Henry Farrell wrote a great article at Crooked Timber on Wednesday, A Brief Theory of Very Serious People. He argued that what’s really going on with Very Serious People (VSP) is a kind of group think. And this is made pernicious because the VSP exist in a media framework that takes what they say as always being right and so magnifies their biases. But I think there is a touch of question begging here. Why is it that a media framework exists that allows this? And I think the answer to that is that the VSP are the basis of the liberal class: the apologists for the power elite — the great bulwark against revolution.
All you have to see is that the VSP just so happen to always be pushing the interests of the power elite. This is how we get the likes of William Saletan, who considers himself to be a “centrist.” But this supposed centrism consists of economic conservatism and social liberalism — the very opposite of populism. And his opinions are not moderate; they are instead rather extreme in both areas. He is neither a centrist on economic nor social issues. It’s like saying a hardwood box is soft because the inside in empty; in point of fact, if you banged your head on the box, you would see that it is not soft.
Now I can’t say if the VSP hold these opinions explicitly to curry favor with the power elite. Because the truth is that the interests of the VSP and the power elite are the same. In many — perhaps even most — cases, the VSP are the power elite. But the way this works is very clear. The VSP are in favor of cutting Social Security, because they plan to work at their cushy jobs well into their 70s. They are in favor of keeping taxes low, because they “make” a lot of money. They are in favor of education “reform,” because they send their kids to private schools. What’s more, they have friends who work in the “reform” movement. They aren’t too keen on the minimum wage, because they don’t know anyone who makes that little. But they do have friends in the LGBT community, so they are in favor of equal rights for them. People of their class know how an unplanned pregnancy can ruin a life, so they support reproductive rights.
Usually, the VSP make the most tired of arguments. They are some of the biggest supporters of conventional wisdom. But not always. The VSP love to push counter-intuitive ideas — but only when those ideas help the power elite. Raising the minimum wage might seem like it would help the poor, but they argue that it won’t. They argue this because of a collection of ideas from free market dogma, which might apply if we actually had a free market. But the VSP never get to the end of that reasoning chain, because the moment they get to a conclusion that helps the rich and tells the poor to shut up, the VPS know they are done.
But most of all, the VSP love “tough decisions.” They love to push the ideas that cause a lot of pain in society because they think it makes them seem strong. Of course, making a tough decision is one that ought to be applied to oneself. But the supposed tough decisions of the VSP only result in pain for people well removed from them. It is not tough for me to decide that Khalid Bin Mohsen Shaari ought to lose some weight. It is a tough decision for me to go out and run each night rather than sit at home and watch reruns of Arrested Development.
And this, I think, is what really matters about the VSP: they actually think that they are serious. They are so unplugged from the real world, that they think that reducing inflation by throwing 10 million people they don’t know out of work is a sign of how seriously they take policy. But the actual work that VSP are expected to do is things like arguing to keep inflation down, because that’s what the rich want. So when they make such “tough” decisions, they are not pushing against expectations. They are instead doing what is expected and therefore easy. And that is why they transcend being simply wrong and move on to being some of the most offensive (Very Serious) people on the planet.