Consumers and Taxpayers: Beware Australia's 'Best and the Brightest'

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I shake my head every time I read the phrase "best and the brightest." I winced when I read about the announcement of the Australia 2020 Summit in The Australian newspaper (PM Calls on Best and Brightest, 4 February). I also cringed throughout March and recoiled whilst perusing today's editorial page (We're the Best and Brightest and We're Here to Help, 18 April).

Have politicians, journalists and Australians at large forgotten that this phrase became prominent as the title of a book written by David Halberstam in 1972? This Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist showed that the men who plotted and promoted military aggression in Vietnam were among the most intelligent, well-connected and self-confident people in America. Not despite this, but because of it, "the best and the brightest" blindly and arrogantly led their compatriots into a bloody and disastrous defeat. Halberstam showed that any old Tom, Dick and Harry can err; but to create a real catastrophe, one that kills and otherwise afflicts millions, you need a degree from an Ivy League university. (George W. Bush, by the way, is the only U.S. President who has degrees from both Harvard and Yale. Further, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's undergraduate degree is from Harvard, and before his ascension to the Fed he was the head of the Department of Economics at Princeton.)

This harsh reality puts the Australia 2020 Summit into a context that's diametrically different from the one the government intends. The Leviathan in Canberra has decided who are the 1,000 "best and brightest" in the land; it has decided what they will discuss; and it will decide which (if any) ideas to pursue. Any sane person knows that these anointed 1,000 will simply recite words that please their masters. So we already know what they will conclude: the "solution" to each of the 10 "critical areas" is more regulation, legislation and expenditure of taxpayers' money. Nobody will utter a word about the biggest cause of problems in this country (interventionist government); and not a whisper will be heard about its antidote — the repeal of vast amounts of regulation and legislation, and draconian cuts to government expenditure.

Yet the Summit might serve one useful purpose. I hope that it reveals to Australians the absurdity and bankruptcy of the Platonic conceit that the tax-consuming anointed know better than the tax-producing benighted. "Beware intellectuals," Paul Johnson concludes in Intellectuals (Harper Perennial, 1990). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice."

Chris Leithner [send him mail] is a Director of Leithner & Company, a private investment company in Brisbane, Australia.

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