A recent poll has Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton. Handicapping this horse race is futile, given the volatile American electorate. But the question remains: how can a reality TV “blowhard” with an enlarged, fragile ego, impulse-control problems and bad hair be so close to becoming President of the United States? Some answer that it’s economic hard times for those left behind by globalisation. Others point to income inequality. Still others blame an increasingly minute and punitive political correctness. And of course there’s the omnibus explanation that lots of Americans are racists, homophobic and anti-immigrant.
Each true, perhaps, at least to some extent. Something else is at work, however. Over the past generation, our ruling classes have become increasingly homogeneous and now form a global elite. They present themselves as indispensable technocrats, ensuring global prosperity and protecting human rights. Trump’s unexpected ascendancy, like the shocking Brexit vote and rising populism in some countries in continental Europe, is a vote of no confidence in the ruling class.
What defines this ruling class? Crucially, they are anti-metaphysical: economic analysis, they believe, gets us to the bottom of what’s really going on in human affairs. More than 50 years ago, the University of Chicago economist Gary Becker pioneered economic analysis of social phenomena that, at first glance, seem far removed from the marketplace. He wrote about the economics of racial discrimination and family life. In this work a key anthropological assumption gets made. The essential characteristic of the human person is “preference maximisation”.
In itself, emphasis on preference maximisation captures a deep truth. As St Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee.” His Confessions are, in a sense, accounts of the economy of the God-desiring human heart. However, our global elite prefers preferences that are oriented toward material well-being. Technical expertise concerns that which can be measured. Economic analysis, therefore, ends up reinforcing a reductive materialism. This same is true for the technocratic elite who claim expertise in other areas.
The anti-metaphysical dogma leads to the rhetoric of unmasking. If Northumbrian voters opted to leave the European Union, it is because they resented (wrongly, according to some experts) wage competition from immigrants. Or they suffer from a psychological disorder: xenophobia. It’s difficult for a member of the global elite to formulate in his mind the possibility that someone cherishes patriotic solidarity for its own sake. The anti-metaphysical dogma rules out such desires, just as it rules out a desire to rest in God.
Economics serves as the first philosophy for today’s global elite, so let’s take a look at the central bankers. The chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, is an outlier: her PhD is from Yale University. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, got his from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where, as an assistant professor, he shared an office with former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, then a visiting scholar. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, got his PhD from MIT.
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