First, we should ask, “do idiot savants run things?” I’d say so according to the second definition of “idiot savant” in Merriam-Webster Dictionary, i.e., 2: a person who is highly knowledgeable about one subject but knows little about anything else.
Of course, “knowledgeable about one subject” and “knows little about anything else” is relative and varies person to person. Nevertheless, anyone highly knowledgeable in an area is a savant by definition, i.e., 1: a person of learning; especially: one with detailed knowledge in some specialized field. That certainly sounds like the experts, whatever the field, who manage things. Experts in war become generals; experts in politics become presidents; experts in business become CEO’s; experts in religion become preachers and Popes; and so on. Without question, highly knowledgeable experts/savants run things in civilized society. The question is, are they idiots too?
Do our experts also know little about anything else? From a purely biological standpoint, the price of being highly knowledgeable in one area means inevitably knowing less about anything else. Advancing civilization requires the narrower focus of such specialization. The specialist focuses deeply on one area of life leaving less life-time left for considering the rest — the big picture. The saying ‘they can’t see the forest for the trees’ increasingly applies. The broader ‘forest’ view is less valued and yet essential for long-term survival. (1)
Clearly, idiot savants of a sort do run things. Who do we turn to for answers or for leadership? The expert! As civilization advances it opens up new niches for experts to fill, or is it vice versa? I think vice versa is more likely. In any case, chapter 16’s warning, Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant becomes much more likely.
An uncertain, insecure mind seeks answers and leaders who give them…
Social instinct pulls us to follow those who presumably have the answers we seek. In ancestral times, pre civilization, that would be a survival advantage. Hunter-gatherers would never focus so narrowly as to loose sight of the big picture.
At least expertise makes evolutionary sense. It’s nature’s way of balancing life as well. Here, the advantage of an expert’s sharper focus counter-balances the handicap of the expert’s narrower vision. Evolutionarily speaking, a species groping its way successfully through a field of advantages and pitfalls enhances fitness, i.e., those who manage to survive are fit. That means, no matter how expert-ridden, specialist driven, modern civilization becomes, it’s still part of the natural process. Don’t you just love how fairly nature deals the cards?
This is a matter of the blind leading the blind, or rather, the more blind leading the less blind. So why do the less blind — the silent majority generalists — follow the even blinder expert idiot savant? It may take being an idiot savant to become a leader, and being social animals, most of us instinctively follow leaders! They may be blinder than we are, but at least they will decide and lead… even if over a cliff at times.
Civilization requires decisive leadership. The only thing worse than blind leadership is no leadership, for then chaos ensues. Chapter 17 describes the range of leadership
Note how “the best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence”. I assume that this “best ruler” is one who is honestly aware of his ignorance. As chapter 33 hints, Knowledge of self is honesty. From there, it descends down toward chaos as quality leadership wanes and the people “take liberties”.
UPDATE 2022: When you think about it, aren’t we all idiot savants in our own way. It is only a matter of degree. The genuine problem arises when an idiot savant gets excessive influence, power or control over others.
(1) They say the leaders in ancient China would employ a Taoist sage to offer them a countervailing perspective. I suspect this was the ideal rather than actual practice. History shows that expert higher-ups seldom welcome countervailing perspectives.