There was a time when the nation was ruled by a group of people that set the course for the country. Their children usually followed in their footsteps. This group of people tended to consolidate their wealth and pass it along to future generations. They formed what has been called a social elite—one that possessed complex connections within society, a network of civil obligations, and many leadership commitments.
Like all things human, this social arrangement of leaders had its defects. No one can deny this fact. But neither can one contest the historic reality that this system did help usher in an era of American prosperity with a certain amount of social mobility, stability and national unity.
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In the post-World War II period, this system was largely replaced by a meritocracy, based on personal talent. The new system sought to level all advantages of birth. It emphasized individual achievement and not contribution to society. It stressed intelligence not character.
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To effect this change, many social structures were changed. The university system was opened up to everyone. During the sixties, social conventions were turned upside down, and sexual mores were thrashed everywhere. Extreme individualism became the norm. All this was done in the name of social justice, personal fulfillment and equality.
This social revolution was supposed to create a more just society. And yet, the contrary happened. The social order has not improved. Inequality ratios have soared. Morality has plummeted and created an underclass of those without stable family life. Institutional and civic involvement has declined dramatically. Social trust at all levels has fallen. Government is dysfunctional, and the nation is polarized.
The Rise of New Elites
Instead of the old group of social elites, the nation is now run by a new group of meritocratic elites. Their children are now following in their footsteps. They also tend to consolidate and concentrate their wealth and pass it along.
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Thus, the new social justice warriors are back on the warpath demanding the destruction of these new elites simply because they are elites.
They do not realize that all healthy societies must have elites. Destroying elites in a society will eventually lead to the forming of another set of elites. This is because there will always be those in society who take upon themselves the task of leading and directing affairs. There will always be a one percent, a top ten percent in any society. Taking out these top percentages will only give their place to others, usually less qualified.
Eliminating layers of elites is also the way to totalitarian governments, which insist upon absolute power.
Cultivating True Elites
The real issue is not eliminating but cultivating true elites who will fully carry out their proper role in society. The problem with the present elites is that they do not know how to carry out these obligations. The present model has created what Charles Murray calls “hollow elites” who have “abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate the standards,” while keeping the benefits of their social status.
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Unlike former elites, today’s new elites have fewer social or civic obligations; they are not compelled to be role models or set standards. The meritocratic elites are content to live separately in their gated communities, insulated from those outside.
They can still be called elites since they do assume some responsibility for directing society and industry. They have however lost the notion of what their proper role is. They do not know how to be true elites.
The problem is further complicated by a culture that has done everything to malign elites as exploiters of the people. Thus, many elites do not even wish to admit their status.
Not All Rich People Are Elites
If this is to be remedied, there are two main misconceptions about elites that need to be addressed.
The first misconception is the idea that being an elite simply means being rich. Thus, people become elites by the size of their bank accounts. They care only about themselves, ignoring the plight of the poor.
This idea of elites is entirely wrong. Such people are merely rich people. They play no major role in society beyond their contribution to the economy. They cannot be counted upon to act beyond their self-interest.
The Need for Representative Characters
Real elites are what sociologists call representative characters. They exist in all prosperous societies. They do not consist of rich people enjoying life. They are the movers and shakers who find fulfillment in seeking the common good. They are those who perceive the ideals, principles, and qualities that are desired and admired by a community or nation, and translate them into concrete programs of life and culture.
These representative figures serve to set the tone and harmonize society. They are embedded in the community and by their influence shape the demand, fashions, and trends of the day. By their devotion and self-sacrifice, they move society ahead toward excellence.
“Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of an elite,” writes Ludwig von Mises. “Every step forward on the way toward an improvement of moral conditions has been an achievement of men who were ready to sacrifice their own well-being, their health, and their lives for the sake of a cause that they considered just and beneficial.”
Essential characteristics of elites have always been a notion of civic obligations, a spirit of sacrifice for community, and a celebration of civic virtue practiced in common. When elites are Christian, they will also have a great zeal for God, the Church and the practice of charity. These are obligations that are absent in the present meritocratic model centered in self-realization.
A Second Misconception
A second misconception about elites is that they are limited to those who are rich. Though wealth can be helpful in fulfilling their role, it is not essential.
Elites should exist at all levels of society, not just the highest ones. Elites can and do exist in small communities, occupations, schools and family groups. They are those who by their deeds, excellence or works, elevate the communities in which they are embedded. They need not have great wealth but do need great vision.
Such heroes, for that is what they are, are like leaven that rises without special planning or government intervention. These figures might include self-sacrificing clergy, devoted teachers, established farmers or selfless community leaders who draw and fuse society together and set the tone for their communities. They hold themselves up to high standards and commit themselves to being role models for those around them.
Shattered Unity and Common Purpose
American society today is coming apart. This is largely because, in the name of a leveling egalitarianism, so many of the social structures that held society together were discarded. Among these was the notion of true elites. In their place was put an individualistic model of achievement that shattered social unity and common purpose.
Many of the social ills that plague modern society are caused by the lack of elites. There is no one to harmonize society and provide vision and goals. Worst of all, modern culture discourages the idea of true and representative elites and proposes false and unrepresentative pseudo-elites who correspond to the worst and most selfish tendencies of a hedonistic culture.
Elites are not the problem. They will always exist, from among the highest to the lowest levels of society. The problem is cultivating true elites at all levels of society who can revitalize the culture and formulate a rich social life. This is especially true in times of crisis. Elites need to learn how to be elites again. And this will involve the enormous sacrifice of going beyond self-interest.
As seen on The Imaginative Conservative.