How to Kill the Incompetocracy
Ruling class legitimacy is built on academic prestige. That's a fatal weakness ripe for disruption.
There’s a misconception out there that the source of the ruling class’ legitimacy is the consent of the governed. The idea is that they derive their right to hold power from obeying some form of constitutional contract, which requires them to periodically seek the approval of the masses at the ballot box. The people having approved, they have their mandate and can do as they will (provided they follow the stipulations of the contract under which they gained it).
This is really only a very partial answer, and is relevant only to elected officials. It has nothing to do with the bureaucrats, corporate executives, university presidents, media moguls, and so on that compose the rest of the ruling class – indeed the bulk of it.
Others would say that it is ultimately money that is the source of power. Money is usually decisive in political campaigns; money distinguishes between what gets talked about and what doesn’t in mass media; money chooses what gets funded (and what doesn’t) in the universities. In this frame the ruling class is the bourgeoisie, the wealthy industrialists and financiers who direct society from their dark-panelled board rooms.
I don’t think that’s quite correct, either. Money matters, to be sure, but it is just as often the case that money flows towards power as that power flows from money. There are many examples of extremely wealthy people being forced to bend the knee and kiss the ring of those with much less money. It also begs the question, how did the wealthy become wealthy in the first place?
When was the last time you heard anyone in the ruling class say “I’ve got a lot of money, and that’s why you have to listen to what I think.” They’re never so gauche as all that, but if the oligarchy really worked that way – if money was the source of all power – why wouldn’t they just say it? The warrior aristocracies of old had no trouble saying quite directly that victory on the battlefield meant they had the divine mandate to rule; why should the titans of capitalism not claim a similar mantle on the strength of their success in the market?
The Western system of liberal democracy is nominally meritocratic. It is premised on the idea that all men are to be given the opportunity to better themselves, and that being the case, that the best will naturally rise to power. That leads to the first point I want to make here: the source of the ruling class’ legitimacy is not votes, and it is not dollars: it is credentials.
As I’ve written before, the ruling class ultimately derives its assumed right to rule from the prestige of academic institutions. The idea is that the smartest kids are admitted to the best schools, where they’re taught by the top minds in the sciences, philosophy, law, medicine, and the arts. They therefore possess both the highest degree of natural aptitude, and have been provided with the best possible training, meaning that they are naturally the most suited to take society’s reigns. As a result, the most powerful institutions recruit primarily from these top universities, meaning that the top universities are the gatekeepers to power. Once one has obtained a degree from the right school, and as long as one does not rock the boat too much, the doors to the halls of power open, and the money follows.
If it worked properly, it would be quite noble. The problem is, it doesn’t.
What universities really sell isn’t an education: it’s the credential. The more cynical students will note that C’s and D’s get degrees, a frank statement that they can cruise through their undergraduate years doing the bare minimum and squeak out the door with a piece of paper that will be every bit as valuable as the document bestowed upon their more talented and diligent classmates. Sure, employers might ask for their transcripts; but in practice they rarely do.
Credentials are meant to serve a crucial social function. They’re supposed to be a guarantee that a potential employee or professional has mastered the skills for which his services are being retained. When you walk into a doctor’s office, you don’t want to spend three hours grilling him on his knowledge of molecular biology and skeletal anatomy; you want to assume he knows his stuff, so you can get on with the business of figuring out whether or why you’re sick and what to do about it. The credential outsources professional quality control to a third party, making it easier for both of you to conduct business.
There are real consequences to not having a credentialing system. In South America, for instance, the skilled trades as such don’t really exist. There’s no formalized system of trade schools, apprenticeships, and so on that any prospective tradesman is required to complete before they can hang out their shingle as a practitioner. A tradesman’s qualifications are the tools he shows up with. He may know his business and he may not, but you’ve got no real way of knowing. The result is that the jury-rigged infrastructure in South America is notoriously unreliable.
There are similar consequences to a credentialing system breaking down. We’re living through it now.
At some point over the last generation, the ruling class shifted its emphasis from competence to ideological loyalty. Some degree of indoctrination was always a factor, of course, but until recently the idea was to take the smartest recruits you could find, and then make them loyal. That was the purpose of the Rhodes scholarships, for instance. It was widely understood that while you needed your leadership cadre to be team players, it was absolutely crucial that they also be good at what they do. In practice, that meant sacrificing a certain degree of unity of purpose, because smart, ruthless people also tend to be independent-minded and outspoken. Still, whatever amount of friction that was caused by the ruling class sometimes operating at cross-purposes with itself was more than compensated for by the competitive advantages of a truly meritorious elite.
It doesn’t work that way anymore. Now, entrance into the top schools depends far less on grades, which is to say far less on ability, and more far on ideological purity. The ruling class has prioritized loyalty above all else.
This shift in priorities compromises the educational system at a very basic level. Classroom instruction is now much less about teaching students how to think and how to do things, and far more concerned with ensuring they become appropriately enthusiastic about what they’re supposed to feel. This is true at every level in the system, right on through post-graduate education.
Since those being advanced through the system are being evaluated not on their intellectual ability so much as their emotional docility, the overall level of competence declines. Dull minds have a harder time mastering difficult material; therefore, the rigour of the curriculum is reduced.
The result is the incompetocracy: a ruling class exhibiting near perfect unity of rigidly disciplined ideological purpose, able to move in synch with one another like a school of hungry piranhas, but composed of unimpressive cretins who are individually incapable of doing whatever task is assigned to them.
Look at Biden’s train wreck of a regime. These people all attended the best schools. I wrote that last sentence without actually knowing, I just assumed it was probably true, but sure enough: the new press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, went to a Long Island prep school, and has a master’s degree from Columbia. Despite that, she’s barely able to string enough coherent words together to form a half-convincing deception. The mumbling non-entity of a Secretary of State Antony Blinken is a Harvard man, which is no defense against being regularly humiliated by his international counterparts. Treasury Secretary Yellen attended Brown and got her PhD from Yale, which does nothing at all to stop shortages and inflation from nuking the economy. Attorney-General Merrick Garland has a law degree from Harvard, and presides over a steady dissolution in the rule of law. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is a Rhodes Scholar. And so on and so forth. They’re an impressively credentialed group of people, but the country is rotting like a dead raccoon on the highway.
Look at the total failure of the public health system over the last two years, the absolute pointless nightmare we’ve all lived through, and are still living through.
Look at the WEF, supposed masterminds of reality, who manage to alienate another million people every time one of their august members opens their stupid mouths. They can’t even get their messaging right, and for all that their plans of world domination are transparently evil, those plans are failing in real time.
You see this at every level. Academics from outside North America who teach their first courses at an American university are appalled at the level of remedial education required by freshmen; exchange students are amused, as they can spend their first year or two on cruise control, having already learned the curriculum in high school. Employers are disgusted with the very basic things that graduates don’t know, to the point where many question whether a university degree even means anything, while others actively prefer not to hire university graduates.
Doctors who don’t know medicine. Teachers who are barely literate. Lawyers who don’t understand basic principles of jurisprudence. Scientists who seem to be ignorant of basic things in their own fields, who get outmaneuvered by schizo anons shitposting their statistical analyses on Twitter.
A generation of diluted educational standards, of premising entry into the ruling class on the basis of ideological purity rather than ability and mastery, has produced a society in which everything is breaking down.
Incompetocracy has failed as a system of government. Shocking, isn’t it.
We need a new ruling class.
So long as membership into the ruling class is regulated by admission to top universities, however, the ruling class can’t be changed, because the universities are specifically designed to make sure that only the ideologically pure can get through. It’s a cozy relationship they’ve got and none of them have any intention of changing it.
Therefore, we need to break the monopoly of the universities.
Since the universities don’t sell education, but credentials, we need a new system of credentialing.
Education is the easy part. We’ve already got that covered. With the internet, it’s never been easier to learn. The accumulated knowledge of humanity is at everyone’s fingertips, for free. For a small fee, there are plenty of independent scholars willing to help guide students through whatever it is they want to learn.
Anyone can learn as much as they want, as rapidly and thoroughly as they want to learn it, and do so for a small fraction of what a university degree costs. The problem is that there’s no proof of work. How does an autodidact reassure a potential employer or customer that they know what they’re doing? On the other hand, there are the university graduates, who possess a credential that both the graduates and their potential customers and employers know is essentially meaningless.
There’s a market opportunity there. Listen up, Peter Thiel: whoever does this right won’t just make a lot of money, they’ll blow a hole below the waterline in the ruling class’ legitimacy.
One very obvious answer is standardized testing. We’ve already got that, of course: SATs at the end of high school, GREs for grad school, LSATs for law school, and so on. Standardized testing could be taken a lot further than it is, however. It could made a lot more granular and precise, to the point where classroom grades become entirely irrelevant.
Instead of having one big test at the end of school, tests could be provided on a subject-by-subject basis: Algebra I, Algebra II, Algebra and Geometry, Single-variable Calculus, Multi-variable Calculus, and so on. Students could take the test whenever they feel ready, after studying the material in whichever fashion they feel most comfortable, whether alone, or with the assistance of a tutor, or at a more traditional school.
Rather than having the tests be written at an appointed time and physical location, the tests could be taken at home, with screen-sharing and cameras ensuring no cheating was taking place. Randomization algorithms – changing the numerical answers to mathematical questions, switching the order of multiple-choice questions, and so on – could be used to ensure that each test was functionally equivalent but unique in its particulars, making cheating yet more difficult. Since the speed with which a student completes the test is easily recorded, and since it is generally the case that mastery correlates with speed on a test, whereas cheating usually slows things down, making speed a factor would also discourage cheating. “Oh, you scored a 95% on Calc II in 75% of the average time,” sounds a lot better than, “Huh, you got a 60% and took 1.3x as long as average.”
Such a system could easily be employed from elementary through post-graduate levels of education. It could furthermore be made granular not just at the level of individual subjects, but at the level of individual topics within a subject – replacing mid-terms, quizzes, and homework assignments.
There’s no reason that such a system should require an expensive, unwieldy government bureaucracy to support. In fact it’s best if it’s done outside of the state. The system would support itself with user fees. Rather than students paying to sit in class, they would pay the standardized testing corporation to take the test. If they want a better grade, they can take the test again; thus providing an incentive to do it right the first time. By building it in the private sector, it can be started more or less immediately, without waiting for anyone’s permission. Furthermore, as a private entity, it can easily be exported around the world, thereby providing an objective evaluation of student ability everywhere.
For employers, it would remove a great deal of ambiguity: rather than shrugging their shoulders and hoping that a diploma from Wherever U meant something, they could review a potential employee’s educational records in detail, gaining immediate knowledge of what they know, how well they know it, and how that compares to other applicants.
Students would be liberated entirely from the requirement to get into a ‘good school’, or even attend school at all. Autodidacts would be on equal footing with Ivy League entrants, since the relevant question would no longer be ‘where did you go to school’, but ‘what do you know and how well do you know it?’ Furthermore, students would no longer have to worry about matching wits with administrators looking to maximize tuition dollars by any means fair or foul when they want to change schools: there would be no questions about whether a credit gained in one subject was really equivalent to the comparable course offered at the new school. The same would apply for qualifications obtained in different countries.
Universities would no longer be able to pretend that the result of their expensive four-year indoctrination programs is a class of highly knowledgeable, highly skilled subject-matter experts, because universities would no longer be the ones deciding what counts as knowledgeable or skilled. While no one can be forced to take subject-specific standardized tests, people will wonder about those who demur. As employers and customers realize that the tests are a more reliable indicator of mastery than university degrees, market pressure will provide a powerful incentive to participate in the system. University students would ultimately have no real choice but to take the tests; the universities certainly wouldn’t be able to stop them; and if the students didn’t measure up, well....
The ultimate result would be that an Ivy League pedigree would no longer be considered sufficient evidence of merit for one to claim legitimacy. Our senile ruling class will almost certainly cling to the prestige of their alma maters, but the very prestige attached to them is entirely a function of the perception that they are an indicator of merit. Even without a competing credentialing system, that perception is rapidly eroding, for the simple reason that everyone can look around and see society crumbling, and they can look at the stumbling, inarticulate midwits, perverts, and diversity hires responsible. “I went to a good school though,” is increasingly unconvincing when measured against the evidence that these people just suck at their jobs. Erect a parallel system that provides credentialing that is more objective and more accurate, and that prestige, and the legitimacy it confers, will evaporate.
The main objection I can see to this suggestion is that not every subject is open to standardized testing. That’s true: how do you evaluate a philosophy essay in a standardized fashion? I’ve got some ideas on that, but this essay is long enough as it is, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that question in the comments.
Usually people say it teaches what to think instead of how to think, but really, thinking doesn’t enter into it at all anymore.
Good ideas. Critics, defenders of status quo, will whine that education is more than assimilating knowledge, it's the immersion in academic culture which makes graduates superior human beings. Anybody with internet can be smart. They want conformity.
Elon is laying off salaried imployees, probably many with impressive credentials. He's not laying off wage employees, those who actually make his cars. We need more Elons. The problem isn't the elite academies, it's those who revere them.
Mike Rowe for President!
A good set of ideas, well explained. I have see this described in academia as "competency based degrees" as I recall. The idea is that for many topics or courses you can have a standardized test that students must take to get credit, but they don't need to take the attached courses to take the test. In effect it is much like how many graduate exams are done, with a committee of professors drawing up the exam and grading them, and the students taking the exams without having necessarily had all the professors in class.
I have seen some schools doing this for undergraduates typically as a way to draw in former military or other students with work history as a way of limiting their investment. Worked in the army as an electrician? You can just test out of those classes on the way to an electrical engineering degree. I think you could build an entire credentialing system out of this, with competing credentialing groups doing the examinations.
As a side note, the fields where these tests would be most difficult, say philosophy or the other humanities, are exactly the fields there is no reason to have a credential in. You don't need a PhD to be a philosopher, you just need an audience that is willing to read your crap and pay you for it. Whether your philosophy is any good has no relation to credentials, as the entire philosophy profession amply demonstrates. What we need is a credentialing system for coders, engineers, builders, truck drivers... actual jobs doing actual things.