I greatly enjoyed Russ Douthat’s column in last week’s Sunday New York Times called “Our Reckless Meritocracy." Reflecting on former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s fall from grace, Douthat notes that many super smart and super successful leaders in business and politics have “led us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for [their] own good.” Douthat continues,
“In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture. In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.”
While Douthat’s article focuses on the impact of this pattern in business and politics, I wonder if the nonprofit sector might face similar risks. I'm skeptical that simply being smarter by using "evidence based models," and "data driven programs" and "business metrics" and "triple bottom line investments" will suddenly transform persistent social challenges that have plaqued human society for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Proposals like Social Impact Bonds, which presume an ability to measure social impact with such precision that we can create meaningful investment vehicles based on that data, strike me as an example of becoming “infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.” In the community development world, financial innovation has generated more and more complicated financial tools that may add more complexity than value, and also make it harder for local residents and non-professionals to fully enage in the community development process.
I am certainly not saying that innovation, evaluation, evidence and data are not important. I am not a climate change denier or someone who rejects science, expertise and knowledge. The nonprofit sector absolutely needs to make better use of emerging tools. We should absolutely strive to learn more about the cause and cure of social ills and apply that knowledge diligently. I have no doubt that we can do a better job than we have in the past at fighting social challenges and problems. But I also agree with Douthat’s conclusion:
“In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.”