From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is one of my favorite books. It’s one of those works whose breadth and depth is such that I would recommend it to anyone. Jacques Barzun began writing this work when he was 84, and it was published in his 93rd year. Born in 1907 Barzun saw the full efflorescence of 20th century Western culture across much of its span firsthand. When people say that when you age you gain wisdom, surely in the domain of scholarship Barzun’s production in the last few decades of his life would qualify.
But not everyone is Jacques Barzun. If you read Intelligence: All That Matters or peruse some of Eliott Tucker-Drob’s work you will know that cognitive function declines with age beyond your twenties. Different subcomponents may decline at different rates. And, they decline differently in different people (e.g., some people may develop dementia, so their faculties will decline far faster at an earlier age). But, by and large any gains in experience or wisdom are going to be balanced against declines in raw analytic ability, as well as the slow entropic loss of information.
This is not an inconsequential matter. Our governing class is quite old. The average age in Congress may be 55 to 60, but it is almost certainly true that more senior members with more power and authority are older. The president of the United States is 70 years old. If you look at the plots in these figures by 70 there has been a notable drop in intelligence by this age, though again, it may vary from person to person.
But most important in light of these figures is that the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and many of its members are quite old, an anticipate serving until they are quite old if they are younger. In the mid-1970s justice William O. Douglas had a stroke and was basically not mentally competent to serve. Because of this fact, and Douglas’ reluctance to retire his fellow justices basically did not take his vote into account. Three of the justices today are over the age of 70, with Clarence Thomas nearing that age, and two are over the age of 80.
When it comes to Congress, or even the President, there seems to be some sort of institutional support as well as the larger collective vote in the case of Congress, which might buffer the cognitive impact of a gerontocracy. But aside from law clerks Supreme Court justices have to rely on their own individual mental capacities.
The Mormon Church has a gerontocracy among its we openleadership. Even my most devout friends in the church sometimes found it amusing how old their leadership was, and how quickly they died in succession due to the seniority principle. But The Supreme Court is not the leadership of a relatively small church. It impacts our whole nation. This sort of gerontocracy is no laughing matter.
Will we openly speak of the age issue? I doubt it. Today the Baby Boomers are between the ages of 53 an 71. They are coming into their own as a cohort into the highest reaches of the gerontocracy. If there is any generation with the grace and humility to step aside for the greater good, it will not be this generation.