Friday, October 10, 2008

Crises and Competence

So, are you sufficiently frightened yet?

Three months ago, you had a good idea what the world would be like two years from now. Even with the question of whether Obama or McCain would become President, the differences here would not be earth shattering. After all, we survived eight years under Bush. With a Democratic Senate and House, we could probably survive four years of McCain.

Now, intelligent people have to be asking, what will the world be like in two years? Unemployment in the double digits on a global scale? Baby boomers with their retirement accounts all but destroyed and nothing to live on but Social Security, and a government too bankrupt to even pay that. Perhaps we will be dealing with double-digit inflation, destroying investments by doubling the price of everything on the shelves.

These events are providing quite a shakeup.

Now what?

Well, we have the hucksters for religion going around saying, "In these times of uncertainty, turn to God – the only certainty in the world."

One of the problems with this option is that those who choose this route become almost worthless when it comes to solving a problem. When a house is burning down, or an earthquake has buried a quarter of a city's population in rubble, the people huddled in a prayer circle on the lawn are not actually doing anything to help bring the fire under control or rescue their buried neighbors. This is a terrible time to turn to prayer. This is a time to do some physical, real, materialist universe work.

However, in the current situation, a great many people are wishing that there was something they could do. Having the opportunity to pick up a shovel and actually do something useful would be a relief, compared to sitting home and watching the news. The situation is just too big for most of us. What can we do?

These concerns have two implications.

The first is that, for those who can do something, the previous concerns hold. It is time for them to get to work, to do what they can, and not waste time in prayer, superstition, and other nonsense. Real-world problems require real-world solutions. This requires having people who have studied and who understand how the real world works put their knowledge to use. A lack of understanding of the real world – real-world ignorance – is not going to help any of us.

This, of course, carries with it a lesson relevant to who should become President (and who should become vice-President with a possibility of becoming President in the future). We need people in that position who have a grasp of reality. In particular, we need people who know that they do not know everything, and that it is necessary to turn to experts in a field in order to figure out right answers. This means having somebody in the office of President who is at least competent enough to recognize the competence of others when he sees it – a quality that we can judge in this election by looking at who one chooses for a vice-Presidential candidate.

Those of us who have an unfavorable view of Bush and who have warned about how his stupidity is a threat to all of us like to blame others for putting Bush into office. We did not vote for him, so none of this is our fault.

However, we all did not work as hard as we could have worked to get the right person in office. The fault lies not only with those who did not vote for Bush, but those who did nothing (or did not do as much as they could have) to challenge a culture that treated incompetence and stupidity as virtues worthy of holding the highest office in the land.

I am not talking about merely campaigning for one candidate or the other. I am talking about the types of behavior that we engage in that helps to shape the culture that we live in – the values that we express to our friends, families, co-workers, fellow club members, and other acquaintances on what counts as a virtue worthy of admiration and respect, and what it is foolish for people to hold in high esteem.

Of course, eight years ago the liberal community was under the delusion that all value-systems were equal, that it makes no sense to say that one person's values were any better than anybody else's. Eight years ago, within the liberal community, criticizing somebody else's values was considered a fundamental error and something that ought not to be done. Let us ignore the fact that this view is internally inconsistent – it proved to be quite destructive. It gave destructive and dangerous value systems equal standing to the values of peace and competence.

We started to see that error on 9/11, where we were finally forced to wake up to the idea that all value systems are not equal. Now, we are being forced to wake up to the idea that competence is real – that folksy wisdom that allows a hockey mom to become President might work in a Walt Disney movie where everything is under the tight control of the director, but has as much bearing on the real world as teleporters and warp drive.

So, what is it that we can do in these circumstances, other than huddle in a circle and pray?

One of the things that we can do is to use this opportunity to promote the idea that competence is a virtue, incompetence is a vice, and the idea that an incompetent (but likable) idiot can run the country is one of the most dangerous and most destructive ideas floating around this country today. The way we mold the culture – the way we create a culture that values competence – is through the things we say in the company of our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, club members, and classmates.

In other words, we need to challenge the idea that elitism is a dirty word, and that elitists are worthy of condemnation.

I am an elitist. By that I mean that when there is a job to be done, the job should be given to those who are the best skilled in performing that job – the elite. If there is a military operation to be conducted, we want elite forces to do it. If there is a medical outbreak to contain, we want elite medical specialists to contain it. If there is a financial meltdown to handle, we want elite economists to tackle it.

This means that we also want elite people in office – highly educated people, highly competent people, people who have the ability to recognize competence in others and who are willing to put elite people into positions that require competence.

"You people who think that folksy ignorance is a virtue got us into this mess – and the rest of us let you do it. We will not be letting you do that to us again. There is too much at stake."

That's our job in this crisis. That's what we can do. Because we are going to get through this a lot better and a lot faster with intelligent, competent people working on the problem, then we can ever hope to do by trusting to idiots backed by a circle of supporters praying that the idiot can come up with the right answer.


anticant said...

That's a splendid post, Alonzo - one of your very best.

In your very last sentence don't you mean "a circle of supporters praying that God will tell the idiot the right answer"?

Anonymous said...

"Only worthless people have time to pray."

It's hard to read your blog with stuff like this. You're a serious person. Why not leave this stuff out?

Praying is certainly worthless in affecting anything outside the individual praying. But the people... worthless? C'mon.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Point taken. Sentence removed.

Sheldon said...

And see this somewhat related post from Jim Lippard