by Tobias Phibbs
Wednesday, 28
April 2021
Idea
15:00

There is nothing smart about our expert class

Saying that we have a cognitive elite gives them too much credit
by Tobias Phibbs
Who’s the sharpest tool in this box? Credit: Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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:

Modern societies have made one kind of human aptitude, cognitive ability, too much the gold standard of human esteem and the shaping of society too much in the interests of smart people has helped to create the political alienation that led to Brexit in the UK and the election of the maverick Donald Trump in the US.
- David Goodhart, Standpoint

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):

You might think somewhere there must be a quiet calm centre like in a James Bond movie where you open the door and that is where the ninjas are who actually know what they are doing. There are no ninjas. There is no door.
- Dominic Cummings

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.

Join the discussion


  • That’s a classic from Cummins.
    Our Ardern led debacle of a government couldn’t be better described.

  • Thank you for this short article. The sooner we can remove the term ‘elite’ from the vocabulary applied to politicians and senior civil servants, the better. ‘Elite’ should be replaced with ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’. That will provide a constant reminder to our leaders of how well they are doing their jobs (or not) and will help pop the bubble of their self-regard.

  • Ever considered the virtues of being brief and to the point Sanford? These long-winded conspiracy theories are about as enthralling as the ramblings of a bar room bore well into his hobby horse topic (and his drinks).

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