They’ve got a funny way of doing debate at the Centre for Independent Studies – the big event last night in their “Big Ideas Forum” was a discussion entitled “In Praise of Elitism”, chaired by Peter Saunders who had earlier written an op-ed piece in praise of, umm, elitism. So good to know that debate is alive and well then.

Nor was the line-up of the sort that was going to challenge the elitists to defend their ideas. True, it was a star-studded line-up – US social scientist Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame, Arts and Letters Daily founder Dennis Dutton, and Claire Fox from the UK’s Institute of Ideas. But their substantial agreement pretty much overwhelmed any differences they might have had.

Murray is probably the most famous/notorious of the three. As co-author of The Bell Curve, he argued that economic success can be traced back to IQ scores rather than social factors, that IQ is genetic, and that black people are inherently less intelligent.

The book aroused a storm of protest, much of it not particularly credible since it attacked the very notion that there might be genetic variation in intelligence. Nevertheless its findings, research and premises were effectively demolished in a series of books and papers, most importantly in a paper entitled A Re-analysis of the Bell Curve which showed that the interpretation of the figures contained a range of ungroundable assumptions which generated the result the authors pretty much wanted in the first place.

Murray’s latest volume is a massive analysis of US social policy since WW2 which concludes that the atomisation and dependency of much American life is caused by — surprise surprise — big government, and that if it got out of the way, everything would return to a world of stable, prosperous nuclear families.

It’s a fantasy which doesn’t stand up to the least scrutiny. Scandinavia has scads of big government and its population is far more prosperous and self-reliant than the parts of the US from which government has all but disappeared.

It would have been interesting to see Murray go toe-to-toe with someone who could argue the point that greater and targeted state intervention enables people to achieve by promoting equality.

Instead Murray was up against Dutton, an ‘anti PC’ english professor with a boring set of 1990s cultural political obsessions, and Fox, a member of the now-underground Revolutionary Communist Party who see forums like the CIS as “useful idiots” through which to promote a 21st century Leninism.

All good elitists together, reinforcing each other. Which strikes one as a bit, well, mediocre.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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