What, Precisely, is the Issue with ‘Elites’? (updated)

Conservatives and libertarians often speak about “elites” in pejorative terms. Why is this? I doubt that many among us would argue in favor of mediocrity (like the senator who famously argued that mediocre people also deserve representation on the Supreme Court) and/or of extreme egalitarianism and social leveling. Indeed, quite a few outspoken conservatives and libertarians could themselves be considered to have elite status in view of their professional, economic, and/or scholarly accomplishments. And people using the E-word rarely make an attempt to clearly defined what category of people they are talking about. (With one major exception that I’ll discuss later in this post)   So what is the critique of elitism all about?

Several factors seem to me to be at work…

1)There is a perception that the multiple ladders of success which have existed in American society are increasingly being collapsed into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled via educational credentials

2)It is increasingly observed that these credentials actually have fairly low predictive power concerning an individual’s actual ability to perform important tasks and make wise judgments about institutional or national issues. The assumption that school-based knowledge generally trumps practical experience seems increasingly questionable as the sphere of activity for which this assertion is made has expanded, and is indeed increasingly viewed with suspicion or with outright disdain.

3)It is observed that people working in certain fields arrogate to themselves an assumed elite status despite the fact that their jobs actually require relatively little in terms of skill and judgment. Ace of Spades cited a history writer on class distinctions in Victorian England:

She noted, for example, that a Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity. And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a “mind” worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

Ace suggests that “that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow “above” someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.”

(The same prejudice can be seen in terminology currently used in discussions of community colleges and technical schools: that these institutions are needed to train people for “mid-skill” jobs, with the implied assumption being that people with 4-year degrees automatically have higher-skilled jobs than people with fewer years of seat time. Really? An undergraduate sociology major performing some rote job at a “non-profit” is doing something requiring higher skills than a toolmaker or an air traffic controller?)

4) Marriage, and even serious dating, seem increasingly to follow class boundaries, with “class” being defined very largely by educational credentials. Part of this is due to expanded educational and career opportunities for women—the doctor who once would have married his receptionist may now marry a female doctor—but a good part of it is, I think, due to the very high valuation placed on educational credentials. This phenomenon, of course, tends to lead to the solidification and perpetuation of class barriers.

5) People who have achieved success in one field too often assume a faux expertise in unrelated fields, as with the actor or singer who is credited with having something worthwhile to say about foreign policy or economics irrespective of lack of study/experience in those fields.

6) People who have achieved success via the manipulation of words and images have increasingly tended to discount all other forms of intelligence…for those who attacked George W Bush as “stupid”, for example, the fact that he learned to fly a supersonic fighter (the F-102, not the most pilot-friendly airplane ever designed) was a totally irrelevant piece of data.

(An interesting 1954 pulp novel, Year of Consent, posited a future America that was in reality run by those manipulators of words and image..a fact that many people in high level positions have failed to recognize…”“Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”)

7)  Markers that have played a role in assessing class status in many societies–accent and manner of speech, in particular—seem to be becoming increasingly important. This factor had a lot to do with the hostility directed toward Sarah Palin as well as that directed toward George W Bush. Had these two individuals spoken in the manner expected of one who has attended boarding schools and expensive eastern colleges–regardless of the academic quality of those schools and colleges–their critics would still have probably disliked them, but the hostility would have lost much of its hysterical edge.  (The point about manner of speech also applies to some extent to the extreme hostility directed toward Donald Trump, who of course actually did attend one of those expensive eastern colleges, but comes across as more blue-collar and less Ivy in manner of talking.)

8) There is concern that those providing direction to institutions increasingly bear little of the burden for their own failures. This is especially true of government–particularly the legislature and the courts, where a bad decision will generally have no negative consequences whatsoever for the individuals making it and of those who run the K-12 government schools–but also to a disturbing extent in the business world, especially with regard to those corporations with close ties with government and those in the financial sector.

9) There is concern that the people directing institutions increasingly have life experiences totally different from their employees and customers. Many of the “robber barons” of yore had actually started as low-level workers, and regardless of how much they exploited their own workers, they could understand and identify with them in a manner that is very difficult for someone whose path has involved 6 years of college followed by a series of fast-track corporate assignments.

10) In addition to the previously-mentioned overemphasis on educational credentials, it is accurately perceived that there is now a movement toward granting special privileges–in the sense in which that term was applied to the nobility at the time of the French Revolution–to those who are college-educated and especially those who have acquired advanced degrees. Biden’s student-loan ‘forgiveness’ plan would mean that if two people are working side by side doing the same job, the one who did not attend college–or did not get an expensive and debt-funded degree–would be legally required to subsidize the one with the expensive degree and the big loan. This is reminiscent of the French nobility’s exemption from taxation.

11) There has long been a perception that members of one profession–lawyers–play a vastly disproportionate role in our political process, resulting in public policies that benefit that group and that often fail because they reflect an excessively-narrow worldview and set of life experiences.  In recent years, that critique has expended to encompass those in the financial and technology industries.

So, I don’t think the issues being raised are really about the existence of elites so much as they are about the current structure of many elite and faux-elite groups and the characteristics and performance of those who currently inhabit them.

I should note one prominent exception to my point about people using the E-word not really defining who they mean: a recent Rasmussen poll on the political and social opinions of ‘elites’, defined as people who have a postgraduate degree, earn at least $150K annually, and live in a high density area.  This rather strange definition of ‘elites’…is someone earning $160K in a high density (and high cost of living) area, albeit with for example a masters in education or sociology,  really automatically an ‘elite’? Does Warren Buffet fail the eliteness test because he lives in Nebraska? Is the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, a non-elite because her highest degree is a BA in political science?

Seems to me that this definition of ‘elites’ encompasses a lot of people who are not really elite in terms of spending, financial security, and any kind of actual authority…but who believe that they are entitled to such things and are resentful that they have not been granted them.

Interestingly, Rasmussen did not establish their definition of eliteness a priori and then conduct a survey to determine the attitudes of those matching the definition, rather, they observed the existence of a certain set of Americans who were consistently outliers in their attitudes, established a definition based on their demographics, and conducted a survey to find out more about their views.

Your thoughts on elites and elitism?

(This post is an update of this earlier post)

Worthwhile Reading

Academia Versus Civilization, at Quillette

A talk by Jensen Huang, founder & CEO of NVDIA, at Stanford.  Very, very good.  Related post and discussion.

Ruxandra Teslo notes that student protestors in the 1960s wanted less bureaucracy and more freedom…today, most of them seem to want less freedom and more bureaucracy.

It’s not the phones, says Marc Andreessen, referring to the psychological dysfunction that seems to afflict so many of today’s young people.  He’s responding to a post by Jash Dholani, who says “the young aren’t driving, f******, and drinking because high energy activity is fundamentally incompatible with modern ethics. If you’re always told to be harmless (but also guilty!) then your innate will to power withers. You vegetate. Man, the greatest animal, turned to plant.”

Elon Musk says:

Many movies exist about a lone inventor in a garage having a eureka moment, but almost none about manufacturing, so it’s underappreciated by the public. Compared to the insane pain of reaching high-volume, positive-margin production, prototypes are a piece of cake.

(Not many such movies,  but one that comes to mind is Valley of Decision, a 1945 film centered around family-owned steel mill in Pittsburgh.  I reviewed the movie, and the book on which it is based, here.  Also, there’s Executive Suite, a film from 1954 which involves executive succession at a furniture manufacturer…mentioned in a batch of reviews that I posted here)

In a comment at an earlier version of this post at Ricochet, Gary McVey noted that

“the eastern Europeans (in other words, the Communists, if not always the Soviets) were pretty good about trying to publicize the drama of start-up, the challenges of production. When we mock those days for films “about a couple falling in love at the tractor factory”, we are mocking something that, if you actually see the films, is in fact objectively a good thing. Some of them, by the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, were good. The best of them had little or nothing to do with Marxist theories, just the everyday achievements of construction, engineering, and metalwork that sated Western audiences found dull as dishwater.

A tractor factory’s a good thing to have, if you care to eat. There was nothing contemptible about making movies about it.”

Ashwin Varma argues that the usual narrative about WWII industrial production is defective, in that it does not give sufficient credit to the role of government.

The Department of Education embarked on a project to modernize and simplify the process for applying for student aid.  It is not going well.

The Biden administration is supporting the reopening of a nuclear plant in Michigan.  As Stephen Green says, it’s the right thing to do, but the Democrats doing it reeks of desperation.

gCaptain is a good source on the Baltimore bridge disaster and on all matters nautical.

In my post Visit to a Noteworthy Robot, I described a trip to a store equipped with Amazon’s no-check-out system.  Now, Amazon has decided to drop this system in most of the stores in which it is being used…problem is that too much human intervention (1000 people in India reviewing images that the AI can’t reliably interpret) to be cost-effective.

Cultural Theory of Mind and the consequences of not having it, especially the foreign-policy consequences.

Interesting chart: the ratio of commodity prices to the S&P 500.

An argument that the theft of national sovereignty at the Euro level was orchestrated entirely by legal elites – not political, much less economic, ones.

What kind of people tend to block (what they think are) sources of misinformation?

GE’s energy business has now been spun off as a separate corporation, GE Vernova.  They seem to be pretty well-positioned in nuclear; it will be interesting to see how much emphasis they put on this sector vis-a-vis their gas and wind businesses.

Speaking of nuclear, here’s a chart on the temperature ranges required for various industrial processes versus the temperature ranges available from various types of reactors.

Surprising and Important

Harvard University has announced a new focus on the discovery of truth and the stimulation of scientific and technological progress.  Consistent with this initiative, Michael Gibson and Danielle Strachman of 1517 Fund will serve as co-presidents.  Peter Thiel will join the board.

Thiel is well-known for, among many other things, the Thiel Fund, which provides funding to creative people who choose a career path not including college.  The 1517 Fund is a venture capital fund focused on non-traditional founders.


This date–April 1, 2024–will be long remembered for this very significant announcement.

Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism (update)

John Dos Passos was an American writer.  In his younger years, he was a man of the Left, and, like many leftists and some others he was very involved with the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

But he was more than a little disturbed by some of those that shared his viewpoint.  Describing one protest he had attended, he wrote:

From sometime during this spring of 1926 of from the winter before a recollection keeps rising to the surface. The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

I agree with their protest:  I too was horrified by this outrage.  I’m not one either to stand by and see injustice done.  But do I agree enough?  A chill goes down my spine..Whenever I remember the little scene I tend to turn it over in my mind.  Why did my hackles rise at the sight of the faces of these good people coming out of the hall? 

Was it a glimpse of the forming of a new class conformity that like all class conformities was bent on riding the rest of us?

Quoting Dos Passos and connecting his observations to our own time, Jay Nordlinger wrote:

I know these people. I saw them in Ann Arbor. I saw them in many other places afterward.  Today, you can see them on campuses as “SJWs”: “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism (no matter which direction it’s coming from).

The thing that frightened Dos Passos in the attitude of these protestors–who were, remember, his allies–is in my opinion quite similar to the thing that is so disturbing about so many of today’s “progressive” protestors.  Dos (as he was called) was entirely correct to be disturbed by what he saw, but I don’t think he diagnosed it quite correctly.  Though he refers to the protestors he observed as “those good people,” quite likely many of them weren’t good people at all–even if they were right about their cause–but were rather engaging in the not-good-at-all pleasure of conformity and the enforcement thereof, and would given half a chance have gone all the way to the even-worse pleasure of bullying.

I recently posted Koestler on Closed Systems, which discusses the nature of intellectually closed systems–which can include political ideologies–and the characteristics of those who are attracted to such systems and allow themselves to be dominated by them.  The phenomenon discussed about–the unwholesome pleasure of behaving with cruelty while simultaneously feeling virtuous–is another factor which often drives political belief and, especially, political activism. We have seen a lot of that behavior in the abuse, intimidation, and sometimes outright violence that we have seen directed at Jewish college students in recent months.

Whether or not Dos’s view of the motivations of the Sacco & Vanzetti protestors he saw is a fair one–and I am simply layering the explanation that seems to make sense to me on top of Dos’s description of his own subjective reactions–the spirt of conformity certainly drives a great deal of political and other wickedness.  I remember a German man who was interviewed near the beginning of the TV series The World at War.  Although he was anti-Nazi, he described the emotional pull he felt when viewing Party rallies–a strong desire to be part of such a cohesive and committed group.

Here’s a related post: A desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.

Although most assume that an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want, I think the inverse is often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.

One feature common among today’s ‘progressives’…and maybe among those of Dos Passos’s time too…is coupling the feeling of courage that they get from believing that they are defying law and convention with the feeling of security they get from conforming to an in-group.

See also C S Lewis on The Inner Ring.  Speaking at King’s College in 1944, Lewis said:

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Nightmare Numbers

A poll conducted Dec 13-14 among 2000 registered voters included the question:

Do you think that Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors or is that a false ideology?

Among respondents aged 18-24, 67% believed that Jews as a class’ are oppressors.  Note well: the questions was not about ‘Israel’ or ‘Israelis’ or ‘Zionists’, it was about Jews, plain and simple.

Michelle Tandler responded: “This is extraordinary. How did Gen Z come to believe that Jews are oppressors? Is that being taught somewhere..?”

What is being taught, pretty clearly, is that people are primarily defined by their ethnic and gender identity…there are no individuals, there are only ‘communities’ defined by these demographic categories. The more successful groups are defined as oppressors of the less-successful groups. Even the behavioral attributes required for success are viewed pejoratively; see for example  the Smithsonian on ‘whiteness’.  If values such as ‘hard work’, ‘rational thinking’, and ‘future orientation’ are considered as ‘whiteness’, then Jews ‘as a class’ certainly exemplify that attribute, regardless of the shade of any particular individual’s skin.  And if whites as a class are oppressors, then Jews as a class must be meta-oppressors.

This kind of thing clearly had its origins in academia.  As John Ellis notes at the WSJ:  “Campus antisemitism grew out of ideologies like “anticolonialism,” “anticapitalism” and “intersectionality.”..The radical left is the cause, most obviously through the one-party campuses having graduated an entire generation of young Americans indoctrinated with their ideas.”

Academia, and the K-12 schools which are repeaters of its ideologies, are of course not the only factors in this shocking rise in anti-Semitism. The rise of TikTok, with its emphasis on pre-literate modes of communication and the behavior of its algorithms–are they purposely malign toward American interests?–is surely a factor. See this comparison of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views among TikTok users and users of other platforms…see also this WSJ study of what actually shows up in the TikTok feeds of people registered as 13-year-olds.

Also–given that there are many nations–and not only Muslim ones–where anti-Semitism has been more pervasive and accepted than in the US, it is likely that the presence of large numbers of immigrants and foreign students has played a role in moving the Overton Window to a worse place: ‘Personnel is Policy.’

And, historically, societies in which people lose a sense of hope for the future, that they feel that they are facing pervasive decline, have been especially likely to be prone to anti-Semitism.  There are a lot of people in the US today who are not optimistic about either our national future or their personal futures.

While there are all these factors–and doubtless many more–behind the upsurge in anti-Semitism and the support for extreme groups such as Hamas, I believe that the ideology of Indentity Politics is the primary factor.  The prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz went so far as to say DEI is the incubator of anti-Semitism.

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