The theme of government as expressed by the American political left today is nothing new. It presupposes that the majority of society has a savage, unlearned nature and we are without the ability to democratically rule ourselves. This is a theory that was developed in Plato’s The Republic, Leviathan written by Thomas Hobbes and Utopia by Sir Thomas More – these three theses resulted in two basic propositions:
- First, the public at large must be ruled by a small and elite group trusted to rule justly. In the case of Plato, it was the Guardians, with Hobbes, it was a Sovereign and More’s ideal society had a Prince.
- Secondly, the people had little say in the role they played in the daily life of the society and all was planned in excruciatingly painful detail and their responsibility was but to execute that plan.
Stripped to the lowest common denominator, this is still the theme song that is being played over and over in the actions of the Obama administration. It is no secret that it is also a tune danced to by “progressives” on both sides of the aisle – just look at how power continues to be concentrated in Washington, how many programs are “centrally planned” by some federal agency and how much of our “governance” is executed by some federal employee or appointee.
That the government has grown in size, scope and cost is not an object of debate. It is a provable fact.
What about this idea that has been spoken of since the days of JFK’s Camelot, as having the “best and brightest” in government? That sounds a lot like the Guardians, a Sovereign or a Prince.
Obama appointed his czars in an attempt to circumvent the role of Congress to “advise and consent”, effectively creating a Council of Guardians, the intellectual elites who could define the correct path for us to walk. Obama appointed these intellectual “elites” in many cases in superior positions to the actual department heads and positioned them to rule without having to submit to the nastiness of actually being vetted or elected – but even that isn’t new, there are hordes of appointees in the federal hierarchy that serve “at the pleasure of the President”.
The American political left inhabits a world of intentionalism, where just making an effort is rewarded in equal measure to an actual result. In one of the first posts on this blog back in January of 2011, I wrote:
This is a debate of intentionalism vs. textualism, primarily a debate over how legislation should be interpreted – but has application in understanding our differences as well. I’ve noticed during the administrations since Reagan, the ideological “left” has focused on intent rather than results while the political “right” seems to be the opposite; they look at results and do not reward intent. Clinton got a pass for poor results in social programs because he “felt our pain” even as his policies were quite a bit less than he promised – he had good intent, he gets a pass. Bush was (and continues to be even 2 years after his term ended) excoriated for success in fighting terrorism because the Left believes that his intent was wrong (racist, warmongering, did it for his military/industrial friends, Bush lied, people died).
Obama is getting the same pass as Clinton did as his administration erodes more and more personal and economic freedoms because his supporters impute that he has good intent. This is why we have 2,000 page bills passed that nobody reads – they believe in the intent of the law, not the results. We have an AG that condemns a law as unconstitutional when he hasn’t even read it because he assigns intent to it before it is even read. That is why we have multitudes of czars and are beginning to see the advent of agenct regulations being substituted for debated laws – and where is the civil rights crowd on this – quiet as a church mouse…because they agree with the intent (proving that they are not civil rights proponents at all).
The “right” stands against Obama because of the inevitable results of these practices and policies. We value substance over symbolism.
We celebrate intellectuals and rightly so but how we evaluate the effects of intellectualism must change, from that same post of mine:
No one can win an argument on purely intent alone. Not one of us can see what is in someone else’s heart or mind. We must judge that through evidence – results of the intent, just like in a courtroom. A person can have the best of intentions and create disasters specifically of actioning his intent.
So how is that “rule by elite” working out?
The problem with being ruled by intellectuals is that the only product that they produce is ideas. Their job isn’t to test those ideas, just to produce them. They live in a world of controllable variables, data and theory and as such, don’t really have a connection with the guy knee deep in a ditch with his hands on a shovel handle. They only celebrate each other – just look at how many awards they give themselves…
If we vest our faith in the intellectual elites of Obama’s Council of Guardians, what happens when intellectuals are wrong?
In 2010, Thomas Sowell published a book on this subject, Intellectuals and Society (the link will take you to the googlebook version). He also wrote a column based on the book for National Review. Dr. Sowell writes:
There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When intellectuals who generate ideas are surrounded by a wide range of others who disseminate those ideas — whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges — the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge. Trying for years to understand the nature of that influence eventually led me to write the book Intellectuals and Society, which has just been published.
Intellectuals generate ideas and ideas matter, whether those ideas are right or wrong, and they matter far beyond the small segment of society who are intellectuals. Ideas affect the fate of whole nations and civilizations. Nowhere is that more true than in our own times, when some people make suicidal attacks to kill strangers who have done nothing to them, as on 9/11, because the attackers are consumed with a set of ideas — a vision — and driven by the emotions generated by those ideas and that vision.
Whether in war or peace, and whether in economics or religion, something as intangible as ideas can dominate the most concrete things in our lives. What Karl Marx called “the blaze of ideas” has set whole nations on fire and consumed whole generations.
Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas — the intellectuals — have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.
The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, during the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers, or apologists among the leading intellectuals — not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted.
I’m not anti-intellectual. I wish I had more than average intelligence and I respect folks who are clearly smarter than I am – but as Dr. Sowell points out, we average folk have a lot to be proud of – many, if not most, of mankind’s advancement came from some guy with a wrench, an idea and a lot of toil and sweat.
Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by their wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic, and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used.
The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels that we now take for granted.
All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public. Whether their ideas turn out to work — whether they make life better or worse for others — is another question entirely.
And Dr. Sowell didn’t even mention people like Henry Ford, a man with little formal education, he learned by doing. Thomas Edison was a school dropout, yet was one of the greatest inventors the world has ever known. Like Ford, he was a tinkerer at heart. The great thing about this is that you get to test your ideas and get immediate feedback on the correctness of your actions.
When intellectuals are wrong, bad things happen.
The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx’s intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxian ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.
Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave-labor camps.
Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps — slated for extermination — if he had succeeded.
The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras — including our own — intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions.
What we have today with Obama’s Council of Guardians is a group of intellectuals who agree with each other in ideology and I believe share contempt of anyone that they presume isn’t as smart as they are. I think that also explains the “aloofness” of Obama. He has no time for the folks with dirt under their fingernails.
I’m not thinking that this Council of Guardian thing is really working. What we need are more sweaty, toiling people with wrenches.