The intellectual’s fallacy and the November elections

A democratic government has arrived at a fork in the road when it looks on the people as a problem to be solved.

The framers of our constitution would say this is exactly backwards.  They considered the power of the government – and the temptation for abuse and corruption it generates – to be the problem a free people must solve.  Thus the plan to shatter power and divide the shards between the federal government and the states, and among the competing branches of the federal government.

The framers insisted on gridlock.  “Ambition,” Madison wrote, “must be made to counteract ambition.”

A considerable number of Americans, including most in the present administration and their supporters in the commentariat, have come to a different vision of the uses of power.  They have, I think, succumbed to a temptation of a different kind:  being highly educated and extremely clever, they fondly imagine government to be a sort of IQ test, in which complex “problems” are overcome by abstract formulas seen as the logical  “solutions.”

This is the intellectual’s fallacy, and it has two corollaries.  First, the constitutional division of power is seen as an illogical obstacle to achieving solutions.  The right answer is the right answer – and the more power to see it through, the better.

Second, because government is a test of intelligence, only MENSA types are fit to rule.  Hence the recent talk – in which I have partaken – about the rise of elites on the back of the Obama administration.

Those mired in the intellectual’s fallacy never argue their case.  Why bother?  It’s self-evidently correct, and low-IQ types – the bulk of the people – won’t get it anyway.  From this perspective, the most important attribute of a political figure isn’t the ability to lead, persuade, or manage tough trade-offs:  it’s being “right.”

Since, as in mathematics, there can be one and only one solution to every problem of government, the human race divides sharply between the few who are right and the many who are deluded.

Here are two examples of the fallacy from the media commentariat.

In the real world of hard decisions, Jimmy Carter’s was a disastrous presidency, aborted after one term.  No matter.  The important thing, Richard Cohen insists, is that Carter was “right.”  An Islamist revolution in Iran, a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Cubans in Ethiopia and Angola, double-digit inflation and interest rates – sure.  But Carter preached “energy self-sufficiency.” That, according to Cohen, was the correct answer to the IQ test.  It put Carter “right on the money,” while the voters who threw him out demonstrated “our national character flaw.”

Joe Klein, writing in Time Magazine, can barely swallow down the nausea induced by the idiocy and degradation of his fellow citizens.

There is something profoundly diseased about a society that idolizes its ignoramuses and disdains its experts. It is a society that no longer takes itself seriously.

And here is an example out of the mouth of President Obama:

“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared,” Obama said Saturday evening in remarks at a small Democratic fundraiser Saturday evening. “And the country’s scared.”

This isn’t fund-raising blather.  It’s a considered interpretation of American politics, shared by many Americans.  Senator Kerry, for example, has used virtually identical words to the president’s:  “Facts, science, and truth seem to be significantly absent from what we call our political dialogue.”

Let us recapitulate.  On one side of the political divide stand President Obama, Senator Kerry, Richard Cohen, Joe Klein.  They are experts.  They have science, facts, truth on their side.  They pass the IQ test.  They know the solution.  They are the solution.

On the other side is the lowly American electorate:  us.  We are profoundly diseased, hardwired not to think clearly, panic-stricken.  We idolize ignoramuses.  We don’t get the problem.  We are the problem.

A democratic government that considers the people a problem to be solved – I wrote above – has come to a fork in the road.  It can’t take up Bertold Brecht’s suggestion that “the government should disband the people and elect a new one.”

It can only begin to take away the instruments of democracy.  If the electorate is a danger to itself, this is the only responsible thing to do.  We must be given fewer choices to botch.  Correspondingly more choices must be placed in the hands of those who are fit to rule.

The other fork in the road is more democracy.  There will be elections in November.  The issue for the electorate can be easily framed in the form of a question:  are we sovereign citizens or emotionally disturbed children?  Whoever believes the latter is duty-bound to vote for the status quo.

But those of us who maintain we are moral agents, and thus free citizens, and who are happy to live with our own solutions and mistakes – we must vote for a new dispensation, and reject the intellectual’s fallacy embodied in government by the president and Senator Kerry, and represented in the media by Cohen, Klein, and their like.

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5 Responses to The intellectual’s fallacy and the November elections

  1. Lisa G in NZ says:

    Great post & description of what “they” think of “us”… :)

  2. Brutus says:

    I don’t think you’ve met your burden in demonstrating the purported fallacy of the intellectual. Similarly, your oft-repeated faith in the citizenry as a collection of moral agents doesn’t convince me. My principal refusal, however, is to accept the simple dichotomy you offer. Maybe the division is really between people who get it (whatever “it” may be) and those who don’t, which doesn’t necessarily correlate well with intelligence and/or education.

    I think of human nature and the institutions that arise from it as fundamentally flawed and inherently insoluble — at least as compared to some imagined ideal of a perfectly organized, crime- and sin-free world. Rather, life in all its forms is messy, full of growth and decay, beauty and ugliness, the horrific and the sublime. Humanity is unexceptional in that regard.

    • Hey Brutus. What you call my faith in the citizenry is in fact skepticism that anyone – you, me, the president – can, in governing, become transcendentally superior to human nature. From where I stand, the burden of proof is on those who make this claim of superiority.

      The problem with the intellectual’s fallacy concerns values rather than faith: ought, not is. Don’t know whether you are a small d democrat, Brutus – but if you are, you should be troubled by a government which considers you too stupid and childish to govern your own behavior.

      • Brutus says:

        I always try to keep my comments short to avoid hijacking your blog. So your picture of me is necessarily incomplete. Although I’m a registered Democrat, that was only to gain access to the primary ballot. In fact, I don’t really believe government can solve anything anymore or is really even very interested in governing. It’s more like the republic has become a great engine for profit (or loss) and the government merely works to keep the engine lubricated.

        As to judging who’s capable of governing behavior (either institutional or individual), I’d say no one. Those in government may believe we’re too stoopid, but we respond promptly by demonstrating it by, for example, organizing The Tea Party and vomiting up candidates (take your pick). Hell, I don’t even believe my neighbors have the proper self-restraint to be neighborly — an awfully low standard to meet — and they demonstrate just that continuously with selfish, boorish behaviors. They’re free to fail, of course, and the tragedy is that so many do fail.

      • Fair enough. But at the risk of sounding like Mr. Rogers, you’re welcome to my neighborhood any time, Brutus. It isn’t Plato’s republic, but people get along.

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