"In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they return to us with a certain alienated majesty," wrote Emerson. That pretty much captures my feelings upon finishing Michael Ignatieff's superb biography of Isaiah Berlin.
Berlin's command of the history of ideas grounds many of the intuitions that have guided my repentance over the last thirty years for the intellectual hubris of my friends and me at Yale Law School. An important strand in Berlin's work was the demonstration of how the Enlightenment project of making human reason the measure of all things could end in the Gulag. The anti-clericalism of the leading Enlightenment thinkers contained within the potential for a new clericalism more authoritarian and murderous than that which it superseded, with intellectuals as its priests.
But Berlin was not just concerned with the most extreme deformations the Enlightenment ideals. Though he defined himself as a man of the Left, he found that a similar cast of mind underpinned much left-wing thought from the French Revolution. Belief in a unitary human nature and a fixed hierarchy of values gave rise to the confident assumption that human reason can design a society in which the parts fit together harmoniously. The society thus designed would "free" man as never before by allowing him to fully develop all his capabilities.
The latter doctrine of "positive liberty," so admired in the young, "humanitarian" Marx, could easily end with Stalin's engineers of the soul. As Ignatieff sums up the matter: In Berlin's view, "the European Enlightenment was divided by a central contradiction between maintaining that men should be free to choose and insisting that they should be only free to choose what it would be rational to desire." Rationality, of course, is best determined by the experts.
Berlin's project was to demonstrate that our most precious values – liberty, freedom, and justice – inevitably conflict. Continually raising taxes on the top 1% of wage earners may bring about a more egalitarian society, for instance, but it is ridiculous to insist that there has not been some corresponding loss of freedom.
Disagreements about ends make it inevitable that the quest for smooth managerial resolution of conflict, Berlin felt, will forever remain a search for the Holy Grail. Soviet Marxism took the belief in central planning by experts to its apogee. But, Berlin pointed out, Western liberals were also prone to the illusion that all dilemmas of public and private life can be resolved by experts, psychotherapists, and other "engineers of the human soul." The most learned of men, Berlin nevertheless insisted that intellectual elites have no business presuming that they know better than the man or woman in the street.
THAT THE CULT OF THE EXPERT -- itself an outgrowth of the Enlightenment's enthroning of human reason above all -- should appeal to intellectual elites is unsurprising: It is a form of the revenge of the nerds whose superior qualities were unnoted by the pretty girls in high school. The assumption that "rationality" is a matter easily ascertained, at least by the brainy folks, underlies the preference for centrally planned economies by many intellectuals. Free markets are deemed too unruly, too irrational, as they give equal weight to the decisions of millions of consumers, those with high IQs and low IQs alike.
Belief in a single rational solution to every problem leads as well to nasty politics. Marxists have a term for those who fail to acknowledge the rational solution: "false consciousness." False consciousness can infect entire social classes, and when it does they must either be re-educated or eliminated. In non-totalitarian regimes, ridicule replaces re-education for all those too stupid to accept the consensus. Perhaps that explains why so many writers to the Yale Law Magazine find calling George W. Bush an idiot the height of sophisticated wit. Even "jokes" about Sarah Palin's Downs Syndrome son and "retarded" family are not beyond the pale.
NOT SINCE THE HEADY DAYS of Camelot, has the easy assumption that the "brightest" are the "best" held such sway in Washington D.C., or the cachet of prestigious Ivy League degrees been so high. The cult of the "expert" is reflected in the thirty or so "czars" designated to date. President Obama's choice for science czar John Holdren is a leading cult member. In the late 1970s, when it was claimed that the "population bomb" would render the planet uninhabitable within a generation, Holdren proposed a Planetary Regime to control the development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources, with the power to set optimal population levels for every region of the globe and to enforce those limits by compulsory abortion.
Hubris levels are correspondingly high. The Obama administration tried to redesign the entire United States health care system – one-sixth of the economy – in a couple of months. One notable aspect of the administration's proposals is the attempt to end competition between private health insurers, and with it the ability of individual citizens to decide what kind of medical conditions they wish to insure against and what percentage of their budget to allocate to health insurance. One size fits all.
With equal rapidity, the administration seeks to put in place Rube Goldbergesque cap-and-trade limits on carbon emissions that even President Obama admits will cause electricity prices to skyrocket, and which will, at least in the short-run, make America more dependent on foreign oil. All in the name of staving off a global climate change catastrophe, even though major polluters and economic competitors like China, India, and Brazil have made clear they will not sign up.
No wonder forging a "solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be imposed on the parties seems like mere child's play.
Ironically, the new "experts" are not notably more empirically based than was Soviet genetics under Stalin. Global warming – or rather catastrophic climate change now that the earth turns out to be cooling – is, says Nobel Laureate in Physics Ivan Giaever, the "new religion." Even as the ranks of leading scientists in the ranks of skeptics of alarmist global warming swells, and the predictive power of the alarmists' computer-generated models is repeatedly undermined, the first impulse is to stifle dissent.
Dr. Mitchell Taylor, one of the world's leading experts on polar bears, who has written that virtually all Artic bear populations have either grown over the last thirty years or at are optimal levels, was disinvited to a meeting of the Polar Bear Specialist Group leading up the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change in December, on the grounds that his views on global warming are "unhelpful." When Alan Carlin, a 35-year employee of the Environment Protection Agency, prepared a 100-page report questioning the agency's decision to classify carbon as a "pollutant," and thereby subject to EPA regulation without any Congressional action, he was ordered not to disseminate his report.
Closer to home, the anti-empiricism of the administration's foreign policy experts manifests itself in their inability to process the overwhelming evidence that the Palestinians do not share their definition of rationality or seek a state of their own alongside Israel. Bigger still is the refusal to acknowledge Israel's less than happy experience with territorial withdrawals for peace.
Now back to reading Sir Isaiah's essays on liberty.