Print Window   
 
The Independent Institute
Commentary

The Ominous, New Cognitive Elite


In the last half century, society has undergone a hidden revolution. Fifty years ago, most of the people in the top few percentiles of the IQ ladder were not college graduates, and those who did go to college usually went to the nearest state college. Today, these most talented American youths not only go to college, but are channeled with astonishing efficiency into a handful of elite universities. Isolated from the rest of society, associating only with their own kind, exposed to a uniform intellectual conventional wisdom about everything from ethics to aesthetics to politics, this new class -- a "cognitive elite" -- has over the same half century moved into positions of influence throughout American society.

Its formation as a class coincided with a drastic expansion of the reach of federal power. Fifty years ago, intellectuals had strong ideas about how American society ought to be run but, like Archimedes, they lacked a place to stand. Today, they operate as senior bureaucrats and congressional staff (and occasionally even elected officials), the lawyers who lobby for the laws and regulations, the professors who lay down the intellectually correct line, or the journalists who interpret the news -- and if they can get their way, their bright ideas turn into federal law. The cognitive elite now does have a place to stand, and it has been used to disastrous effect. The cognitive elite's mischief cuts across political labels. Its distinctive features are utter confidence that they know best how ordinary people should live their lives and a fascination with complications and rules.

One effect of the cognitive elite's kind of rules has been to make life difficult for ordinary people to reap the rewards that their abilities should command. This country was once great at letting people parlay determination, commonsense, and hard work into a good living. Anyone who has tried to open a small business recently knows how much things have changed. If you want to strike out on your own these days, you had better be smart in the IQ sense of the term for reasons that have nothing to do with providing a valued service for customers but everything to do with jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
Another effect of the new rules has been to make it harder for communities to run local life. Ask anyone who has served on a town council or tried to run a voluntary social service or become active in a local school. Again and again, common-sense steps to deal with local problems run afoul of the schemes set in law by the Ira Magaziners of the cognitive elite--schemes that tend to be elaborate, ineffectual, and utterly out of touch.

The ascendancy of the cognitive elite has made life more difficult for everyone, but most especially for those at the low end of the bell curve of cognitive ability, who are least able to navigate through the brave new rules crafted by the cognitive elite. Many of our gravest social problems -- violent crime, mounting births out of wedlock, inner city decay -- have been aggravated by this development.

Consider the criminal justice system. Suppose society defines only a few acts as crimes, but those acts are really bad: such things as robbery, rape, murder, assault, fraud, and destroying other people's belongings. Suppose further that a person who commits one of these crimes is usually caught, rapidly punished, and the punishment is meaningful. In such a society, you don't have to be very smart to have a moral compass pointing in directions of right and wrong. You know what to do.

But when you have a criminal justice system in which a huge number of actions become crimes, many "crimes" are no longer obviously bad or wrong. If when you commit one of these crimes you are seldom caught; if when you are caught you are often not prosecuted; if what you are prosecuted for is often a plea-bargained fiction instead of what you really did; and if you punishment often bears no relationship to the real "wrongness" of your behavior, it becomes tough to figure out what is right and wrong. The new rules of the cognitive elite have created a magnetic storm, disorienting the moral compass of many. What has happened with regard to crime has also happened in the rules that used to lead to marriage, socialization to the world of work, and the other basic behaviors by which people of limited cognitive ability could make their way in the world as full-fledged, valued members of their communities. That so many of them are now wards of the state, whether through prison or the welfare system is less a commentary on their abilities than on the destruction of a world in which they could function successfully.

As the underclass grows -- and that growth will be concentrated among whites -- the result is likely to be what Richard Herrnstein and I call "the custodial state." Expect to see child care in poor neighborhoods increasingly become a function of the state. Policing will become strict, insofar as the affluent and the cognitive elite make sure that crime is kept under control in the neighborhoods where they live. Fewer and fewer youngsters will escape from poor neighborhoods, as the cultural gap between the habits of the underclass and the habits of the rest of society becomes far more impassable than a simple economic gap between poor and rich or a racial gap between black and white. But don't worry -- the cognitive elite will make sure that the underclass is "taken care of." They just won't be citizens in any meaningful sense of the word.

The creation of the cognitive elite is an inevitable part of America's success in enabling people to pursue their talents as far as they will take them, and an inevitable part of a society in which cognitive ability is an ever more valuable commodity. But just because a cognitive elite must exist does not mean it must have the power to impose its ideas on everybody else. We cannot get rid of the cognitive elite, but we can and must take away its place to stand and return control of daily life to the people who live it.


Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Member of the Board of Advisors for the Independent Institute.