Conservatives in America today face an especially difficult task formulating their traditional defense of distinction and precedence. For what we face in this country is a near total triumph of liberal thought among our institutional leadership—in the arts, in the schools, even in our political discourse, where conservatives are still forced to frame their positions in terms of “rights” and “individual freedom,” the lexicon of liberalism. This can make any apology for authority—whether academic, cultural, or aesthetic—sound very much like an apology for our authorities, for the persons now holding precedence in our universities and newsrooms, our theaters and museums. No thoughtful conservative can wish to engage in such an enterprise. To the contrary, it would seem obvious that a prime task for conservatives at the present time is to wrest the control of our institutional life out of the hands of its present liberal domination.

The danger of this task lies in what might be called the “populist temptation”: the tendency to let our questioning of current institutional leadership degenerate into leveling skepticism at claims to leadership per se, and all the standards upon which such claims may rest. Too great a number of those identifying as “conservative” have succumbed already to this temptation, as evidenced by the constant harping against “elites” that constitutes so much of contemporary conservative rhetoric, along with the ridiculously naïve exaltation of the “average American” as an unfailing repository of virtue, despite all the manifest evidence to the contrary. The populist impulse, historically one of the most important pillars of liberal ideology, has been absorbed in a remarkably purified form into the modern-day conservative movement.

Surely, though, it ought not to take much reflection to recognize how far the rampant egalitarianism of our age is implicated in the corrosion of standards throughout our society—in learning and the arts, in manners and in civil discourse. The refusal to admit any criteria of excellence has simply become a basic fact of our profoundly nihilistic culture, and one of the most obvious causes of its unrivaled degradation. No longer are we willing to recognize, for instance, that Bach was a musician vastly superior to any rock star, or that an education rooted in the reading of Shakespeare and Plato can impart far greater wisdom to a young mind than one rooted in the reading of faddish bestsellers. If conservatism, as a body of thought, has no remedy for such a stark illness, it is hard to see how it can possibly claim our allegiance, or even our interest, any longer.

How can we subject our present institutional leadership to the kind of harsh criticism it so richly deserves, while retaining our principled belief in the necessity of standards of precedence in our institutional life? This is the really pressing question facing conservatives at this moment. I believe Alasdair MacIntyre’s well-known concept of a “practice”—which he describes as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity”—offers us an answer.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

According to MacIntyre, every practice necessarily entails—and indeed, is partially defined by—certain “standards of excellence.” To participate in a practice is to acknowledge the legitimacy of such standards, and to be willing to evaluate one’s own performances according to them: “To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them.” The emphasis here should be on entering into a practice, for it is only by making a practice a central part of my life that I gain a genuine understanding of its “standards of excellence,” and become competent to judge performances—my own and others’—in their light:

What the artist discovers within the pursuit of excellence in portrait painting … is the good of a certain kind of life … judgment upon these goods requires at the very least the kind of competence that is only to be acquired either as a painter or as someone willing to learn systematically what the portrait painter has to teach.

Crucially for MacIntyre, the relationship between those excelling at a given practice, and other practitioners, will be defined by certain virtues:

We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; we have to be prepared to take whatever self-endangering risks are demanded along the way; and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies. … In other words, we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty.

For one practitioner to recognize the precedence of another, and submit to his authority, is therefore a moral act.

Any claims to authority may be couched in two entirely different sets of terms. On the one hand, someone may claim the right to lead in a way that corresponds to MacIntyre’s ideas, because he excels at a practice in which we all participate as well. A person holding authority on these grounds we may call a virtuoso. On the other hand, someone can claim the right to lead because he performs at a practice in which the rest of us do not participate at all. His claim will rest on the assertion that he is able to accomplish a task which none of us is even capable of beginning. In such cases, we will generally acknowledge the precedence of this person, if we do at all, on the grounds of efficiency, on his or her ability to perform a task for which we ourselves have not even a rudimentary competence. Our acknowledgment of his claim, if we make it, will be a matter not of judgment or virtue, but of submission. Such a person we will call the expert.

We are now in position to formulate a critique of our present institutional leadership, in a way that preserves the legitimacy of cultural authority and standards per se, and thus helps us avoid the “populist temptation.” For what I think is very certain is that those persons presently holding authority in our institutions routinely justify their enjoyment of that authority on the grounds of expertise, on the pretense that they are engaged in a practice in which the rest of us are not engaged, and that they possess knowledge and abilities that the rest of us do not possess in even a minimal form. They do not claim to deserve precedence on the basis of standards of excellence apparent to the general public; rather, their knowledge of those standards is commonly asserted to be one of the key components of their expertise, and one of the prime distinctions between themselves and everybody else. The rest of us are not invited to evaluate their claims to precedence, but rather to acquiesce in them, and the sole reason for our acquiescence is always efficiency, the experts’ ability to perform things we could not even begin to perform.

Consider, in this light, the field of economics, the practice of managing our economy undertaken by the bureaucrats, bankers, financial analysts, and professors. Anyone who has tried to follow the news of our ongoing financial crisis has realized that these people seem to be engaged in a practice foreign to the rest of us, complete with its own arcane jargon. Economists regularly disagree in the most strident terms over the best policies to pursue, yet most of us can hardly evaluate the status of their arguments because the topics at issue are so far removed from our experience. I have heard more than one of these people admit that some of the most dangerous financial instruments are so complex that they themselves do not fully understand them. Given this state of affairs, our acknowledgment of these people’s precedence can hardly be a matter of judging them worthy of honor according to shared standards of excellence, or allowing them their publicly recognized due. Rather, we simply accept their authority because they seem to be performing a practice we could not hope to perform.

Consider also the professionalization of educational administration. Superintendents and principals are now required to undergo several years of schooling to attain the certification that allows them to run our schools. This schooling is heavy on the techniques of bureaucratic management, but remarkably light on educational content, on ensuring that the people leading our schools know anything at all about history, literature, or mathematics, and the relationship among the forms of knowledge represented by these disciplines. There is no expectation that advancement from teacher to administrator depends on a superior degree of learning or teaching skill, and anyone familiar with school administrators knows that they are typically not even close to being the best teachers in their institutions. They are simply the ones who have enough time outside of work to complete the coursework for certification. So even among their own colleagues, the administrators’ claims to authority do not rest on the grounds of virtuosity, on a claim of excelling at the practices of academic learning and instruction, practices in which the other teachers participate as well. Their precedence depends solely on a claim of expertise, on the supposed possession of bureaucratic techniques that no one else in the building posesses.

As one final example, think about the highly bizarre productions of modern art, the obscene gallery installments, or the ranting, grammatically incoherent “poetry.” Most people have actually engaged in the practices of art-making, if only drawing a picture in their elementary art class or writing some adolescent doggerel about the pretty girl on the bus. Most people therefore have some notion, if very imperfect, of what excellence in these practices entails. But modern artists, in the production of their extraordinarily strange work, create in a way that shows perfect disdain for those standards, as though the artists themselves, along with their critical defenders, were the only ones engaged in their practices, and thus the only ones capable of evaluating their productions. In our time, the artist too has become an expert.

Its easy to see why our institutional leadership presently comes in for so much—and for so much deserved—criticism, for if its authority rests solely on claims of efficiency, it has simply become impossible to lend any credence to such claims at this stage. Our economy is in a shambles, our schools are a running joke, our arts establishments are so many trash factories. Where is the efficiency to be found in these institutions? The very substance of the expert’s justification for his precedence now condemns him outright.

The larger problem with a reign of experts becomes evident when we recall that admitting an expert’s authority does not require that we exercise the virtues of justice and honesty, as in the case of the virtuoso’s authority. This means that a reign of experts may never be morally edifying for a society as a whole; acknowledgment of authority in such a society may never be the civilizing and dignifying affair that it is in a society characterized by virtuosic leadership. But the problem is actually worse. There is nothing intrinsically evil about the authority of an expert, and the complexity of society dictates that a great deal of social and institutional precedence is going to rest on the grounds of expertise. Nonetheless, when all claims to authority in a society rest on pretensions to expertise, the result is inevitably the slow inculcation of servile habits of thought among the populace, for in such a case, the people are never invited to evaluate the claims to authority made by their leaders, but only to submit to them. So it turns out that a reign of experts not only fails to edify a people; it positively debases them. And this is especially true with regard to those practices that are truly engaged in by the majority of the populace.

The maintenance of a sound economy and the education of the young and the making of art are not practices engaged in by a small coterie of experts, but are practices participated in by the very great majority of the human race. Any claims to expertise in these areas are therefore fallacious right from the start, and the constant resort of our present institutional leadership to such claims should be enough to discredit them in the eyes of all thoughtful persons. The standards relevant to these practices are not the arcane knowledge of a few, but are generally available to the greater portion of the public. Imagine how different our society would appear if these practices were currently undertaken according to such public standards—if our political economy reflected the same prudence and avoidance of risk as householders typically display, if our schools were directed by the best-read rather than the best-credentialed, if our art were judged according to how well it pleased the public rather than how deeply it offended them. Imagine, in other words, a society where virtuosity prevailed.

Such a society would be one where precedence is accorded to those who perform their practices in correspondence with shared standards of excellence. The enunciation of such standards in all of the most crucial social practices, and their embodiment in new institutions, ought to be the primary task of the true conservative at this juncture in our history. And this is a task far different from the populist tub-thumping against all authority and institutional precedence currently occupying so much of the energy of the American right. The real case to be made now by conservatives is the very difficult defense of authority before a public rightfully disgusted by authority, an explanation of how true authority plays a necessary role in our moral lives, and how, when it is distributed according to respectable standards of excellence, it ennobles both those who direct it and those who are directed by it.