Her Majesty’s Idiocracy | Toby Fitzsimmons
“PJ Masks will do a greater job than all of them [Ministers of the Crown] put together.” – Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the Prime Minister.
The perfect society should be run by a philosopher king, Socrates said. Such a society would be an epistocracy, the rule of the wise. To know what is just and to make smart policy decisions, a politician should be an intellectual in his own right with a love of wisdom and ample intelligence.
2,000 years later Dominic Cummings is intent on taking Socrates’s vision to Britain. After disparaging civil servants and politicians as incompetent on his blog for years, Dominic Cummings is hiring ‘weirdos and misfits’ to work as the intellectuals in government.
Dominic Cummings had made his first ‘weirdo and misfits’ appointment, Andrew Sabisky. Like Cummings, Andrew is a brain box with a successful track record as a superforecaster and eccentric views such as his support for increasing intelligence via embryo selection. A set of opinions that also caused outrage in the media , ending in his resignation.
But is Cummings right to think that government, without the likes of Sabisky, would be unintelligent? Instead of Dominic’s epistocracy, do we actually live under an ‘idiocracy’?
Our MPs do and say a lot of silly things. Famously, there was the time when Diane Abbot claimed she would hire 10,000 new police officers for £300,000.
More recently, we have seen government policy that no philosopher king could approve of. The Conservatives have decided to build HS2, despite government estimates of only 78p of benefits for every £1 of cost. Who invests money with the expectation of losing it? It was not even a public relations win with new northern Tory voters as polling suggests HS2 is not popular north of London.
If we cast our eyes across the channel, Europe’s intellect puts us to shame. In interviews, Macron discusses the obfuscatory Hegel with ease. Angela Merkel, PhD in quantum chemistry, once explained Germany’s historic geopolitical situation and the importance of Ukraine to Donald Trump, echoing the lessons of Halford Mackinder’s Heartland thesis. To be fair, Mr Johnson’s recital of the Iliad and frequent use of classical allegories is certainly impressive but unusual for British politicians.
Regardless of the anecdotes, is there any robust evidence that British politicians are not the sharpest tools in the shed? Take the Royal Statistical Studies’ survey of MPs in 2012. MPs were asked, if you flip a coin twice, what’s the probability of getting two heads? Spoiler alert, it is not a trick question! The answer is ¼ ― so what did the MPs get?
Out of 97 MPs asked, 60% were wrong and only 7% had the courage to say they did not know the answer. Whilst 47% of Conservative MPs choose wrong answers, 77% of Labour MPs were incorrect, suggesting Labour really is the party of the Diane Abbotts.
But surely MPs are much smarter than most of us and at least no less intelligent than our European rivals? In 2009, a group of psychologists, headed by Heiner Rindermann went about estimating the intelligence of countries’ politicians by their educational background, high school, undergraduate, doctorate etc. . They found that, between 1990 and 2009, British MPs had an average IQ of 116. That puts the average MP’s intelligence in the top 15% of the population, but why should it not be higher? In France the average politician had an IQ of 119, USA 121, Austria 123 and Germany 125.
But have our politicians become less intelligent? Britain’s politicians surely no longer have the wit of a Churchill, a Thatcher or a Harold Wilson, who became one of the youngest Oxford dons ever at the age of 21. Rindermann’s research gives Britain’s MPs an average IQ of 115 between 1960 and 2009, compared to 116 for 1990-2009. These estimates are misleading because many intelligent people did not go to university in the 20th century whereas such individuals would be expected to study at university in more recent history. This means for the average IQ of British politicians to have only increased by 1 point, there must be far fewer PhDs in parliament.
Other data clearly represents the mental decline of Britain’s politicians. In 1979 50% of Conservative MPs had an Oxbridge education, whereas only 34% had one in 2017 and it is probably lower since the 2019 election. Although the quality of Oxbridge students may have declined, with more and more smart people going to university, these figures are depressing.
So what if our politicians do not have the brains of intellectuals ― you do not need to be a Cummings-style boffin to represent your country effectively? Should we not judge our politicians by their hearts instead of their heads?
To return to Rindermann’s research, countries with smarter politicians were more likely to have a higher score on the Human Development Index, be more democratic and have more political liberty. Although many of Rindermann’s correlations were small, the importance of having even a marginally freer and more developed country ought not to be scoffed at.
Beyond Cumming’s hiring of weirdos, what can we do to get smarter politicians? For a start we should vote for them, which probably means fewer Labour politicians and more Liberal Democrats or Conservatives.
Philosopher king Lee Kuan Yew would have his own advice for Dominic Cummings. A Cambridge graduate and the statesman who brought Singapore from being a poor third world country to the third richest nation per capita in the world, Lee Kuan Yew is worth listening to.
“If we leave it [democracy] to a natural process it will be a contest on television performances as in the West. And the best television performers and rally entertainers are not necessarily the best leaders who can deliver a good government.” – Lee Kuan Yew
At best television star leaders give you Ronald Reagan, at worst Donald Trump ― not my philosopher king.
In recent years parties have chosen their candidates on the basis of gender, ethnicity and identity more broadly. Labour now has more female MPs than males despite men being overwhelmingly more likely to get involved in politics. Whilst such things may look good in the progressive media and on television, choosing candidates by their genitals or skin colour means you are not choosing them for the content of their character or the quality of their brains.
Cummings must end this discriminatory selection if we are to acquire smarter leaders. Whilst we are at it, it would do no harm to ask parliamentary candidates basic arithmetic – find the average of x and y, solve this quadratic equation or what is the probability of two coins landing heads up?
Lee Kuan Yew had more advice for getting smart leaders. He said “elected governments are only as good as the people who choose them.” Would it be so bad if smarter people had more influence in choosing our politicians?
We need not be as radical as liberal, feminist John Stuart Mill who thought the educated should get more votes. We already undemocratically appoint experts to the House of Lords anyway. Why not allow an independent panel to choose academics to be Lords or let British Nobel prize winners vote for a Lord instead of the government filling the chamber with party apparatchiks? In Ireland, 10% of members of the upper house can only be voted for by graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland.
For Socrates’s philosophical ideas his democracy voted to kill him. For Andrew Sabisky, curiosity also killed the cat. Whilst this an extremely cliché story to end any essay or op-ed, the point cannot be overstated. Democracies should represent the will of the people, but that does not mean it should come at the expense of wise government. Britain’s politicians are not inspiring intellectuals, but with a few changes here or there maybe Dominic Cummings can succeed where Socrates failed.
Photo by ID Hearn Mackinnon on Flickr.