An Intellectual’s Duty

[John Derbyshire, one of America’s brightest opinion writers, has produced a subtly satirical screed about the electoral dangers of letting smart people vote. It moved me to reprint the piece below, which first appeared at Eternity Road on March 12, 2008. — FWP]

There aren’t many persons who, if asked whether significantly above-average intelligence could ever be a liability rather than an asset, would answer in the affirmative. That’s because there aren’t many persons with significantly above-average intelligence.

Yes, you read that right. You have to be pretty smart to understand why smarts aren’t a good fit for every context and every occupation. One of Jack L. Chalker’s Flux and Anchor books presents a penetrating example. In it, a woman who has earned a large boon from a powerful wizard asks him to use his power to make her permanently happy and carefree. The wizard plies a spell that strips her of her memory, halves her intelligence, and turns her into an uncritical, limitlessly willing sexual plaything — the simplest conceivable satisfaction of her request.

True, most of us wouldn’t aspire to that position. But some would, and dare anyone say (from a purely secular perspective) that to choose such a life would be wrong? Happiness and peace of mind are fleeting things; all but a few truly fortunate persons possess them only in snatches. Aldous Huxley is reported to have been greatly troubled by the number of persons who viewed his Brave New World, in which the overwhelmingly greater part of the population of the world was engineered for subnormal intelligence and high susceptibility to a happiness-inducing drug, as a depiction of a true Utopia.

Still, there’s that “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” business. Most persons of high intelligence wouldn’t sacrifice it for anything, not even a greatly prolonged, blissfully happy life. In part, it’s because high intelligence enables the owner to imagine and pursue fulfillments inaccessible to the less gifted. In even larger part, it’s because the esteem generally attached to intellectual power greatly stokes one’s self-regard.

High intelligence is a tool that can work many wonders. We owe much of our comfort and security to the insights of a few dozen geniuses. But that doesn’t make a genius suitable for a position only a dullard can fit.

Just this morning, your Curmudgeon stumbled upon the following at co-conspirator Travis Corcoran’s site:

NZC: Didn’t Spitzer want to be president someday? So, that’s totally in the toilet.

TJIC: One American disqualified for the office…only 299,999,999 more to go!

NZC: And you’re allowed to say that, because you’re leading from the front – you’ve totally disqualified yourself a dozen times over.

TJIC: Yeah, that whole “dig up the corpse of FDR, and then !@#% in his skull” blogging topic would totally come back to bite me in the primaries.

NZC: Indeed!

TJIC: …unless I ran as a Libertarian…

It was good for a chuckle, but your Curmudgeon sincerely hopes that Travis is aware that his high intelligence disqualifies him from any and all public offices.

What’s that you say? You want very intelligent people in government? You, sir, are a hazard to the body politic. What on Earth are you doing at Eternity Road? Don’t you know what sort of mischief smart people get up to when entrusted with power? Didn’t we get enough of a demonstration from the Clintons? Do you really want a reprise of that disaster?

No. No smart people in office. Please! Smart people are too good at reinterpreting their marching orders and rationalizing their way around moral or Constitutional constraints on their authority. If any of the Founding Fathers was a genius, Thomas Jefferson was — yet he, most libertarian of them all, violated the Constitution’s constraints on federal power several times in his first term of office. He rationalized his transgressions as “necessary” and “practical.” So highly did Congress, and the people generally, think of him that he always carried the day.

High intelligence is almost always accompanied by a high opinion of oneself. He who thinks that well of himself is all too easily led to see himself as above the rules that bind others. If you were looking for a capsule summary of Eliot Spitzer’s downfall, you have it now.

What Americans should seek in their public officials is men who can understand the duties and limitations of their offices, and will cleave to them unswervingly. This demands a routinier, an “organization man,” a dullard. It’s not the right billet for a genius. Very bright people chafe at taking orders, even from brighter, more knowledgeable people; they’re always looking for an angle, a way to finesse their way out of doing what they’ve been told.

The duties of an elected official are spelled out in either the Constitution of the United States, or some similar charter subordinate to it. The powers that attach to whatever government his office pertains to are spelled out in a similar fashion, albeit not always with the degree of specificity a libertarian-conservative would like. If those rules and constraints are seriously meant, then we don’t want our officeholders looking for ways to chisel around the edges. We want good, solid dullards, schooled from the Bible and the handle of a broom, who’ll do as they’re told, without the slightest trace of creativity.

We don’t often get such men, these days.

The word “intellectual” has acquired an unsavory connotation these past few decades. It deserves that connotation rather more than not. Intellectuals in the corridors of power, rich in self-regard and flushed with ambition to leave their footprints upon history, have wreaked great harm upon American liberty and our Constitutional order. But we were foolish enough to admit them, so the blame lies at least as much on us.

Restoring the original Constitutional compact has proved dauntingly difficult. Once government opens niches for men of intellect, those niches prove damnably difficult to close. There’s always an argument for genius in the power seat, usually that it’s necessary if we’re ever to undo the damage wrought by prior geniuses. Even when it’s tragically wrong, it can be too seductive to resist.

But an intellectual’s duty is to resist. If the word “duty” has an objective meaning, a man of genius should feel a duty to move toward those fields where his gifts will bring good to the world, rather than to a post where others will have to pay for his mistakes. For even geniuses make mistakes. Indeed, they make more of them, and more rapidly, than persons of average attainments.

Sadly, in our current milieu, wherein the achievements of an Edison or a Tesla are reckoned as grubby commerce while “high office” earns the highest of plaudits, too many bright fellows are drawn toward the profession of politics. But power doesn’t merely corrupt; it attracts the already corrupt and corruptible. Thus, it’s in the nature of political power that those with the weakest morals will be the most successful.

This is not the time or place for the exploration of so perverse a situation; among other things, your Curmudgeon hasn’t yet had enough to drink. Suffice it to say that we’ve created incentives that divert high intelligence away from its proper applications — science, commerce, and philosophy — and into the quest for power over others. Those incentives are self-reinforcing; they can only be unmade by the creation of even stronger counter-incentives, at whose nature we cannot yet guess. For the present, due to the excessive adulation of the hoi polloi for the conspicuously gifted, we’re doomed to be ruled by persons of low morality protected by high intellect. It’s the worst situation we could have contrived for ourselves.

To young Americans seeking a suitable course in life:

  • If you’re smart, go into business.
  • If you’re very smart, go into the sciences.
  • If you’re not smart, but were properly raised and can follow clear, simple directions, there may be a spot for you in government.
  • If you’re a Certified Galactic Intellect…how about a nice game of chess?

[Having reread and reflected on the above — hey, what do you do at 4:00 AM when the pains, the dogs, and the late-night traffic won’t let you sleep? — it occurs to me that a review of our recent, supposedly smart chief executives is in order:

  • Woodrow Wilson: World War I, huge expansion of the federal government, the income tax, the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Amendments.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: The “Brain Trust,” a thirteen-year economic contraction, World War II, the destruction of the Constitution’s restraints on the federal government.
  • John F. Kennedy: The Bay of Pigs, hot and cold running prostitutes, and the elevation of the detestable, wholly amoral Kennedy family to a kind of American aristocracy.
  • Bill Clinton: Semen-stained dresses and bombed-out aspirin factories in Sudan.
  • Barack Hussein Obama: Please!

Any questions?]