A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 2 March 2018

Three Routes to Elitism

Open and explicit elitism is a greatly underrated political position. Being contrary to the democratic ethos of our times, "elitist" is more commonly a derogatory adjective than a merely descriptive one. In this post, I shall set out three ways in which one might attempt to justify elitism, and suggest ways in which they may be flawed.

Route One: Aren't We Great!

This is the most basic route to elitism, and it is almost as simple as the title above suggests. This is the elitism of pub sessions, of putting the world to rights over a pint or six. Most people probably think that the world would be better off if they were in charge, but the difference is that we - being the cognitive elite, as evidenced by our smart conversations - are actually justified in this belief.

Well, clearly most people who engage in this kind of reasoning aren't justified in it. I actually do think that at least some of the people I know personally are justified in it, but the fact is that even explicitly elitist politics is highly unlikely to put Superforecasters and the like into positions of power. In practice, an openly elitist political system would resemble the average academic department. If we're lucky, a science department where people would at least be highly numerate; if we're unlucky, a humanities department, which are mostly full of "people like Hillary Clinton with faulty BS detectors, poor critical thinking skills, and severe social desirability bias." When one advocates for elitism, one should think of oneself as advocating less for the rule of sensible people like oneself, so much as advocating for the rule of humanities postgrads.

Route Two: Whig History

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a symbol of both Budapest and
Hungary. This is not the original bridge, which was destroyed
during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt.
Count István Széchenyi left an impressive set of institutions around Budapest. The most famous are the Chain Bridge across the Danube and the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, but he also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the National Casino. In addition to this, he conducted various measures to improve the navigability of the Danube and to open it up to steamships, and wrote a great deal of classical liberal political theory. (Since I'm posing Széchenyi as a champion of elitism, it is interesting to contrast him with another figure of 1840s Hungarian politics, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth was far better known abroad, since after the collapse of the 1848 rebellion he lived abroad as perhaps the single greatest voice of democratic liberal nationalism. Kossuth is every bit as celebrated as Széchenyi - the square in which the Hungarian parliament stands is named for him - but it is almost impossible to point to anything he established which lasted beyond 1849).

Going back further in Hungarian history, the arrival of the Renaissance in Hungary is credited more or less entirely to King Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus was not dealt an especially powerful hand - he started his kingship as a puppet of his uncle - but he greatly expanded his power by establishing a professional army, introducing legal reforms and curbs on baronial power, and creating meritocracy in state service.

The point at which I am driving is that some people do things. Sometimes these things are good, sometimes they are bad, but ultimately they create a small minority upon which progress is dependent. If you want society to progress, the best you can do is to create processes which select for these people and deliver as much power to them as possible.

One important thing to note is that while both of these lines of thinking lead to elitism, they lead to rather different elites - "Aren't We Great" suggests we want our leaders chosen for their intelligence, while "Whig History" suggests we should choose them for being driven and conscientious.

The biggest objection to this kind of elitism is the conservative worry that they will tear apart all that we have achieved. To be honest I think that's probably enough by itself - political deadlock is annoying, but kicking the machine to make it work is generally bad. One might also question the model of the world on which it rests. It may well be that the emergence of Hungary as a prosperous nation in the late 19th century owes a massive amount to Count Széchenyi, but how many other countries are there whose development could be traced to the positive actions of a single person?

Route Three: If not the elites, then who?

I don't think anarchy is feasible, at least for the foreseeable future. It's not that I don't see anarcho-capitalism as a valuable ideal towards which me might aspire, but that people have yet to breed out their tribal instincts and the abolition of the state would lead in short order to massive demand either for a new one, or to its effective replacement with clans. Given this, it makes sense to have a government which is at least somewhat under our control.

Since there must be a government, there must be someone in charge. So... why not the elites? It's true that power attracts people with unsavoury motivations and brings out people's corruption, but that will happen whoever you put in charge. Good traits - not just things like intelligence, health, and height, but also pro-social and trusting attitudes - are positively correlated for the most part. So if it's a choice between the common man and the credulous, unoriginal, unspiring elite in pantsuits... give me the elite every time.

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