T Nation

Defending Elitism

I’ll try to make this concise and short.

Recently, Obama, who i do not in general support, has received substantial criticism from a variety of sources for being to “elitist”.

My question then is, what is wrong with this “elitism” of sorts? I think of Plato’s republic, where Plato argues for his ideal state–a state which is founded on the idea that some people are just simply better at providing for the state as a whole, and also that “the many” often do not know what is best for either them or the state as a whole.

I do not wish to talk about government size here, and just how much “control” the government should have over the lives of its citizens. I also do not wish to argue over the merits of democracy (though Plato believes it to be a horrible sort of government). Rather, I pose a simple argument of sorts.

It seems to just be a fact that often times, “people” in general do not know what is best for them, let alone for their fellow citizens in general. Given this, is it not possible for someone else to know what would be best for a given group in general (by way of simply being more knowledgeable, or by having more experience).

If this is true, if it is possible for someone to know what is best for others who themselves do not know, then there seems to be nothing wrong in principle with the sort of “elitism” that Obama has been nailed for.

To quickly clarify, I am not arguing that Obama’s latest “elistist slips” have been right. What i am arguing is that Obama has been nailed for being “elitist” at all. Why??

How about you give me all of your money, and I’ll spend it wisely for you. You’re too stupid to be allowed to spend your own money.

No, really. I know better how to run your life than you do. You’ll waste your money on something frivolous and trivial, so give it to me, and I’ll make sure to spend it on something worthwhile. How’s that sound?


That’s pretty dumb, right?

Well, that’s exactly the message “elitists” are sending. Naturally, it doesn’t resonate with many voters outside of those arrogant dipshits that think they can spend the public’s money more wisely than the public can.

I think the problems with elitism are 1) that it’s almost always paired with condescension and 2) it’s almost always paired with nanny-state policies justified with “you don’t know what’s for your own good.”

[quote]tGunslinger wrote:
How about you give me all of your money, and I’ll spend it wisely for you. You’re too stupid to be allowed to spend your own money.

No, really. I know better how to run your life than you do. You’ll waste your money on something frivolous and trivial, so give it to me, and I’ll make sure to spend it on something worthwhile. How’s that sound?


That’s pretty dumb, right?

Well, that’s exactly the message “elitists” are sending. Naturally, it doesn’t resonate with many voters outside of those arrogant dipshits that think they can spend the public’s money more wisely than the public can.[/quote]

sigh this is called a straw man. It is where one paints a position falsely in its worst light and then attacks this absurd reformulation.

so yes, what you said would be “pretty dumb”.

luckily, you’ve missed my question and argument entirely.

The question is not why one particular instance of elitism (say like obama’s elitist remarks) is wrong, but rather why elitism in general is wrong, given that the premises of elitism seem perfectly possible.

I only used Obama as an example, given that he has been attacked for his elitism per say, and not for his actual positions.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
I think the problems with elitism are 1) that it’s almost always paired with condescension and 2) it’s almost always paired with nanny-state policies justified with “you don’t know what’s for your own good.”[/quote]

Exactly. Question answered.

I’m not really opposed to elitism, you’ll have elites in a meritocracy. The problem is both the two points above, and the issue of elites becoming completely detached from the people they serve (see French technocrats and the EU treaty, same thing in Britain, or Obama’s semi-Marxist remarks).

[quote]GDollars37 wrote:
BostonBarrister wrote:
I think the problems with elitism are 1) that it’s almost always paired with condescension and 2) it’s almost always paired with nanny-state policies justified with “you don’t know what’s for your own good.”

Exactly. Question answered.

I’m not really opposed to elitism, you’ll have elites in a meritocracy. The problem is both the two points above, and the issue of elites becoming completely detached from the people they serve (see French technocrats and the EU treaty, same thing in Britain, or Obama’s semi-Marxist remarks).[/quote]

I’d prefer an even simpler formulation.

Even if rule by an elite class were preferable, it would have to be true aristocracy, that is, rule by the best. And the political realm does not seem to attract the best sorts of human beings. So until we start compelling Philosophers to rule (and we’d have to confirm that there are any left before we could even do that), elitism is an untenable position.

Further, it is simply contrary to the spirit of our Constitution.

[quote]stokedporcupine wrote:
I’ll try to make this concise and short. [/quote]

This line really tickled me.

[quote]nephorm wrote:
GDollars37 wrote:
BostonBarrister wrote:
I think the problems with elitism are 1) that it’s almost always paired with condescension and 2) it’s almost always paired with nanny-state policies justified with “you don’t know what’s for your own good.”

Exactly. Question answered.

I’m not really opposed to elitism, you’ll have elites in a meritocracy. The problem is both the two points above, and the issue of elites becoming completely detached from the people they serve (see French technocrats and the EU treaty, same thing in Britain, or Obama’s semi-Marxist remarks).

I’d prefer an even simpler formulation.

Even if rule by an elite class were preferable, it would have to be true aristocracy, that is, rule by the best. And the political realm does not seem to attract the best sorts of human beings. So until we start compelling Philosophers to rule (and we’d have to confirm that there are any left before we could even do that), elitism is an untenable position.

Further, it is simply contrary to the spirit of our Constitution.[/quote]

I suppose I should reformulate. Perhaps the word “elitism” is not capturing what I wanted.

I still am interesting in hearing comments on the argument.

Also, referring again to Plato’s republic, of course Plato has a system to ensure the right people are in control. In fact, he says the people who should be running the state will not want the job, and will have to be forced into the position (and they will also have a duty to the state of course, since the state will provide their education)

of course, Plato’s republic is a queer elitist state, one in which all men, and women (yes, even Plato says this), are given equal opportunity to earn their way into the ruling class of society. so perhaps the elitism i have in mind is a more egalitarian elitism, where the elite become elite based solely on merit.

[quote]nephorm wrote:
Further, it is simply contrary to the spirit of our Constitution.[/quote]

this, is not so clear.

i doubt the forefathers would object to the maxim that only those fit to rule should be qualified to rule, and that only the most qualified of those should actually rule. this, anyway, is at the heart of my “elitism”.

the back edge of this elitism is the argument and question i posed in the original post–that is, it seems possible that “the many” are not the best at judging who is qualified and best qualified to rule.

[quote]stokedporcupine wrote:
of course, Plato’s republic is a queer elitist state, one in which all men, and women (yes, even Plato says this), are given equal opportunity to earn their way into the ruling class of society. so perhaps the elitism i have in mind is a more egalitarian elitism, where the elite become elite based solely on merit. [/quote]

Except, again, the elite do not rise to the top politically. Why were Philosophers compelled to rule in the Republic? Because the sorts of people who would be best suited toward administering justice are usually uninterested in politics. They may even be best because they avoid politics.

Do we really want to argue that Obama forms part of an elite? Granted, he is part of a political elite, but this hardly seems to indicate any intrinsic virtue. Further, no Platonic Philosopher would be clamoring for “change” in the way that Obama does.

Perhaps we just don’t have a common idea of what rule by an elite would really entail, especially in Plato’s view. You have omitted large chunks of the argument, as is necessary when discussing these things in such a limited environment as this. But I would like to fill in a couple of gaps.

One may rule by law, or one may rule by fiat. Rule of law is problematic because it must be applied generally. Fiat is problematic because rulers are human beings. What we really want, of course, is justice. I refer you to the Cyropaedia. Just rule is something akin to the story of two young boys with coats. One is a large boy with a small coat, the other is a small boy with a coat far too large. Justice would, it seems, be to give the small boy the large boy’s coat, and the large boy the small boy’s coat. This would be most fitting for each.

But such a situation requires that we know what the most fitting solution would be for any particular situation; that we are able to know the way to allocate resources in a fair way given all information. We would, in short, have to know the whole. A cadre of Philosophers, as Plato describes, may be able to approximate such knowledge, but it seems unlikely, especially given the growing complexity of the world we live in. Further, as Aristotle points out, ethics are not strict laws that we can argue with the same kind of rigor we use for mathematics.

Within our own constitutional framework, we certainly would like to have people of the best kind - if those people are available to us. But how would we establish this merit? Is there some sort of “rulership exam” we could give them?

[quote]stokedporcupine wrote:
i doubt the forefathers would object to the maxim that only those fit to rule should be qualified to rule, and that only the most qualified of those should actually rule. this, anyway, is at the heart of my “elitism”.
[/quote]

Madison stated that he created a system of government that could be run by devils. Our Founding Fathers fought a war to eliminate kingship, not to institute a new kind. Whereas they might have agreed that rule by the best is preferable, they also shared a very healthy skepticism of the likelihood that future legislators and executives would constitute the “best.”

[quote]
the back edge of this elitism is the argument and question i posed in the original post–that is, it seems possible that “the many” are not the best at judging who is qualified and best qualified to rule. [/quote]

They are not, which is why we have a Constitution that protects us from arbitrary and capricious rule.

[quote]nephorm wrote:
Do we really want to argue that Obama forms part of an elite? Granted, he is part of a political elite, but this hardly seems to indicate any intrinsic virtue. Further, no Platonic Philosopher would be clamoring for “change” in the way that Obama does.

Perhaps we just don’t have a common idea of what rule by an elite would really entail, especially in Plato’s view. You have omitted large chunks of the argument, as is necessary when discussing these things in such a limited environment as this. But I would like to fill in a couple of gaps.

[/quote]

i by no means wish to say that Obama would or should form part of this elite. i only used him as an example, because people condemn him for sounding elitist at all. I agree that he does not have much room to talk (he’d fail your ruler exam).

i know that figuring out how to set up such a government is difficult. like i said, i merely wanted to talk about some of the basis of elitism in general.

i have some ideas on this all, but they are little more then quaint dreams. not really worth discussing. To be honest, i think one can find the basis of a sound, fair political apparatus in the Republic. (note i say basis… much additional work would need to be done. the idea though of having an educational institution though that ended in political service is interesting)

[quote]nephorm wrote:
stokedporcupine wrote:
I’ll try to make this concise and short.

This line really tickled me.[/quote]

Welcome to the Department of Redundancy Department.

Elitism:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/player/nol/newsid_7350000/newsid_7357300?redirect=7357322.stm&news=1&nbram=1&nbwm=1&bbram=1&bbwm=1

[quote]Zap Branigan wrote:
nephorm wrote:
stokedporcupine wrote:
I’ll try to make this concise and short.

This line really tickled me.

Welcome to the Department of Redundancy Department.[/quote]

there is a difference between “concise” and “short”. for instance, i could give you a list of names of all the people who have immigrated to America.

This list would be concise, because it only listed names (as opposed to details), but would surely not be short. I could also give you a list of the last 10 people to legally immigrate to America that included all of their personal information. such a list would be short, but not concise.

Thus, i tried to present an argument that was both free of unnecessary detail and steps.

i’m not THAT stupid.

I prefer elitism to populism.

Elitists panders to none but the intelligentsia while populists by definition must pander to the lowest common denominator. Why would we want to live in a society dominated by populist influences?

I would say that elitism panders to those who consider themselves “the intelligentsia”, whereas often people who actually are intelligent and capable have no interest in personal power.

The idea of some sort of “superior” ruling class sickens me.

Both elitism and and populism suck from a moral perspective just like any other ism. Moderation is key in everything.

Governments that are based entirely on appealing to everyone will never get anything done or never be firm in their decisions since they basically play a popularity contest.

Governments based entirely on elitism will most likely make anyone not considered good enough feel like crap, deprive them of rights and force everyone into camps or groups which breeds discrimination, depression, animosity etc. Elitists are also more likely to take extremist views the majority go against so when they try to implement things everyone will ignore them so nothing will get done again.

Sure having a theoretically perfect government and societal structure sounds nice but by classifying everyone into groups people are being blatantly told they are inferior in areas X, Y and Z. People need at least a false sense of equality or equal general capability. If you tell people all they can be or should try to be is X thing they will have no motivation to further improve themselves.


.

wow, i’d type more if i had time, but, some of you have completely missed my strenuous attempts to clarify what i mean by “elitism”.

so far, there seems to be agreement on the argument provided, and only negative remarks about the practicality or possibility of such a situation.

but then again, that was my point… not that we should abandon the safeguards of democracy for totalitarianism, but rather that the principles behind “elitism”, as given here, are not objectionable.

finally, i guess the last two posts have provided opportunity to make another good point. the principles i have laid out here as the “basis” of elitism do NOT lead to totalitarianism, which so many people seem to associate with “elitism”. in fact, on the contrary, the basic principles of elitism (at least a Platonic elitism, as laid out here) are adventitious to the prosperity of the general population.