When people think of Gulliver’s Travels, they typically think of the Lilliputians, and some may think of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. Almost nobody outside of my line of work thinks about Book 3, where the hapless Gulliver finds himself in the cloud-kingdom of Laputa. The Laputans are scientists, but find themselves so absorbed in theories that their practical efforts are disastrous– any structure in Laputa is liable to collapse and crush its occupants, but the mathematics are lovely. Likewise, we see efforts to extract sunlight from cucumbers (Hey! Two green jobs references in one day!) and other futile inquiries. As Wikipedia tells us, Gulliver “sees the ruin brought about by blind pursuit of science without practical results.”
I was reminded of this by a long post at Chicago Boyz, which in turn led me to Walter Russell Mead’s article at The American Interest. Mead contends that the American intellectual class may have a nearly Laputan ability to ignore the commonsensical if it conflicts with their theories.
The problem is that too many of the Codevillean “Ruling Class” have bought into a paradigm with its roots in 19th-Century Progressivism. Mead describes it:
Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators.
This top-down paradigm is what Mead argues we must abandon to adapt to a changing world. But he notes that our ruling class works through professions (law, medicine, higher ed) that follow the model of the guild system, and therefore lacks an understanding of our faster moving current situation:
Just as the industrial revolution broke up the manufacturing guilds, the information revolution today is breaking up the knowledge guilds. Guild methods are too expensive given society’s rapidly increasing need for the services they provide; we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the guilds and the learned professions provide.
Our ruling classes need to recognize the current realities and abandon their Progressive cloud-castles, or risk a fatal collapse that will take the rest of us with it.