Smart & Principled

Todd Zywicki and Orin Kerr have a couple of interesting posts up at Volokh on how voters measure intelligence.

Zywicki muses about the possibility that there’s a tendency among some people to equate glibness with intelligence,

Some thoughtful people simply have a tendency to confuse intelligence with the ability to be glib, or more precisely, to bs. And I think that is much of what it comes down to–if Palin doesn’t know the answer to a question, she just isn’t that good at making something up. Biden, by contrast, is a master bs’er, as his debate performance exhibited. As a general rule, the less informed he was about the answer to a question, the more assertive he was in answering it, such as his extraordinary answer about the legislative role of the Vice-President. It is clear that he had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, yet he just plowed ahead throwing out assertions with rhetorical flair. Classic bs. Even on issues that were supposedly in his area of expertise, such as the Constitution, he wasn’t even in the ballpark of being correct. Hoven picks up on Biden’s whopper of answer about kicking Hezbollah out of Lebanon, but it is pretty much the same thing–aggressive bs covering a complete lack of any clue what he is talking about.

He makes a good point. It’s more important that an ignorant executive be cautious than decisive. On that score, Palin is the only candidate in either ticket that seems even mildly conscious of her own ignorance. When foundering in ignorance, Obama reverts to platitudes, Biden makes stuff up, McCain suspends his campaign, and Palin asks for clarification.

Kerr points out that it’s really not so much about how intelleigent the candidate really is, it’s about how much the candidate agrees with us.

…. we often end up filtering these questions through the lens of how much they agree with us. Politicians who agree with us are necessarily intelligent. After all, they have the raw candle power and the judgment to see that we are correct! And politicians who don’t agree with us are presumed to be much less intelligent: They either lack the candle power or judgment to “get it.” These sorts of intuitive judgments mix together with some of the more objective evidence (academic pedigrees, great writing or speaking skills) to form our judgments of a candidate’s intelligence.

But really, isn’t the intelligence debate a little silly? No matter how intelligent a person is, it would be impossible to master every subject and every issue that a President would face in his term of office. The range of knoweldge is simply too diverse. That’s why a President has advisors, experts in specific fields who offer advice and counsel.

Identifying those experts and weighing their counsel is the primary job of a President. And those decisions are the primary product of the President’s principles. Those principles are much more important to the health of the nation than the President’s college grades, SAT scores, or oratorical skills.

The question in this election, as in every other, is whose principles (to the extent they are identifiable or consistent) are better?

Where McCain has identifieable or consistent principles they seem to be a mish-mash of fuzzy and indistinct notions like Western American independence, anti-intellectual populism, and the virtue of stubborness–with a smattering (but just) of limited government federalist republicanism.

Obama’s principles, where they’re identifiable, are more coherent. Obama appears to be a fairly straightforward progressive. He’s adamantly redistributionist, authoritarian, statist and anti-republican.

For me, the true test of principles are the extent to which they actually make life better, as opposed to the extent to which they claim to make life better. The extent to which principles are grounded in reality is the extent to which they are good principles. The extent to which principles hie to abstractions and float freely detached from reality is the extent to which they’re not only wrong, but actively counter-productive.

In McCain’s case, because his principles are sort of haphazardly assembled and largely incoherent, the chance that he’d actually apply good, effective principles as President is essentially random. In Obama’s case, that chance is even smaller. While Obama’s principles are coherent and largely consistent, they’re also almost entirely wrong.

So that’s our choice. It’s not a choice between Goofus and Gallant, or between Change and Different Change, or between smart and dumb. Our choice is between random and wrong.