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Saturday, April 05, 2003 - 11:13 AM Permanent link for World's Shortest Political Quiz
World's Shortest Political Quiz

I've always thought that one of the central, crystallizing questions you can ask someone is:  Do you think the "masses" are generally able to make good decisions?  I call the question my "world's shortest political quiz" (although this very popular one from the Libertarians also holds the moniker)

Market-oriented, classical liberals like myself see in the "masses" a constant cacophony that -- while producing a Jerry Springer like escapade every now and then -- represents a morality and decision making prowess second to none.

"They" might occasionally say stupid things when put on camera but when put in charge of their own lives, this army of empowered individuals is (surprisingly, to some) competent, innovative, and collectively make this nation so great and wealthy. 

On the other hand, too many graduate degrees in one room, tasked with making "architectural" business or political decisions, is just as likely to scare me as it is to reassure.   One anecdote I really enjoyed was this story I blogged about of an immigrant who fashioned a mini-empire of Dairy Queens in the "new south" --

Education -- while virtuous -- isn't the fountainhead of this wealth, it's much more old fashioned, elbow grease and is something that represents the true source of much of the domestic wealth in the US. Other country's schools may produce better math/science scores & pedigrees than ours (a debatable claim, BTW) but we've got a system that produces efficiently run Wal-Mart branches with better every day low prices. And this *really* does matter more to the economy, on net, than most other comparatively intellectual pursuits.

Others, however, see in the "masses" the source of what's wrong in our society or at least the thing holding us back.   In America, quite a few on both the Left and the Right feel this.   And overseas -- particularly in technocracy-infatuated Europe -- they consider it the heart of what ails the US.   This recent quote from EUObservor is profound in it's simplicity and just how much it reveals about the way "they" really think (via WaxTadpole):

The US cannot sustain its current power, so Europe needs to look closely at its future security needs. That was the stark warning from a leading member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, on Tuesday.

...Speaking at an event hosted by the Irish Institute of European Affairs Mr Bruton said the US’ social problems would exacerbate the country’s decline: "They have an excellent elite but the middle rank is not well educated."

Can you even imagine a US statesman saying that so matter-of-factly?  But I'm glad he did because it reveals the real heart of the matter.   Mr. Bruton's implied solution is screamingly obvious -- the elites in the US need to make decisions for the middle rank to prevent the US's decline.   Mr. Bruton readily identifies with the US elite -- because they're europhiles & often share a soft spot for their for their elitist colleagues across the pond.  

This world view is a technocratic one -- one that doesn't fundamentally trust the individual to make decisions.  For most problems, there are experts who simply need to caucus together and come back from up high like Moses bringing the commandments.  In the tech world, these are the folks who place an outsized belief in consortia and standards bodies to innovate new architectures.

In the political world, in addition to consortia, there's also an idealized law is based on a Kantian Morality.   This law isn't "tainted" by the populism inherent in legislative law like that found in the US.  It is instead based on intellectuals/diplomats complimenting each other about their progressive morality.   These folks then push their ivory tower notion of morality and Goodness onto the populace via the tools of government. 

I'm not advocating strict populism -- the "liberal" part of "liberal democracy" is precisely about limiting the things that a democracy can do to it's citizenry.   What I'm describing is a general attitude the government can / should adopt to the unwashed, heathen masses -- Trust Them.   Bill Whittle, in one of his almost classic blog essays argues:

This, to my mind, is the fundamental difference between the Europeans and the U.S.: We trust the people. We fought wars and lost untold husbands and brothers and sons because of this single most basic belief: Trust the people. Trust them with freedom. Trust them to spend their own money. Trust them to do the right thing. Trust them to defend themselves. To the degree that government can help, great - but TRUST THE PEOPLE.

The People will rise to the challenge.   Whittle's essay is about gun control (can the "masses" be trusted with the right to defend themselves with guns?) and thoughts on why totalitarian regimes have happened so many times in Europe over the past century.   But MANY of our other contemporary political fault lines revolve around this as well.    How deeply should we legislate workplace rules?   How often do groups need to be protected (from the masses).   And just to pick on the Virtuous Right a bit, what can consenting adults do in private with each other?   

Even more pernicious -- the annointed elite's morality starts pushes them beyond simple disrespect of the masses but a need to save them as well.  They need to be saved from rapacious businessmen (who are intellectually members of the masses but have somehow come across undue power/influence) or capitalism itself.  

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