A while back, James Donald left a somewhat strident comment on EconLog.  The key passage:

When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it is also better for the inferior.

Many readers will reject Donald’s claim out of hand for its tone or undertones.  Yet there are definitely conditions under which Donald is correct.  Namely:

1. “Superior” means epistemic superiority – i.e., superior understanding of how the world works.  For example, superior understanding of the effects of government policy.

2. Superiors care at least moderately about the welfare of inferiors. 

The reasoning is simple: Suppose someone with power over you understands the consequences of various options better than you do.  If he cares about you at least moderately, he will typically make better choices for you than you will.  Picture the parents of a young child. 

If either the cognitive or motivational assumption is false, however, Donald is incorrect – and often tragically so.  Someone can be superior to you in health, strength, trust, or cooperation, but that doesn’t enable him to make better decisions for you than you can.  And someone can be vastly superior to you in understanding, but if he doesn’t care about you, he will typically make himself happy at your expense.  Picture a savvy slave-owner.

Public choice economists will be tempted to dismiss the optimistic case out of hand.  They’re too hasty.  Within modern First World democracies, narrow self-interest tells us almost nothing about policy preferences or voting.  Instead, most people vote on the basis of perceived public interest.  Furthermore, there is strong evidence that people with more education and higher IQ have unusually sensible policy views.  The upshot, as I’ve often argued, is that even people with little education and low IQ are better off if people with little education and low IQ don’t vote.

There’s just one big catch: Some definitions of the “public interest” are more public than others.  Virtually no electorate puts more than trivial weight on the welfare of foreigners.  As a result, even well-informed voters often support immigration restrictions and aggressive foreign policies with hellish consequences for foreigners.  Many other electorates put trivial weight on the welfare of native out-groups.  Think about the way the U.S. historically treated Indians and blacks, the way that South Africa treated blacks under apartheid, or the way the Belgians treated the Congolese.  Some especially malevolent electorates actually put negative weight on the welfare of foreigners and out-groups.  Superior German technological understanding combined with the Nazi Weltanschauung was terrible news for the world’s “Untermenschen” – and yes, the Nazis were (initially) democratically elected.

Blanket statements about the effects of rule by “superiors” give enlightened elitism a bad name.  When your epistemic superiors identify with you, deference is prudence.  When your epistemic superiors regard you as outsiders, chattel, or vermin, deference is folly.  Is superior rule better for all concerned?  It depends on the sympathies of the superior.

HT: Vipul Naik