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Intelligence and Ideology
Evaluating how conservatives and liberals weigh these two ingredients in government.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 22, 2000

Intelligence and Ideology_James Leroy Wilson-Evaluating how conservatives and liberals weigh these two ingredients in government. One of the main differences in the American ideological divide is the value placed on intelligence. William F. Buckley has written that conservatives would rather be governed by the first three thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. Contemporary liberals, on the other hand, place greater faith in intelligence. You see it in statements by Democrats regarding the intelligence of persons on the Republican Presidential ticket. George W. Bush is "not ready" for the Presidency. Dan Quayle is dumb. Ronald Reagan's ideas were simplistic if not simple-minded.

This difference is caused by fundamentally different views of human nature. To the conservative, social ills are caused by sin. Human beings will tend to do wrong, to act selfishly, to be governed by passion. That is why conservatives place a high value on social institutions, including the family, organized religion, law, and government. Social institutions provide incentives to re-direct the selfish passions into activities that benefit others. The inclinations that lead to vice can become virtues. Lust is directed into love through marriage. The fear of God makes the vain man humble. The greedy impulse is checked by our laws and courts, which encourage honesty by punishing fraud. Ambition is curtailed by checks and balances in the structures of government, leaving little incentive for public service since history honors only the most courageous and patriotic.

The conservative also acknowledges that no person can be redeemed or perfected by such institutions, and as those institutions are themselves led and administered by flawed humans, they will always work imperfectly. As James Madison wrote, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. A utopian society is not on the conservative agenda. The task is to isolate and minimize social ills, so that the damage they do will not threaten the larger culture, while recognizing that anyone powerful enough to rid society of its evils is also powerful enough to create even greater evils through tyranny. A society based on individual freedom and autonomous institutions carries risks, but it doesn't risk totalitarianism.

Contemporary liberalism - what I think is more accurately called progressivism - holds that social ills are problems, and that problems can be solved. Human nature can start on the road to perfection once the problems have been solved. And the root of all social ills is inequality - economic, social, political. Once human equality is restored, justice will prevail in society and human potential will be unleashed, creating a progressivley better world.

Education is crucial: it promotes democratic (i.e., pro-equality) values in the young; perhaps more importantly, it trains experts in the social and behavioral sciences for the advancement of sound public policy. Intelligent leadership, and the appointment of intellectuals and experts to the federal judiciary and bureaucracy, will lead to social improvement. Smart planning will yield good results.

Conservatives do not trust anyone, even intellectuals, to centralize power in the name of social improvement. Leadership, to them, is based on nature (as in the case of parenthood), training, merit, and election. Moral authority is based on earned trust and shared values. But to the progressive, moral authority means having good intentions. Most social institutions, with their entrenched hierarchies and inequalities, are obstacles to a just society, and their defenders must have ulterior motives. Yet the central government is a necessary instrument to bring about social improvement, and its power must expand to meet its just mission. To have moral authority with the Left is to exalt the powers of Washington and to denigrate the principles underlying the marriage, family, religion, free enterprise, and local government.

It is not the case that conservatives discount intelligence entirely, but if one is wrong on the principles, intelligence won't help. While it is best to be both right and smart, is better to be right than smart. And in conservative eyes, being right politically is to limit the size and scope of centralized government. For the Left, which would like to see central government be responsible for everything, intelligence is an absolute necessity. You have to be very wise indeed to "plan" a good society.

About the Author:
James Leroy Wilson is a critic of the Left because he is very, very rich.

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