Friday, November 14, 2008

Smart People

I was going to write a lengthy comment about Mark Lilla's lamentation over the demise of an intellectually vibrant conservative tradition in America, but Ivan "the K" Keneally has done so at "Culture 11" with insight, verve and wit, leaving me with little more that needs to be said. I commend his critique to your attention.

However, I do think there is one aspect of Lilla's argument that deserves further consideration and emphasis, namely his knee-jerk condemnation - even incomprehension - of conservatives who "mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders." The rejection of the wisdom of such highly credentialed experts - and the apparent respect accorded to views of "ordinary Joes" - is unfathomable to Lilla. The self-evident absurdity of such views does not deserve further explanation or commentary on his part.

Surrounded as he is by the denizens of Columbia U., NY, NY, the possibility that the views of Nobel Prize winning economists may be subject to debate and even be specious, while the economic concerns of ordinary folk who produce his food, who build and repair the buildings and bridges and streets that he takes for granted, who patrol the streets and stand ready to put out fires - indeed who repair his toilet - might be relevant, is out of the realm of consideration. Yet it is precisely this massive blind spot that portends the rapid demise of this moment of an apparent liberal triumph. Should we witness the ascent of such elite liberals during the coming years of an Obama presidency, we will quickly see a most stunning comeback of a vibrant and powerful conservative intellectual counterthrust. If Obama is smart, he will stay away, far away, from people like Lilla - although it seems that he has a propensity to surround himself with just these sorts of cocooned intellectuals who drip condescension toward the views of the uncredentialed.

It was our Nobel prize winning economists who argued aggressively on behalf of NAFTA, and were unwilling to seriously consider that one of its effects - intended as it turned out - was to displace thousands upon thousands of small Mexican farmers who had little choice but to seek illegal employment in the United States. Since they would be producing more and better products, the problem of inciting illegal immigration was irrelevant. It was our Nobel prize winning economists who extolled the virtues of outsourcing and globalization, wholly uncognizant of the impact and effect on the "ordinary Joes" and its effects of family, community, and civil society. It is our Nobel prize winning economists who actually argue that global warming - if it does indeed come to pass - will not adversely impact the worldwide GDP other than having an adverse effect on agricultural production. Such declines in agricultural output, they argue, will be nugatory since other industries and economic activities will be needed and will compensate any overall GDP loss in the agricultural realm. The fact that this decline will manifest itself as hunger and starvation doesn't really show up in the models, it seems (though, I'm willing to bet that a plumber or a builder would understand the implications pretty quickly). Don't believe me? Read this lecture by Herman Daly (particularly pp. 13-14), a bonafide economist, who names names, including a Nobel prize winning economist.

The utter presumptuousness and blindness of a view that the expertise of Nobel prize winning economists is unassailable, and the concerns and priorities of everyday ordinary citizens is irrelevant, remains one of the major obstacles to the actual revival of liberalism in this country. An intellectually vibrant conservatism - rightly understood - is actually on the rise, in fact energized by the demise of a long-compromised shotgun wedding with a liberal Republican party. Liberalism - wrongly conceived - remains mired in a self-imposed rut of self-satisfaction and ignorance. If Lilla got out of New York on occasion - say, perhaps, a visit to a certain farm in Kentucky - he might get an education.


Unknown said...

I take your point. Elites have one lens and ordinary folks have another and the reality that elites see is distorted to the degree that it cannot see what ordinary folks see. I accept this as a critique of what people like Lilla stand for, but not as a defense for what people like Sarah Palin stand for. Your and Kenneally's animus toward the stupidity and blindness of elite liberalism should not force you into a defense of the stupidity and blindness of the kind of fake populism Palin and Joe the Plumber represent.

Patrick Deneen said...

Luke, I didn't say anything about Palin here. I think she is a bit like a Rorschach test, with the Left and Right projecting their fears and hopes on her. A bit like Obama, in fact... I think we will have the opportunity to get to know both a bit better in coming years, and perhaps end up projecting less in the process. Mainly, I wasn't arguing that Palin (or Joe the plumber) represents the future of a vibrant intellectual conservatism, but that the deeper assumptions underlying the condescension toward them were the source of an obstacle for many on the Left to seeing the possibility of such an intellectual vibrancy - which surrounds them, in fact.

Black Sea said...

First, Lilla fails to do what any reasonable commentator should do in a critique of this kind, which is to offer an at least provisional definition of conservatism. Recently, I read (with considerable boredom) an exchange on another blog about the Luddites. Were they conservatives, we all wondered, or were they really liberals? The Luddites wanted to halt the advance of industrialization, some argued, and so they must have been conservatives, but they were in favor of the workers and against the industrialists, argued others, and so they must've been liberals. Most illuminating.

In the contemporary moment, most people take the word "conservative" to mean whatever the Republican party (or some faction within) is advocating in this election cycle, and leave it at that. Why not, then, just use the words "Republican Party" and be done with it?

Though failing to explain what he means by "conservative," Lilla does offer a fairly comprehensive list of those thinkers and editors whom he considers to have been worthy (in a more worthy era) of admiration on the grounds of their "maturity and seriousness, their historical perspective, their sense of proportion. . . ."

Since your readers can consult Lilla's article for themselves, I will summarize by saying that these were typically people affiliated with The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary, people who embodied "the bookish seriousness of New York neoconservatives."

To the extent that neoconservatives have lost their voice in the American political debate (not nearly to the extent that one would hope) the prime contributory factor is not the ascent of Sarah Palin or admiration for "Joe the Plumber." These are perhaps symptoms, rather than a cause. In brief, the public sways toward populism when it senses that America's soi disant elites are leading the country to ruin. "The Emperor's New Clothes" might be useful to Lilla in understanding this phenomenon.

As for economic experts, I realize that neither of these two individuals is a Nobel Prize winner, but I would mention that Allen Greenspan, the "maestro" of our orgy of consumption, now acknowledges that his passion for low interest rates may have been in error. George Soros, on the other hand, asserts that we cannot understand the current economic crisis until we abandon our belief in the rationality of markets.

I believe that Soros makes a crucial point, in that the field of economics, which in most ways presents itself as a quantitative science, is actually a study of human behavior, with all the messy irrationality which this implies. I'm not convinced that most of our economic experts fully recognize this.

The 20th Century offers examples aplenty of the catastrophes ensuing from the attempt to reduce a study of human existence to the status of a science. If I might quote a 19th Century thinker, "We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers . . ." Here is yet another reason why non-credentialed, non-expert, non-elites, fear the workings of their betters.

Finally, I said earlier that if by conservatives Lilla means Republicans, he should just say so. Similarly, when he says "Nobel Prize-winning economists," he might save us all some trouble simply by saying, "Paul Krugman."

Since I've argued that Lilla should offer some definition of conservatism, I will offer my own very provisional effort here, drawing on Thomas Sowell's notion of "the constrained vision."

Polistra said...

The real division is not between imaginative and unimaginative. It's between theorists and experimentalists.

Experimentalists have ideas, but they are always "in the lab", and they always test their ideas against reality. They are constrained by the laws of physical nature and human nature.

Look at Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Neither had any education. Both were wildly imaginative, but their imagination was always tested against commercial and human reality.

Ford's big idea was to pay workers enough that they could buy his own products. Not a number anywhere in this idea; no equations or computer models. Yet Ford's idea did more for the welfare of poor Americans, especially black Americans, than any political idea or economic theory.