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.

Worthwhile Reading

Hayek, Fascism, and the Administrative State

Privilege in Bourbon France

An interesting piece on the tradition of limited government in Spain

A Danish manager working in Russia finds that his workers are looking for a more authoritarian style of leadership

Related: Culture and combined arms warfare

Civilization versus the Pathocratic State

The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

Why are semiconductor companies not more enthusiastic about taking the lavish subsidies available under the CHIPS act?


Koestler on Closed Systems

The writer Arthur Koestler (‘Darkness at Noon) was a Marxist believer and a Party member when he visited the Soviet Union in 1932.  Looking back later at his younger self, he was struck by the way in which he’d had a kind of filter, a ‘mental sorting machine’, which allowed him to justify the not-so-nice things that he had seen and to fit everything into his belief about the rightness and beneficiality of Communism.  These reflections led him to thoughts on the nature of intellectually closed systems.

A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself.

The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you ourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history..

In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself..

I’ve cited the above excerpt a number of times in the past. Given the level of ideological capture that seems to be taking place in our Western societies at present, I thought it was due for a rerun and discussion.

Why are there so many people now who are willing–even eager–to become votaries of of ideological systems? I’d suggest that several factors are operative:

First, there are a lot of people who are lonely and looking for a sense of affiliation. Relatedly, a lot of people lack a sense of meaning…which was once more often provided by traditional religions and social roles–and political activism and belief can fill this need.  Sebastian Haffner, who came of age in Germany between the wars, observed this phenomenon.  When the political and economic situation in that country began to stabilize–for which he credits Gustav Stresemann–most people were happy:

The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

But a return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk…

To be precise…it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I think there are a lot of people in America today, and in the West generally, who have become accustomed to having ‘the raw material for their deeper emotions’ delivered by the public sphere.

Second, for some people the desire for affiliation shades into the darker pleasure of behaving with cruelty to those outside the charmed circle…while simultaneously feeling very virtuous about their behavior  See my post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism.

Third, people who are intelligent, but not at all creative, tend to latch on to the intellectual systems created by others and to hold to those systems create by others even more fiercely than the originators of those systems would do.  This observation is from the writer Andre Maurois, and I think it is correct.  I also think that the description ‘intelligent but not creative’ describes a high percentage of the current incumbents in academia and media organizations.

Your thoughts?

Red Guards in Mexico?

In Mexico, Rodrigo Iván Cortés, a former Congressman of that country, has been convicted of “political violence” for social media posts on gender, referring to Mexican Congressional representative as “man who self-ascribes as a woman”.  In addition to a fine, he has been sentenced to publish an apology (written by the court) on his social media accounts, daily for 30 days.  He was also was entered into the National Registry of Persons Sanctioned in Political Matters against Women.  A petition has been filed on his behalf with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  See also this Twitter post.

Responding to a post from Claire Lehmann about her kids coming home from school and being required to write letters of apology for colonization and ‘wrecking the planet’, Greg Ashman remarked that this sort of thing was dismissed circa 2015 as just ‘fringe American campus politics’, but that but it inevitably came for Australian school rooms.

Indeed, Wokeness has spread around the world with amazing speed…and now, apparently, has gainedd a significant lodging in Mexico.  Yet how many people in that country..among the elites of that country..really believe the full party line about there being no real differences between men and women? Very few, I would hazard a guess.  Yet they seem quite happy to go along with the enforcement of those beliefs on their population.

Yet perhaps there is hope for a turnaround.  A Canadian nurse reports on Twitter:

I was seeing a therapist who said most of her clients have become professionals who are deeply unhappy with DEI & woke culture at work. They feel afraid of speaking up, but are sick of the constant barrage of racist, delusional nonsense they’re supposed to champion. It is making people miserable & fearful. It is making people leave careers, or get forced out for infractions. Organizations still clinging to DEI are making a terrible mistake.

There seem to be a lot of reactions like this developing. Things that might sound all right as catch-phrases often don’t seem so good when people see and feel them working out themselves in practice.  And much of the support for Wokeness seems to represent Preference Falsification, at some level…people not really being comfortable with those assertions, but going along with them because they believe that everyone else (in circles that matter to them) believes in the assertions.  And when cracks in the wall of apparent unanimity begin the appear, the Preference Cascade in the other direction can change things quickly.