Allan Powell: American elites betray our trust

November 23, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

It was with great anticipation that I waited for the arrival of “Twilight of the Elites,” written by Christopher Hayes. One can only be amazed at his gifts in orchestrating his two-hour program every Saturday and Sunday morning. It is no exaggeration to compliment Chris so lavishly by saying that he produces a much more educative setting than any of his competitors. One reviewer of his new book went so far as to write, “Chris Hayes is a gift to this republic.” Chris is the closest thing to a walking encyclopedia that I have ever met.

Hayes makes a simple, straightforward and very serious charge: The elite leadership in our country who manage our major institutions has failed their duties as credible examples of what is properly expected of those at the top of our social ranks. What follows is a well-documented record of the failed performance of those who asserted that they were deserving of their social status. Their assumption that their success was proof of their adherence to the values of a meritocracy was a fraud. Talent, intelligence, ambition and integrity were smothered by greed, secrecy, influence peddling, shady deals and smart maneuvers.

Very few institutions evaded the piercing view of Chris Hayes. The bald fraud revealed in the collapse of Enron, the rampant deceit of mortgage brokers who found clever ways to trap unqualified buyers of expensive homes, rating agencies that gave AAA ratings indiscriminately, church leaders who protected priests from illegal practices, baseball players who used enhancement drugs to improve batting records and government that failed to provide relief in a massive flood disaster. The list goes on and on as the failed record of our elites becomes more tarnished.

Hayes identifies an inbuilt problem characteristic of meritocracies. As the system develops, there is a separation at work between the population reaching the top and those left behind. The elites become absorbed with their interests and maintaining their position at the top. The gap between the elites and those below steadily increases with the vital, stable, productive middle class pushed downward. Unfortunately, politicians identify with the elites and their demands in return for campaign funds.

Hayes is searching for a viable explanation and possible solution for the periodic surge and persistence of the power elites. Why is it so difficult for democracies and republics to contain the expansive outreach of elites? There is some clue given by those who study social class. Robert Michels, a German scholar put forward “The Iron Law of Oligarchy” as a possibility: “Who says organization says oligarchy?” Modern societies are dominated by huge organizations in which a few powerful persons are accountable for management. They, in turn, have a symbiotic relationship with all branches of government to promote and maintain the oligarchy — rule by the few, of the few, for the few.

The values of Wall Street are not honesty, fair play and merit as preached by those idealists and supporters of the idea of meritocracy. The real practice is smartness — bending the rules or breaking the rules through the use of clever lawyers, persuasive lobbyists and needy politicians. What began as a defense of equality of opportunity became a determined effort to maintain inequality of results.

There is now evidence of an interest in restoring the middle class as a source of balance and stability in our society. It has long been recognized that a vibrant middle class is essential to the economic and political stability of a republic. Very early in history, Plutarch gave a sage warning that, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

One of the most obvious facts of nature is the wide distribution of wit, ability, talent, energy and ambition. A society can be judged by its capacity and willingness to recognize all levels of its population and take proper account and care that those who are not blessed by fortune are not neglected. As Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Elites have a tendency to ignore those who can only “stand and wait.”

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at  Hagerstown Community College.

The Herald-Mail Articles