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Part of our contemporary political rhetoric seems to be an objection to something like the “rule of elites.” This objection appears particularly prevalent on what we call the political “right” or the “conservative” side, although it’s possible that it’s more characteristic of libertarians, who are actually on the political left (in my view).
In any event, why would we object to the rule of, or at least leadership by, “elites?” Isn’t this what we should want?
There is a great deal of variation in ability between people. In a country with a representative government, which I certainly prefer, I would like our leaders to be among “the best and the brightest.” I want leaders of exceptional intelligence, ability, and virtue. There are not many people in this category, at least in percentage terms.
Adams and Jefferson discussed this issue, at length, in their correspondence after both of them had retired from public life. They agreed that there existed a “natural aristocracy” among men, with Jefferson sometimes using the term “aristoi” to refer to the truly worthy, and “pseudo-aristoi” to refer to those lacking such talent but treated as such (by birth or other status). As examples, if you’re interested, you can read this letter from Jefferson to Adams on October 28, 1813, and this response from Adams to Jefferson on November 15, 1813.
As an aside, this correspondence seems almost miraculous. Adams was dubbed the “Colossus of Independence” by, well, Jefferson. Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence and submitted it for initial edit to the rest of the Committee of Five given this task — Adams, Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Who served together, under Washington, as our first Vice President and Secretary of State, before becoming bitter political rivals, with Adams defeating Jefferson in the narrow election of 1796, and Jefferson winning the close rematch in 1800.
Adams, who as he died on the 50th anniversary of our independence, as his final words, said “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Incorrectly, as it turns out, as Jefferson had died earlier that same day. I have to admit that thinking about this sends a shiver down my spine. Divine Providence, indeed.
Back to that natural aristocracy.
Adams and Jefferson were agreed that we should be led by men in that natural aristocracy. The question that they addressed was how to accomplish this. Jefferson wished to trust the people, writing:
May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectual[ly] for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provis[ion] should be made to prevent it’s ascendancy. On the question, What is the best [pro]vision? you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exerci[se] of our own reason, and mutually indulging it’s errors. . . .
I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo–aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.
Adams was more skeptical of the ability of the people to make wise choices, responding:
You suppose a difference of Opinion between You and me, on this Subject of Aristocracy. I can find none. I dislike and detest hereditary honours, Offices Emoluments established by Law. So do you. I am for excluding legal hereditary distinctions from the U.S. as long as possible. So are you. I only Say that Mankind have not yet discovered any remedy against irresistable Corruption in Elections to Offices of great Power and Profit, but making them hereditary.
But will you Say our Elections are pure? Be it so; upon the whole. But do you recollect in history, a more Corrupt Election than that of Aaron Burr to be President, or that of De Witt Clinton last year. By corruption, here I mean a Sacrifice of every national Interest and honour, to private and party Objects.
Ouch! Adams, who had celebrated his 78th birthday between the writing of these two letters, was still sharp as a needle.
Remember your election, Tom? How Aaron Burr — Aaron Burr — almost beat you out for the Presidency? Burr, who killed our old friend Hamilton — a natural aristoi if ever there was one? Burr, who you had arrested, indicted, and tried for treason, though he beat the charge?
This is our conundrum, isn’t it?
I don’t think that rule by “elites” is the problem. I think the problem is that our current elites are, by and large, an unworthy lot. Lesser sons of great sires. They are chosen by the people, as Jefferson recommended, and this doesn’t seem to be working very well.
Jefferson’s letter included a detailed proposal he had made in Virginia regarding education, which was not adopted. He wrote that the abolition of entails and primogeniture, which he authored and which passed, “laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy,” and then continued:
And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat. It was a Bill for the more general diffusion [of] learning. This proposed to divide every county into wards of 5. or 6. miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth & birth for public trusts. . . .
The law for religious freedom, which made a part of this system, having put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restored to the citizen the freedom of the mind, and those of entails and descents nurturing an equality of condition among them, this on Education would have raised the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, & to orderly government; and would have compleated the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the Pseudalists.
So Jefferson plainly contemplated special, state-funded education of the “best and the brightest,” to prepare them for leadership, and trusted that the more limited education of the masses would qualify them to select the best leaders.
Perhaps this would have worked, perhaps not. My own concern is Jefferson’s confidence in reason, as opposed to faith, for the establishment of moral virtue. I disagree with Jefferson about the proper source of moral teaching, but I do agree about the importance of educating the natural aristocracy to be knowledgeable, virtuous, and wise.
It seems, to me, that we have departed greatly from this ideal in our country. We have democratized education, devaluing it in my view, debasing the curriculum in the name of “equality” — or, perhaps in more recent terminology, “inclusion.” For quite a long time, our public primary and secondary schools seem, to me, to have given little priority to the education of the gifted. Our colleges and universities have lowered their standards for admissions, significantly reduced the number of required courses, and expected little of their students.
Worse yet, far from teaching true, traditional virtue and morality, our entire educational system seems bent on instilling an ethic of shallow selfishness, toleration of all sorts of vice, and pursuit of each individual’s own personal desires and preferences, rather than the common good. This is coupled with a widespread denial of the very existence of any differences in ability.
It seems, to me, that this leads to a new type of pseudo-aristoi. Not the pseudo-aristoi of birth to which Jefferson objected, but a pseudo-aristoi of self-righteous mediocrities. This new pseudo-aristoi are our modern “elites,” indoctrinated in the bizarre mix of libertinism and egalitarianism now labeled “Wokeism.”
There are exceptions here and there, of course, but for the most part, the inmates seem to be running the asylum. At least, it seems this way to me. What do you all think?
In a way, then, it is understandable that people on the political right would object to rule by “elites,” if this is the type of “elite” that we have. But I don’t think that we should reject the ideal of the leadership of the natural aristocracy.
I think that we need to find a way to do a better job of identifying them, and educating them. Though I have difficulty finding any reason for optimism that we can do so, given our current political climate.Published in