You Don’t Really Want Smart People Running the World

By Stephen Davies

In every period of history, there are some ideas that are generally accepted. People who disagree about most things will agree on these notions. This means of course that the ideas in question are unexamined or not challenged. This is not good, because frequently the ideas turn out to be questionable at least.

One such idea now is the belief that the best situation is to have clever people in charge of affairs, whether in the public realm of government, politics, and the military or the private sphere of large firms and “third sector” organizations. In fact, this is a classic example of an idea that badly needs deeper examination and questioning. Economic insights and historical experience should both lead us to doubt it.

The consensus today is that intellectual ability or more generally smartness is one of the most important qualities to look for in someone holding a senior position in a large organization. Often it is held to be the most important quality, certainly the quality that should be given the most weight. The underlying idea in many cases is that things would run smoothly and the world would be a better place if only really smart people were in charge of things. This argument is very often assumed rather than being spelled out and advocated. That in itself tells us that it is taken for granted; nobody sees the need to articulate it and defend it against criticism.

It’s Wrong

However, the record does not actually support that underlying idea, at least not in a clear-cut way. Of course we can all think of cases where people are in positions in which they clearly do not have the intellectual capacity to understand what the task involves, much less do it effectively. The other side of the story, however, is that of cases where people who were clearly intelligent, well-educated, and intellectually acute have nonetheless made a total hash of things.

Military history, in particular, is full of spectacular disasters where someone subsequently looking at events often concludes that the generals in charge must have been seriously slow on the uptake. (One classic case was that of the man responsible for the disastrous French defeat at the Battle of Sedan, Marshal Bazaine, who was defended by his lawyer at a subsequent court martial with the classic line “Gentlemen, my client is not a traitor. He is merely an imbecile.”) The problem is that very often it turns out that the generals responsible for these monumental cockups were actually very intelligent people. The world of commerce and business also has many examples of this kind of thing, with smart and acute CEOs making disastrous decisions that destroy the company.

Higher Stupidity

In fact, things are worse than that. As quite a few people have observed, there is a kind of higher stupidity that seems to be possible only for the very intelligent. In these cases, very smart people embark on policies and make decisions that people of average or below-average intelligence know at once are not going to work. One classic example is the series of disastrous decisions that led the United States into fighting and losing the Vietnam War, decisions taken by the bright young men brought into the Pentagon by Robert McNamara and dubbed at the time “the best and the brightest.”

There are obvious rejoinders to this. One is that everyone has perfect judgment in hindsight and that it is unfair to castigate people who made choices that everyone at the time thought were fine and correct. The problem with that response is simple. In many cases, there were people at the time who thought the decisions were foolish or wrongheaded. Most striking is the recurring situation where the expert, informed opinion of really smart people overwhelmingly backs one course of action that turns out to be misguided while the uninformed masses are proved to be right in their doubts.

This was captured in the remark attributed to the British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” Of course there are also plenty of cases where the opposite is true and informed opinion is correct and popular sentiment wrong. The point is that there is no general tendency for the opinions or decisions of the intelligent to be any better than those of the less intelligent.

Another rejoinder is to argue that such massive errors of judgment show that the people in question are actually not that smart. The problem with that is that it is a circular argument. The more serious rejoinder is that while politics, business, academia, and other areas of life claim to be selecting for high positions on the basis of intelligence, they are in reality doing nothing of the sort. It may be that in reality selection is still being made on the traditional basis of connections or heredity, for example.

Jumping Through Hoops

The most persuasive argument is that in today's world we use academic attainment to judge the degree of somebody’s intelligence whereas in fact that only measures skill in passing examinations and jumping through the hoops of academic assessment. The problem is that academic success of that kind does correlate very closely with other measures of intelligence. Moreover, even if there are problems with the selection method, modern societies are certainly trying very hard to select for senior positions on the basis of intelligence and it would be very strange if they were consistently failing to do this.

Our ancestors however would have found this all rather perverse. While they valued intelligence (or wit, as it was called), they did not place anywhere near as much weight on it as we do. In fact the very idea of trying to ensure that people in positions of authority were chosen primarily or even solely on the basis of their intelligence was rejected or not even considered. This partly reflected reality. Our ancestors lived in a world where hereditary connections were much more important than they are today (although this did not stop ambitious and able “new men” from regularly succeeding). In a society dominated by a warrior aristocracy, physical prowess and courage were often the keys to success as much as intelligence.

Smartness Is Not Greatness

However, the main reason why our ancestors did not share our age’s belief that affairs should be run by people selected on the basis of intelligence was more profound. Simply, they did not think it was the only quality that mattered, or even that it was the most important one to consider (which does not mean that it did not play any part, just that it was not put in the central place). Instead, things such as features of character and virtue were thought to be crucial.

Honesty, courage, magnanimity, and equability were just a few of the qualities thought to be important. Smartness by itself was distrusted and was thought to be less weighty than these other features of the person. Experience (as opposed to book learning) was also given more weight.

If we think about the work of some near-contemporary thinkers, we can see why this was so, and why we should often be skeptical about the claims of the intelligent and articulate to be the best or automatic first choice for high positions. In particular the argument of Hayek should give us pause. The great problem that we can actually see with very intelligent people in positions of authority (particularly if they know how much smarter than the average they are) is that of the temptation to hubris.

Institutional Knowledge

As Hayek argued, we actually know very little in an explicit way compared to the mass of knowledge that is out there in human society. Most human knowledge is tacit, the product of experience and not capable of being captured in words or numbers, and local, concerned with and relevant to specific local conditions and circumstances. It also changes constantly because of the dynamic nature of both the natural and the social world. Intelligent people have a strong tendency to think that they know more than they actually do and to believe that their capacity to control the world and predict what is going to happen is far greater than it actually is.

In the modern world, they also tend to value the abstract and the general over the concrete and particular. All of these are ways of thinking and acting that often have bad or even catastrophic results. Things are even worse when large numbers of clever people are congregated in particular institutions or positions, because of the tendency to groupthink that this leads to (you might imagine that lots of clever people brought together would actually debate, but in reality it appears this doesn’t happen so much).

What then do you want in people tasked with making decisions and determining policy? Intelligence is certainly one of the qualities you want. However, it is much less important than another characteristic, which is the real one to emphasize. This is what we may call good judgment (or good sense and “bottom,” as it was called in the 18th century). The difficulty is that the possession of that quality becomes known for certain only in retrospect, with experience, and also it is clearly a capacity that increases with experience.

On the other hand, it is easier than you might imagine to spot this quality and very easy to notice its reverse, the quality of bad judgment or sheer silliness. This may all sound rather abstract, but it does have some interesting and striking applications.

For example, it leads to the conclusion that in politics we should put more trust than we now do in the ability of professionals who know each other well to judge whether someone has the right features of character and judgment to be the holder of a major office. The British aristocracy famously distrusted people who were “too clever by half” and preferred to rely on decent chaps. We may not go that far, but their instincts were sound.

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Stephen Davies

Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).