Andrew Potter: Why are our leaders so stupid?

What the WE scandal reveals about Canada's Liberal elites is not that they are corrupt, but that they are impervious to thinking.

Recent events in Canadian federal politics have raised anew the familiar conundrum: why are high status people so stupid?

Anyone who has had much interaction with high status individuals is familiar with the phenomenon. It isn’t the shallow ignorance of the merely uneducated, or the malevolent brainlessness of the criminal class. It’s not even your bog-standard lack of intelligence. No, high class stupidity is of a very special type: A sort of studied lack of interest in facts, an offhand relationship with norms, an outright animosity to new ideas.

But it is important to specify just what we mean by “high status,” because status means different things to different people. (Indeed, how you define “status” is one of the key markers of class differences in Canada.) For some people status is defined by money or wealth, for others it is a function of education, while for still others it is a matter of taste. And even if you are sure it comes down to money, there are clear status differences based on how you got rich. Everyone instinctively understands the difference between the guy who got rich off a chain of used car dealerships and the one who made his bundle selling his dotcom startup, and there’s a reason why “nouveau riche” is a derogatory term.

And so the high-status individuals we are talking about here are the highest of high, the upperest of upper, the ones whose wealth is inherited, whose lives are defined by their privilege, and for whom the question of which rung of the status ladder they stand upon never arises, because there is no one above them. 

Which brings us to the Liberal government, and in particular to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and the scandal over the sole-sourced contract (sorry, “contribution agreement”) with a branch of the Kielburger-led WE conglomerate. First, Canadaland broke the story two weeks ago that Trudeau’s mother and brother had received almost a quarter of a million dollars in speakers’ fees from the WE organization.

That was bad enough, but when it was later revealed that one of Morneau’s daughters is an employee of WE Charity, that Morneau and his family had enjoyed $41,000 worth of free trips courtesy of the WE organization, and that neither he nor Trudeau had recused themselves from deliberations over the agreement, it seemed to many Canadians to be a straight-up example of you-scratch-mom’s-back-I’ll- scratch-yours corruption. To that end, the ethics commissioner is now investigating, and various parliamentary committees are digging into it as well.

But regardless of what parliament finds or the ethics commissioner ultimately decides, there’s a basic problem with the corruption angle, which is it’s not like they need the money.

Trudeau and Morneau are both very wealthy men, and if they were going to get into the business of selling their offices it wouldn’t be to a children’s charity for penny ante sums. No, as a number of columnists have pointed out, what is at work here is not corruption, it is privilege: It probably never occurred to either Trudeau or Morneau that this sort of thing was wrong. And it didn’t occur to them, because they are the sort of people who have spent their lives not worrying about the comings and goings of money and how it may affect their lives.

That is why the defining feature of the WE scandal is not the corruption, but the almost deliberate stupidity that is on display — in particular the lack of interest in basic material facts or in following the rules that govern the lives of most people. Which brings us back to the question we started with.

The futurist and tech entrepreneur Michael Vassar once argued that status makes people stupid because “it makes it harder for them to update their public positions without feeling that they are losing face." So they dig in and hold fast to untenable viewpoints, because changing their mind comes at a very high cost to their reputation. In a blog post expanding on this claim (wonderfully entitled “High Status and Stupidity: Why?), Vassar’s colleague Eliezer Yukowsky suggested a few more possibilities, including the possibility that high-status individuals are under less pressure to perform, or that they spend more or their time on social dinners and politics and less on reading and thinking. 

Some of these may be true, but if so, they apply for the most part to the class of people Vassar and Yukowsky are used to associating with — the tech geeks and entrepreneurs for whom ideas, and their monetizability, are the source of their status. It certainly might explain Elon Musk. But it doesn’t account for the dimness of thought, the stunning lack of self-reflection and basic curiosity, that is on display at the highest levels in Ottawa. For that, we need a specific theory of the privileged, old money, blue blood, upper classes. 

In his magnificent tour of the American class structure, simply entitled Class, Paul Fussell explained just what is so peculiar about the relationship people who come from old money have to hard thinking: They are allergic to ideas precisely because they have nothing to gain from them. People like Bill Morneau and Justin Trudeau already have all the status they could possibly have in this world. Not only can they not gain status (for there is nowhere up the ladder to go), but it is virtually impossible for them to lose status either. Ideas are for strivers, social climbers, ambitious people. To be interested in ideas is to be ambitious, and to be ambitious is to exhibit status anxiety. And since Trudeau and Morneau can’t have status anxiety by definition, ideas are of no concern to them. 

Maybe this sounds unfair or an exaggeration. But don’t take Paul Fussell’s word for it, take Justin Trudeau’s. He’s the one who once confessed “I don't read the newspapers, I don't watch the news. I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me." When he said that almost two decades ago, lots of people chalked up to one of those kids-these-days tics. “Trudeau is typical of his generation,” explained Leah McLaren. 

She got it half right. Trudeau certainly is typical, but not of his generation but of his class. Keep in mind, when he said he didn’t read newspapers, it was a boast. In his knowledge that there is nothing in the daily news that could affect his life, Justin Trudeau was doing nothing more than stating the plain truth of his privilege. Twenty years on, not much seems to have changed. But then again, why would it?

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