Saturday, November 26, 2016

291. Need for a virtuous elite

It is fast becoming the currency of political correctness to blame present upheavals of populism in Western countries on ‘the elite’. With good reason. The elite of top decision makers in politics and business, with assorted pundits and economic ideologues, has failed to take into account, among other things, the plight of those who have lost out in globalization, with an erosion of their employment, income, and values.

However, and here I take a politically incorrect position, we do need an elite. Or something like it, though with a better ethic, an ethic of serving, not self-serving. An elite that does not congeal into an oligarchy. Given that the term is so tainted perhaps another term should be used. Guides or guardians, perhaps?  The first sounds like scouts and the second seems too paternalistic. And I dislike terms that softly obfuscate. We are, in fact, talking about elites.

Milbank and Pabst[i] argued, and they convinced me of this, that democracy requires something in between the ‘one’ of the state and the ‘many’ of citizens: the ‘few’ of intermediary institutions. Those are needed for two reasons.

First, the development and implementation of policy, jurisdiction, education, engineering, health care, management, etc. require expertise, experience and an ethic of profession and vocation, with support from professional or vocational associations.  

Second, for democracy to function in present times involvement of citizens is needed between public and private, in local forms of collaboration, in many areas: health care, schooling, training, employment, investment and entrepreneurship, spatial ordering, public amenities, etc. They are needed to personalize democracy and make it more direct.[ii] 

A deeper point here is that government from the centre, by the ‘one’, is based on a mistaken idea that policies and government can be universal, with rules and procedures that apply equally to all, regardless of specific, local conditions and personal circumstances. That has arisen from a laudable ideal of equality under the law. That should indeed apply to what is forbidden, to protect negative freedom. But for enabling people to exercise positive freedom, for a flourishing of life, it is an illusion. That needs to be locally rooted.

In this blog I have argued repeatedly against universalistic pretensions, and I have pleaded for recognition of Aristotelian phronesis: the ability to weigh and balance multiple, not necessarily commensurable and often conflicting, values and virtues, depending on local and individual circumstances. I granted that this is difficult and needs to be guided by role models. There, I propose, lies part of the task of a new elite. 

A related deeper point here is, as I picked up from a recent inaugural address by Gjalt de Graaf[iii], that while we are putting all the weight of democracy on positioning, in representation, elections, and referenda, democracy should be seen more as a process that involves citizens. And that should be seen not so much in terms of interests but in terms of underlying values that meet and clash, in the process.  

Intermediary roles used to be performed by churches and aristocracy. Liberalism has eliminated those but has not replaced them with a new elite to perform the legitimate functions of the few. There were good reasons for abolishing the old elites, for their indoctrination, paternalism and perversities of power. But they did have an ethic of service that is now lacking with the new elite that has arisen in the vacuum, driven by personal ambition and self-interest rather than service to some higher idea or society, producing new perversities of power. Latter day robber barons.

The new elite should be one of excellence in knowledge, virtues, character, expression, understanding, and the skill of phronesis.

The objection to aristocracy was that its position depended on where one is born. Liberalism  aimed to replace this by meritocracy: position based on merit. But the chance of getting on is still very much related to the position, wealth, educational level, and social contacts of parents. And as Milbank and Pabst put it, we now see how meritocracy tends to ‘.. throw up the ruthless and self-regarding … (with) their incessant pursuit of a sense of entitlement’[iv]. The merit should not be one of personal advancement but of public service with vocational excellence.

Professional and trade associations became suspect in shielding off their membership from competition and renewal. Any new elites and intermediary institutions should remain open for new ideas and for entry from all classes and regions. New elites should not congeal into oligarchy. 



[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The politics of virtue, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] I also argued this as part of a response to populism, in item 283 of this blog.
[iii] On 11th November, Free University of Amsterdam.
[iv] Milbank & Pabst, p. 221.