Smart but so very very stupid at the same time: Dunning-Kruger among would-be leaders

I’ve just read Melissa Benn’s excellent novel of “New Labour” – “One of Us” (more soon). That – combined with Rishi Sunak’s response in the “leadership” “debate” to what he would do about climate change (recycling, wasting less, innovation) has got me to thinking about the question of, well, how our “leaders” are so catastrophically stupid, despite their very expensive educations and jobs (Sunak was at Goldman Sachs, and they don’t hire muppets).

I am thinking about how people who have access to (and the tools to benefit from) the best information seem to be so hopeless at their “jobs.” I was explaining to someone today that I went to school, and university with some people now or recently in positions of power (and there is, after all a type) and that they were not terribly bright, certainly not very curious, and willing to throw anyone and anything ‘under the bus’ (to use today’s terminology) if it suited their needs. And without real desire and effort, (and luck and support) people don’t change….

There are multiple answers to this question, of course, and not all are mutually exclusive.

A vulgar Marxist would swear (that’s not the only part of ‘vulgar’) and say that the state is only there to help capitalists accumulate capital, and expecting state managers to think and act in the long-term interests of (a bourgeois abstraction like) society is to be livin’ in false consciousness. Or something.

A Weberian with a tinge of the Gramsci and so on might point to the way that elite educations teach you to think in very very specific ways (instrumental rationality) and to NOT think in ways that challenge that.

A functionalist sociologist, or symbolic interactionist or a Domhoffian, might point to elite bonding rituals (Bohemian Grove blah blah) and shared rituals, shared cosmologies.

A feminist (and here I have a lot of sympathy to many brands of feminism when it studies elite power, technology, ‘the environment’ etc) might point to men and their thinly-disguised jealousy of women’s ability to create life, and their consequent need to dominate and if necessary destroy messy and unpredictable life (‘we had to destroy the planet to save it’).

An anthropologist might compare us unfavourably to those alpha-baboons in that troop of Robert Sapolsky, the ones that hoarded the tubercular meat and all then died.

It’s not terribly surprising, I guess, when you look at what the “brightest” among us (if you take the official metrics seriously, which maybe we shouldn’t so much) are incapable of. They are incapable of questioning their premises, because outside a very very narrow limit, they not only have not been taught to, they have been taught NOT to. And the career consequences for doing so are so very obvious, and usually permanent.

Like I said, Melissa Benn’s book “One of Us” is well worth tracking down. Her first, “Public Lives” is also very much worth your time.

More on all this later.

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