Are Elites Displacing Experts?

Peter Turchin has some interesting theories of cycles of empires in history. I’ve puzzled over his suggestion that “elite overproduction” is consistently part of the fall of empires, and that we are seeing it today. This concept doesn’t make much sense to me if “eliteness” is just one’s status rank, as that distribution can never change.

But maybe elite overproduction makes more sense as some previously rare status markers becoming more common. And I’ve just realized that I do in fact think I see a interesting trend of this sort: a drift from expert to elite styles and priorities in many areas. Let me explain.

We can see society as composed of three main groups: masses, elites, and experts. These aren’t discrete divisions; each person fills some mix of these three types in each aspect of their lives. And we seem to have a norm that our social institutions should be structured as: masses recognize elites who oversee experts.

Experts are people who are good at and know about particular things. They may be trained in them, or show a track record of accomplishment. We tend to defer to other experts in similar tasks to judge who is expert at something. We organize experts so that they can focus on the things at which they are best, and coordinate with other experts on related tasks. Expert talk tends to be precise, practical, concrete, and narrowly focused on particular tasks. Experts more engage detailed arguments and admit when they are wrong.

Elites are generally impressive people appropriate for leadership roles, who are accepted as such by both the masses and a wide range of other elites. Elites know less about particular technical tasks, and more about navigating social communities. Many kinds of impressiveness contribute to their eliteness, including wealth, beauty, intelligence, personality, connections, breadth, style, polish, and taste. Elite talk tends to be more artistic, stylish, and aspirational, and less precise, detailed, or logical.

Masses are people acting as ordinary people, without drawing on much in the way of special expertise or prestige.

Home schooling is a recent trend from experts to masses, but eating out more is a trend from masses to experts. Direct democracy is a trend from elites to masses, while regulation is a trend from masses to elites. Despite widespread references to “populism”, I don’t see a net trend toward or away from masses.

However, I think I do see a trend wherein expert habits and priorities are increasingly being replaced by elite versions. Let me give seven examples of this trend that I think I see.

First, there is the rise of higher education. Yes, learning more about how to do particular jobs would be more expert-like. But general learning not tied to particular job tasks designed mainly to confer prestige, that is more elite-like.

Second, we’ve seen a long term trend from engineering to design. Engineering used to get far more attention, now design does. Yes designers are experts to some degree, but they judge more on style, and more seek prestigious associations.

Third, we’ve seen a long term job toward jobs where talking matters more, compared to otherwise doing stuff. On average talkers are more elite, and doers are more expert. Experts who mainly talk (e.g., doctors, lawyers) are relatively elite as experts.

Fourth, we’ve seen the rise of an integrated community of world elites. When nations competed more directly, they paid more attention to experts re how to compete. But now nations care more about national prestige conferred by their elites.

Fifth, among intellectuals we’ve seen a rise in public intellectuals, who are more elites, relative to academics, who are more experts. The world is paying more attention to public intellectuals, who are more influential. Academics are less respected or influential, and more often and more eagerly seek to transition to become public intellectuals.

Sixth, using standardized tests like the SAT in school admissions is more of an expert style, while it seems a more elite style to drop such tests and instead relying on social dynamics among admissions elites to judge candidate essays, activities, personality, and connections. Our world is now making a big move away from standardized tests.

Seventh, the style of recent cancel culture represents a rise of elite over expert talk styles. Yes, atheists, communists, and homosexuals were “cancelled” in the past. But those were usually based on relatively direct admissions or evidence of who belonged to which category. In contrast, today a lot of interpretation and elite social voting goes into judging who is to be canceled on the basis of what they said, didn’t say, or didn’t apologize sufficiently for. Style, prestige, and political affiliations matter a lot. Expert talk is more “decoupled” than is elite talk, and decoupler-style talkers are most at risk here.

In most organizations, managers have increasingly elite habits and priorities higher up in management hierarchies. So a prediction of my hypothesis here is that, over time, elite styles have been becoming more common at lower levels over time. Not sure how to test this though.

Added 3a: In a comment, Berder notes that since 1980 we’ve seen a fall in words about rationality, relative to a rise in words about sentiment.

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