People love to attack every type of false elite. Whether it be power, Hollywood, beltway and coastal elites, they all inhabit different swamps and use their influence to gain control. The populists point to these elites as the cause of many problems afflicting the nation. Throw them out! they cry, pitchforks in hand.
Of course, many complaints against these false elites are valid. They abuse their positions and power for their own interest. The decline of elites is part of the general decadence that has descended upon all society.
However, the real problem is that the radical populists do not stop at false elites. They insist that all elites be swept away, including authentic and legitimate ones, in the name of “the people.” No elites, they pontificate.
Such a position is irrational. No human group—a family, community, church or nation—can function properly and achieve its goals unless a class of people—the leadership—acts with reason, prudence and dedicated self-sacrifice, providing motivation and direction to the whole. A people bereft of legitimate, devoted and trusted leaders is a children’s crusade. It is a delusion doomed for destruction on the hard and jagged rocks of reality.
Thus, when the anti-elitists finish throwing out the baby with the bathwater, they do not indicate who will replace these leaders, who, despite their faults, render some service to society. They rarely volunteer to assume the responsibilities of those who are displaced.
This mentality prepares the way for leftists, demagogues, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to fill the void—as seen in the current political scene.
An Arduous Task
The existence of elites should be embraced, not scorned.
If America is a major power in the world today, someone is directing the nation. A hidden network of true elites exists at all levels of society that sustains the present system. Call them what you will—leaders, representative characters, mentors, or movers. These true elites get things done and make decisions that prevent disaster. They naturally rise to the top of communities, universities, industry and any field where excellence is found.
Their role is not easy to fill. Being part of a true elite is not a matter of ordering people around and enjoying every luxury and privilege. It consists of the arduous task of unifying people to act with a singular purpose to bring out the best in society. A true elite is much more given to serving the common good than to being served.
Even the most libertarian authors admit that elites are necessary for society to flourish. Economist Ludwig von Mises writes in his book, Bureaucracy, “Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of an elite. 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.”
Hostility Toward Elites
The present culture promotes an antagonistic and egalitarian mindset that complicates the plight of true elites. Given this hostility, many dare not call themselves elites, although they perform those functions. The same hostility makes them deny they are elites and try to appear like everyone else.
If the direction of society is to be corrected, the main focus should be presenting a picture of what true elites might look like.
This portrayal is sadly lacking.
Imagining the Qualities of True Elites
A captivating description of true elites is found in a text by Edmund Burke (1729—1797) that deserves to be brought to light. He highlights their qualities, so contrary to the self-interest motivating false elites.
His 1791 “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs” speaks of the education, broad horizons and self-discipline of those who take it upon themselves to serve the common good. This description applies to leadership at all levels of society and in every field. It provides a list of expectations that pulls all of society upward.
Thus, he writes of those who constantly try to uplift themselves and serve as a model. Such a person should strive “to be bred in a place of estimation; to see nothing low and sordid from one’s infancy; to be taught to respect one’s self; to be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye” (p. 175).
Qualities Needed to Make Society Function
Immense value must be given to the elite’s ability to perceive the big picture and to be informed with the best available knowledge and wisdom. The noted author calls upon such leaders “to stand upon such elevated ground as to be enabled to take a large view of the widespread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society; to have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse; to be enabled to draw the court and attention of the wise and learned, wherever they are to be found.”
Society should be led by those who confront problems and realize that acts have drastic consequences (so contrary to today’s false elites). Thus, such figures are “to be habituated in armies to command and to obey; to be taught to despise danger in the pursuit of honor and duty; to be formed to the greatest degree of vigilance, foresight, and circumspection, in a state of things in which no fault is committed with impunity, and the slightest mistakes draw on the most ruinous consequences.”
Such representative characters should cultivate good habits so that they might “be led to a guarded and regulated conduct.” They are “to possess the virtues of diligence, order, constancy, and regularity, and to have cultivated a habitual regard to commutative justice.”
Burke called these elites “a natural aristocracy” that provides a social framework “without which there is no nation.” When God’s grace and Providence further strengthen this framework, it sets the stage for a society immersed in a truly Christian civilization.
Imagining True Elites
Not all elites lived up to these standards. However, such a description served as a means of imagining the ideal society and its legitimate elites. Those who took upon the arduous task of leading society had goals and standards they might strive toward. Everyone held them up to these high standards so that society might work harmoniously.
Society today no longer has such descriptions. There are no goals. A vulgar and egalitarian mindset sees anything superior as an oppressive force. Exaggerated individualism discourages people from looking beyond themselves. The result is a Hobbesian “sand heap” of individuals engaged in “a war of every man against every man.” Society is governed by opportunists and those thinking only of their self-interest.
Drawing a moral profile of true elites, as Edmund Burke did, would do much to provide solace to a nation now exhausted by political theater. It would be refreshing to imagine those who agree to be models and hold themselves up to moral and cultural standards worthy of imitation. Seeing courtesy, honor and civility once more revered in society would be a relief. This can only be done by reimagining what true elites should be.