“I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”
—William F. Buckley
The leadership of the post-war world that emerged after 1945 was understandably frightened by the enormity of the horrors we had visited upon ourselves. The vast human potential for death, destruction, and depravity was revealed for all to see, and it was clear that some new paradigm was necessary in order to prevent us from extinguishing all of humanity with the terrifying war-making powers now at our disposal.
The solution seemed to be that we needed to turn management of our world over to a wise, dispassionate, and highly educated elite that would make decisions based on logic and reason rather than the nationalistic and hateful tribalism that had herded us into World War II (and World War I only thirty years before) like stupid sheep screaming their way to the slaughterhouse.
Of course, in order to—at least in theory—make this most brilliant of all systems work efficiently, the technocrats put in charge of managing both our nation and world needed to be as insulated from the vile muck of political and national influences as possible. Therefore, government bureaucrats gained nearly ironclad job protections, academics with tenure were impossible to fire, judges were granted lifetime appointments, and the international organizations we supported were beyond the control of any one nation. This would—again, in theory—allow for the development and implementation of policies that were entirely separated from greed and hatred, which would eliminate any possibility of errors driven by partisan passions.
And, as we all know now, our world is today a paragon of Platonic perfection. Right?
A funny thing has happened on the way to a utopia designed and managed by the smartest people on our planet. It turns out that geniuses can make some awfully stupid decisions, and removing these big brains from any prospect of accountability has led to an insular arrogance that can be just as destructive as bombs and bullets.
First off, the idea that any human being could be hermetically sealed from the world around us—much less their own private weaknesses and ambitions—was always a bit much to hope for. The lures of power, money, sex, and nepotistic empire building are apparently present whether one is a United Nations bureaucrat or Chicago Alderman. Politics inevitably finds its way into every human enterprise, which turns out to be a bigger problem than we originally imagined when concocting our technocratic utopia. Corruption and incompetence is all around us, but our highly emotional and demonstrably inefficient democratic processes can sometimes help to keep the stench down to a manageable level.
In addition, a disconnect from reality eventually hobbles any organization that is wholly insulated from the messy and crass world that exists outside of hushed, wood-paneled conference rooms. People who, for example, have absolute job security, simply cannot today quite understand why the pesky carbon-based life forms under their command are upset every time one of their policies harms businesses or reduces employment. Having no concept of unemployment or bankruptcy because of their own privileged positions that are divorced from the proletarian concerns of high grocery bills, tight family budgets, or cruel evictions, the wails of complaint from the suddenly unemployed hoi polloi do little but confirm to their obviously beneficent masters the stupidity and short-sightedness of the fools that they are managing through the Coronavirus response.
However, the biggest problem of all is both simple and basic: Smart people still live with the same human flaws and limitations as the rest of us. They simply have been granted the power to screw up our lives in brilliant new ways.
Albert Einstein might have been among the most intelligent people who ever lived, but it never occurred to him while he was making his most incredible discoveries that they would someday be used to create the world’s most destructive weapons. The Ivy League educated governmental elite of the 1960’s stepped right into the steaming hot mess of the Vietnam War without a second thought—and destroyed a generation of young Americans. Very smart aerospace engineers still cut corners to meet deadlines—and blew up the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Arguably the most educated political leader of the post-war era nearly traded away his Presidency in exchange for oral sex in the Oval Office and threw away his chance at killing Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, which led directly to the disastrous 9-11 attacks.
Mistakes were made, and these continue to be made right up to this moment by those who are supposedly a lot smarter than us.
The concept of rule by a technocratic priesthood that was deliberately kept aloof from the plebeian concerns of the planet’s noisy and unruly inhabitants obviously seemed like a wonderful idea during the years we were recovering from the shocks—and shocking casualties—of two world wars.
However, as we now watch our financial, educational, and healthcare systems collapse into dysfunction and debt, suffer as our clueless leaders lock us in our homes like misbehaving children sent to our rooms, see our economy teeter toward a meltdown, observe the lines forming at local food banks, and wonder how we managed to leverage a troubling viral outbreak into a worldwide economic crisis that will result in deprivations not seen since The Great Depression in the 1930’s, it is worth wondering whether we are living through the twilight of the technocrats and their long era of “enlightened” rule.
Whatever form (or forms) of government come next will, like a Wagnerian opera, be born of a process that is loud, emotional, dramatic—and extreme.