“Ism” Image Rehabilitation: Elitism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Elitism has been experiencing rather poor public relations these last few years. One of the most frequent criticisms of Barack Obama and many other democrats in the United States comes in the form of “he’s an elitist”. Typically, when confronted with this, supporters of the American centre-left will respond with a denial. “He’s not an elitist”, they’ll say, “You’ve got him all wrong.” This concept of elitism seems to imply that elitists are diabolical enemies of the public who seek to crush the common man beneath a boot of self-aggrandising superiority and contempt. But what is elitism really about? That is today’s topic.

There are two kinds of elitism, descriptive and normative. Descriptive elitism simply asserts that we live in an elitist society in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few highly able or skilled people. What I’m more interested in today is normative elitism–the idea that an elitist society is desirable.

In some respects, almost all of us are elitists. When you have a health concern and you want to see doctor with specialised knowledge about health, you are, for the moment, a health elitist. The same is true if you find yourself in legal trouble and seek out a lawyer–not just any person’s advice or counsel will do, you want someone with years of training and experience in the field. Yet somehow, when this sentiment is transferred to the state, there is a backlash. It is as if you were to tell someone you were having chest pains and thought you ought to see a doctor only to hear in reply that you were anti-American. Such is the response when one expresses desire for statecraft to be practised by people with training and skill in statecraft. There is no other field in which this contempt for expertise is so pronounced as in politics.

Is it really so radical to have a similar standard for the political leadership to one’s standard for a doctor, lawyer, ship captain, or any other job in which large amounts of technical and theoretical knowledge are required? Certainly not. So what is at the root of this hostility to expertise, this political anti-intellectualism? Fear certainly has a lot to do with it. People fear power being held by those who are not like them. If the man in power is similar to me, I can expect him to think like me, and I can expect him to protect my interests. If he’s very different, I can’t predict his behaviour, I don’t know what he will do, and so I might feel at risk. What is often overlooked is that this power, if well-regulated, is no worse than your doctor’s power to convince you to have surgery.

Regular readers may be familiar with my proclivity for sophiarchism, the notion that the governing power should be concentrated in the hands of capable specialists. This can sound elitist and frightening to people, but unlike authoritarian states, sophiarchism comes with safeguards–there is a contract between the leader and the people limiting the scope for dangerous policy, and a court mechanism to enforce that contract. Yet even this can sound unpleasant, on the grounds that, taking power away from the common man suggests a contempt for him. This is a misconception, both of sophiarchism and of elitism more broadly.

It is no more contemptuous of the common man to say that he should not govern than it is to say that he should not do open heart surgery on me. It is a recognition that governance is not the average person’s specialty, just as medicine is not the average person’s specialty. Nor is it being said that the average person is inadequate or bad for not having specialised in government. I do not expect a doctor to know much about government any more than a doctor expects me to know much about medicine. I am only able to know as much as I know about government because studying the state is my job, my primary function in society. If I had a job doing anything else, I would not have the time. A society of people who study politics as thoroughly as I or other politically inclined specialists do would be a society in which little else was done. Who would farm or manufacture or do medicine if we were all expected to be political philosophers? Surely we would all die out and go extinct or at minimum see a stark drop in our collective quality of life. Being an elitist or a sophiarchist does not mean hating the common man or disrespecting the average person’s work. It means acknowledging the limits to each person’s specialty, and assigning each individual his or her best role in society, without interference from others.

Plato puts it this way in The Republic:

All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else.

All an elitist really wants is to ensure through expertise that you have the same amount of confidence in your government as you have in your doctor. When the average person goes to the doctor, he knows that he has a pain here or there, and the doctor figures out what those symptoms are indicative of and what to do about them. When the average person looks out at society, he sees unemployment, crime, ignorance, a myriad of social symptoms, but unless he is a political specialist, he is not expected to put them all together and come up with a theory for ridding us of them. He is free to go back to his own specialty or profession making our society a more productive and better place in which to live through whatever means are best suited to his skill set and interests. He is not inferior to the political specialist; he is merely different. That difference is not at all to his discredit; it simply exists.

Diversity of skill and of interest is beneficial for society, it allows us to do so many different things together that no one individual could ever hope to find the time or inclination to do alone. Our social and political structure should embrace that diversity and reject this ethic that insists that our political leaders be no better at governing than we are and always remain suitable drinking buddies. A political specialist might very well bore most people to tears as a drinking buddy, but if we let him do his job, he’ll leave us with a better society in which to live, work, and prosper. If the purpose of the state isn’t that, what on earth is it?