately out of greed and/or subconsciously out of class identification ignored all the facts. The failure was not the accidental isolation of wealth, it was the deliberate exclusion of anyone who might stop the elite from enriching themselves and their fellow elites at the expense of the powerless. The elite made choices and worked relentlessly to become so rich that nobody could hold them to account.
If there are heartening countertrends to the past decade of élite failure, they're the tremendous outpouring of grass-roots activism across the political spectrum and the remarkable surge in institutional innovation, much of it facilitated by the Internet. In less than a decade, Wikipedia has completely overturned the internal logic of the Enlightenment-era encyclopedia by radically democratizing the process of its creation. Farmers' markets have blossomed as a means of challenging and subverting the industrial food-distribution cartel. Charter schools have grown for the same reason; local school systems are no longer viewed as transparent and democratic.

In his misguided attempt to maintain the failing elites' failing status quo, Hayes dredges up the fake, powerless grassroots movements (the elite's cynical attempt to shift blame from themselves to the taxation powers of the government) and irrelevancies such as charter schools (the elite's cynical attempt to rid themselves of school taxes) and farmer's markets (the elite's cynical attempts to avoid the poisoned food they feed to those too poor to afford better). Hayes ought to know better but can't see beyond the need to justify the present system of wealthy-beyond-belief elites and the sheep they shear. Authoritarians ignore facts--income inequality, the revolving door between government and corporations, the amount of money poured int politics and the favorable laws that result from the lobbying. They want to believe that a group of superior people will take care of them, giving them what they want in exchange for a sense of belonging and purpose.
This, one hopes, is just the beginning. All these new institutions are inspired by a desire to democratize old, big oligarchic hierarchies and devolve power downward and outward. That's our best hope in the decade to come. For at the end of the day, it's the job of citizens to save élites from themselves.

And finally, the authoritarian tells the small and powerless that it is their responsibility to restrain the people who hold complete power over them. The inference is that if the elites let their greed drive them out of control, the poor have no one to blame but themselves.

Time is certainly outdoing itself with its 10 Best Ideas list. You would normally have to go to The Atlantic for this type of prescient wisdom, this caliber of Big Thinkers and their Big Ideas. How fortunate that when we just happen to find ourselves in this time of economic disaster, multiple wars and repression of freedom, we have such elite to use their uncanny ability to analyze and recover from failure to save us from their incompetence.


Mr. Wonderful said...

I read this goddamn thing and kept wondering, who is this clown? Imagine my surprise when it turns out he's Washington editor of The Nation.

I would have expected more of that mag. This essay seems to bemoan the elites' "failures" and ends with (as you say) a call for us poor shmucks to save them from themselves.

What failure? They set forth to enrich themselves and they succeed.

Come on, vanden Heuvel. WTF?

Downpuppy said...

Imagine my surprise when Megan's Big Idea turns out to be a retread of her lameo defense of teh bankers.

Kathy said...

Time (& Newsweek) was always pretty stupid, but wow! It has really collapsed into the gutter these days. Trying to follow the Fox model of appeal to the base & brainless.

bulbul said...

Mr. W,
What failure?
Yeah, that strikes me as weird, too. I see multiple interpretations, the most cynical being "I didn't get filthy rich off of this, so yeah, it's a failure." This would certainly apply to Megan, dunno about Hayes. I fucking hate Hayes and promptly ffwd every time he shows his PolSci major mug on Olbermann. I know his type from my college days (both studying and teaching) and I hate them with passion undying.