Twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

Had he been asked in late 2019 what would eventually break American global dominance, Razib Khan would have said the rise of China:

My thinking, pre-pandemic, was that the psychic shock of America’s eventual demotion might trigger cultural and political turmoil, as the nation would find itself forced into a reckoning. Then came 2020. The true shock to our civilization has come not from our own self-image but from nature itself. Western elites were clearly not prepared for this turn, a shattering of our conceit that reality is ours to create. In the U.S., bickering about an appropriate official name for Covid-19, along with a sequence of bureaucratic blunders that led to dire shortages of diagnostic testing and medical gear, highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. In a strange turn of events, twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore, absorbed in intricate intrigues at court to advance their careers while European gunboats prowl the waterways.

The politicians who govern us and the media who tell us how the world “really is” acted as if the basics of economic well-being would be an everlasting bounty. Economists, those apex predators of social science, marshaled the evidence for efficiencies and gains in productivity due to trade and international supply chains. “Just in time” inventories reduced waste and made modern retail a lean, mean prosperity machine. Plentitude wasn’t some miracle achieved through hard work and focused attention; it was our birthright, a steady-state condition of the universe that we inhabited. A global pandemic wasted no time in making a mockery of many of these late twentieth-century assumptions. All our efficiencies melted away in the face of a man-made depression. Perhaps the world was never what we presumed it to be.

In January, empirical evidence from Wuhan should have caused alarm for anyone who bothered to look closely. Epidemiological frameworks are some of the most well understood theoretical systems in population biology, so the high average number of secondary cases was immediately worrisome to scientists, statisticians, and physicians. The WHO, the CDC, and independent observers hoped that Covid-19 would be slowed by the same factors that slowed and contained SARS and MERS in the past, but there was no guarantee. By late January, a small but vocal group of epidemiologists and infectious-disease specialists, along with an eclectic array of Silicon Valley figures, had begun raising the alarm. But these worries failed to gain broader traction in the U.S. media and political landscape for much of February. The media seemed more anxious about the possibility of anti-Asian racism than the threat of a deadly pandemic.

Scenes that played out in Wuhan were repeated with eerily specific similarity in Lombardy in March, and then in New York shortly thereafter. Despite the reality that we live in a world where China’s economic and geopolitical heft looms large, American elites, nursing a twentieth-century hangover, haven’t updated their understanding of the world. China may be remote, alien, and exotic, but it was too easy to dismiss the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan as sui generis. In a global age, we have become too parochial as a nation, held captive by our own particular history.

Too many of our elites lack the most basic analytical tools to understand the threats that we face from nature.


Now Covid-19 has thrust the untamed physical world back into our line of vision. It has brought post-materialist, twenty-first-century humanity face to face with one of the species’ deepest and most atavistic fears: pestilence and plague. The disease will not be defined away. It is not a social construction or interpretation. It is immune to critique or public shaming on social media. Covid-19 will not be “cancelled.”


For decades, scientists and thinkers have warned that our twentieth-century victories against infectious disease could be merely a pause. Covid-19 has brought this prophecy to life. Rather than attend to internecine arguments about the ideal marginal tax rate or the gendered nature of the English language, we need to face outward and confront a real foe. The American elite must stop treating science like inscrutable magic that provides its bounty automatically. Science and engineering are instruments that grant us insight and mastery only through massive investments of time, energy, and will.

We must acknowledge the importance of mastering reality if we are to survive and flourish as a civilization. Otherwise, governing and media elites’ lack of basic scientific and statistical literacy will doom us to fly blind in the face of future natural disasters. Our only hope is to turn our backs on an era where our only leaders are business executives and lawyers. Data journalism cannot remain a niche; it deserves to occupy a prominent spot on any editorial board. Scientists and engineers must step outside of their laboratories and make their voices heard in the halls of power. They must become part of the establishment that they once had the luxury of viewing chiefly as a source of funding and institutional support.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    Scientists have already gone political about global warming. If you reward scientists with money and power for warning you of oncoming disasters, you won’t necessarily get good science.

    This will pass, the smartest mandarins will find ways to take advantage of it, and we’ll return to a worse but recognizable version of normal. We probably won’t see anything like it again for another century or so. What little we do to prepare for another identical Event will be mostly irrelevant to what actually comes next.

    Khan wants more goodies for people he identifies with. That’s his top priority.

  2. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    “… highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. ”

    Wait, you JUST noticed this? Welcome to the party, pal.

  3. Christopher Hagar says:

    Good diagnosis of the problem, but his solution is more technocracy and scientism — that’s what we already have.

    The Intellectual Yet Idiot already bestrides the political landscape. It was the WHO and the CDC who downplayed the virus because of geopolitical status games and luxurious End-of-History complacency. It was the doctors and scientists telling everyone masks just don’t work.

    Who believes most in the unstoppable engine of progress? in the infinite capability of man empowered by rationality to overcome nature and optimize the economy? Who believes most in the magical bounty of science? The scientist, the overly educated.

  4. Nam says:

    Razib is underwhelming, specially now due to his lack of self-awareness when saying that.

    Does he really think the things he read are quality stuff? He’s deluded by quantity, and he’s not American – neither am I, for the record.

  5. Kirk says:

    Delusional, much?

    COVID-19 and the response to it just highlights the essential and inescapable incompetence of the nascent mandarin class which wishes to lord over the rest of us. It will end in the West as it ended in China, with proud perfumed princes and eunuchs ruling the decline of nearly everything, until we become Manchu China under the Dowager Empress.

    The self-appointed “technocrats”, however, are going to learn the limits of their power the hard way. I suspect that the public will go along with all the COVID-19 BS right up until the money runs out, along with the food, and right after that, we’re gonna see the Dr. Fauci types dangling from ropes.

    There is also the visibility of the “post turtle” problem that’s becoming increasingly clear to many–The head of the WHO is a classic example. Why do we allow these Third-world incompetent bureaucrats the power to run international bureaucracies that are occasionally critical and crucial postings? It isn’t as though Ethiopia has a world-class health system for the rest of us to emulate, or that they’re so good at being bureaucrats, either. This clown is a compliant creature of the Chinese, bought and paid for with Chinese money, used to leverage WHO against the rest of the world. Why did we allow that? Because our leadership is, again, f**king incompetent.

    Don’t be real surprised, my faceless globalist friends, if a side-effect of all this is you losing your “phoney baloney jobs”, to quote the great Mel Brooks. Your efforts only highlight the essential incompetency of your claquer class.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    People who promise to figure out all your answers and solve all your problems are dangerous. Never trust them.

    “Expert” is just a word.

  7. Dave NYC says:

    Razib, like much of the dissident right, has been hiding under his bed for nearly a month.

    They breathlessly bought into the absolute worst case scenarios, scenarios that are even now being walked back by the mandarins who rule over us.

    The cure will definitely be worse than the disease, as the coming months will show.

  8. Kirk says:

    I’d take it further… Anyone who self-describes as an “expert” or an “authority” on something? Generally is no such thing. At best, they’re self-deluded and blind to the reality of their real skill/knowledge levels.

    You give me the choice between option “A”, touted as “the ultimate solution” by some guy who says he’s an expert on the matter, and option “B”, which is laid out by someone who self-describes as a “student of…” the issue in question while describing potential flaws in their reasoning, and I’m gonna plump my money down on “B”, every time. Lack of humility, and a total lack of doubt about some issue? Those are warning signs, gentlemen. Be wary.

  9. CVLR says:

    Economists, those apex predators of social science, marshaled the evidence for efficiencies and gains in productivity due to trade and international supply chains. “Just in time” inventories reduced waste and made modern retail a lean, mean prosperity machine. Plentitude wasn’t some miracle achieved through hard work and focused attention; it was our birthright, a steady-state condition of the universe that we inhabited.

    Never forget that I predicted this.

  10. David Foster says:

    Peter Drucker warned against this 50 years ago:

    “History shows a frightening parallel to the way our education is going everywhere in the world today. It is the decline of the world’s most creative, most advance, and most exciting civilization, that of China in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Until then, China had led the world in the arts and the sciences, in medicine and in mathematics, in technology and in statecraft. The reaction against independent thinking and artistic creativity that followed the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century imposed the Confucian system of purely literary and purely imitative “liberal education” to the exclusion of everything else. Within a century China had become sterile and had lost her capacity to do anything new, to imagine anything new, to perceive anything new. We are, I am afraid, on the same road–and we have traveled very far along it.”

  11. Kirk says:

    David Foster,

    There’s a certain sort of mentality that creeps in with the success of any institution or organization, a trend towards the apparatchik outlook. Process becomes more important than actual results, to the point where the actual effect of actions taken is ignored.

    This is why I’ve said what I’ve said about human nature being unsuited for the way we organize ourselves, and it is far past time that we start doing “organization” along the lines that our natural inclinations want to take us–Which is away from these ossified hierarchical arrangements that inevitably attract the power-hungry sociopaths because that’s where we’ve invested and stored power in our social networks. No power resides? Nothing to grab at and use to drive the organization into the ground.

    Had to listen to a friend of mine rail against the way his kid’s soccer league has gone off the rails, mostly because the league allowed itself to be taken over by toxic parents who were more concerned about their kids building resumes for collegiate sports than they were about the actual point of the league. My question to him was this: Why did you invest all that power and prestige into this thing, when you could have easily predicted what was going to happen based on past experience?

    If you build it, they will come. And, they will wreck it. It is as inevitable as the fall of the Roman Empire.

    Solution? Quit setting out honey for the wasps and cockroaches to feed on. Cease this BS investiture of authority and power in positions that will automatically attract the mentally ill, and grant them the ability to ruin lives. You want structure? Fine. Keep it simple, keep it small, and only keep it going for as long as you need it. It’s like I told my friend–You guys didn’t want to remain involved year-round, so you allowed yourselves the luxury of letting someone else run the league for you during the off-season, and now they’ve turned it into a permanent sinecure that sucks in money for things totally unrelated to soccer. Stop. Just… Stop. Cease paying the clowns, and do the bare minimum for organizing the league, while retaining control of it. You start letting things get too big to manage, and then that’s the point where you lose control of it all.

    You can extend the lesson out to everything else in our government and civil life. You build big and impersonal, and what you’ve done is create a power sink that the deviant will exploit to their sole benefit. Refuse them the power; retain control of your lives by not investing all that power over your life in these institutions that will inevitably fail.

  12. Harry Jones says:

    “We must acknowledge the importance of mastering reality if we are to survive and flourish as a civilization”

    Who’s we?

    Established bureaucratic procedure exists for a reason: most people are not capable of thinking for themselves. They need rules in order to rule. The rules evolved to ameliorate human stupidity. Their seeming failings are all nothing more than the leftover stupidity after the rules have prevented what they can of it.

    We cannot destroy or prevent bureaucracy. We can – and must – circumvent it when the toxic people take over. It all boils down to: outsmart them. If need be, overthrow them. But don’t dream of an end to the bureaucratic structure. The majority of the human race needs it. And the rest of us need a way of dealing with the majority.

    And what of structures destined to be taken over by the toxic? Nearly all structures are so destined. All those without elaborate checks and balances are certainly doomed to this fate.

    Such structures will rot from within and topple. In the meantime, we suffer from them. So consider this: we can hasten the demise in various ways. Think Atlas Shrugged. A passive-aggressive revolution.

    When the structure falls, another will sprout up to take its place, and that new structure will likely develop the same problem after a while. But in the meantime – all is well for a while.

  13. Kirk says:

    Harry, the bureaucratic impulse is exactly what needs to be curbed. They don’t work, and have led to eventual failure wherever we’ve tried implementing them as long-term solutions.

    Hell, look at the FDA and CDC during this current crisis. The assholes are more concerned about the paperwork and their precious “processes” than getting masks and other critical needs into production. Any of the various and sundry “authorities” who’ve had a piece of that need to be taken out and shot, just as an encouragement to all the others.

    Sh*t doesn’t work, yo… It’s far past time to stop using these methods and practices, and recognize that human beings are not ants. Simply sitting here and saying that it is inevitable isn’t a solution to the problem. You don’t keep reinforcing failure–You stop feeding it, and move on to something else, which might actually work.

  14. Harry Jones says:

    Kirk, how do you propose to curb the bureaucratic impulse? I say it can’t be done. We can only make the best of human nature by attacking the worst abuses of the mandarins when we sense they are vulnerable.

    Big government will grow until it can’t grow any more. Then it will collapse. Tainter says this is how it works. Those who see the collapse coming will be in the best shape to weather it and perhaps even come out on top.

    The collapse may be soon.

  15. Kirk says:

    It’s like smoking: You want to quit? Then, quit.

    Stop saying stupid sh*t like “There ought to be a law…” and “Someone ought to do something…”, and then allowing your Gladys Kravitz neighbors to set up and run their little “homeowners associations” to let fly their inner Gestapo urges.

    This crap starts with us, and it will end with us. You want to be a free human? Act like one, and demand that others do so, as well. The subservient slave begins and ends with the slave, not the slave master.

    It’s like Solzhenitsyn line, where he whines about his inaction in the “before time” of his imprisonment:

    “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

    That’s a testament to the slave mentality, and the same one that enables the power-mad little tyrants of your homeowner’s association. It starts with you, how you see the world, and what you will tolerate from others. You want the dysfunction to stop? Stop it. Speak out, when the neighborhood asshole starts talking about his “property value”, and telling you how to live. The response to tyranny is not to bend over and spread your ass cheeks for the insertion, but to refuse to participate in it at any level.

    All of this starts and stops with us, as individuals. Refuse to participate, and the entire shaky edifice comes down. You’d be astounded as to how many people would agree with you, about that asshole down at the HOA office, but who say nothing because they think they are alone in feeling that way.

    End of the day, it boils down to one thing, and one thing only: You stop willingly cooperating with the petty tyrannies and enabling all these jackasses who are more concerned with their sinecure jobs than accomplishing things and solving problems. That starts with the individual taking responsibility for their own welfare, and developing true agency on their own behalf. Allowing yourself to become a domesticated animal is a decision you have to make; it cannot be done to a free man.

    Of course, those are vanishing rare, these days. The statist freaks have lured far too many into the pen.

  16. Graham says:

    FWIW, Kirk’s theme sounds like traditional, Tocqueville-described, Founders’ America at the local level, maybe with a little more libertarianism, anarchism, & willingness to overthrow even the most local structures regardless of tradition than those early Americans would have understood.

    Harry Jones’ rejoinder sounds more like Founders’ America through the lens of the more Hamiltonian bits of the Federalist Papers.

    Or perhaps I err in seeing so much common ground.

  17. Harry Jones says:

    Graham, I think Kirk and I are in broad agreement with regard to desires, but not as to feasibility.

    I’m willing to settle for the least bad world we can reasonably hope to bring about. To me, anarcho-capitalism is merely a pleasant thought experiment.

    Each of us who desires freedom must seek to maximize his own freedom in any way possible. The problem with seeking a more free society is it assumes everyone wants freedom. Not everyone wants freedom, so you can’t please everyone.

    Big, intrusive government exists because there are a lot of voters who want it. I wouldn’t mind, except they want to impose it on everyone. That’s the reason they suck.

    These people aren’t going away, and that’s why big government is here to stay – until it collapses of it own accord.

    After which the people who want it will start to rebuild it.

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