Liberal Elites


In Defense of Elitism, by William A. Henry III, New York: Doubleday, 212 pages, $20.00

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by Christopher Lasch, New York: W.W. Norton, 276 pages, $22.00

The United States, a nation founded by a self-conscious elite, is the most anti-elitist of nations. This is one of the paradoxes that has made the nation thrive. Elitism, however defined, is of course coextensive with all political and social life. The classical understanding of the hierarchy of human excellence, as most notably illuminated in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, is what made political life and progress possible.

But the very reference to the classical origins of the idea of human excellence, with its obvious implication of a division between superior and inferior, brings to mind one of the variations on elitism that has long been a pejorative: aristocracy. The common modern meaning of aristocracy suggests the institutionalized elitism of heredity or wealth that tends over time to corrupt both politics and creativity. It is the great innovation of liberal democracy to replace aristocracy with meritocracy; recall Thomas Jefferson's famous correspondence with John Adams about why the United States could dispense with an artificial aristocracy (which Adams desired to have) in favor of a "natural aristocracy" of excellence and virtue.

The flaw of democracy, as Tocqueville (an elitist par excellence) foresaw 150 years ago, is that the idea of equal rights—the central premise of democracy—would dissolve over time into an extreme, levelling egalitarianism. "The ills produced by extreme equality," Tocqueville warned, "only become apparent little by little; they gradually insinuate themselves into the body social." Liberty requires effort and sacrifice, while "equality offers its pleasures free." Neither gentle reason nor ferocious remonstrance seems to dissuade someone who has fallen under the egalitarian spell. "It is no use telling them that by this blind surrender to an exclusive passion they are compromising their dearest interests," Tocqueville warned. "They are deaf."

This background is useful in evaluating these two recent offerings on the subject of elites and elitism, which might seem to represent examples of authors miraculously cured of egalitarian deafness. Both William Henry, a senior writer and drama critic for Time magazine, and Christopher Lasch, a sociologist, have fashionably "liberal" credentials. Henry's plaintive passage boasting of being a Jesse Helms-hating "registered Democrat" and a card-carrying member of the ACLU brings to mind Phil Ochs's parodic tune, "Love Me I'm a Liberal." Lasch's 1978 book, The Culture of Narcissism, was rumored to be Jimmy Carter's favorite book and the inspiration for his notorious "malaise" speech.

Both Henry and Lasch offer up attacks on egalitarianism that sound like something from the pen of the young William F. Buckley Jr. Henry's book, clearly the better of the two, assails "quixotic liberals," "liberal tolerance gone haywire," and agrees that "we have taken the legal notion that all men are created equal to its illogical extreme." He begins and ends his book by announcing that his central theme is that "the wrong side (egalitarianism) has been winning." Lasch is less explicit about egalitarianism, but nonetheless offers that the "cultural diversity" movement (whose motive force is egalitarianism) is "clearly a recipe for universal incompetence."

The best parts of both books could be taken as clear signs that at least among a few honest-minded figures aligned on the left there is growing recognition of the foolishness of egalitarianism, and perhaps a new appreciation for liberty. Henry's book especially offers up many aphoristic attacks on egalitarianism that could have come from a radio talk show host. In some places, Henry throws down the gauntlet with in-your-face prose that is clearly intended to provoke more than persuade. The most widely quoted sentence in the book comes in a passage attacking the egalitarian premises of cultural diversity, where he bluntly notes, "It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose."

Henry argues that were we truly consistent, "Native Americans" would have to be called "Siberian Americans." He refers to the disabled-rights movement as "crippo liberation." He attacks the central rhetorical message of Democratic Party, Clinton-style politics, as the insinuation that "the gains of the rich are somehow ill-gotten" and behaving "as though all of one's salary belonged to the government in the first place, and it is only Uncle Sam's beneficence that determines how much one should keep." Most significantly, Henry concludes, "The missing element in every phase of American life, from education to culture to the thicket of identity politics, is what used to be called rugged individualism."

Lasch's book is more of a thematic muddle, just like most of his previous books, which political scientist Stephen Holmes once described as "glum mood pieces." But even allowing for the usual quotient of silly postulates the readers have come to expect from Lasch, there are still many arguments in his book to celebrate. Like Henry, Lasch deplores the aggrandizement of "self esteem," sanitized speech, and the "caring class" that feeds off these therapeutic nostrums. He laments the abolition of shame. He attacks Robert Reich, comparing his brand of interventionist, managerial economics with the mismanagement of the Vietnam War by Robert McNamara's "whiz kids." He criticizes at length the legacy of Horace Mann, blaming this usually revered figure for setting public education on direct course toward the blandness and mediocrity that afflicts it today. Public education, Lasch argues, "has never recovered from the mistakes and misconceptions built into it at the very outset."

The strongest common point of both books is their recognition that preserving racial grievances has become the vital necessity of egalitarianism and the multicultural movement, regardless of whatever real racism there is in society. Henry criticizes the "addictive attachment to past grievances," while Lasch argues that "the thinking classes'…eagerness to drag every conversation back to race is enough in itself to invite the suspicion that their investment in this issue exceeds anything that is justified by the actual state of race relations." Henry and Lasch recognize that the political utility of race baiting by the left, and the policies it justifies, are now causing rather than curing racial divisions.

But while there is much to appreciate in In Defense of Elitism and The Revolt of the Elites, both books are a bit like the cliché about Chinese food: filling but not really satisfying. In the case of Lasch, this criticism is easy to make out, because of his soft-collectivist communitarianism. For every worthy aphorism, there is a blooper that gives away the game.

Luxury is morally repellent, Lasch argues at one point, and incompatible with democracy. There is some of the old nonsense about the "third way" between open markets and the welfare state that died a much-deserved death in the 1980s. He also waxes romantic about populism, suggesting vaguely that populism could be a noble and uplifting basis on which to renew American political life. But he does not offer any reflections on the usual face of populism, which might be summarized in two words: Ross Perot. Populism is occasionally justly aimed—as in the case of the tax revolt—but more often, as the case of Perot shows, populism is simply the fancy dress name for demagoguery.

At the heart of Lasch's argument about the "revolt" of our elites is the idea that elitism in a democracy is only acceptable if the elites are conscious doers of good works. John Rawls receives only a single mention in the book, but the spirit of his famous argument is pervasive throughout the book: People may cultivate superior talents only if they can be proved to benefit the disadvantaged parts of society.

While it may be reasonable to speak of "reciprocal obligations" as a voluntary matter, an individual ethic that is praiseworthy on its own terms, you get the uneasy feeling reading the communitarian followers of Lasch that they would not hesitate, if they had the power, to try to institutionalize their vision of noblesse oblige.

Lasch doesn't like meritocracy, though he stops short of the common invective that all success is due to luck or sinister calculation. He is really annoyed at the mobility of the elites made possible by modern markets and technology. Whereas old money elites tended to be rooted in some local place, the new elites are rootless cosmopolitans who have more in common with their Asian and European commercial partners than with their American neighbors. The implication is that liberal guilt is a fine thing, and the elitism that Lasch, and to a more limited extent Henry, would obviously approve is the elitism of the Kennedy family: It's OK to make a pile as long as you feel guilty and "give back" other people's money.

Lasch doesn't formulate actual public policies, but he has always made a better Jeremiah than a Moses. The same complaint cannot be made of Henry. Henry not only offers specific criteria for recognizing a superior culture, he also offers the radical suggestion that the number of students who receive a college education be cut nearly in half. His favorite target for the education ax are the "community" colleges, which, he notes, used to be called "junior" colleges. And he argues that tenure for college faculty should be abolished: "Competing for one's job on an on-going basis could introduce a little more healthy elitism into the professorial lifestyle." If acerbic barbs about putting bones in noses don't set off the chattering class, this idea surely will. Henry is surely right, as David Frum has also argued recently, that much of the egalitarian excess of our time derives its energy from the bloated higher-education establishment.

While both books' criticisms about egalitarianism are most welcome, what's missing is a recognition that contemporary liberalism paved the way for our current condition by having no immune system to ward off the tendency toward extremism. It needs to be remembered that it was precisely because of the liberal collaboration with the crusade for the redistribution of income that the subsequent absurdities of radical egalitarianism became possible.

There is little recognition that classical liberal warnings about the poisonous effects of egalitarianism were right and should have been heeded decades ago. Henry only grudgingly admits that "even lifelong liberals of an elitist bent are forced to find common cause with conservatives" on these issues. But it is probably churlish to demand mea culpas, and the long-suffering friends of liberty should perhaps celebrate newfound allies against the relentless levelling current of our time. It is bad form to check the other fellow's dog tags in the foxhole while the battle rages. (Besides, these guys could use some friendly air cover: Since both Henry and Lasch died shortly before their books were released, we can expect the left to dismiss both books as being the products of "dead white American males.")

The real defect in Henry's argument is not simply that it is more of an attack on egalitarianism than it is a defense of elitism, but that his defense of elitism seems to be a defense of elitism for elitism's sake, rather than an argument that elitism can represent a standard of excellence that is good and defensible in itself. The success of Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues offers evidence that such a defense would find a wide and eager audience.

Henry's criteria for a superior culture include liberty, respect for science and art, a comfortable middle-class existence, recognition of hierarchy and authority, and a useful basis for perceiving the differ-ence between mediocrity and excellence. But for the real thing, for "elitism with-out tears or guilt," so to speak, readers should go back to Aristotle's Ethics.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is research and editorial director for Pacific Research Institute.