Saying that we have a cognitive elite gives them too much credit
Sleaze! Corruption! Leaking rats! Listening to the news, it is sometimes difficult to separate the noise from the signal — though the public are substantially better at it than political journalists. From Cameron’s desperate attempt at lobbying to the scandal of the Downing Street wallpaper, however, the overriding impression we get is of a sordid, rather pathetic political class. High corruption and conspiracy this is not.
In recent years, criticisms of the meritocratic elite have gained significant traction. As David Goodhart put it:
There is some truth in this, but is our political system really selecting for “smart people”? Was it smart people who outsourced industry, thought China was on an inexorable path to liberal democracy, or who now believe you can solve the housing crisis by fiddling around with mortgages and stamp duty? In 2012, only 23% of Labour MPs (and 55% of Tory MPs) could correctly identify the probability of spinning a coin twice and getting two heads. Perhaps the current cohort is a significant improvement. Then again, perhaps it is not.
Nor are politicians alone in this. The media are even worse. Driven by the logic of the click, grown men and women chase politicians around trying to secure ‘gotchas’ about Scotch Eggs and whether or not the Prime Minister is ‘woke’. Robert Peston was confused by a mirror.
More consequentially, neither public health scientists nor bureaucrats have exactly covered themselves in glory in our response to Covid. You were much better looking at the obscurer parts of Twitter — or thinking for yourself — than listening to the expert class if you wanted to know whether, for example, border controls or masks work, or when a vaccine might be ready.
The last year has confirmed that Dominic Cummings was right when he told the IPPR in 2014 (in spite of his own taste for SW1 drama):
Looking at the events of the last few days (/weeks/months/years), it is hard to wonder whether our problem is less that we are dominated by a cognitive elite, and more that we have no elite at all. By accusing the political class of forming a cognitive elite, we give them too much credit. Perhaps we should worry less about ‘elitism’, and more about the failure to produce a serious or virtuous elite altogether, and the abdication of the responsibility of government by a political class more interested in rolling with the punches of the media-driven rigmarole than governing.