What’s Wrong with Rule by ‘Elites?’

 

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 Education
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  1. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    William F. Buckley who could be considered part of the elite summed it up rather well:

    “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

     

    And I think Charles Krauthammer said something like “the best thing about having a Ph.D from Harvard is never having to be impressed by someone with a Ph.D from Harvard.”

    • #31
  2. GlenEisenhardt Member
    GlenEisenhardt
    @

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    William F. Buckley who could be considered part of the elite summed it up rather well:

    “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

     

    And I think Charles Krauthammer said something like “the best thing about having a Ph.D from Harvard is never having to be impressed by someone with a Ph.D from Harvard.”

    Thomas Sowell had a quote that any time there’s a national catastrophe there’s a Harvard man in the middle of it. 

    • #32
  3. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    GlenEisenhardt (View Comment):

    Our elites should resemble Batman. Selfless people who would go to any extreme to help the people and our way of life.

    I like this. Can I steal it?

    • #33
  4. GlenEisenhardt Member
    GlenEisenhardt
    @

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    GlenEisenhardt (View Comment):

    Our elites should resemble Batman. Selfless people who would go to any extreme to help the people and our way of life.

    I like this. Can I steal it?

    Yup

    • #34
  5. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    GlenEisenhardt (View Comment):

    Thomas Sowell had a quote that any time there’s a national catastrophe there’s a Harvard man in the middle of it.

    When it comes to choosing who should be counted among the ruling class, I find myself automatically disqualifying anyone with an Ivy League reference in his resume. Or law school.

    I would rather take the graduating class of the local tech college.

    • #35
  6. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…: What’s Wrong With Rule By “Elites”?

    They have the resources to avoid ever being held accountable.

    • #36
  7. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    We are not to be “ruled” by anyone. The ones we elect are supposed to represent, not rule.

    Hear hear!!!

     

    I also get really annoyed when I hear people talk about how the President “runs the Country”.

    No, he runs the government [or at least the Executive branch of the government].  I like to tell myself that’s there’s still a difference between the government and the country.

    • #37
  8. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    “The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
    To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
    To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.
    To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

    Douglas Adams.

    • #38
  9. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    An “autocrat” is a dictator, a single ruler.  Our system is certainly not that.

    Why does it have to be a single ruler as opposed to a deep state bureaucracy with limitless unaccountable power? 

    • #39
  10. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    An “autocrat” is a dictator, a single ruler. Our system is certainly not that.

    Why does it have to be a single ruler as opposed to a deep state bureaucracy with limitless unaccountable power?

    Unaccountable is the key word there.

    Well, sure, Congress could hold them to account, but . . . for some reason do not.

     

    • #40
  11. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    An “autocrat” is a dictator, a single ruler. Our system is certainly not that.

    Why does it have to be a single ruler as opposed to a deep state bureaucracy with limitless unaccountable power?

    Because “autocracy” and “bureaucracy” (or “technocracy”) are different things by definition.

    “Autocracy” literally means a form of government in which unlimited power is held by a single individual. It is from the Greek words αὐτός (“single, self, same, alone”) and κράτος (“power”).

    “Bureaucracy” literally means “government by bureaus of administrators and officers”.  It is from the French “bureau” meaning “office”.

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.  It is from the Greek word τέχνη meaning “skill”.  The problem with technocracy is, of course, who gets to decide which candidates are “skilled” or “proficient”.)

    • #41
  12. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    • #42
  13. Dunstaple Coolidge
    Dunstaple
    @Dunstaple

    I believe that humans are, by basic nature, unruly. But I also believe that the proper order of rule is that we should be ruled first by ourselves, then by those to whom we have close relationships, then by the agreed social norms of our near community, and only last by government. If the first levels of rule are missing, then government becomes either totalitarian or futile.

    But I agree with you, Jerry, that human government is in this world is absolutely necessary, and that it should be peopled with “elites” by your definition.

    Good essay, BTW.

     

    • #43
  14. Doug Watt Member
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    That’s called a direct democracy, a polite name for mob rule, it is not a constitutional republic.

    • #44
  15. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Ben Sasse is today’s version of an “elite.”  Hence the issue.

    • #45
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I disagree with the point about the disproportionate role of lawyers in our political process.  Most of politics is about law.

    Law is the medium in which policy decisions are incarnated, however, knowledge of law don’t tell you what those policy decisions should be.  In business, I want a lawyer to review (and perhaps draft) a contract for a potential business deal, but the decision as to what deals we want to do, and what they are intended to accomplish, is not a Legal decision…it is what was referred to be one corporate lawyer i worked with as a ‘Commercial Decision’.

    Similarly in government.  If there is going to be, say, a new law about railroad regulation, it would be nice to have a few people in Congress who actually have some experience as providers or users of freight transportation.

    • #46
  17. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    Democracy?

    • #47
  18. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    That’s called a direct democracy, a polite name for mob rule, it is not a constitutional republic.

    No, . . . because that would imply that all the “demos” — the “ordinary citizens” — are “least skilled” not proficient and “least-informed.”

    And we know that’s not true. (Hence, Buckley preferring those first 2,000 names.)

    • #48
  19. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Maybe we can call it an “Ineptocracy.”

    • #49
  20. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I mean, if you guys really do view the citizen class that poorly, well . . . we can never be friends.

    Perhaps we aren’t.

    • #50
  21. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    It depends on one’s point-of-view. If one just happens to be a member of the classes that benefit from the regime, then the technocrats have clearly demonstrated their skill and proficiency.

    • #51
  22. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    It depends on one’s point-of-view. If one just happens to be a member of the classes that benefit from the regime, then the technocrats have clearly demonstrated their skill and proficiency.

    Skill and proficiency at what? Looting the treasury for personal gain?

    • #52
  23. Doug Watt Member
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    I mean, if you guys really do view the citizen class that poorly, well . . . we can never be friends.

    Perhaps we aren’t.

    Actually, stupidity is not confined to the middle class, the poor, and the rich. It even cuts across skin color and ethnic lines.

    • #53
  24. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    I know, I know!

    That’s Idiocracy, right?

    • #54
  25. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    But seriously, the technical term is “kakistocracy“, from the Greek κάκιστος (“worst”).

    • #55
  26. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Understand that my sympathies lie with the citizen class over the political class. With the lower classes and working classes over the upper classes. So if you say something that seems to be insulting the common man, I will stand up for him.

    • #56
  27. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    What do you call it when you have governance by the least skilled or proficient?

    What do you call it when you have governance by the stupidest, least-informed people on the planet?

    But seriously, the technical term is “kakistocracy”, from the Greek κάκιστος (“worst”).

    There we go.

    That’s what we’ve got in the United States. No question in my mind.

    • #57
  28. Misthiocracy has never Member
    Misthiocracy has never
    @Misthiocracy

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    (Personally, I prefer the term “technocracy”, which literally means “a system of governance where people who are skilled or proficient govern in their respective areas of expertise”.

    We definitely don’t have that.

    It depends on one’s point-of-view. If one just happens to be a member of the classes that benefit from the regime, then the technocrats have clearly demonstrated their skill and proficiency.

    Skill and proficiency at what? Looting the treasury for personal gain?

    If the skilled and proficient say that looting the treasury for personal gain is what makes someone skilled and proficient, then yes.

    That’s the problem with technocracy. It’s self-defined, and self-regulated, and self-perpetuating, and recursive.

    How do I know I’m smart? Because smart people say I’m smart. How do I know those people are smart? Because smart people said those people are smart. How do I know those people are smart? Because smart people said those people are smart. Etc. Etc.

    It’s turtles all the way down.

    • #58
  29. BDB Member
    BDB
    @BDB

    Misthiocracy has never (View Comment):

    How do I know I’m smart? Because smart people say I’m smart. How do I know those people are smart? Because smart people said those people are smart. How do I know those people are smart? Because smart people said those people are smart. Etc. Etc.

    It’s turtles all the way down.

    Bad news.  It’s turtles all the way up as well.

    • #59
  30. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Maybe we can call it an “Ineptocracy.”

    ‘Kakistocracy’ is the most accurate word. 

    But the point about autocratic government remains. We have a government that acts unilaterally, unaccountably, and with absolute power. 

    Whether it’s one man or one massive bureaucracy, semantic arguments count for nothing when you’re the one being crushed under the boot. 

    • #60
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