Rob Henderson and Lorenzo Warby on Elite Beliefs
How did the elites go wrong? And why is my mindset not elite?
Perhaps the most striking divergence between elite and non-elite opinion: Although the majority of ordinary voters oppose the strict rationing of meat, electricity, and gas to fight climate change, 89% of Ivy graduates and 77% of elites overall are in favor of it.
The larger point in the essay (the above is only a minor illustration) is that elites live in an epistemic bubble. Of course, Martin Gurri said the same thing in The Revolt of the Public, although Gurri’s focus is on the way that the Internet enables ordinary people to see the foibles of the elites and to rebel against them.
If you have not already read Henderson’s essay, I can only urge you to do so now.
From later in the essay:
Power laws dominate when people can move freely within an interconnected complex system. And the more interconnected and freer the system, the more pronounced the power law. Economies, supply chains, trade, education, media, and markets have become more intertwined and global. Centuries ago, when the U.S. was a scattered collection of states, things were very different.
Ironically, this relatively interconnected and free system that now exists has given rise to a situation where power is accruing into the hands of people who are skeptical of freedom. Power itself seems to obey a power law, accruing into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Henderson focuses on class loyalty and parental status as a source for elite beliefs.
my views were shaped by my upbringing more so than my education. Most people are this way, which is why researchers typically use an individual’s parental education to measure the person’s social class. A high school dropout with two college-educated parents will tend to share their parents’ outlook and mirror the mannerisms reflective of their class. A PhD with two non-college educated parents will tend to share their parents’ outlook and mirror the mannerisms reflective of their class.
I am a PhD with two college-educated parents, so you would expect me to have an elite class outlook, but I don’t. I’ll try to explain why later in the essay.
In contrast to Henderson’s psychologically-informed explanation for elite beliefs, Lorenzo Warby looks at the intellectual and religious heritage of the ideas.
Warby sees what he calls Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (PEP) as having religious resonance.
PEP/“wokery” is the sanctification of Christianity’s valorised victim without Christianity’s offsetting pro-social features. It is—particularly via Queer Theory and its Trans activism derivatives—actively hostile to parental authority and stable, pro-natal, family life. It lacks any sense of redemption or forgiveness: the sinful past transmits original sin to all “oppressor” identities.
Another interesting paragraph:
the basic claim is “we understand your belief system better than you do and bring it to a higher level, we have knowledge you are being denied”—it can and does do this to Christianity, to science, to left-of-centre political traditions.
If you are familiar with the concept of asymmetric insight that I talk about frequently, you will see “we understand your belief system better than you do” as one aspect. The other aspect is to attribute an evil motive to the belief system. Warby points out that the PEP/woke do this also.
I always say that it is better to address someone’s professed beliefs than to disregard them on the grounds that they reflect (allegedly) bad motives. But I think that with wokism you are almost forced to do that. You have to choose sides. If you’re pro-woke, then the anti-woke have bad motives. If you’re anti-woke, the arguments come across as so poorly formulated and illogical that you end up discussing motives.
Warby argues that the false belief that all people are the same requires a peculiar intellectual defense mechanism.
this stream of thought evolved mechanisms for blocking, and so evading, the constraints of evidence and knowledge. As equalitarianism is false, a stream of thought-and-action that prevents use of evidence—and which developed a plethora of advocacy, coordination, and motivating techniques to enable discursive warfare, minimising vulnerability to falsity—was well placed to become the dominant form of equalitarian politics.
By the way, I wondered what “discursive warfare” meant, and I followed the link, which goes to a Triggernometry podcast with Michael Malice. I recommend the podcast. Note that Malice argues that we are past “peak woke,” which could mean that Henderson and Warby are putting up sandbags against a receding tide.
My own mindset
I have what I call an “outsider” mindset, one that I can sense in many of the people who comment on this blog: resentful of authority, not willing to adopt a set of beliefs just to get along. In psychometric terms, low on agreeableness.
I may have inherited what I am calling an outsider mindset from my father. Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s as a Russian-Jewish immigrant in St. Louis, he did not feel securely attached to any tribe. He rejected his parents’ religion and culture, seeing them as backward compared to gentiles or to the predominantly German, mostly secular Jews who were much better established locally. But he did not feel fully accepted in the modern circles, either.
By the 1970s, when his positions at Washington University connected him to the Danforths and other elite St. Louis families, he would marvel about how far he had come. In prefacing remarks he would make in an informal or semi-formal gathering, he would humble-brag, “I’m just a poor boy from the ghetto.”
My own childhood included a love-hate relationship with school. My school friends provided much-needed companionship. But I felt stifled by teachers and course work. I did most of my learning independently.
Swarthmore College, with small classes and seminars that encouraged student participation, provided a match for my learning style. In fact, my grades were much better in college than they had been in high school—and this was before grade inflation became a thing in higher ed.
Graduate school at MIT was a big setback. In terms of style, it was a reversion to authoritarian, robotic classroom instruction. In terms of substance, it was math worship. When Stan Fischer was teaching “monetary growth models” (applying stochastic calculus to a model that attached a silly financial sector to a Solow model of economic growth, IIRC), I made a sneering, sarcastic comment about the topic to him and the entire class.
Overall, I see myself having little or no impulse to adopt a set of beliefs in order to please authority or to belong to any tribe. I was frustrated in any setting that stifles creativity. That perhaps explains my attraction to libertarian thinking. But in terms of personal conduct, I am very conservative (no drinking, no recreational drugs, one marriage), so that was bound to blend into my political outlook eventually.
The bottom line is that when I look at the progressive beliefs that I could echo in order to be a member in good standing of my social class, I think: nope, not me.
substacks referenced above: