Mitch McConnell’s short speech at the GOP convention [in August] didn’t receive a ton of attention, but in his understated way the Senate majority leader articulated one of the less obvious issues at stake in November.
“This election is incredibly consequential for middle America,” said Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the only top congressional leader in either party who’s not from California or New York. Democrats prefer that “all of us in flyover country keep quiet and let them decide how we should live our lives,” he said. “They want to tell you when you can go to work, when your kids can go to school. They want to tax your job out of existence and then send you a check for unemployment. They want to tell you what kind of car you can drive and what sources of information are credible.”
Mr. McConnell was imploring voters to think twice before they turn government over to Democratic elites who don’t look to ordinary people for guidance but rather see longstanding traditions, existing institutions, popular opinion and the like as obstacles to overcome in pursuing their grand visions of how things should be.
In an influential 1945 essay titled “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described two types of knowledge. One was “scientific knowledge,” by which he meant theoretical or technical expertise. The other was “unorganized knowledge,” which he defined as “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” With respect to the second kind of knowledge, he observed, “practically every individual has some advantage over all others,” including the so-called experts. Hayek was explaining the overriding problem with centrally planned economies, which is that no matter how intelligent the people in charge, they’re not omnipotent and therefore can’t possibly know the ever-changing wants and needs of vast numbers of individuals in the marketplace.
A troubling trend in recent decades has been the transfer of decision-making authority to expert intellectuals. Environmental regulations and health-care mandates are two obvious examples. But there’s also the more general nanny state mentality emanating from liberals who tell you that politicians, bureaucrats and academics know better than you do how to live your life and raise your children. The result is fewer decisions made through democratic processes, and more choices determined by an intelligentsia that suffers few if any consequences for being wrong.
Experience tells us that the best way to raise children is with a mother and father in the home, and the most effective anti-poverty program in existence is getting married before having kids. Yet prominent commentators like David Brooks insist that the nuclear family is now passé and that the black underclass needs slavery reparations, not fewer fatherless households. Increases in violent crime have brought calls from the public for more policing, while professional activists call for decarceration and reduced funding for law enforcement. Low-income minorities want to choose where their children are educated, but elite organizations like the NAACP oppose charter schools.
The influence of the intellectual class on our politics is not a new phenomenon—a popular book in the 1960s by the psychiatrist Karl Menninger was titled “The Crime of Punishment”—but it has grown steadily. And given that liberals are far less skeptical of scientific knowledge—as seen most recently in their response to the pandemic—this trend is likely to accelerate if Democrats win back the White House.
In an interview with ABC News last week, Joe Biden criticized President Trump for not being more deferential to the scientific community. “This is about telling the American people the truth, letting the scientists speak, listening to the science . . . and stepping out of the way,” he said. “Let the experts go out and let the American people know what the truth is and what has to be done.” Some of us believe that it’s the job of the president, not the scientists, to decide what has to be done. And while decisions on a Covid response or any other issue should be informed by people with expertise, their views should be weighed against those of others and not accepted uncritically.
In his classic 1980 book, “Knowledge and Decisions,” Thomas Sowell expanded on Hayek’s insight and warned about the “grave implications” of these trends. The “locus of decision making has drifted away from the individual, the family and voluntary associations of various sorts, and toward government,” he wrote. “And within government, it has moved away from elected officials subject to voter feedback, and toward more insulated government institutions, such as bureaucracies and the appointed judiciary.”
On its surface, Mr. McConnell’s speech was a plea to support GOP Senate candidates in November. Underneath, he seemed to be saying that even if you can’t stomach four more years of Donald Trump, it would be a mistake to give Democrats—and the expert intellectuals they hold up as our betters—control of the White House as well as Capitol Hill.