When elites are too effective for their own good


It wasn’t “Guernica”, said the critics, but the potato painting I made about acid rain at Elmwood Junior School circa 1988 had a primitive grace. If the fickle art world shuns it, blame the passing of that ecological horror from public discourse. Blame the Montreal Protocol and the banning of chlorofluorocarbons. So well did global elites manage acid rain and the punctured ozone layer that, just this month, the rightwing US pundit Matt Walsh could scold them for hamming up these threats in the first place.

This is the crisis of the west in miniature. Sensible leaders prevent a chronic problem reaching its acute stage. The public are spared grievous suffering. But they also miss out on a demonstration of how vital it is to choose sensible leaders. As nothing ever goes existentially wrong — no world war, no depression — politics starts to feel like a simulation. The stakes start to feel liberatingly low. Vote for a rogue, by all means, or a charlatan. What is the worst that could happen?

Each generation has its version of the acid rain parable. The banking crash of 2008 was vicious, no doubt. But emergency measures stopped it from immiserating people on a Grapes of Wrath scale. The pandemic caused avoidable deaths. Within 18 months of this once-in-a-century shock, though, a night out in Los Angeles or London felt more or less normal. These are technocratic miracles. But they are also unprovable negatives. It is hard for even an engaged citizen to visualize the crisis that wasn’t, the agonies that might have been.

The result is that otherwise smart people fall for the populist fork: elites are held to be omnipotent when things go wrong and irrelevant in normal times. The crash? Their fault. The preceding boom? It fell from a tree. The Iraq war? Elite hubris. Decades on end of peace? Would have happened anyway. A pandemic? Dereliction in high office. No pandemic? The natural order of things. This is what happens when your best and most important work is largely invisible.

This all reads like a claim that elites are too effective for their own good. But elites are also too effective for our own good. Societies learn from existential crises (think of the political moderation across the west post-1945) and a human lifetime has passed since the last one. The better technocrats get at averting them, the more they store up other problems. The investor Ruchir Sharma has argued that semi-regular bailouts for companies and states have drained entrepreneurial vigour. It is not such a leap to think that these rescues have also exacted a cost in responsible voting. Unable to see that less responsible leadership would have led to mass suffering, we feel at liberty to take risks in the polling booth. And so the absence of disaster becomes its own kind of disaster.

There is a booming trade in apocalyptic visions of the near future. But the US is not going to have a civil war. It might have what a British home secretary once called an “acceptable level” of political violence. The UK is not going to combust. It is more likely to drift into chronic torpor. The climate might supply the transformative disaster in time. Barring that, though, the west will continue to go through a kind of Italianisation, in which things are bad enough to make voters angry but not so bad as to make them seek safety in grown-ups. It is, perversely, a less governable state of affairs than an acute emergency would be.

It is hard to write all this without seeming to call for a purgative crisis. And I wish nothing of the kind. Not while I’m alive and in the vicinity. I just wonder whether anything short of one will right the listed vessel of western democracy. Since populism broke through, the establishment has been said, even by some of its members, to have earned its widespread infamy through successive bungles: military, financial. In fact, something closer to the opposite might be the root of the problem. The bungles are mitigated. Crises that would be educational have the edges taken off them. It is a wonderful thing, and not. Elites should blame themselves for their low reputation, say the populists, who can’t possibly know how right they are.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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