Monday, June 02, 2008

Elitism

In my extensive travels I recall one curious country where economic and political opportunity and status was strictly allocated by height. Tall people received advanced education and managerial jobs, and the seven footers usually became CEOs. The President of the country was, of course, pushing 8', the tallest man in the country. Short people became janitors and sewage workers.

I remarked to one of the citizens that this arrangement appeared... well... somewhat counterintuitive. He angrily retorted, "What would you have us do? Cut all the tall people off at the knees?"

Of course not.

When I condemn elitism, I am not condemning the fact that people have different abilities and skills. I understand that some people are more industrious than others. I realize that these many of these differences in skill and character have real economic consequences. Being against elitism is not to endorse the idea of making everyone the same. I am against elitism in the sense of being against socially constructed differences in political power and economic wealth.

The primary arguments in favor of elitism are wrong.

The primary argument is that the (innately) "superior" create more value and therefore deserve membership in the (socially constructed) "elite". But as we see time and again, a truly free market does not strongly correlate individual reward to the creation of excess value: excess value becomes more-or-less equally diffused throughout the entire society.

It's also impossible both to unambiguously determine who is actually adding value. Who is responsible for creating the excess value of the plow? The person who makes the plow, or the person who uses the plow to actually grow food?

Value itself, subjective and variable, is itself impossible to determine unambiguously. What is the value of a pound of food? If you're starving, the value of a pound of food is infinite; if you already have more than enough to eat, it's negligible.

In the most extreme case, there is perhaps a hundred-fold difference in individual skill and character that have direct, physical economic consequences; it is implausible to believe there is more than a thousand-fold difference. The difference in actual wealth, however, is many orders of magnitude higher. The idea that people with great wealth innately "deserve" that wealth — by virtue of creating it directly — is clearly ludicrous.

The second argument is that by creating a meritocracy, a set of social constructions that amplify the rewards due to innate skill and character, those with superior skill and character will have an incentive to use their abilities at least to some degree for the mutual benefit of everyone. This is not a terrible argument, but the limits of meritocracy are easy to determine. Economic wealth is a form of indirect political power, and political power — direct or indirect — is a privileged position to shape our social constructions. People who become wealthy and powerful for whatever reason have an obvious incentive to reward being, not becoming, wealthy and powerful. The tendency of every elite in every society to "shut the door behind them" is universal and without exception.

Furthermore, just because people have economically useful skills and abilities does not mean they are wise and intelligent in other matters. All socially constructed elites tend to correlate their power with peripheral non-economic characteristics: race, religion, and, of course, familial relationships. Argument: George W. Bush. Case closed.

The only argument for elitism is the ecological argument: Where you have prey, you will have predators; "there's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him". But this is most definitely not a moral or ethical argument.

So, no, when I argue against elitism, I am not arguing that individual differences should be erased. I argue, rather, that we should not amplify (even at best) these individual differences to economic and political privilege.

17 comments:

  1. It seems you are equating elitism with the highest amount of wealth. I would disagree. The 'elite' is more a perception than a measurable level of anything. A doctor, for example, may be perceived to be among an elite group in his chosen field, but that is, again, a matter of perception,usually by his peers.

    There are some who have lots of money and are no more 'elite' than a janitor who makes minimum wage. An investment banker may be medicore among other investment bankers but still have a large income because it is a lucrative field.

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  2. PC: I'm a native English speaker, and I'm completely aware of the range of meanings to which "elite" and its derivatives apply.

    Almost all words in natural language have multiple meanings, which must either be disambiguated explicitly or by context.

    When I explain how I'm using a term, that's what I'm doing: explaining how I myself use the term.

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  3. Ho hum. Society progresses much faster with shared understanding, not with folks making up definitions willy nilly.

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  4. PC: I've been quite tolerant of your doofosity and general cluelessness, but I'm running short of patience.

    If you don't have anything of substance to offer, I'm sure your own blog would benefit more from your direct attention.

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  5. In my extensive travels I recall one curious country where economic and political opportunity and status was strictly allocated by height.

    I didn't know you managed to visit the mighty Irken Empire. I'm impressed :)

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  6. Db0: I hadn't heard of the series before now. Off to Netflix!

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  7. Glad to be of Service. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

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  8. I can't disagree with you arguments against elitism, but I wonder if you have anything specific to say against the anti-elitism you're accused of; sometime it would be nice not to have to fight off claims of elitism when I point out I'm reading X non-fiction book and dare to explain it to someone.

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  9. I hate elitism therefore I'm going to give this small group of people absolute authority to seize other people's property without their say or consent. I'm also going to have faith they are incorruptible and will redistribute this wealth according to my arbitrary egalitarian standard.

    Wow, you can smell the hypocrisy from here.

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  10. Jimmy Dean: You're kind of stupid, eh? Would you be so kind as to quote the sections of my post which you interpret to mean that I want a give a "small group of people absolute authority to seize other people's property without their say or consent" so I can figure out what the fuck you're talking about?

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  11. I am only applying your words here to your thoughts elsewhere. In another comment you chide me that a line in your blogpost only made sense if I read other blog posts. Well, this comment only makes sense if you read it then read your other rant on re-distribution and on being progressive. You want political power to redistribute but you don't want an elite. A contradiction on the face of it.

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  12. In another comment you chide me that a line in your blogpost only made sense if I read other blog posts.

    I think you're confusing two concepts. If you want to criticize my whole system of thought, then yes, it's helpful to actually read more than one post. On the other hand, I try to make the meaning of each of my posts clear on their own.

    Regardless, when you criticize someone else for saying or implying something, it is always helpful to include actual quotations to justify the interpretation.

    You want political power to redistribute but you don't want an elite. A contradiction on the face of it.

    This isn't what I'm calling for (it's considerably oversimplified) but leaving that aside, how are these concepts contradictory? Why is it necessary to have an elite to redistribute wealth? If a large number of people, a majority or super-majority, were performing the redistribution, how would that be specifically elitist?

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  13. "On the other hand, I try to make the meaning of each of my posts clear on their own."

    Try being the key word here no doubt. See my issue with your non-sequitor in another post.

    "Why is it necessary to have an elite to redistribute wealth? If a large number of people, a majority or super-majority, were performing the redistribution, how would that be specifically elitist?"

    Having anyone who cannot redistribute and anyone who can instantly creates an elite with a significant power advantage to those without it. Second, unless your advocating anarcho-syndicalism then any system by which wealth is redistributed must have an arbiter to distinguish between redistribution and theft. Anyone with the power to decide whose wealth gets taken and who gets that taken wealth has an absurdly high probability of corruption.

    What you are suggesting would take a commune of willing participants to own all tings collectively. The moment that something can be owned privately then others will want it. Then either it will be stolen, political groups will be created to take it, or a free market will be created so the owner of something can give it to another for a profit.

    Back to the elite you also fail to recognize that elitism is not only a natural state but a basic institution of a free society. As long as there is competition there will always be an elite, whether that competition be physical, political, or economic. Your anti-elitism is based on an arbitrary utopian vision of a world without competition. While economics is not a zer0-sum game (which you assert in another post)there will always be haves and have-nots in any system. Elitism, or inequality, is natural and inescapable.

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  14. Jimmy Dean:

    I think you're reading a whole lot more into my post and my work as a whole. You're arguing as much against your own assumptions as my actual work.

    I'll discuss the details of your most recent comment later in the day.

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  15. Also, actual references and links are always helpful. Searching for specific comments is not very easy in Blogger.

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  16. Jimmy Dean:

    Back to the elite you also fail to recognize that elitism is not only a natural state but a basic institution of a free society.

    This is pretty much what the original post is about: Elitism is a social construct, and therefore artificial. It is not "natural".

    It's not quite clear in what sense you're using "basic". You seem to be using "basic" to justify elitism, but just because something is basic doesn't necessarily mean it's good.

    Also, you seem to justify elitism out of one side of your mouth, and condemn it out of the other: "I'm going to give this small group of people absolute authority to seize other people's property without their say or consent."

    Perhaps you are correct: Perhaps elitism is inescapable. But does it not then behoove us to choose our elite, either directly or by choosing the standards by which people compete, and the rules of that competition?

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  17. Elitism is equivalent to inequality and is a necessary function of competition. So long as some win, some will not. So long as private ownership exists then competition will exist. Elitism is a basic component of a free society. Elitism is not artificial, and in fact may be the only purely natural process of human interaction (evolutionary competition for resources/mates).

    I am not justifying it out of the corner of my mouth. My first intent was to point out the hypocrisy of your "anti-elitism" supporting a redistributive elite.

    Second I attack a politically constructed and intrusive elite (either socialism or corporations) for it's complacent corruption as opposed to free markets that create inequality based on an economic meritocracy complete with competition.

    Elitism, inequality, and markets are inevitable so long as someone owns something that another person wants. It would behoove us to have this elite be based on free and open competition instead of by politically confiscating wealth to empower corruptible politicians.

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