They See Us As Cows

Expertise and wisdom are not the same thing.

For a few years I ran a global internet infrastructure. As part of that work, I hired and established a team of engineers to provide network security for our internet footprint. The team monitored intrusion attempts on the network and, in some cases, tracked down the actual location of individuals who were attempting to penetrate our network.  In at least one instance they had someone arrested.

The point of network security is to facilitate the business operations of a company. But something I began to observe about people with expertise in security was that they often began to conceive of security as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. We didn't want to be in the security business, we needed adequate security to facilitate the actual business we wanted to be in.  Over time, it became really apparent that if we gave the security experts free rein, they would arrange things such that it would be impossible to deliver our service to our customers.  They would end up trying to "protect" the network from the customers themselves.  

People who do threat assessment, or even those who just need to be cognizant of possible threats, quite often have a propensity to lose sight of the concept of acceptable risk.  They come to see defense against threats as the business itself rather than as a concern to fit within a hierarchy of other concerns.

During those same years, in a random conversation I had in the hallway with the company controller, she made the startling observation that everyone needed to understand that the company was actually in the accounting business. This was, of course, nonsense on stilts.  We were not in the accounting business even though, of course, accounting was an important concern within a hierarchy of many other concerns.  But from her vantage point, as an accounting expert, accounting was the main thing the company actually did.

I mentioned this startling conversation to an investor and board member, and I also mentioned the challenges we were having with calibrating the network security team, and he gave me a wry smile and a piece of insight that has stuck with me for years:

"You've got to remember," he said, "people love their own cows."

Expertise is a wonderful thing, but the effort needed to acquire it can have the effect of crowding out other concerns, or even an expert's consciousness of the fact that there are other concerns.  Albert Einstein was a legendary expert in physics, but he couldn't count change and routinely got lost in unfamiliar places.  I have had the opportunity to work with world class experts in a number of technical fields, and it is not unusual for those experts to have what seems to be a restricted supply of common sense.  I have long believed that, in some challenging fields especially, the singular focus required to obtain real expertise ends up crowding out many other practical understandings. To acquire expertise in one thing often means one lacks expertise in many other things.  I myself have often told people that "I am really really good at one or two things and virtually incompetent at everything else."  People often react with a nervous little chuckle and insist that, "of course you must be kidding."

The extreme focus required to build actual expertise is one reason that people who are experts in a difficult field often come to see optimizing for their specific problem domain as the measure of all that is good.  My network security guys were doggedly pursuing network security, but over time they lost sight of why we were doing network security at all.  The only really "safe" computer is one that is powered off and unplugged from the wall. But we do not acquire computers to use them as door stops.

This principle is true in almost any field.  The requirements to solve a problem in a specific domain necessarily operate within a hierarchy of other competing and demanding concerns. But quite often a very narrow and focused expertise will crowd out both the expert's understanding of, and his appreciation for, competing concerns.  This is why my accounting colleague could reach the point where she believed - truly - that we were in the accounting business.  Accounting, like network security, was just one of multiple "goods" which we were aiming toward, and they had to be understood and positioned within a larger hierarchy of other concerns.  But very often, to the expert, optimizing everything toward maximizing efficiency in their own domain becomes the measure of all goodness.

Wisdom is something very different than expertise in a specific field. Actually, wisdom is not really anything like technical expertise at all. Wisdom comes from possessing an understanding of an entire hierarchy of goods in service to human flourishing, and then applying that understanding to the question of how a multiplicity of competing concerns should be placed and prioritized into a hierarchy that serves an overarching good. Wisdom may not have deep expertise in network security or accounting, but wisdom knows how those different pursuits should be prioritized and fitted to maximize human welfare.

The fiasco that has characterized the official reaction to Covid has been a classic example of expertise running roughshod over wisdom.  Narrowly focused "health" experts have driven policy and myopically allowed their goal of minimizing Covid to crowd out all other considerations of the good.  As a result, those countries that prioritized such expertise over actual wisdom are now seeing more people dying, than would have otherwise died, due to the experts' myopic focus on a single good to the exclusion of all others. Sweden, by contrast, is currently leading the world with the fewest excess deaths, and it is almost certainly because their Covid response reflected a wiser expression of the total hierarchy of goods within which Covid policy needed to be placed.

The problem we face, of course, is that our leaders have, by-and-large, rejected the actual source of all wisdom.  The biblical writers make the inevitable and coherent point that wisdom, in a universe in which God is real, can only ever begin by being grounded in the fear of God. If God is the creator, then everything that can be known about what constitutes "the good" must necessarily flow from acknowledging our place in relation to God's.  Freelancing in notions of what constitutes the good, in a universe that was created by God, is inevitably doomed to absurdity if it doesn't actually become outright sinister.

America's founders rooted their arguments in the Declaration of Independence in the presumption of God's existence and his being the ultimate source of all fundamental human rights. These kinds of foundational assumptions represent the "beginning of wisdom" as described in the biblical text.  Reasoning from the starting point of God superintending what it means to be human ensured that the nation was at least on the only viable road for gaining wisdom. Any other starting point would have eventually lead to disaster, as we are finding out, now that our leaders have now largely rejected those foundational assumptions.

What happened with Covid was what would have happened to the company I mentioned earlier, had we allowed the network security experts to have free rein to run roughshod over the business in pursuit of their ideals for network security. They had expertise but not wisdom in regards to the business. Government health bureaucrats had, at best, modest expertise (to be honest, many of them have turned out to be charlatans and incompetents, credentialed knuckleheads whose policies ignored things we've known about viruses for over 2000 years.). Their vaunted expertise revealed that they lacked even a drop of understanding about the totality of goods that constitute human flourishing.  And as the Twitter files have shown, the so-called experts in government actively torpedoed the influence of actual experts who spoke and advocated cogently for a more wise, humble and beneficial approach.

We are being governed by a class of people which has repeatedly demonstrated that it loves power and material things above all else. It does not love our country except insofar as our country is a source of the power and the material things the governing class craves.  In that sense, I guess, they love our country in the way a farmer loves his livestock: we are something to be bought, sold, and consumed.  

The ancient idea of "the citizen", a high view of human beings which carries with it more than a whiff of nobility, has been supplanted in the minds of the political class by the idea that we are all just so many "consumers" - marginally intelligent cows munching our way through life, consuming things and paying the taxes that empower the political "experts".  The fact that free born citizens are almost uniformly referred to by the political class as "taxpayers" is, perhaps, unintentionally revealing.

In this context, a citizen might start to wonder if the histrionics and spin engaged in by congress regarding the events of January 6th is less a principled concern for our country and more of a self-interested panic at the thought that some of those "cows" are getting uppity.

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