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  • RERUN–Jousting with a Phantom

    Posted by David Foster on January 30th, 2013 (All posts by )

    (I originally posted this in July of last year. I thought it might be appropriate for a rerun given that so many otherwise-intelligent commentators are currently falling for the idea  that the Obamaites  truly and naively believe in “equality of outcomes.”  In reality they believe in no such thing, but are conducting horizontal class warfare with the intent of  collapsing the multiple ladders of success that have traditionally existed in American society into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled by people like themselves.)

    Those people who call themselves “progressives” are talking a lot about equality and inequality these days. And conservatives/libertarians, in response, attempt to explain why “equality of outcomes” is infeasible and unwise.

    To a substantial degree, though, they/we are jousting with a phantom. Because leading “progressives” don’treally believe in anything resembling equality—indeed, quite the contrary.

    Consider, for example: Many people in “progressive” leadership positions are graduates of the Harvard Law School. Do you think these people want to see a society in which the career, status, and income prospects for an HLS grad are no better than those for a graduate of a lesser-known, lower-status (but still very good) law school? C’mon.

    Quite a few “progressive” leaders are members of prominent families. Do you think Teddy Kennedy would have liked to see an environment in which he and certain other members of his family would have had to answer for their actions in the criminal courts in the same way that ordinary individuals would, without benefit from connections, media influence, and expensive lawyers?

    The prevalence of “progressivism” among tenured professors is quite high. How many of these professors would be eager to agree to employment conditions in which their job security and employee benefits were no better than those enjoyed by average Americans? How many of them would take a salary cut in order to provide higher incomes for the poorly-paid adjunct professors at their universities? How many would like to see PhD requirements eliminated so that a wider pool of talented and knowledgeable individuals can participate in university teaching?

    There are a lot of “progressives” among the graduates of Ivy League universities. How many of them would be in favor of legally eliminating alumni preferences and the influence of “contributions” and have their children considered for admission–or not–on the same basis as everyone else’s kids? Yet an alumni preference is an intergenerational asset in the same way that a small businessman’s store or factory is.

    The reality is that “progressivism” is not in any way about equality, it is rather about shifting the distribution of power and wealth in a way that benefits those with certain kinds of educational credentials and certain kinds of connections. And remember, power and connections are always transmutable into wealth. Sometimes that wealth is directly dollar-denominated, as in the millions of dollars that former president Bill Clinton was paid in speaking fees last year, or the money made by a former government official who leverages his contacts into an executive job with a “green” energy company–even though he may have minimal knowledge of either energy or business. And sometimes the wealth takes the form of in-kind benefits, like a university president’s mansion. (Those who lived in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe can tell you all about in-kind benefits for nominally low-paid officials.) And, almost always, today’s “progressivism” is about the transfer of power from individuals to credentialed “experts” who will coerce or “nudge” people to do with those experts have decided would be best.

    To a very substantial extent, the talk about “equality” is a smokescreen, conscious or unconscious, behind which “progressives” pursue their own economic, status, and ego agendas.

    Writing in 1969, Peter Drucker–who was born in Austria and had lived in several European countries–wrote about what he saw as a key American economic advantage: the much less-dominant role played by “elite” educational institutions:

    One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…
It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers.

    The “unwillingness of American society to accept this claim”…the claim of elite education as the primary gateway to power and wealth…has been greatly undercut since Drucker wrote. And “progressives” have been among the main under-cutters and the leading advocates for further movement in that direction.

    Related: Paying higher taxes can be very profitable.

    Original CB discussion thread here.


    5 Responses to “RERUN–Jousting with a Phantom”

    1. David Foster Says:

      Related post by David Brooks: The Great Migration

      I think he makes some good points, but does not adequately distinguish between “meritocracy” and “credentialism.”

    2. ScottJ Says:

      One of the differentiating aspects between Liberals and Conservatives seems to be the cart and horse argument. To a Conservative, hard work and inspiration (and occasionally good luck) can lead to wealth, which can lead to power. In the Liberal view, the hard work is gaining power, and from that comes the wealth.

      The hard thing to accept about Capitalism (to a Leftist) is that the “wrong people” gain wealth and thereby power. To the progressive elite, such processes should not be left to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” but should be managed and nurtured by the correct people with the correct credentials at the correct institutions.

      Eventually the patronage system breaks down, but it is a good deal along the way for those favored few at the top of the the back scratching process.

    3. David Foster Says:

      ScottJ…” In the Liberal view, the hard work is gaining power, and from that comes the wealth.”

      Yes. In all societies, power is convertible into wealth…the conversion can be in-kind, not involving currency…as when a Soviet bureaucrat gains access to chauffeured cars, special stores that have products not available to the masses, etc etc….OR the power can be first converted to currency (as when a former American Congressman is hired for his expected lobbying skills) and then the currency used to acquire goods and services.

      In American society, public recognition / fame is also easily convertible into wealth…and political power in a democracy is closely intertwined with public recognition.

      Al Gore, who is now wealthier than Mitt Romney, provides one case study of the transformation of power and recognition into wealth.

    4. Mike K Says:

      “But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers.”

      Sarah Palin was an obvious example of the disdain of the elites for those who have raised themselves by their own efforts.

    5. David Foster Says:

      I think the trashing of Palin resonated especially with people who have advanced degrees but whose career accomplishments have fallen considerably short of their expectations. If one has spent years getting a PhD in whatever, and is now, say, an underpaid adjunct professor with little prospect for promotion…and not enough imagination or drive to consider doing something else entirely…then it is likely very painful to see a good ol’ girl like Palin achieving national stature.

      The category of people I’m describing are in no real sense elites, of course, but their resentments can be made to serve the interests of elites.

      See related thoughts from Joseph Schumpeter and Sir Francis Bacon.

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