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elitismThere is a very famous phrase, “the tyranny of the majority,” that was introduced into political discourse by two near contemporaries in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French writer who wrote Democracy in America, travelled around this country trying to understand how it is that people can survive without an aristocracy. He was amazed to discover that they did, he being a member of the aristocracy. And while he thought that human life could change in a democratic direction, he discerned a permanent danger, which he described in these terms: the tyranny of the majority—that is to say, the danger that every public decision will be taken by the majority for the majority and disregard both the rights of minorities and the possibility of disagreement. He discovered that in America this tyranny of the majority had not emerged. So he asked the question, why?

John Stuart Mill, the famous English political philosopher, issued a similar warning. He worried that if one had a real democracy, which was then beginning to emerge in England and had already emerged in America, individuals, minorities, and legitimate groups would lose protection against majority opinion. And, as we know, majorities have more power than minorities. If they have the power to impose their views, then what happens to the minorities? What happens to the people who disagree?

Both Tocqueville and Mill recognized that a true political order can only exist if there is discussion about the issues of the day. There can only be discussion if there is legitimacy of disagreement. But people don’t actually like disagreement. So how do you make disagreement possible? How do you get the majority to accept the fact that there are people who are not part of it?

And it was understood, in America at least, that you need a constitution that in some way stands above popular sentiment and also sets a limit to it. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is what I call “the liberal fantasy”: the fantasy that people are basically nice, whereas power and privilege are nasty. And so we mustn’t have these powerful things like constitutions or rule of law, people who hold judicial office, or people who stand above the majority and tell them what to do. That’s because people, being basically nice, will always do the right thing as long as you leave them free to do so.

Now, most of you are young and have not yet had the full experience of the nastiness of other people—or the nastiness of yourselves. But there are plenty of opportunities out there, and that will, no doubt, change over time. Although some powers and purposes are nasty, others are necessary in order to make people nice. Incidentally, I think that’s part of what education is: we hope that you young people will emerge from your time here in some measure improved—not just having more knowledge, but having perhaps more ability to get on with others, to make your mark in society, to cooperate, to be the kind of person who doesn’t have to punch somebody in the face in order to have his way.

So people, in general, need managing. And I think all political philosophy needs, in the end, to reflect on what it is in human nature that creates this need for managing. There are certain aspects of the human condition which people are reluctant to think about. You are all reluctant to think about things in yourselves which you know not to be agreeable to yourself and to others. But there are also general features of the human condition which we find difficult to think about.

The first is envy and resentment. People feel resentment towards the goods, the status, the talents of others, and this is normal. Nietzsche, the German nineteenth-century philosopher who I’m sure you’ve encountered in one aspect or another, thought that ressentiment—he used the French word for reasons of his own—was the default position of human communities. In the end, it’s resentment that makes the world go round, and it’s why the world is so awful. And Nietzsche didn’t really belong to the world himself. He was a curmudgeonly kind of guy. He advocated a much more solitary approach to things than most of you would be able to manage. Leaving aside his so-called ‘positive philosophy,’ I think most people would recognize that he’s onto something. Sure, people resent each other, and one thing we most resent in others is the fact that they are doing better than we are. And that resentment is going to be always there—especially when we’re in close competition for something that we really want. We’re in competition for, say, a job or a lover or a social position or status, and we see the other person get it. And we can’t control what we feel.


John Stuart Mill

There’s another part of people that needs managing, however. This was much more interesting to John Stuart Mill, and it is the desire for orthodoxy. Mill believed that orthodoxy, rather than freedom of opinion, is the default position for human societies. He believed that orthodoxies prevail and that we take refuge in them. We know that if we repeat what everybody else is saying, even if we don’t believe it to be entirely true, nevertheless we’re safe, we’re not going to be attacked. And to stand out and say the thing that is generally disapproved of, even if it’s staring everybody in the face, requires courage.

Another feature of the human condition, which has been much emphasized by the French philosopher, critic, and anthropologist René Girard, is that we have an inbuilt need for scapegoating, for persecuting the heretic. If society’s in a difficult position, people are at loggerheads with each other, they’re not able to agree about some issue of the day, or perhaps there’s some threat facing them, it helps in a way to find a person to blame. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t actually to blame; we get hold of him and we persecute him, and we all unite against him and we all feel good about it. We all feel that we found the trouble and we’re getting rid of it. This is what Hitler did, of course, with the Jews in Germany in the inter-war period: he said, “Don’t worry. The reason our society is in total chaos is not because I’m in charge of it. On the contrary, it’s because of all those Jews who are uniting against us, conspiring to undermine the pure behavior of the Aryan majority. So we’re going to persecute them and get rid of them.” And I think if you look back over history, you will see scapegoating as one of the most important features of human society.

And all these three features point to the fact that forgiveness is hard for human communities and hard for individuals. It is difficult to forgive people for being better than yourself, to forgive people for standing out with an opinion of their own, to forgive people for just being the heretic. And penitence is rare. People don’t very often confess to their faults, nor do they undergo any kind of penitence or repentance in order to atone for them or to make amends. And I think you all know this from your own life. And we also know, however—partly because of our Judeo-Christian inheritance—that forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to the kind of social order that we enjoy. People can live at peace with each other in this society because they are ready to forgive others’ faults and to confess to their own faults.

Now, in the light of all these, you can see why it is dangerous to be—or to aim to be—a member of an elite. And in America it’s a fairly normal thing to apologize for being such a thing. Apology is an excellent thing, but it can be taken too far. You’re all used to the American habit of apologizing when someone bumps into you in the street—you spontaneously take the blame for everything that’s going wrong in order to have a kind of preemptive, peaceful relation. Apology in America is a kind of peaceful exit from the ghastliness of human society. Whenever it thrusts itself upon you, you say, “Sorry, sorry,” and you move off. Well, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but of course it doesn’t solve all problems.

The consequences of those features of the human condition are that, first of all, there is a kind of clamour for equality – and this is obviously the case, especially in this society. In every sphere today there is a desire to equalize. People don’t like hierarchies and privileges, and there is a natural disposition to say that they’re not deserved. When anybody claims some kind of hierarchical position, the question is raised, “Who is he? Who does he think he is? And by what right does he claim this superiority over me?” And hierarchical organizations, therefore, such as the Catholic Church, are attacked frequently as anachronisms. People say, “That was fine in the Middle Ages, but we don’t need things like that now—in fact, they’re somehow inherently incompatible with the kind of society that has evolved since.” And the Catholic Church, as you know, I’m sure, is suffering from this—and from other things, too—because people don’t accept this idea that there’s an authority handed down from above, embodied in the person and the office of the Pope and filtering down through all the bishoprics and so on, to the ordinary worshiper. In opposition to that idea you have the Evangelical churches that want to bring everything up from below, saying that the Holy Spirit visits us all equally.

Then again, wealth and privilege, culture and intellect, are all targets of resentment in our society. This is because it’s very hard to take pleasure in assets that you do not share. To take pleasure in somebody else’s good fortune is a rare thing. It involves a work of forgiveness: you have to forgive him for being better than you, for getting the girl that you wanted, and so on. And, as I say, forgiveness is rare. And yet, it is one of the traditional virtues of the American people to take pleasure in somebody else’s success. And I think this is one of the things that makes this society so hopeful. In Europe, it is extremely rare for people to take pleasure in any success except their own. And even then, the first thing that they do with their success is hide it, in case anybody else should know about it. Here, however, being successful, you go out and say, “Yeah, I’ve done it!” And other people who haven’t done it will nevertheless pat you on the back and say, “Great, I’m really pleased for you.” That’s partly because people in this society do recognize that there are opportunities for themselves as well. The sight of somebody achieving something reassures them that maybe one day they’re going to achieve, too.

But, because of the legacy of resentment and because forgiveness is rare, there is a desire to bring down the mighty and to make distinction either nonexistent or worthless. Not in every sphere—and I think this is extremely interesting. In sport, for example, talent is still universally recognized and widely praised. In some way, we feel we are not judged by another person’s sporting success. I would never have had a chance at American football, or indeed at any sporting enterprise, so I don’t worry. I measured my life so that I don’t compete in that sphere, so to speak. But it’s a very interesting question: why people in general don’t really worry much about distinctions in the realm of sport. One suggestion is that it’s so obvious there—that there couldn’t be a realm of sport if there weren’t people who excelled at it, and how could you possibly play a game if you didn’t have the goal of succeeding? It’s built into the very enterprise. But people doubt that it’s built into other enterprises which are really important to us.

There’s a downside to all this. The German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that in every human community there is a motive for the debtors to gang up to dispossess the creditors. And we see this happening in the political process, too: the majority will vote to dispossess the successful, because they believe that wealth doesn’t really belong to those people who’ve got it. Rather, it’s a social asset and it should be distributed more fairly. And through the state we can distribute it more fairly. We can tax the rich and distribute it amongst the rest of us.

And many political philosophers justify this—not quite in the crude terms that I’ve just uttered or the terms that Weber uses. Weber is just speaking the truth. Political philosophy is a wonderful tapestry of lies designed to hide this kind of truth. But John Rawls in his famous book on justice essentially thinks in the same way: wealth is a social asset and it is not owned until it’s distributed. Moreover, it has to be distributed according to a plan which takes account of the social needs of all people, and which, of course, has therefore to be put into action by the state. So, because of this feeling that assets are really in some way socially owned, the majority of people vote not only to redistribute the economic assets of society but also in some way to abolish the threat that is posed by universal education.

There’s been a move towards a curriculum without distinctions—so that everybody gets an ‘A,’ everybody emerges with an honors degree. And this, of course, has the effect of downgrading the value of a degree to the point where maybe there’s no reason to have one anyway. This poses a kind of threat to the education that you’re working so hard to achieve. I know you’re working hard or else you wouldn’t have come here today. You’re working hard not to be given a worthless document, but to be given something which actually shows that you’ve achieved, that your work was worthwhile.

But again, the majority can’t easily distinguish genuine culture, which is the province of a minority, from fake culture, which we can all acquire. And this is something which much concerns the advocate of classical music, because he knows that the classical tradition of music contains within it precious achievements, precious knowledge, and a precious world of feeling which requires a certain effort to enter. Many people say, “No, let’s not bother with that. Let’s just stay with Lady Gaga.” But, without saying anything about Lady Gaga, it is, nevertheless, worthwhile to make that effort. Until you’ve made it, though, you don’t know why. There are a lot of things like this in human life: you know the value of something only when you have become acquainted with it. But to get acquainted with it, you’ve got to be persuaded of its value. It’s a kind of paradox, isn’t it? It’s like Groucho Marx’s famous paradox of club membership: “Why should I belong to a club that would have me as a member?”

classical-period-string-quartet-1349964413-article-0As a result of these things, people begin to suspect the whole idea of judgment, concluding that it’s wrong to be judgmental. And the judge is becoming a kind of social outcast in our society. There are some consequences of this fact. One is the attempt to seize and redistribute the assets of the successful. The problem with this, of course, is that it penalizes success so that the assets are no longer there. And this is what we saw in Communist Europe: the confiscation of all the profits of any enterprise led to the disappearance of those profits, so there was nothing to redistribute in the end and society became poorer and poorer. But nevertheless, the majority clamours for more, which, as a result, forces governments to borrow from the future. We must have what we’re used to—not just the opportunities, but the entitlements that our government has promised us, even though there are less and less economic assets from which to renew those entitlements. And we’ve seen this in our societies all through the Western world, too – this borrowing from the future, about which many people are now extremely alarmed. What happens when the creditors say, “It’s time to pay us back”? We saw what happened in Greece and Portugal recently. Greece was rescued, of course, by the European Union, but only by transferring the problem to the rest of the Union. The problem hasn’t actually gone away. So there’s a growing indebtedness and a looming fiscal crisis, and most people would say that the day of reckoning has to come. And we don’t know what it will look like.

Another consequence is the destruction of high culture—the kind of culture that universities should be committed to purveying. Few people have a critical understanding of their own motives. The appetites trump reflection. And people are always looking around for the other person who is really to blame. And this leads in turn to hostility towards distinction in all its forms and a kind of expanding culture of mediocrity. “It’s okay to be what I am, and I don’t care if you think you’re better than me. I’m just happy as I am.”

But there’s an upside to all this. We can get through it. We all know that if you keep your head down, people will leave you alone. And that’s already at least a temporary solution to the problem. I, unfortunately, throughout my life have not kept my head down, and it’s a very bruised part of my anatomy. But it’s still here and I’m soldiering on. And now, having entered my seventies, it doesn’t really matter much what happens to me.

More importantly, we have accepted the need to protect minorities, even educated minorities. And that’s because we recognize in our hearts, especially if we have children, that we want opportunities not only for ourselves but for them. And therefore we do need a culture in which success is distinguished from failure. We may not know what sphere our children are going to be competing in, but nevertheless we do know that there is a difference between success and failure and we certainly don’t want them to fail. So people are not totally committed to mediocrity. I think all parents have a desire for standards in education. And all people who are making a sacrifice to achieve an educated worldview themselves accept that there must be standards. Why else would they be they doing it?

Moreover, parents are competitive. Competition lies in the nature of the reproductive process. Reproduction is not yet a thing of the past, which I’m sure you realize because here you are in this room. I know it doesn’t get a good press today and the numbers are going down, but, still, people do regard reproduction, if only as an unwanted byproduct, as something that happens. And then there those children are, and we do want them to succeed. Competition lies in the very nature of this process. Everybody in the room who has children knows this. You’re in charge of the life of this thing, you’re going to protect it, you’re going to make sure that it’s okay. And that is an essentially competitive attitude because the world is harsh. Real egalitarians, people who believe that equality is everything, tend to be childless—or else, like our politicians, they secretly secure advantages for their children while imposing mediocrity on everyone else.

So, I’ll offer a few defenses against mediocrity. As I say, minorities have rights, and one is the right of association. The right of association serves to protect their assets. We have a right to set up schools and colleges of our own. In a majoritarian culture, these two are under threat—in my country of Britain, they are under threat. Under a Labour government it may not be possible for private schools to exist anymore. But as long as we think there is a right of association, people will get together and try to rescue themselves. And that’s how things perhaps should be.

The lesson of the 20th century, however, is that everything beautiful has been prepared as a sacrifice. If you look back at what happened to Europe in the 20th century—if you look back at the most beautiful culture that has existed, really—you’ll see that everything beautiful in it was sacrificed. Not just the people, but the cities, the institutions, the beautiful systems of law that we inherited, everything was sacrificed—except in Britain, and even there it was fatally damaged. And I think that this is something that all human beings must acknowledge in the end: that everything beautiful is prepared as a sacrifice.

But we must go on, and to some extent we can. We should devise constitutions that contain something of the old idea of inheritance—constitutions which are obstacles to majorities so that they can’t tyrannize over the minorities that want to improve themselves. Then we need a kind of political discourse that conceals this fact from the majority. This is where things become difficult. You have to tell, in the end, a few lies. You have to say, “Of course, this society is all about equality.” And Americans have always said so even though they have a constitution which was carefully designed to prevent that from being the sole truth. The American constitution was designed to protect minorities, to protect people’s abilities to advance and to obey stricter standards than would be available for the majority alone.

And that’s the hardest task, but I think young people go along with it. They instinctively want to regard their activities as achievements. Meanwhile, however, you have to practice the art of concealment. There’s a beautiful Arabic word for this: taqiyya. It was introduced into the thinking of the Shiites in the Middle Ages in Iran, when they were living under Ottoman or Sunnite rule which forbad their particular form of religion. And the word taqiyya comes from their word for holiness, actually. They said, “You must practice these things: whenever confronted by another, learn how to say that you believe exactly as he believes, that you live your life exactly as he does. And inside, suffering plaintively but not revealing itself, is that soul which knows the truth.” Granted, that’s an exaggerated way of describing the condition of people like me, but it is still the case that one must make an effort to conceal sometimes. Now I’m not making an effort to conceal what I think so I’m in a dangerous position. I might become like that sacrificial victim, the scapegoat.

But this is the problem that afflicts us. The advice that must be given cannot easily be given openly. And you have to conceal your distinction in many circumstances of modern life. You don’t necessarily let on that you are less ignorant than your neighbor. Don’t confess to your culture or make any effort to criticize his lack of it. Joyfully condemn yourself as an idiot like him. One of my old students from Princeton came to stay the other day. He’s working at a high-flying financial institution in London, and I said to him, “Well, that’s great, what you’ve got there. It’s terrific. It’s worth all that effort you put into learning classical languages and the works of Goethe in German and all that philosophy I taught you.” And he said, “Yes, but much more useful was learning to talk about football because it’s the only thing they talk about in the office. Once I let slip a remark about Goethe and it became very clear that my career was on the line.” I replied, “Yes, of course, but didn’t I tell you about that?” And he said, “Yes, sorry, but I forgot.”

In the end you have to humbly confess to the right of the other as a member of the majority to determine the future of the society that includes you. You don’t let on that you have the secret desire to pass on another kind of culture. So, what kind of culture? These will be my concluding remarks.

cropped-800px-grand-_place_bxl1695_-012I think we do want to pass on, especially in universities, a culture that is based in knowledge and in the distinction between real knowledge and mere opinion. Obviously, it is very difficult for you personally to distinguish among your opinions the ones that are real knowledge from the ones that are not, because they’re all the same from your point of view. But, in the context of open debate in a university, you’ll come to realize that your opinions have different weight. Some of them are fragile and mean nothing. They don’t go into the balance of discussion in an effective way. But some, when you put them forward rightly, you can get others to believe in and to accept, because they are founded in something else.

And this knowledge must make judgments and set standards, it must distinguish the true from the false, the good from the bad, the virtuous from the vicious, and so on.

It must respect, I think, institutions, inheritances, and enduring traditions. That is one of the difficult things for people of my generation to put across to people of your generation. Obviously, the institutions that I inherited have changed an awful lot over the fifty years that I’ve been conscious of them. But I still believe, not in the value of all of them, of course—some of them have changed and some of them have been got rid of rightly—but nevertheless I believe in their core inheritance that’s responsible for me standing up here now and speaking my mind. And I want to pass that on. And I think it can only be passed on if we respect the idea that it’s already there.

It’s there because it’s been bequeathed to us by people who made sacrifices in order that it should occur. And we I think should learn to honour those sacrifices and to do our part in passing on these institutions and traditions in our turn. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything about them. We have to, on the contrary, make our own living contributions to them. And they have to be amended in lots of ways.

But I think, above all, we have to keep alive the collective memory of what we are as a people. That doesn’t reduce to merely what the majority of people presently happen to want. In America, especially, the demographic nature of the country changes rapidly from generation to generation, and yet there is a sense that we belong together and that we share the thing that we’ve inherited. We want to change aspects of it, but nevertheless without it we wouldn’t be peacefully together in the same place. And I think this involves an active work of memory in which we confront some of the bad things that have happened and nevertheless rescue from them the good things that we want to perpetuate. I think this collective memory must, in turn, be open to the idea of achievement and to the aspirations and ideals that people can still have in the changed circumstance.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute

This is an edited transcription of the address delivered by Roger Scruton at the University of Baltimore’s Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics as part of the inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. 

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48 replies to this post
  1. In my life, I have been accused of being, “an effete intellectual snob” (thanks to Spiro T. for that phrase).

    To which I invariably reply, “Yes? And why should I want to be a brutal, ignorant, slob?” Which causes no end of gibbering.

    The great irony is — my daddy was a carpenter, and my Mama was a seamstress, but — I valued education.

  2. Of course CS Lewis provided a valuable addition in the toast coda added later to his Screwtape Letters, giving a more personal touch. That piece and this, even if unintended, are searing indictments of democracy as a whole. Indeed one may show, over the past two centuries, the inverse relationship between declining aristocratic power and civilisation. It puts venerable American prejudices into an unfavourable light, yes?

  3. Mr. Scruton: a thoughtful, elegant piece. And while it’s not the crux of your position, I must point out that Twelver Shi`i taqiyya (or kitman) developed long before the Ottoman-Safavid spats–it first arose among Shi`a minorities in the Abassid caliphate in the 9th c. AD.

  4. So majority rule ends up in tyranny, but elites are above ruling that way?

    In addition, the only possible motivation which the majority can have in trying to get what the elite has is jealousy?

    Aren’t these views rather convenient depending on one’s position in life?

    We should note that when powerful nations are attacked or go to war, they often tell their people that the reason why others are fighting them is jealousy. When we were attacked on 9-11, I believe George Bush said something to the effect that those who attacked us hated us for our freedoms. I believe the same was said by the leaders in Germany during the beginning of WW I.

    Let’s go back to the first question. If we reduce democracy merely to being a set of political processes or structure, then certainly a tyranny could arise. But tyrannies can arise out of any political process or structure. And tyrannies are there to serve those in power.

    Now regarding the second question. The question not asked here concerns how elites got their position. We know that in America, many elites got, and still get, their positions in society through exploitation. Slavery was just one way by which some exploited others. So did those slaves want what their masters had only because of jealousy? Today, paying employees poverty wages are a way by which some gain an advantage. Not caring about the environmental impact of one’s methods is another way by which some gain an advantage. Offshoring jobs to sweatshop, trafficked, or slave labor is another way by which some gain an advantage. And when elites want to take credit for what others do for them or for how others have contributed to them, then what we see can be called a form of plagiarism. And when this occurs, what we have are elites who are in denial of the interdependencies that that allowed them to excel.

    Returning back to the first question, we should note that democracy can be defined by the set of political processes being used to make decisions, but it can also be defined as a state of being for society. And with the latter definition, what we see is not only groups of people pressing their own demands, they are pressing the demands of those who are being marginalized. Such is an ethic that protects us from the tyranny of the majority, if we are a democracy in terms of political processes, and calls for resistance when we are not such a democracy.

    • Why should the ethic you speak of be called democracy? It seems you want to concede Scruton’s point – that one cannot simply trust liberty and order to majority rule alone – whilst limiting the consequences of that concession as far as possible.

      One problem with doctrinaire democratism and populism is that you always have leaders and elites. Human society cannot get rid of them. If you try to ignore this fact you don’t get rid of elites and leaders, you simply tend to get bad or unsuitable ones.

      • If you go to the definition of democracy, you will find that political structures alone do not guarantee it. So in one sense, I conceded Scruton’s point. But on the other hand we need to realize that democracy, that the democratic structures are necessary for society to be truly democratic. And this point that you need the right ethics with the right structure has been made by Christians on the right when they claim that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and people like Rosa Luxemburg, I believe, on the Left when talking about the right personal ethics in a working Socialism–she and others did not view Vlad Lenin as a real socialist.

        So we need an equal hearing of concerns and solutions from all. We need more participation by all in the political process. We need to realize that elite rule never brings democracy. It may bring some personal liberties, or really privileges, for some, but never democracy.

        And another problem with elite rule is that our tasting success in life becomes more vicarious than actual. That is the more we promote and rely on elites, the more we glory in their grandeur than in our own life experiences. And thus our measure for success will be more based on what the elites have than on what the rest of us have. Such a measurement allows us to increasingly ignore the hardships and deprivation experienced by the least of those in our society. And thus we neglect the poverty and exploitation. We care less and less for them because our concern is to make sure that we are riding on the coattails of our heroes.

        • All societies have an elite, an aristocracy. The only question is if it’s a good elite or a bad elite. Certainly the Greeks and Romans wrestled with this issue, what qualities should be encouraged in their elites with things like wisdom, virtue, and nobility of character being high on their lists with other qualities, like dishonesty, self-seeking, and lust for power being things to be avoided.

          So, do you want a society that promotes moral excellence in its leaders, or one based on cunning and skill at bamboozling the public?

          • Eric,
            Claiming to be special is normal. Claiming to be so in to gain power is also normal, but history has shown to be harmful. Elite rule means those at the top make decisions for me while I am told to mind other business because I am not qualified to offer input.

            With elite rule, you end up with dueling elites where each group of elites is trying to market themselves to the populace as their best representatives. What follows is a paternalistic relationship between elites and the rest. And if we follow the history of power, which elites would have, we see that power can corrupt or attract the corrupt. In the meantime, again, people like me are told to mind other business.

            It was elitism that caused the purges in both the French and Russian Revolutions. And both ended up with dictators as rulers.

            See, we can present our group or favorite set of elites as the best option to the public. And here, according to you, it will be in the name of ‘moral excellence.’ But whose morality? And Scripturally speaking, how morally strict does the NT expect society to be? And, finally, by claiming moral excellence over others, aren’t we returning to the parable of the two men praying where the pharisee claimed moral superiority because he didn’t do what the publican did? And didn’t that caused him to be blind to his own sins?

        • Democracy can mean quite a few different things. You appear to be using it to mean the rule of law and range of liberties. This is not the obvious definition of democracy. Democracy more usually just means majority rules (of course, one can challenge whether the people should mean just 50% +1, but anyway).

          Elite rule is just another name for rule, another name for leadership and governance. There is only elite rule. As John Adams pointed out, if you gathered a hundred men of the street and formed them into an assembly, soon twenty-five would be aristocrats, commanding the votes of at least one other assembly member than themselves.

          We must reconcile ourselves to elites. And elites can govern well, socially and politically. They can exhibit greater knowledge, taste, and statesmanship than average. What you are implicitly referring to is a small, haughty, unaccountable elite rule. This is certainly not a good thing. We need a broader, more accountable, wiser kinds of elite. But we don’t achieve that with doctrinaire populism and democratism that ignores the reality of elite leadership.

          And, by the way, yes it is important not to be blind to exploitation (there is little real poverty in the contemporary West) in society as a whole, but our first and foremost moral duties are the perennial personal moral duties. That is, first and foremost we must cultivate the permanent things, like virtue, respect for perennial institutions and values, and right thought and action in our everyday interactions. Concern with sympathy and humanitarianism at a society wide, even global, level has its place, but it only comes after our more immediate moral concerns. A wise and good elite can indeed be a good model for moral action, and moral exemplars and imaginative models can be important moral influences.

          • Wessexman,
            The most obvious definition of a democracy is based on the political structures the public uses to make decisions alone. But a subset of the public can seize control so that not all of the people share in the ruling of society. When the group that has control has its identity based on religion, race, ethnicity, or national identity, you have an ethnocracy (btw, that term comes from American-Israeli activist Jeff Halper as he compares Israel’s democracy with both the Jeffersonian model and Eastern Europe’s model). When the controlling group is based on economic class, you have a classocracy with either the bourgeoisie or the proletariate in control.

            But in all of these ____ocracies, what you have the rule of some of the people, not all. And when you have that, what you have is a competition that is either literally or figuratively a cutthroat competition.

            So what I am saying is this, without the ethic of wanting to share society with others as equals, the political structure does not yield a democracy. That means that if we want a democracy, we have to be willing to press the demands of others, especially the marginalized and vulnerable, in addition to our own.

            Elite rule is not just another name for rule. It means that a particular group whose individuals meet certain credentials not met by most people are in control, And history tells us that the first concern of elite rulers is maintaining the status quo–that is out of self-interest.

            You can cite Adams while I prefer to cite Madison who, when debating about the office of the Senate in the Constitutional Debates, stated that the job of government is to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Remember that the reason why The Constitution was written was because American elites were alarmed by widespread dissent and Shays Rebellion. And that most of the people in that convention were well off if not financially elite. In other words, they wrote The Constitution in large part to protect their own interests. One should note the percentage of Americans who could legally vote right after the writing of The Constitution.

            See, you can choose whatever elites you want to follow. Realize that there are competing elites and so you will be entering a king-of-the-hill fray where the pendulum is forever swinging back and forth. Also realize that those who don’t share your taste in elites will not appreciate the control you want exercised over their lives.

            I am choosing a different path. My path wants the elites to join us but they join us as equals. And while your path revolves around authoritarianism, which is not surprising for a site that represents a religiously conservative wing of the Christian Church, the path I’m choosing is to encourage independent thought and decision making.

            Realize that we’ve had elite rule for a long time in America and such simply is tearing the nation apart–something you should expect in a system that depends on dueling elites.

  5. This article reminds me of what Richard Weaver wrote about H.L. Mencken:

    “If Mencken had what could be termed a political philosophy, this could be summed up as a belief in natural aristocracy. Such belief had not the slightest connection with snobbism; he felt sincerely that the maximum of liberty will prevail when the better element is in control, for they will effectively preserve a decent minimum of order, while allowing the remainder of mankind to be fools in their own way. Democracy to him meant plebianism, which is the rule of the masses in the name of their vices.”

    Which vices exhibit the return of paganism.

  6. Like it or not, society has always had elites. Even modern sociologists acknowledge this. Elites are those figures who take upon themselves the more subtle task of becoming what some sociologists call “representative characters” who are as much a product of society as their own efforts.

    Alasdair MacIntyre says such characters “are, so to speak, the moral representatives of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world.”

    Representative characters take the principles, moral qualities, and virtues desired and needed by their communities and translate them into concrete programs of life and culture. They quickly transform thought into action, doctrine into reality, and tendencies into fashions. That is to say, these figures perform a value function in society by setting the tone and providing unity and richness to a culture.

  7. Curt Day,

    There are several problems with your arguments. The first one is you seem to think democracy is necessarily a good thing and only a good thing. Good, just, and free government is what I’m interested in. This does mean that, as far as possible, the interests of all people (and not just the average or middles classes) are looked after. But it is not a synonym for democracy. Democracy, to a degree, is often a means towards this end, but it is not the end of good government itself.

    Secondly, the people as a whole cannot rule. They cannot deliberate and for the most part will be led by others, though occasionally might make their voices heard. To ignore this is to ignore a basic fact of human social organisation. You give no real indication of how to get rid of elites.

    Thirdly, you are using a strawman. I explicitly said that a narrow, small, and self-interested elite is a bad thing, but this is clearly the only way you are using the term. Elites will always rule to a degree. Ignoring that will not get rid of them. It will just mean unsuitable or bad elites rules. I wish to make sure a broad, diverse, wise, virtuous, accountable, and often locally and regionally rooted elite rules. I want an elite made up of all sorts of people – local notables and landowners, local community elders, scholars, priests, businessmen, heads of important local associations, and so on. I said nothing about the elite you described or authoritarianism. It is probably a good idea not to put words into one’s opponent’s mouths.

    • Wessexman,
      What is wrong with democracy when it is used to define a state of being for society? What is wrong with sharing society with others as equals?

      And as for good and just government, please tell me the standards you are using for such government?

      It is counterintuitive, but true, that political conservatives prefer elite-centered rule. It is counterintuitive because conservatives are always badmouthing the consolidation of power. In reality, the conservative protest against the consolidation power depends on who has the power. And in that sense, conservatives show themselves to be no different from any other group that favors elite-centered rule. And we should note here that elite-centered rule can originate from the private as well as the public sector.

      Also, your second point objects to direct democracy. Realize that a republic like ours is constructed to be more of a representative democracy. Thus, democracy can still exist in larger groups of people. However, people must be vigilant in monitoring their government in a representative democracy. And here, whether the representative political structure yields an actual democracy depends on whether those elected represent all the people, rather than just select groups of the people. The more we monitor our elected officials, the more likely that will occur.

      Also, tell me how many elites who have enjoyed ruling power have not acted primarily in their interests? List them. What you call a strawman many others would call history.

      Finally, what has hurt the functioning of our democracy are the values that have carried over from capitalism. The greed and competition has made our democracy a place where each group has been taught to get as much as they can for themselves without regard for others. This goes back to the multiple definitions of democracy with one of them being the state of being for society. Despite the political structures, when the democratic processes are used to press for one’s demands only, the result will be anything but a democracy where the groups share society with each other as equals.

      • I am not an American. I’m an Englishman, as my name suggests.

        I didn’t actually say that democracy was wrong. What I said was democracy is not the standard for good government. In other words it is not the end but the means. So it may certainly be true more democracy is not always best. It is not enough to say something is democratic to say it is good.

        The standards for good, just, and orderly government are complex. But, aside from basic order, I would suggest things like the rule of law, non-oppressive government, government in favour of all sections of society, respect for civil society and intermediate associations, respect for personal liberty, as minimal. A government that does not discourage, and in its limited way, the perennial virtues and associations of mankind, like spirituality, prudence, humility, compassion, and so on, would also be good.

        But you don’t really respond to the central point: there is always elite rule. This is obvious in representative democracy. It is actually a little less so in a direct democracy, though even there almost all such bodies would have elites that dominate.

        To be honest, I’m not really sure what point you are trying to make. You seem to object to elites and wish for democracy, but now you seem to support representative democracy. So you can’t be for the most democracy possible. Those like Scruton and I are not for supporting narrow elites, nor are we necessarily for getting rid of all forms of democracy. All we are pointing out is that there will always be elite rule, that there can be benefits to this rule if the right elite is selected and guided, and democracy is not the end or standard of good government. Nothing we have said is against liberal parliamentary government and local self-rule. I do not want a narrow elite dominating. I want the encouraging of a widespread, wise and virtuous elite ranging from the very wealthy and influential to teachers, local priests, and parish notables, as well as plenty of checks and balances.

        All forms of government can be abused. And, of course there is the problem of defining what is good and bad in terms of government forms. I think it is highly contentious, if not just wrong, to suggest that more democracy and populism has been shown to always have improved governance.

        • Tried to answer before but the computer fouled up so I hope this is repeat of what I wrote. I will try to answer in a more brief manner.

          Our contention here is whether elite rule is part and parcel to democracy, especially a representative democracy. I am not saying that elite rule cannot exist in a representative democracy. I am saying that if we are referring to a state of being for democracy, then elite rule does not always follow democratic political structures. It depends on whether we have elected representatives or leaders.

          But it also depends on how much citizens participate in the monitoring of and speaking out to our elected officials. The more that citizens participate in their government, the less elite rule exists. The less citizens participate in their government, the more elite rule exists.

          And here, I am not reducing participation to voting every x number of years. The more we reduce participation to voting only, the more elite rule we have. So in addition to voting, citizens need to be aware of what is going on and educate themselves, speak out at meetings on the local level, participate in protests, participate in civil disobedience if necessary, discuss political topics with others,participate in boycotts, and so on. These practices are as important as the right to vote. And speaking of voting, voting for third party candidates is essential for voting to work at making democracy a state of being for society.

          Finally, we need an economic system that allows us to pay the necessary attention to the government so that they can participate more fully. An economic system that demands too much time and energy from its people to make a living robs the people of the right to participate politically.

          Again, reliance on elite rule leads to self-serving leadership. It also leads to a perpetual king-of-the-hill battle between competing elites. And the more that happens, the more authoritarian our society becomes.

          BTW, representative democracy is a necessity here, not a preference. And it is a necessity because of the size of the population.

          • Then there are two sides areas in which your argument is open to question.

            The first is why is it better to have more and more citizen input? Of course there must be checks and balances, and popular input. But is there not a wide scope – both locally and nationally – in which most people cannot aid much and would do better to look to the qualified.

            The second is how does what you suggest really avoid elites. You still politicians and political parties and bureaucrats and media at the top of the structure. Even in protests and the like there is likely to be a leadership and hierarchy. Sure you may get a little more popular input, but I don’t think you get rid of elites. And is your elite the best elite. Protest leaders don’t strike me as better than teacher, scholars, local elders and notables, priests, and so on. I’d rather have a wide, diverse local elite, balanced by local popular input s well as prudent but limited national government, which balances popular input and the need for leadership.

          • wessexman,
            You want more citizen participation because you want power to be more distributed. If you don’t like the centralization of power, you want more sharing the power.

            But my guess is that the conservative concern is that is not about the centralization of power, but around who the power is being centralized.

            As for party leaders, again, we are looking at the kind of participation involved. If you are talking about people following leaders, you have the centralization of power to deal with. If the participation you are talking about having representatives who represent their people, then we are not talking about elites.

            The liberal-conservative model is about finding the right elites to lead. And after the leaders have been chosen, then the people are to go back to their own lives because democracy is over until the next election.

            This liberal-conservative model allows for an economic system that consumes so much of lives of the citizens that a true democracy becomes impossible.

            But realize that elite rule is centralized rule. And the first concern of the rulers in elite rule is to maintain the status quo. That was what The Constitution was all about. That you construct a government that protect the minority of the opulent against the majority

            (see for source for the quote. It comes from the Constitutional Debates)

  8. “And here, according to you, it will be in the name of ‘moral excellence.’ But whose morality? ”

    And thus we have the grubby cynicism of the left wing. To the left wing, there is no such thing as objective morality let alone moral excellence. Humanity is just a bunch of rats fighting to see who becomes the King Rat. Everything is based on self-interest and the expoitation of others. With such a rotten world view as their basic operating principle, is it any wonder the left wing has such a horrible moral legacy?

    • Eric,
      The Left is not as morally relative as you believe. And that is apparent in the comments I’ve written. There are general moral principles on which all agree such as prohibitions against murder and theft. There are disagreements in terms of what constitutes murder and theft, but, generally speaking, there is a recognition of those principles in general.

      In addition, the left recognizes equality as an important moral principle. There are disagreements about how equality is achieved, but the Left recognizes that.

      So we have both a greater universal recognition of general moral principles than what you are giving credit for. However, one of the areas in which there is a great disagreement regarding morality concerns sexual issues. Should Biblical sexual rules be used to govern society?

      Finally, a true sign of elitism can be seen blatant attempts to discredit whole groups so that others will not listen. So do you understand why there is this battle over elitism, both intramural battles as well as external ones.

      • “However, one of the areas in which there is a great disagreement regarding morality concerns sexual issues. ”

        There is no “Great disagreement” other than the left wing trying to normalize and even celebrate (and profit from) sexual immorality. And this is a very recent development. Whatever their other differences, for thousands of years the sexual morality of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been largely the same. But the left wing and feminists have largely adopted the sexual “Ethics” of the porno industry, meaning that casual sex, recreational sex, indeed, any sex at all that isn’t coerced (meaning: rape) is perfectly okay, even commendable.

        • Eric,
          Since the Left disagrees with the Right regarding sexual issues, then there is disagreement. Tell me why your view of sexual immorality should be the legal norm for all people.

          BTW, you would be surprised to find out how many conservatives engage in sexual immorality even if it involves pornography. While there are some on the left who very much oppose practices like pornography.

          On the other hand, those on the left oppose the violence and destruction sanctioned by American exceptionalism while only some on the right do the same.

          So we could either act like the pharisee from the parable of the two men praying by pointing out our strengths and the other side’s weaknesses. Or are sinners and no one deserves a pedestal.

          • “Tell me why your view of sexual immorality should be the legal norm for all people.”

            1. I already explained it. Our version of sexual morality has been around for thousands of years and is endorsed by all the monotheistic religions (and probably most of the other ones as well).

            2. It is not MY view of sexual morality, but God’s. Our views simply conform to HIs. In contrast, the left wing view explicity rejects the morality of God and instead embraces the morality of hedonism.

          • Eric,
            The Christian of sexual morality has been around in Christian Europe for a couple of thousand years. But what about those who are not Christian. In a land where religious liberty is valued, why must the nonChristian be bound by the gov’t to follow a sexual morality that is not a part of his religion?

            In addition, why do we need to legislate sexual morality when we can preach the Gospel? The more we rely on evangelism alone to promote a Biblical sexual morality, the less we are forcing our views on others who don’t share our faith. After all, was’t that Paul’s view in I Cor 5? Note the issue and then what he says in around vs 12. That his job wasn’t to monitor society. Instead, his job was to monitor the Church. Shouldn’t Paul’s model of behavior there be ours?

      • “In addition, the left recognizes equality as an important moral principle. ”

        What *kind* of equality? To Americans, equality means “Equality before the law” or the political equality of “One man, one vote”. Those are *good* forms of equality.

        But there are also bad forms of equality. An equality that seeks to tear down excellence and replace it with mediocrity. an “Equality” based on envy and resentment. And then there is the Marxist fetish with “Material equality”, which is to worship at idols and make material things the sole measure of value.

        • Eric,
          There is no equality before the law when laws can be bought.

          BTW, there is a bad kind of excellence too. When excellence is used to exploit others or neglect those in need. BTW, capitalism also worships materialism.

          And we need to distinguish between equality and being identical. Not all anti-Captialists believe everyone should have the exact same amount. At the same time, when the acquisition of one’s resources hurts others, then questions have to be asked.

  9. ” In other words, they wrote The Constitution in large part to protect their own interests. ”

    More left wing cynicism. Why is it that left wingers feel the need to slander the motives of everyone else? Note how left wingers always assume everyone else’s motives are rotten whereas their own are pure as snow. I guess they never read that part about removing the beam from their own eyes before pointing out the speck in the eyes of others.

    • Eric,
      When one reads the then contemporary documents, such as the Constitutional Debates and Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington, one realizes that The Constitution was written in response to American rebellion against American elites. And the The Constitution strengthened the federal gov’t and centralized powers more than they were in order to control further attempts to change the status quo.

      Now the problem with elitism is that it makes it more difficult to see the weaknesses of our “heroes”

      • “When one reads the then contemporary documents, such as the Constitutional Debates and Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington, one realizes that The Constitution was written in response to American rebellion against American elites. ”

        That’s a very one sided and self-serving explanation designed to, as I said above, trash the motives of America’s Founders. Left wingers LOVE to slander the motives of others, oddly, however, they rarely examine their own.

        • Eric,
          I simply listed the documents to read. If you don’t want to read them, that is fine.

          In addition, there is no trashing of our founding fathers if what I am writing is true. In addition, it puts them in the same boat as most people in the world. There is a difference between trashing reducing the height of pedestals.

          • The point is, you attacked the motives of our Founders, which is a common left wing tactic. In a levelling effect, they try to tear down the good and the excellent while celebrating the mediocre and the rotten. That is probably why the left wing promotes and celebrates sexual immorality. If they can persuade people to reject God in this, then it’s easier to tear down their belief in God and the Good in other things as well.

          • Eric,
            Challenging the founding fathers’ motives is not wrong. Neither is everything associated with the Left is wrong. Neither is everything associated with the Right is wrong.

            I didn’t accuse the Founding Fathers of being any different from many elites through history including today. I certainly didn’t demonize them. I simply described them in terms of how a historical context should remember.

            The disagreement you have is that you regard the founding fathers as being exceptional in a positive sense. It is not demonizing them to challenge their exceptionalism.

            I fear that many of my fellow religiously, not politically, fellow conservative Christians think that our founding fathers are to politics what the apostles were to writing theology. I disagree with that assessment and I think history strongly supports my point of view. But I do understand why you are upset with my view.

  10. “That means that if we want a democracy, we have to be willing to press the demands of others, especially the marginalized and vulnerable, in addition to our own.”

    That is itself a very elitist, condescending, and paternalistic attitude. It is to treat such people as children who need a Big Brother to look after them as opposed to respecting their inherent dignity by treating them like adults who can speak for themselves.

    • Eric,
      How is it condescending to regard and treat others as equals? How is it condescending to recognize when others are being abused or exploited by those who have the power to do so? People exploiting people is an often repeated theme in human history and confirms the Biblical message that tells us that all have sinned.

      And when we do look out for the marginalized, we don’t paternalistically, we do as equals by standing in solidarity. But I don’t think the alleged paternalism is what really bothers you.

  11. The reader comments are interesting, but how do any of you explain the fact that—to my mind, at least—the high water marks of Western Civilization were arrived at under aristocracies? A few examples: Periclean Athens, Rome under the Republic, the Italian Renaissance.

  12. “The disagreement you have is that you regard the founding fathers as being exceptional in a positive sense. ”

    The Founders WERE exceptional, and for you to try to slander them for ideological reasons (falsely accusing them of being motivated by selfishness and greed) is to deny them an honor they have earned. It’s no different than taking a student who has honestly eaerned an “A” and giving them a “C”, or giving the bronze medal to an Olympic athlete who has earned the gold.

    It is interesting how left wing ideology seems to be based, in large part, on a hatred of excellence and a love of mediocrity.

    • Eric,
      Challenging the exceptionality of the found fathers is not slander. And disagreeing with the grade you give them doesn’t imply anything about my motives. We simply disagree because we are seeing things and people from different perspectives. We could compare those perspectives with the facts on the ground to see where our perspectives are confirmed or need adjusting.

  13. Or, let me put this in a different perspective. You seem to be an admirer of the Rev. Martin Luther King. What if someone in the future were to treat him the same way you are the Founders, not attacking him necessarily, but simply downgrading or refusing to recognize his achievements, saying things like “He made a few nice speeches, but lots of people have done that so what’s the big deal?” Or else to claim he was only doing it to become famous and attract attention, thus diminishing his motives?

    That’s how I feel when you claim the Founders were motivated mainly by self-interest and that what they did was not particulary exceptional or worthy of praise and recognition.

    • Eric,
      I do admire King, but I am slow in recognizing his faults.

      As for the founding fathers, remember what The Constitution was written in response to. It was in response to an American rebellion and dissent against American Elites. And many of the writers of The Constitution were some of the elites who were the targets of that rebellion and dissent. That is the historical context of the writing of The Constitution. Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington as well as the Constitutional debates show this to be the case. You could even include Federalist #10.

  14. “As for the founding fathers, remember what The Constitution was written in response to. It was in response to an American rebellion and dissent against American Elites. ”

    It was FAR more than that. It was nothing less than setting up a truly idealistic form of government (not the phony idealism of Marxism), one that could combine liberty and democracy in a way that had never been done before. That’s a truly amazing accomplishment, and deserves to be recognized as such.

  15. Eric,
    First, let’s compare things. When Marx searches for utopia, it is wrong–and I agree with that assessment. However, what is the difference between our founding fathers’ truly idealistic form of government and a search for utopia?

    Second, If one is setting up a gov’t to secure a status quo that is favorable to oneself, how is it that one can also set up a truly idealistic form of government?

    Third, what about the racism that was explicitly stated in the Constitution?

    Finally, again, I am only looking to knock down some pedestals. Why? Because with pedestals and elitism come authoritarianism. Look up the traits of authoritarianism and see if you agree. In addition, have you read the Constitutional Debates?

    • “However, what is the difference between our founding fathers’ truly idealistic form of government and a search for utopia?”

      Because the Founders’ version was meant to work in the real world, with real people with all of their real strengths and weaknesses.

  16. “Finally, again, I am only looking to knock down some pedestals. ”

    To knock down pedestals that have earned the right to be there is to engage in moral vandalism. Just because your ideology loathes the idea of greatness, of excellence, doesn’t mean these qualities shouldn’t be celebrated. To deny recognition (and celebration) of greatness, excellence, and achievement to those who have earned it is a form of injustice. It is like, as I mentioned earlier, like giving a C to a student who has earned an A, or a bronze medal to an athlete who has earned the gold.

  17. Curt Day,

    Your last reply to me didn’t really respond to my main points. In particular you have not shown how to avoid elite rule.

    Elite rule does not have to centralised. Even in local government and society you get elites, especially if the central government does not usurp their functions. I support strong, broad, and balanced local elites of elders, notables, teachers, priests, and so on, balanced by popular input. There needs to be central government power, but I would not have a local government and society usurped by central government and elites.

  18. C.S.LEWIS “We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as i can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are the dupes of their favorite newspapers are the intellectuals.”

    WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: “No feature of the Hiss case is more obvious, or more troubling as history, than the jagged fissure, which did not open so much as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them. It was not invariably, but in general, the “best people” who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to any length for him. It was the enlightened and powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut in a pro-Hiss psychosis of a kind which, in an individual patient, means the simple failure of the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and, in a nation, is a warning of the end.”

    Chambers was prescient, as the attacks on Trump, and on the Tea Party, by the Procrusteans who command the microphones reveal.

  19. Let me modify. Thomas Szasz would have bridled at “psychosis,” and John Lukacs would have corrected “inability” to “unwillingness.” Plumbing that unwillingness would be the challenge.

  20. Plumbing that unwillingness may not take us very deep, though, as the erudite admonishment of Earl Weaver, former manager of the Baltimore Orioles, may suggest: “It’s what what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

  21. The basis for criticizing privilege boils down to the following simple argument. It is very difficult to respond intelligently to critiques of privilege without understanding it. It isn’t a question of democracy vs. aristocracy. It isn’t about who is or isn’t advantaged. It is about the simple differences between rights, earned privileges, and unearned privileges–and what constitutes an earned privilege that a person has a right to retain.

    A right is something that a person possesses merely by virtue of existing. Many of our right are _recognized_ (but not _granted_) in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. You cannot legitimately deprive a person of a right no matter how much you despise that person or are disgusted by the way he or she exercises it without due process of law to show that their actions have violated the rights of others in some way.

    And earned privilege is one that a person qualifies for by taking some action, her- or himself, to demonstrate competence and integrity in its exercise. A license to practice medicine or law is an earned privilege. So is a driver’s license. Earned privileges can be revoked for incompetence or malfeasance. No one is born with them.

    Sometimes, earned privileges bring side benefits to their holders. For example, doctors and lawyers often get rich, sometimes becoming more wealthy than their neighbors. Is that OK? Yes, as long as the benefits they provide outweigh the problems caused by inequality. If the life of the worst-off person in the community is enhanced by the availability of professional, science-based medical care, no one will begrudge the doctor’s wealth. But if that care is only available to the elite, then how can we say that the doctor is practicing equitably in a society of presumed equals? We can’t. And that sort of discrimination with respect to medical care could amount to a degree of malfeasance that could delegitimize the privilege.

    An unearned privilege is one that has no rational basis. The holder did nothing to earn it. There is no easy way to tell if it is being exercised competently or ethically. The person holding it often doesn’t realize that it isn’t a right–especially if the person acquired it by accident of birth. For example, a child of parents who graduated from a certain university might be accepted as a legacy, despite bad grades and discipline problems. The child might continue to goof off and act up as a student there, not even realizing what she or he is missing by way of education. But the faculty and other students know. They might try to remonstrate with the errant student until eventually he or she is finally kicked out. Meanwhile, that seat is not going to another student who actually earned their qualification.

    I don’t think you’ll find anyone, liberal, progressive, or even communist, who has an argument with the justice of earned privileges and the benefits that can accrue to those who continue to earn them on a daily basis. Unfortunately, they often use sloppy language. So when you hear the word “privilege” used in a negative sense, what they are referring to is “unearned privilege.” And if you can find a way to justify the retention of unearned privilege without at least requiring some measure of virtue in its exercise, you’re smarter that I am. Because, for the life of me, I can’t.

    Not in any context.

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