What’s an “Elite”? or, Don’t Tell Me You’ve Never Heard This Song Before

Watch this until the end, if you haven’t already:

Now imagine, if you can, that you have never heard this song before.

Don’t say that you have heard it. Don’t say, “Oh man, that’s the song from Shrek.” Don’t tell me it’s been done to death. I know: It has been done to death. For you.

Just try hearing it like you haven’t heard it before. Here we are, days after the election. Saturday Night Live cold opens with this weird tear-jerker of a song. It’s about King David, and adultery, and castration. It must have been written for the occasion, you figure. But that’s preposterous. And it’s being sung by Hillary Lesbian Clinton. Of course.

Can you understand how completely insane that must have sounded? Anecdotally I can tell you: That’s exactly how it sounded to a lot of people.

There’s been a lot of discussion of how Trump’s win was a rebuke to the “elites” of the country, but as my colleague Julian Sanchez pointed out, the word has been strangely under-defined. What exactly is an elite? Socioeconomic, racial, educational, and other metrics don’t seem to fit the term as it has been used just lately.

I would suggest that the elites being rebuked here are professional media consumers.

I’m one of them. It’s literally my job to spend hours and hours online looking for interesting arguments, curating them, discussing with their authors, and producing additional arguments. That’s what I get paid for.

In a relevant sense, this is also Kate McKinnon’s job. She must know, as I do, that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been done to death. Hell, the very assertion that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been done to death itself has been done to death. We find it in the New York Times, and the Atlantic, and Slate and Pitchfork, and an entire book. I’m sure that this informed her choice of why to play it. Properly understood, it was hilarious. And also sad.

Not everyone, though, is a professional media consumer who lives on the Internet and only interacts with other PMCs for most of their professional lives. And so I do think that the nods and winks that McKinnon brilliantly added to her performance — gestures aimed at PMCs like me — fell flat to a lot of people. This is much like all of our earlier signals of concern about the Trump candidacy, which were based on specialized knowledges that we have been terrible at communicating.

We elites, understood as PMCs, were also pushed away. Hard. Anyone who writes about public policy full-time could see that Trump was grossly uninformed and unprepared. That’s why his newspaper endorsements were so few. Journalists saw right through him, regardless of their ideology, because they cover policy every day. They’re policy PMCs, and therefore know policy details, which Trump has never even slightly demonstrated.

It’s not just that people outside the political class were drawn to his rhetoric, though clearly they were. PMCs could tell that he wasn’t one of us, and in ways that were not at all analogous to using the wrong fork for salad. These matters will have consequences, though we don’t know just what they will be yet: Offhand, Trump would suggest defaulting on U.S. debt obligations, or letting Japan get the bomb, or imposing a religious test for entering the country… without showing any awareness that these were indeed radical departures, and that they would raise enormous legal and/or implementation problems.

Policy-based PMCs flipped out: Those problems would be happening exactly where a lot of us live, regardless of political party. We don’t know how to do what he’s asking, and he would know that, if he had spent any time at all with us.

Division of labor has created some interesting things in its history, but the gap between PMCs and non-PMCs is one of the more troubling ones I can think of, and I say that as a PMC.

Look to Whom You Have Empowered

I know Trump voters. I’m related to Trump voters. I’m also not one of them.

I might even be one of those elites that they’ve come to mistrust — whatever that may mean. One thing that goes with this territory is that I’ve done a lot of listening lately.

My friend Mark Houser said it well on Facebook:

If you ask pundits and politicos why Trump won, they’ll say something like, “Trump found a way to appeal to the economic concerns of the working class.”

But if you ask actual Trump voters to explain why they supported Trump, they’ll say things like, “He’s not a politician,” “He speaks his mind,” “He’s an outsider,” “He’s going to shake things up/drain the swamp,” etc. (Note that all of these jive really well with “He’s not Hillary.”)

It seems to me that the economic explanation for Trump’s success is grossly overstated.

If you doubt that, ask yourself this: How many of Trump’s supporters could Hillary have drawn away if she, say, had been more aggressively anti-trade? Few, I think.

Mark’s explanations are the ones I’ve heard as well. Absolutely none of this is a message of hate.

We are less different than we may be tempted to imagine. They are not more American than I am, and I am not more American than they. I would like to think that our similarities are still relevant.

We all know that Hillary Clinton will never be in the White House again. Strange as it may sound, I can assure you that most of us in the “elite” — how I hate that term — are relieved she lost. Maybe we’re openly relieved, like I am, or maybe it’s in private, like certain Democrats I know. Many of us only voted for Clinton because Trump did not seem to be at all a suitable candidate; it was not from any love for her.

But there’s a serious problem here: Not all “not Hillary” options are equally okay. Some “not Hillary” options are also terrible — they’re at least as bad as her, and maybe they’re a lot worse.

Before the election I was worried about Trump’s policies. I remain worried today. I think they are bad policies, and I think that many of them are apt to go awry in predictable ways even if they are not administered by malevolent officials.

I also worried, though, about the people whom Trump would empower and encourage. These people do not think like the typical Trump voter. It is grossly unfair to suggest that they do. Yet Trump has undoubtedly built them into his coalition, and now that he has won, the signs are clear that he intends to bring them aboard.

I don’t imagine that the Trump voters I know could have named Steve Bannon before the election, or that they knew he held the views he does. But I knew: He’s a proud member of the alt-right who believes that multi-ethnic democracy is completely impossible.

I don’t think the Trump voters I knew could have said who Frank Gaffney was, although I knew of him: He’s a conspiracy theorist. For years he told anyone who would listen that Obama wanted to implement Sharia law. Now he’s hoping that people will forget that, because it was obviously nonsense all along.

I don’t imagine the Trump voters I know could have named Kris Kobach. But I could name him: He’s the man who wants to force all Muslim immigrants to register with the government. Nothing but evil could come of a policy like that.

Strange as it may sound to my friends in the “elite,” I’ve had to explain to Trump voters what the alt-right even was. I’ve had to explain why I and my colleagues had been getting death threats from them. They were incredulous. One response I got was to say that it was a false flag. They blamed Hillary Clinton, who must have been really mad about losing.

No, I had to explain, we’d been getting death threats for months. They came from people who openly celebrate the Holocaust and who look forward to doing it again.

Yes indeed, there are people worse than Hillary Clinton. Trump voters, I’ve listened to you about how bad she was. I’ve agreed with you, about a lot of it. I’ve listened when you complained of the toxic climate of political correctness on our college campuses. I agreed with you about that, too, and I even published about it — early in Obama’s first term.

Now I ask that you listen to me: Look to whom you have empowered. These people don’t represent your values.

It remains to be seen just how much power Trump will allow them. Already it’s clearly more than “they’ll have something to celebrate in a YouTube comments section.” And yet so far it’s clearly less than “they’re running the whole country.” But it’s closer to the second than it is to the first.

I’d love to be able to tie this post up neatly, but too much remains unknown right now. Or, I should say, too much remains in your hands. You put Trump in office, and you may be able to influence his behavior better than I could. So instead of a neat conclusion, I’ll tie it up with some profanity.

I’ve seen this a lot on Twitter:

Not all Trump supporters are racist, but all of them decided that racism isn’t a deal-breaker. End of story.

If that’s the end of the story, then we’re well and truly fucked. Let’s not let that be the end of the story, okay?

Update: Frank Gaffney has denied reports that he is involved in the transition team. “I know he’s a nice guy but he’s not part of the transition team,” said Trump adviser Jason Miller.

The Heterotic Society

In biology, heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred individual to show qualities superior to those of both parents. Humans may or may not display biological heterosis, but societies do best when they have a high degree of cultural heterosis: In a heterotic society, we are all to a significant degree mutts in our habits and practices. This makes us flexible, broad-minded, and creative. Individuals in a heterotic society have a wide variety of coping strategies for the challenges they face, and if their toolkits fall short, they know that others, with other cultural resources, are willing and able to help.

In economics, cultural heterosis makes us rich. In foreign policy, it makes us peaceful. In the culture wars… well, a truly heterotic society doesn’t have culture wars. The heterotic society is not litigious. It is patient, curious, and quietly confident. It holds that an elevated taste for novelty is a virtue.

The heterotic society is not a melting pot. In a true melting pot, the end is homogeneity. Distinctive traits from various subgroups are averaged out, or perhaps they are normalized to match the traits of some dominant group. Over time, any given element of the mixture increasingly comes to resemble any other. The melting pot may appeal to conservatives, but it is nearly the opposite of heterosis. As a model, it is to be rejected.

The heterotic society is also not a society of rigidly divided and squabbling identity groups. The legislators of a heterotic society do not insist on the maintenance any tribal identity within it. As a general rule: You may have your identity, but it’s up to you to keep it. In this it resembles but also differs from the more usual multiculturalism of the left. Holders of the heterotic ideal are apt to see a hidden conservatism in the contemporary left’s maintenance of identities within their boundaries.

Heterotic societies welcome much — though not all — of what has disapprovingly been termed cultural appropriation. As Jacob Levy put it, cultural appropriation is a poor umbrella concept, and yet it also covers some things that are blameworthy. There is a world of difference between racist caricature and cross-racial adaptation. It works a great evil to conflate the two, because it strikes at the process by which the heterotic society sustains itself.

Those who cultivate the virtues of heterosis do not regard identity as destiny. They regard it as performance. Identities are always built from a variety of elements derived from previous identities. Their creative combination in any individual’s case is a matter for what Aristotle termed phronesis — the wisdom that relates to practical things.

So what if Aristotle said only men were capable of phronesis. The heterotic society takes his ideas anyway. It gives them to women and says, “here, you do something with this.”

Being mutts makes us more diverse over time. New York in the 1950s was one of the most heterotic cities on the planet, but its inhabitants still had to be cautioned against pronouncing “taco” with a long a. The New Yorkers of the time would be astonished by today’s New Yorkers. Or even by today’s residents of Plano, Texas. The idea that we have a limited capacity to affirm diversity has been falsified again and again.

Some aspects of a person’s identity are inborn and difficult to change, but a heterotic society makes room for those who want to try anyway. Transgender? Heterosis says go for it. Transracial? We might not be ready for that in our world, but perhaps eventually we will be. And already, everybody’s a little transracial sometimes. Are they not?

Wikipedia is perhaps the paradigm heterotic institution of the real world. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the paradigm case in science fiction. The Culture splits down the middle the question of cultural universality and cultural particularity: The Culture cheerfully borrows from others. It lacks all borders. It embraces the ideal of infinite diversity way more than the Vulcans ever did. Its unity consists of a peaceful platform for borrowing and sharing — or for going separate ways, if that’s what’s desired. The Culture is post-scarcity and we are not, but I don’t think it matters.

What I offer is an ideal type. It’s trivial to point out that various real societies fall short, including our own. Yet the heterotic ideal seems so clear and so obvious to me. We Americans have been doing heterosis for most of our history, often badly, and usually without realizing it. A conscious defense looks more and more necessary to me, even if I’m the only one who thinks in these terms. Or… maybe I’m not as crazy as I think. I’m not sure.

Becoming a Democrat

I am registering as a Democrat.

Mom, dad, I’m sorry.

No, I haven’t changed what I believe. I will be a libertarian Democrat. We’re rare, which gives me the luxury of cutting my own path. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

I have never been faithful to any political party, and I expect that I will be no different here. Still, this is clearly where I belong for now, and maybe it will be for quite some time.

My reasons are as follows. 

In the primaries I was only nominally a Republican. I could not understand how Republicans were so enamored of the man they were choosing. If Trump’s demeanor had been magnanimous and calm, I would have rejected him for his policy views. If Trump’s policies had been sensible, I would have rejected him for his boorishness and cruelty. These traits were only underscored by the numerous graphic and grossly racist death threats that I and many of my colleagues received during the entire length of the campaign cycle. That never happened to us when we wrote critically of Romney, or of Obama.

I cast a proud symbolic vote against Trump, and I’m glad that I did it. My fuller reasons for that are here.

I’m also glad that I immediately changed my registration back to Libertarian. The Republican Party deserved a mass exodus, and I did my part.

I am leaving the Libertarian Party for the same reasons that everyone sooner or later leaves the Libertarian Party. Parties that want ideological purity can have it — but only at the cost of literally everything else. That’s always been the Libertarian Party’s problem, and so I’m done with them.

Inside the big two parties, we have a signal for when one party becomes the opposite of what you stand for: You join the other party. That’s what I’m doing now.

I choose to be a Democrat because people have repeatedly congratulated me about Trumpism, and because Trumpism is essentially the opposite of what I stand for. (I have no great love for Clintonism either, but at this point, Clintonism is the least of anyone’s worries.)

I’ll put anti-Trumpism into a more positive form in a future essay, but for now I want to send a clear message that I am in the opposition. Having a legitimate opposition, and a smart, healthy one, is an essential feature of any functioning democracy, but especially one headed by a populist. It’s roughly the same role that I filled as a registered Republican while Obama was in office, and it’s a role that I enjoy and take strength from.

It’s hard to deny, though, that I feel more urgency in this case. I have the strong sense that we are leaving ordinary political times, and it frightens me.

On the bright side, I look forward to being understood differently by a different audience. Again and again, I have found lately that when I give my libertarian message to Republicans, they hear only “lower taxes, end gun control,” and after that they stop listening. I would like those things, but it has lately become difficult for a libertarian to work with Republicans on nearly anything else.

Republicans aren’t even good on trade policy anymore. They aren’t even good on property rights. The George W. Bush administration showed that the central state grows unchecked under Republican control. And it doesn’t cost less, because Republicans have made no real progress at controlling spending. Republicans have taken a serious turn for the worse on immigration and on criminal justice. Trump’s own views on the Drug War are perhaps not so bad, but he’s surrounding himself with rabid drug warriors.

These are key issues for me. They are why I care about politics in the first place. And for all of them, the Republican Party can’t possibly be my home.

I fear that libertarians give all this their blessing by remaining in the GOP, or by fleeing to a Libertarian Party that’s popularly regarded as the Republican Party’s sanitarium. Neither of these will do.

Instead, I’m ready to start having some new conversations, even as I give what amounts to the same old message. I will give my Democratic friends grief about their preferred tax policies, and about gun control, and a few other things besides, but I don’t think that these are margins on which our freedom is most in danger right now. Others are more pressing.

I’m ready to talk, for example, about press freedom and civil liberties.

I’m ready to talk about the freedom of religion, and I’m ready to unite with a coalition to guarantee that Muslim Americans have the same freedoms as Methodists.

I’m ready to talk about how to be sincerely proud of free trade, rather than whispering about it in secret. We libertarian Democrats can help our party a lot here, I think.

I’m ready to resist every restrictive immigration policy coming down the road. I’m ready to talk about designing a system that will not force immigrants to choose between obeying U.S. law and feeding their families. We and they both deserve better.

I’m ready to talk about how to fight racism, because widespread private racism always becomes a danger to liberty sooner or later. I find that the policing of speech, particularly on college campuses, has made the matter worse, and we need to try something else, something that preserves the American tradition of free speech and free inquiry, while making it clear that those traditions are not just a cover for racism.

I’m ready to talk about drug decriminalization, and I don’t just mean marijuana.

I’m even ready to talk about drug policy federalism. Perhaps you have only understood “federalism” as a dog whistle for segregation. But federalism is as federalism does, and we might be able to use it as a force for good.

And finally, I’m ready to stop chiding Democrats about the death of the antiwar left under Obama. If they will have me, I am ready to be the antiwar left.

All of these are libertarian causes, at least as I understand that term. All of them are in my view completely unwelcome in today’s Republican Party. All will get a fairer hearing among the Democrats.

Among my colleagues at the Cato Institute, there are libertarian Republicans. There are libertarian Libertarians. And now there’s at least one libertarian Democrat. In a better world than ours, the adherents of classical liberalism would feel at home everywhere, and that’s the world I’m trying to build. You’re welcome to join me if you’d like.

And now some messages for particular groups.

If you are a Democrat, and if you are reading this in disgust: I own every bad name you call me. I am a carpetbagger. I am an unrepentant capitalist tool. I will betray you one day in the name of ideals that you reject. Eventually I hope to sit across the aisle from you and give you hell. But we have to build that day before it happens.

If you are a Republican, and if you are reading this in disgust: You’re in a strange spot right now. The whole world is watching, and I am your loyal opposition: I am loyal to the institutions of my country, and I am opposed to you.

Yet in a sense, you need us way more than we need you: No democracy can be called legitimate without an opposition that is active, independent, and free. How you treat us is therefore a measure of your own legitimacy. Be careful how you use your power.

If you are a Libertarian, and if you are reading this in disgust: I have not left you. I have not left your ideas, at least. I pursue them in another venue, nothing more, and I have gone there to send a message that is also your message. If I had the space, I might argue that your first and truest home is on the left. But that’s another discussion entirely.

The Government of the Gaps

As I argue in my forthcoming book, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about governance. Sometimes they hide in plain sight. Or on Wikipedia:

A natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the International Association for Identification (IAI).The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief.”

Fingerprint testing is emphatically not the creature we imagine it to be. The shockingly poor performance of trained experts may or may not constitute reasonable doubt as the law would have it, but maybe it ought to be in the back of our minds the next time we sit on a jury.

The same is true – and more – with hair analysis and bite analysis, both of which were simply fabricated to suit a purpose. That is: There is no science of hair analysis. There is no science of bite analysis.

Who would tell falsehoods like that, and why?


Human justice is never complete. And this bugs us deeply, on a civilizational level.

In the Republic, Plato famously described a numerology that would order his ideal society, dictating when children would be born and what station in life they would occupy. The single biggest controversy about this numerology is whether Plato meant it sincerely. Did he really think he had a viable science for running people’s lives, or was Plato being facetious? Or was he equivocating between the two, perhaps to subversive effect?

For the record, Aristotle appears to have taken Plato seriously, and Aristotle would be one to know. For all of his apt criticisms of Plato’s thought, Aristotle gives not a hint that Plato was simply joking about his politics. Such a hint would have mightily dented the aspirations of Platonic statesmen and saved the world much, much utopian trouble.

Later Platonists also seem to have taken their master at his word, and we have been building imaginary cities – and phony sciences of government – ever since. It’s all through western history, this deficit between what we can do and can know, and what we would need to do and need to know for our theories of government to hold up.

The problem persists for theories of government both sympathetic and otherwise. There is of course no numerology that tells us how to populate a city. Tommaso Campanella, a later Platonist, suggested astrology instead. (No dice.) The Great Chain of Being was a fantasy. There never was an original contract. There was no state of nature, even if Rousseau’s arresting description of it may pass for the founding of modern anthropology. (Anthropology improved in the meantime; what says about government has also grown more qualified.) Dialectical materialism promised big and delivered nothing. Phrenology and physiognomy are garbage. Eugenics is too. Criminology, that basis of so much of the modern state, doesn’t rehabilitate the criminal. Panopticons breed paranoia, not docile bodies. Social darwinism doesn’t work, and it probably never had any genuine exponents – not even Herbert Spencer. The technology known as political correctness makes people anxious and resentful, not tolerant or empathetic.

Again and again, the political imagination infers the existence of technologies that would be needed to make a desired program possible. Politics is commonly not about actually developing those technologies. Rather, it’s about fudging the difference. And it’s not limited to technology. It’s anthropology, history, philosophy, even theology.

This suggests that there are a lot of gaps in our accounts of what we do to each other in this thing called government.


Yes, I said theology. In the early modern era, and even among Enlightenment authors like Voltaire, one commonly found it claimed that human justice was incomplete – but that God would settle accounts in the afterlife. Whatever we got wrong, whatever we missed, God would pick up the slack.

We can see the need for the premise. It may be the central tenet of modern civic religion itself. The wide scope of modern government and its obvious tendency to sometimes get things wrong all but requires us to believe in an afterlife of punishment and reward. That afterlife is one of the few things that could make, and probably still makes, the rulers’ actions bearable. And thus the Enlightenment’s complicated, dreadful relationship with atheism: If the afterlife doesn’t exist, then human justice is radically incomplete, and it always will be, and no one is ever making things better. If there’s an afterlife, then human justice points toward something more complete that’s still to come. Without an afterlife, the gesture is false.

So many gaps: Governing is an inexact science, and not just because it takes human judgment, and because human judgment is faulty. Governing is also an inexact science because science is inexact. The stories that we tell ourselves about why have government, and what government is doing, and why it’s okay for government to do what it does, all tend to gloss this over. In fact, the stories that we tell ourselves about how government works are all woefully optimistic. They infer claims about what we can do from claims about what we would need to do to justify the state that we have, or the state that we would build.

A person who rejected these narratives, and who acknowledged the radical incompleteness of our accounts of the state and its justice, might be called a narrative anarchist. The position is increasingly credible to me. Someone who accepted the necessary incompleteness of human justice, and who nonetheless worked to better our governing institutions, would at least start from a realistic set of assumptions, which a lot of canonical political theory – and real-world- governance – clearly hasn’t done.




Obscured by Lego

MIT is using Lego in urban planning:

MIT researchers unveiled something earlier this month that will please toddlers and serious urban planners alike. It’s a model of Dudley Square—a neighborhood in the greater Boston area—about the size of a kitchen table. The roads, sidewalks, bus stations, and buildings are all made out of Lego blocks. Wee Lego figures represent pedestrians. Laid over it all is a computer-generated projection of the actual neighborhood, filling in the details of current green space and traffic in Dudley Square.

The project is a collaboration between the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Changing Places group at the MIT Media Lab, and the Barr Foundation, all of whom are are using the new tool to test how bus-rapid transit systems could affect the city. The test includes three components, each representing the city of Boston on a different scale. There’s the Lego model of Dudley Square, another 3-D model (also made of Legos) of a Boston street, and a touchscreen interface to illustrate the potential effects of different plans on a regional scale—such as how changes to public transit might affect people’s access to jobs.

It’s important, though, not to characterize the Lego here as a planning tool. It’s nothing of the kind. The real work is happening elsewhere, by algorithm:

On the touchscreen, for example, viewers can point to a specific part of the city and have the computer tell them how many jobs they can get to from that spot via proposed public transportation. They can then fiddle with the model to see how different transit systems and route networks affect their commute.

“And then they can say, ‘Well, what if I added these new transit routes, and what if I change the frequency of the buses, and how much would it cost?’” explains Chris Zegras, professor of transportation and urban planning at MIT, who leads the project team. The information, he adds, come from publicly available data…

And what’s more accessible and familiar than Legos? “The platform lowers the the threshold of participation because every kid knows how to move a Lego piece,” says Phil Tinn, a masters student at MIT, who is also part of the team.

The CityScope project stands or falls on its data, not on those little plastic bricks.

So where is the data? It’s “publicly available,” says the publicity. I emailed the project’s contact person, who eventually pointed me to this site for app developerssome relevant documentation here – which… let’s just say it’s not as accessible as one might like. You’ll need to register for an API key and brush up on your programming.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, the Lego bricks here function as a persuasive game, one that encodes programmers’ assumptions about urban life and gives their predictions the appearance of results. The purpose of the Lego here is to make things look cute, and tidy, and… convincing. The information that powers the simulation is considerably less scrutable, which seems like it should be a bigger problem than it currently is.

The assumptions that turn data into results might be accurate. But I’m not sure that I or anyone else can tell.