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A Political Theory of Geeks and Wonks

August 28, 2007

Tags Legal SystemPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

Lots of people get interested in political ideas through political campaigns. Maybe this is because politics forces you to decide who you are and what you believe.

I can vaguely recall when I was very young, perhaps 7 years old, that I discovered that my best friend's family considered themselves Democratic whereas I was pretty sure that my family was Republican.

I asked someone what that meant and only received hazy answers that concerned seemingly big issues about government. I didn't think much about it but nonetheless, they were my first thoughts on the thing that would consume my life.

So it is for lots of people: politics is the entry way into taking political ideas seriously. If your interest intensifies, you tend to go one of two ways: wonk or geek. These are terms that applies in many categories of life—Wikipedia gives serviceable definitions of both wonk and geek—but the terms take on new meaning in politics.

Political wonks are fascinated by process. They love the game. They get as much satisfaction from observing as changing. They want to be players above all else. Ideals bore them. History is mere data. Intellectuals seem irrelevant. What matters to the wonk are the hard realities of the ongoing political struggle. They defer to title and rank. They thrive on meetings, small victories, administrative details, and gossip about these matters. Knowing who is who and what is what is the very pith of life.

There are political wonks and policy wonks. They exist on all levels of society. They appear to be running things, because their aim is to control the levers of power in just the right and strategic way, which means in a way that benefits the other wonks of their tribe. Geographically, life begins and ends in the beltway. They thrive on keeping information private and cartelizing their class. Their newspaper is the Washington Post, which they consider to be the insider report.

In contrast to this are the policy geeks. They are no less fascinated by detail but are drawn to ideals. Observation alone bores them. They are drawn to the prospect of change. They don't want to be players as such; they question the very rules of the game and want to change them. They are happy to make a difference in the ideological infrastructure, whether big or small. They tend to work alone and totally disregard caste distinctions. They are interested not in the surface area but what's underneath, not the veneer but the wood.  In software terms, they are forever looking forward to the next build. They are risk takers, so they prefer to debug after the system is live.

In politics, this means that the geeks are drawn to ideas, even radical ideas. They can easily imagine what doesn't exist, which makes them dreamers and entrepreneurs. And so they are attracted to and study history and philosophy and economics. It doesn't matter if a lesson can be learned from the ancients or moderns; indeed, unearthing an old idea and bringing it back to life has a special appeal. They thrive on making information public, on smashing old structures, breaking cartels, and busting monopolies of power. Geographically, they can live and work anywhere, and they have no attachment to any single information source.

The geeks and wonks can work together but there will always be a natural tensions between the two. The wonks think the geeks are hopeless, powerless, reckless outsiders whose heads are full of useless and unrealistic fantasies. The geeks think that the wonks are part of the system and, therefore, more than likely corrupted by it, and increasingly so.

Broadening the view, the struggle to control history is a battle between the wonks and the geeks. The wonks are the ones who consolidate, stabilize, and entrench the status quo; the geeks are the ones who prepare revolutionary change. The wonks freeze it into place and make it work more efficiently; the geeks imagine and work toward a future that no one thought was possible. The wonks rule out drastic and extreme measures as imprudent and reckless; they geeks think these paths are the only ones worth pursing, and have confidence that the unknown future will somehow work itself out. The wonks try to bring the king around to their point of view; the geeks kill the king.

Caesar: Wonk
Brutus: Geek
Hamilton: Wonk
Jefferson: Geek
Cheney: Wonk
Paul: Geek

Part of the agenda of democracy is to turn the whole of society into a herd of wonks who believe in the process and want to make it work. But it isn't so easy to control human nature. There are always the geeks to contend with who see that the system is based on a lie and want to overturn it. Why should the majority rule the minority – or, more precisely, why should the well-organized minority rule the relatively indifferent majority? What we need is democracy 2.0 in which power and privilege is not steered but abolished altogether.

Who will carry the day? In the short run, they wonks are right. They win. They rule. They ruled the ancient world for hundreds of years. They rule the Soviet Union for 72. They rule the United States today. But the long run is another matter. Rome and the Soviet Union fell — in revolutions enacted by geeks. The wonks eventually come to underestimate the power of ideas and underappreciate the effect of ideals.

Which life is worth living? The wonk is famous, even legendary. The geek rarely achieves fame, even when he does change history. Why? The wonks write the history. But it is the geeks who make history happen in the first place. The geeks will look back at their lives with satisfaction that they did their best to realize a dream. The wonks, looking back at their lives, see that they were little more than a cog in a machine. Someday, even in the United States, they may have to concede that all they did crumbled into nothingness.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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