Column on Elitism, Good and Bad

Elites, Good and Bad
Tibor R. Machan
Democrats are all bent out of shape about how to think about elites–the
group in society that claims to be superior to the rest of us. Senator
Obama is dubbed an elitist for saying that many turn to religion out of
frustration. Senator Clinton is trying to flee her own elitist legacy,
what with an education from various elite institutions. So what is so bad
about being a member of the elite?
In many previous ages and even now in many regions of the globe certain
people were deemed to be above the rest, as a matter of their birthright.
They were and are considered to be part of the natural aristocracy–rulers
by excellence! This means that they need accomplish nothing at all to rank
high among human beings. The feudal system is rife with this notion, as
are many other in which class warfare is afoot.
But there can be aristocrats who deserve their higher standing in society.
This would arise from having achieved something worthwhile, such as a
great scientific discovery, an engineering or some kind of artistic feat.
Such accomplishments would ordinarily gain a person recognition and even
standing in a community. And so one could join the aristocracy or elite
without the fiction of having inherited it in some mysterious, mythical
Trouble is that when the semi-official philosophy in the land is
egalitarianism, even this sort of elitism is frowned upon. No one is
supposed to be regarded as having higher rank than anyone else–that is
one thesis of egalitarianism. And among liberal democrats this philosophy
is rampant–nearly everyone gives it lip service even when it is totally
absurd (such as the folks do at National Public Radio, which is one of the
snootiest organizations in the country).
Many trendy notions contribute to the mess–for example, relativism and
subjectivism about values. If what makes something worthwhile is only a
matter of a subjective feeling–some simply like it more than other
things–there can hardly be any rational reason for attributing to it
higher rank than to competing accomplishments. If it is all relative
whether one deserves the Nobel Prize in economics or physics, then the
idea that the achievements of these people are superior to that of others
and the prize is deserved make no sense. Thus, egalitarianism must rule!
Everything people do is of equal worth or, indeed, worthless. The very
idea of “worth” becomes meaningless since no objective standards are
supposed to exist by which to assess what we do in any realm at all.
Post-modernism, which is but a recent version of subjectivism and
relativism, also produces this egalitarian outlook. It is all a matter of
how you look at it, you see, so how could anything really be a more
worthwhile achievement than something else?
Clearly the liberal democratic ethos embraces some of these ways of
thinking about the world and about human conduct. For example, all of the
poor are equally deserving, never mind how they got to be poor. All of the
sick, too, are equally deserving of support, never mind how they got sick
(say by accident or because they acted recklessly). No one is a failure in
school or at work, only impaired somehow. No one is at fault in a divorce!
And so forth and so on.
When these views dominate in a community, such as in the Democratic Party,
any type of aristocracy or elitism is a liability and those who wish to
flourish–to win votes for example–must reject any thought of earned
merit by anyone. That is just what we now witness with Senators Obama and
Clinton, a desperate effort to deny any kind of special achievement, even
while they both contend, paradoxically, that they deserve to become
president of the United States of America because of their superior
judgment and character!
Elitism, however, is actually quite all right when it involves earning
one’s high rank, in science, the arts, athletics, and in other spheres
where human beings set out to triumph. But an ultimately condescending
egalitarianism obscures this fact. The phony humility of such
egalitarianism aims to deny something entirely unavoidable in human
affairs, namely, that some do better than others and thus deserve more!
Those will be the accomplished elite and no effort to deny this fact will
manage to actually avoid it. Such denial will merely produce confusion and
contradiction, neither of which reaps any benefit at all.

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