Reckless Meritocracy? Try “Unchecked”

Ross Douthat opines in the NYT:

In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)

Inevitably, pride goeth before a fall.

Quotable stuff, but is it correct?

I’m dubious, for two reasons.

First, one could see it all as regression towards a mean.

Second, to the extent that one is asking whether there is anything in our current condition (Vietnam to the financial crisis) that makes the reversion to the mean faster than it used to be, I would put part of the blame on the increase in speed in communications and travel, which together increase the pace at which errors’ consequences mature.

But there is another major factor that I see as making errors easier: the collapse of meaningful checks and balances. Congress and the Courts no longer check the executive in meaningful ways. The Tonkin Gulf resolution and the War Powers Act produce to the Praetorian Presidency; the budget-making process and the weakening of the seniority system (plus the increase in the spoils system, aka money in politics) mean that the Congress is less and less a counter on the domestic side.

Meanwhile the courts, already deferential in foreign affairs, constantly invent new barriers to suit: standing sovereign immunity bars, executive privilege, immunity, ‘qualified’ immunity, political question, and more.

Absolute power corrupts in more ways than one.

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