Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quality and equality

Dennis Mangan has a post about "The New Elite" — a class that lords it over us not so much because of wealth, ancestry, and other traditional markers of status, but because of cognitive skills. I think that's correct, although in my view the cognitive skills our überclass possesses are shallow, mainly the ability to manipulate symbols. (That's why journalists, most of whom have scant cultural knowledge of the sort any educated person would have been expected to display a hundred years ago, consider themselves a cut above.)

An ability to manipulate symbols, as in the mass media, politics, and economics, has nothing necessarily to do with thinking. It tends to be empty logic with no foundation in the lessons of history, understanding of human psychology, or common sense. No wonder this elite flourishes in vocational culs-de-sac with no through traffic of people who do things, learn from trial and error, and pay a penalty when they get it wrong. Their strength, in its lowest common denominator, is the ability to talk as though they are saying something meaningful.


Of course, this class is careful not to let on to the lumpenbourgeoisie that it knows itself to be an elite, while understanding the rules of signaling to others inside the magic circle that it is one with them. If anything, it uses "elite" as a put-down for anyone who refuses to join the egalitarian bandwagon.

Actually, there's nothing the least bit egalitarian about modern liberal society, but the new elite has been very successful at promoting the ideology of egalitarianism. The new equality is forced. The state does its best to suppress any natural differences in intelligence or ability: first, it is taboo even to refer to differences in general intelligence among individuals, let alone ethnic groups. Second, it institutionalizes preferences for those who can't cut it on their own, rationalizing its discrimination as "good" discrimination because it benefits victim groups (i.e., everyone except white males).

Not only is eugenics unthinkable; dysgenics is official policy. We select in favor of  less intelligence and ability.


It's pointless to argue whether having an elite is good or bad. Every society I know of has one, because it's inherent in human nature. I was once in a poor Mexican town where most of the houses were built of discarded container materials. Two or three houses, though, were of concrete block construction and sat on a rise (you could hardly call it a hill) perhaps 10 feet above the rest of the town. No one had to explain to me that this was the neighborhood of the local elite.

Most elite classes I've read about in history are bad role models. Hardly any have been more moral or less selfish than the run of mankind. Most exploited their subjects, and not a few were out-and-out tyrannies. The only good a lot of them accomplished was supporting artists of genius (unlike our current elite, which supports self-promoting artists who compete to see who can produce the most bizarre and outrageous work).


Has there ever been a social and political elite — not individual rulers or leaders — that was committed to the best interest of society as a whole?

As far as I know, hardly any, which is not encouraging. But one example comes fairly close. It was far from perfect and subject to the usual human foibles, but its ideals and often its actions deserve more respect than they usually get these days.

I am talking about the English aristocracy of the 18th and 19th centuries, and their American offshoot in the years of the youthful American republic. The reputations of the English and American branches have diverged widely in recent times. Americans generally speak well of the founders, and many actually revere them. In contemporary England, the aristocracy of that earlier period is derided as a symbol of everything that was bad about the colonialist, class-ridden, racist country.


The English-speaking aristos of that age weren't saints, and they included bad apples — drunkenness and gambling being the main vices. Against those debits, there was a great deal in the credit column. As a rule, they were genuinely educated. Books, and even journal articles of the time written for the aristocracy, often quoted passages from antiquity in ancient Greek and Latin without translation. It was assumed that any gentleman would be able to read them.

They could converse in a manner that has all but disappeared. What passes for conversation today is that one person says what he thinks, another what he thinks, and they move on to the next topic. But among the English gentry conversation was often something like a Socratic dialogue, exploring a subject. The language was wordier and more formal than today's, but it was precise. 

Our pseudo-egalitarian elites dismiss all that as irrelevant pedantry, but they are wrong. The inability to sustain and follow a logical progression of ideas, to travel in thought from premise around various byways to a conclusion, to consider the larger consequences of ideas, is deadly in our time. It is why politics has become empty sloganeering and vapid generalization, and journalistic pundits just find ways to dress up the clichés of their political allies as smart commentary.


Even more important, enough of the old English-American aristocracy was able to consider the great questions of political philosophy rather than getting entangled in the minutiae of electioneering. As far as I'm concerned, the U.S. Constitution was their greatest creation, which after almost two and a half centuries remains the stronghold of such liberty as we still enjoy, despite the efforts of generations of leftists to chisel away at it.

Only a remarkable class could bequeath us that Constitution.  It remains to be seen whether we can retain enough of a real elite to sustain it.



Anonymous said...

I've had this conversation with more people than I can count. Or rather, I've tried to have it, with very limited success--for the reasons you cite. If you're not already aware of it, the late Neil Postman discussed your topic brilliantly in "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." (http://amzn.to/8ZmlxT)

As I approach 60 I find myself living in a community of people in their 20s and early 30s. I love many of them dearly, but I can't escape the conclusion that they have the attention spans of fruit flies. My heart breaks.

There's much more to say, more than I have time for just now, but I will say, thank you Rick, for an excellent post, one laden with truths with which the West desperately needs to become reacquainted.


Rick Darby said...


Thank you.

One potentially very positive development is home schooling, which I gather has become a widespread phenomenon. It is likely that parents who go to the trouble of home schooling their progeny are serious about their kids acquiring the mental tools for writing and thinking.

By the way ... why comment as "Anonymous" and then sign your comments as Jas?

David said...

Lexington Green, one of my colleagues at Chicago Boyz, remarked that the English aristocracy, whatever its faults, at least mostly possessed physical courage, while the French aristocracy, whatever *its* faults, at least tended to have a style. Neither of these characteristics seems particularly strong among our self-nominated elite.

All societies, of course, have elites. What seems to be happening today is that there is an attempt to collapse the *multiple* ladders of success which have traditionally existed in American society into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled via credentials from a small number of fairly small institutions.

See my post Applebaum vs Drucker for more on this.

David said...

Jim Manzi