In my latest Bloomberg column I consider William F. Buckley’s old conundrum:
William F. Buckley famously said he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.
Here is part of my take:
For better or worse, direct rule by Buckley’s 2,000 American citizens probably would mean a slower pace of immigration, less emphasis on free trade, more law and order politics, and a blunter form of nationalism in foreign policy.
Those don’t match my policy preferences (I am more of a globalist, and also a professional academic), but I fear what the Harvard faculty could bring. I can imagine an America closer to Bernie Sanders’s vision, with single-payer health insurance, levels of taxation exceeding 50 percent of GDP, levels of immigration unsustainable with a large welfare state, too many aggressive attempts to legislate equal treatment for various groups, excessive fondness for a universal basic income, and too many humanitarian interventions abroad.
It’s a good rule of governance that policy cannot race too far ahead of the citizenry, and I don’t view faculty as a class of people well-suited for that kind of humility.
But for the Fed and the EPA, among other areas, I very much want Harvard. My conclusion is this:
The real issue here isn’t intellectuals versus populism writ large. There is a time and place for populist sentiment, but an excess can be counterproductive on its own terms. As expertise is pushed out the door, the citizenry itself gets a bad name, precisely when we most need it to step up to the plate and demand some excellence.
Do read the whole thing.
I should note that on this topic I have been very much influenced by my colleague David Levy and also his work with Sandra J. Peart, see for instance their newly arrived book Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy.