Am I an elitist? Does the fact that I support the continued existence of the Electoral College make me elitist? Does my sometimes suspicion of democracy in its raw form make me elitist? And, is being an elitist all bad? Or is there some distinction between being an elitist and a pernicious brand of elitism? I am inclined to make just such a distinction. The thought occurred to me as I was at a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute on “Conservatism: What Now?” with Rich Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg admitted—in passing, but not facetiously—that he was elitist. From time to time I have thought of myself as somewhat elitist. But then I waffle back to “We the people….” So this question is not merely an academic exercise.
Let me first make my proposed distinction. Being an elitist involves an attitude of skepticism whenever someone shouts “majority rules!” That is simplistic but makes the basic point. It is not that I or any elitist hates democracy, but rather the issue of whether democracy has any built-in restraints. Do we have rules that constrain potential mob rule of “tyranny by the majority” or do we allow the people in any relevant community of decision-making to command everyone? As an elitist then, I favor very specific kinds of constitutional rules that will constrain all ordinary decision-making and voting. Within the boundaries of those constitutional (constitutive) rules, let’s allow for democratic rule or at least representative democracy. I have no problem with that. And I don’t think that makes me a bad elitist. We should all worry if democracy has no restraints at all, something like Rousseau called for in his Social Contract.
On the other hand, and at the other extreme from pure unrestrained democracy, is elitism, used in a pejorative sense. This elitism consists of individuals who have adopted an air of superiority and believe themselves to be the experts on matters within their perview. They look down on “the masses” as always ignorant and in constant need of the wisdom only they can give. They are only too willing to accept unaccountable or even totalitarian authority over others. To some extent these people resemble the new “class” of well-off and splendidly isolated urban dwellers mentioned in Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. But to some extent too they resemble those favoring pure democracy in that they are quite happy to decide for everyone what is best for them. The difference of course is that they are only one or a very few in number making up our modern bureaucracies, boards, commissions, and executives. Even when they are elected periodically, they tend to act very much like the unelected bureaucrats. Look at the presidents in their use of executive orders.
The first kind of elitism is, I argue, healthy. The second is dangerous. The second kind is the result of what Tocqueville said we would give to ourselves—a “soft despotism.” It is what men like Woodrow Wilson viewed as a positive good and what many scholars of political science and public administration (and law) also agreed was necessary. It is rule by experts who may or may not have the good of the community in mind, but who are more than willing to substitute their judgment for anyone else’s. Don’t misunderstand. Experts can play a very valuable role in our society. But just as “war is too important to be left to the generals alone,” so public decisions are also too important to be left solely to experts. Experts have their own unique political incentives that are frequently different from their constituents, the people. This can lead to a major divergence between the private interest of the expert and the overall public interest.
As to the first kind of elitism, it too has its dangers if carried too far. Yes, it leads one to aspire to better education and well-being for all. It tends to want to preserve the lost high culture and despises the low state of current culture and civil society. It even balks at the deterioration of language. But it also has a healthy view of the limits of democracy and for the beauties of well-designed constitutions. However, it can breed arrogance and impatience with everyone around who fails to “toe the line.” Christian faith combined with the first kind of elitism hopefully helps avoid the excesses of the first elitism. But us elitists must be ever vigilant not to throw our hands up and declare the uncultured masses as hopeless. They are after all people like us, made in God’s image.