Sometimes, really smart people get lost in their own brilliance. Luckily, there are lesser thinkers like me around to show them the error of their ways. Our example today comes from Noah Smith, Did Elon Musk Build That? In it, Smith argues against a common fallacy of assigning proportional blame to complementary causes. So he claims that we can’t say, as conservatives do, that innovation is all about “great men.” But he also claims that we can’t say, as liberals do, that innovation is all about social structure.
I accept this in a certain way: you need both the people and the structure. My problem comes with the idea of the “great men.” Great is a relative concept. And no one ever defines it. What it means in practice is powerful men. The best that an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs or even an Albert Einstein brings us is a couple of years. For every Wright Brothers, there is always one or more Glenn Curtisses on their heals — or even in front of them. Intelligence and creativity are not cliffs; they are continuums.
Every time I hear someone talking about this or that famous innovator, it makes me start to twitch. But it isn’t because they didn’t do this or that thing. (Although in many cases, it is, in fact, because they didn’t do anything — like Jobs.) It is the idea that doing this or that was a major accomplishment. This is taken to high comedy when talking about Mark Zuckerberg. That was clearly a case where they were doing stuff just like dozens of other groups and happened to have just the right combination of funding and luck. There is no question but that the world would be exactly the same if Karen Kempner had had an abortion 32 years ago.
The fundamental misunderstanding of conservatives — and this goes way back in history — is their idea that the rich are somehow better. It is built into their entire worldview. In order to claim that the status quo is good, you must believe that there is a reason that things are the way they are. Liberals believe that it is stochastic with a broad trend that depends not at all on the specific individuals that take part. Yes, if Einstein had not been around, the world would not have been introduced to general relativity in 1915. The theory would have been developed soon enough. What’s more, the intellectual breathing room his absence accorded might have led to faster progress in other areas.
There is no reason to think that we would be in a markedly different place (Not to mention a worse place!) if all the “great men” had never been born. If we had missed out on them, there would have been others (for good and for bad) to take their places. And that means that the “great men” just fold into the larger narrative about social change. And that should not come as a surprise. The “great man” theory really only serves one purpose: to justify things being the way they are.
So yes, Noah Smith is right that we need the “great men.” But they could be pretty much any men. And that means that the conservative claim is wrong. It is all about the broader society. We don’t need Elon Musk.