How Smart Are We?

Just as physical strength does not justify the subordination of the weak to the whims of the strong, superior mental abilities do not morally justify the sacrifice of the stupid to the brilliant. Let's observe.

Many of the wonderful-sounding ideas that have been tried as government policies have failed disastrously. Because so few people bother to study history, often the same ideas and policies have been tried again, either in another country or in the same country at a later time — and with the same disastrous results.
One of the ideas that has proved to be almost impervious to evidence is the idea that wise and far-sighted people need to take control and plan economic and social policies so that there will be a rational and just order, rather than chaos resulting from things being allowed to take their own course. It sounds so logical and plausible that demanding hard evidence would seem almost like nit-picking.
In one form or another, this idea goes back at least as far as the French Revolution in the 18th century. As J.A. Schumpeter later wrote of that era, "general well-being ought to have been the consequence," but "instead we find misery, shame and, at the end of it all, a stream of blood."
The same could be said of the Bolshevik Revolution and other revolutions of the 20th century.
The idea that the wise and knowledgeable few need to take control of the less wise and less knowledgeable many has taken milder forms — and repeatedly with bad results as well.
One of the most easily documented examples has been economic central planning, which was tried in countries around the world at various times during the 20th century, among people of differing races and cultures, and under government ranging from democracies to dictatorships.
The people who ran central planning agencies usually had more advanced education than the population at large, and probably higher IQs as well.
The central planners also had far more statistics and other facts at their disposal than the average person had. Moreover, there were usually specialized experts such as economists and statisticians on the staffs of the central planners, and outside consultants were available when needed. Finally, the central planners had the power of government behind them, to enforce the plans they created.
It is hardly surprising that conservatives, such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the United States, opposed this approach. What is remarkable is that, after a few decades of experience with central planning in some countries, or a few generations in others, even communists and socialists began to repudiate this approach.
As they replaced central planning with more reliance on markets, their countries' economic growth rate almost invariably increased, often dramatically. In the largest and most recent examples — China and India — people by the millions have risen above these countries' official poverty rates, after they freed their economies from many of their suffocating government controls.
China, where famines have repeatedly ravaged the country, now has a problem of obesity — not a good thing in itself, but a big improvement over famines.
This has implications far beyond economics. Think about it: How was it even possible that transferring decisions from elites with more education, intellect, data and power to ordinary people could lead consistently to demonstrably better results?
One implication is that no one is smart enough to carry out social engineering, whether in the economy or in other areas where the results may not always be so easily quantifiable. We learn, not from our initial brilliance, but from trial and error adjustments to events as they unfold.
Science tells us that the human brain reaches its maximum potential in early adulthood. Why then are young adults so seldom capable of doing what people with more years of experience can do?
Because experience trumps brilliance.
Elites may have more brilliance, but those who make decisions for society as a whole cannot possibly have as much experience as the millions of people whose decisions they pre-empt. The education and intellects of the elites may lead them to have more sweeping presumptions, but that just makes them more dangerous to the freedom, as well as the well-being, of the people as a whole.

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He has published dozens of books on economics, education, race, and other topics. His most recent book is The Housing Boom and Bust, from April 2009.

10 comments from readers  

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Excellent article, but try to get those with the least experience, but higher education level to believe that they don't trump the masses. I agree with experience and am old enough to prove that point myself.

They all need a good "spanking."
"Elites may have more brilliance" -- In the USA, this is self-evidently and patently false.

Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi brilliant? Res ipsa loquitur. Our "smart" president won't even release his (no doubt inflated) transcript. No, our masters have no brilliance; they have old-fashioned cronyism.

Likewise, we have no mandarin class in our nation. No one is hired by merit and the corrupt and inept are all but impossible to fire.

History shows that an elite tyranny is bad, but we have both tyranny and incompetence in our "betters".
Well done. I am giving this to two of my elitist daughters to read. It will have little immediate effect, but it may settle into a niche in their brains which will help generate an Ah Ha!! moment when they have acquired some experience in life. I hope that moment will come by the time they are in their early 30s!
David R
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Excellent timing! I will use this material in a class I teach (Thinking and Decision Making) for a group of closed-head injuried adults.... a couple of them are obviously "smarter" than another student, and aren't shy about letting the slower student know.

I will try your analogy about using physical strength on someone who is obviously weaker (which I don't believe they would ever do) and using their obviously stronger intellect to "beat-down" someone who is ntellectually weaker...

I am thinking I will talk to the "bullies" outside of class. I am on vacation next week and thus will have time to comtemplate my course of action. Thanks again!
The most direct answer to this problem is that the sum of all intelligence and information in any group is greater than the information of any single individual or subgroup. If these central planners really have the information and expertise they claim, they still only have a portion of the whole. Their input need not be supplanted by that of the less knowledgeable and experienced; in a distributed system, it is supplemental.

Simple math can help illustrate this: in a group of 100 people, in order for one central planner to have the capacity to order all activity efficiently as self-organization of the group, he must have the 100 times the average intelligence, experience, and observational powers of the entire group. Suppose for a moment he has that (a physical impossibility, since the most brilliant people of our time rarely exceed double the average). He still must overcome the cost of administrative overhead vs. the cost of distributed network operation, which we know is vast. In government, the overhead is often as high as 80%; the overhead of networks varies but is much lower. Let us be charitable and give him an extremely efficient 10% comparative overhead. That means that in order to overcome the natural efficiency of a network plus the natural capability of the whole group he must actually be about 110x above the average.

Though purely theory, this thought exercise demonstrates the incredible stupidity of assuming a handful of people are fit to administer thousands, let alone millions or billions. Nature understands this and divides tasks between countless units in any system; your own brain is a distributed neural network, and your body is a distributed network of self-organized cells. Nowhere else in nature or even elsewhere in human design is one individual expected to do vastly more than many other similar individuals but in government.
When the obvious answer seems to be in contradiction with the facts it is time to check you're premises. People often confuse intelligence with wisdom. Intellegence is the ability to sythesize information. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge. My late grandfather, who had but a 6th grade education, was as wise a man as I have ever known. He was able to take what limited knowledge he possessed, forsee the impact of that knowledge and apply it shrewdly in his every day life. By contrast, learned people often become so impressed by their own abilities to acquire knowledge, that they never take the time to figure out how best to use it. This is called foolishness. And these people who deceive themselves that they know best what others should do, they are fools. As Ayn Rand wisely observed, you can not live another man's life for him. In a free world, a democratic world, an objectivist world, her observation would be the moral and ethical tenet by which we lived. In a moral world there is no such thing as sacrifice. That is a construct of altruistism.
How smart are we? Not very damned, if we think little kids working in Indian sweatshops to make clothes for Wal-Mart at less than $25/month under a feudal caste system is "middle class".

Thanks for showing a not-so-brilliant example of the globalist liars hoping to get back in power this November, who will continue unnecessary foreign wars, massive indebtedness and letting La Raza Papists illegally immigrate.

Objectivism is about solutions, not the same, tired, old GOPher authoritarian excuses and canards!
Another word for 'experience' in the context of Dr. Sowell's article is 'tradition'. Tradition is not a set of empty rules, but the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human experience distilled down to cultural norms. Their purpose is to allow us to live together and be happy and productive while not killing each other.

Elites who decide that they are fit for shaping the future of the human race by the awesome power of their intellect can't, because of their basic premises, respect tradition. It's the first thing to go when they achieve power.

People who achieve wisdom (IMO) realize, as a basic premise, the limits of their individual understanding and look to "stand on the shoulders of giants" to aid them in their speculations.
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Since the federal takeover of our Florida Keys (with installation of the FK National Marine Sanctuary) newly-minted biologists and youngblood policy-makers in Silver Spring are deciding how old career fisherman manage Monroe County's "marine resources."

It seems that year by year, more fish become "threatened" here and are taken off the table. We are now selling New Zealand fish and Bahamian conch in Keys restaurants.

I wonder what is the median age of policymakers in the DC agencies, and how many of them have actually worked the field whose policy they control?
A column that is both obvious and wrong. Central planning does not work, in part because the knowledge required is immense. But that is only a small part of the reason. The primary reasons are that there are no or few feedback loops, and that all large systems eventually fail. And when they do, they fail catastrophically.

Non centrally planned systems are small and distributed, so that when failure occurs the harmful effects are limited.

As to this statement: "Science tells us that the human brain reaches its maximum potential in early adulthood. Why then are young adults so seldom capable of doing what people with more years of experience can do?

"Because experience trumps brilliance."

That is flat out wrong. People with more years of experience generally have much more access to power and resources. When this part of the playing field is leveled, youth almost always wins. Just look at the tech revolution. Almost all of it done by people under 30. When "experience" wins, it usually does so by strangling brilliance, a behavior motivated by greed and fear.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.