If you're reading this, it's likely that you are the type of person who has an awareness of the economic and cultural questions of our time, is concerned with some aspect of society's development and is a member of an elite. I say an elite because while we refer to "the elite" as a concrete group of others, the members of society who influence policy and cultural norms are not a monolith. And yet, elites are more ideologically homogeneous today than ever before. In Peter Turchin's End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, he identifies (borrowed from Michael Mann) four sources of power: physical, financial, bureaucratic and ideological. Chances are that you exercise a greater degree of control in your life than the average person due to some combination of these four powers.
That some people in society can command the resources and abilities of others is not necessarily bad. In a free society these resources and abilities are given willingly in exchange for protection, money, status, knowledge, etc. In addition, the organization and accomplishments of civilization have only ever been achieved through hierarchy, voluntarily or involuntarily. The problem occurs when the powerful act in their own interests over those of the general public. While this kind of selfish behavior is as old as humanity, many people today, Turchin included, claim that many modern problems are due to a sudden society-wide dissolution of virtue. For such a claim to be true, the corruption of society and its elites, or the perception of that corruption, must be worse than shortly after America's founding, the notorious Gilded Age or the numerous scandals of the roaring 1920s.
Corruptio Optimi Pessima
I first alluded to this argument in the earlier piece on the underfunding of public goods. This piece mentions the "Machiavelli Effect," the idea that "there will be both incentive and opportunity for those at the top to oppose and thwart attempts to change the way things are done." In the interview where this effect is defined, the author J. Storrs Hall demurs about why the effect may be more pronounced today than previously. If we are to take the argument that increasing corruption and failing ethics explains the slowdown of growth in the last 50 years, we must believe that society's historical elites were of better character, or that elites can no longer steer society towards progress.
Dealing with the first question of whether today's elites are really much worse is a challenging question because we lack historical perspective and, as I suggested in the opening, simple self-selection, indicates that you are part of an elite. Turchin argues in his book that the number of elites has swelled due to the rise in inequality. In a previous piece on inequality, I mentioned that the issue as related to growth is primarily a political, not an economic, problem because inequality and fast growth can coexist. That can only be true in the unlikely case that the political environment does not effect the economy. Here we address that problem head-on.
Inequality has two perverse effects on a society. First and most obviously, the poor do not improve their standard of living as quickly as the rich, and some in the middle may even see a decline in their standard of living. Second, and more pernicious, is that the rich both get richer and more numerous. While many claim to care more about the decline in relative living standards of the middle class, some, like economist Joseph Stiglitz, also worry for the effects of concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the superrich. The second part of the pernicious effect of inequality, that the rich get more numerous, is rarely considered and appears on the surface to be a good thing. Turchin, however, identifies it as a problem and has named the phenomenon "elite overproduction."
In Turchin's view, societies fail due to "four structural drivers of instability: popular immiseration leading to mass mobilization potential; elite overproduction resulting in intraelite conflict; failing fiscal health and weakened legitimacy of the state; and geopolitical factors." The most important of these, he says, is elite overproduction. To support his case he draws on reoccurring cycles of revolution throughout history in England, France and China. In numerous examples he describes the breakdown in elite norms as happening in the following metaphor:
Inevitably, as the number of aspirants per power position grows, some will decide to stretch the rules [of musical chairs]. For example, you can slow down by a chair or even stop and wait right next to it for the music to stop, while shoving away other contenders. Congratulations, you have just become a counter-elite—someone who is willing to break the rules to get ahead in the game. Unfortunately, others quickly catch on, and each chair soon acquires a jostling crowd, and before long you have the recipe for a free-for-all fistfight.
This explanation gets us part of the way towards an explanation of how the elites may become corrupted and how that could create economic and social disorder, but it doesn't do much to explain our specific predicament. For that we will have to turn back towards Christopher Lasch and introduce some new thinkers who have criticized elites from left, right and center: Noam Chomsky, Anand Giridharadas, Robert Putnam, Francis Fukuyama, Tyler Cowen, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Christopher Caldwell, Charles Murray, Michael Lind and Michael Philips.
What these thinkers all have in common is a belief that the root of America's economic problem is a less robust and virtuous public sphere. Those on the left (Turchin, Chomsky, Giridharadas) tend to emphasize the particular failure of elites as role-models, the weakening of the fourth estate and the importance of class conflict. The centrists (Putnam, Fukuyama, Cowen and Brooks) give weight to social capital, civic life, tribalism and behavioral trends in education, drug use and family formation. The right (Douthat, Caldwell, Murray, Lind and Philips) pick up on tribalism and behavioral explanations, but dive further into the taboo topics of race, sex, war and religion.
Something Like Scales Fell From His Eyes
The second problem I laid out at the outset of the previous section, whether elites can steer society towards progress, depends on the control and influence of elites on society. As we examined in the post on democracy and capitalism, the episodic enfranchisement of new groups into American democracy diluted the degree to which coercion is effective. Therefore, influence is the primary tool used today to shape society, but as we will see next week, that power is waining as well. From media to religion, and from education to the arts, the institutions that have transmitted American culture are coming undone. The authors above postulate many different reasons for this cultural malaise.
Covering every argument from left to right and every nuanced opinion in-between would be too difficult to do here. Just how America lost (or never fully lived up to) the guiding principles and ideals epitomized by General Douglas MacArthur's "Duty, Honor, Country" speech is not clear, but the through-line of all of these is the relationship between respect, shame and cynicism. MacArthur's 1962 speech feels naive by today's standards. MacArthur, it should be noted, lived out his days in the penthouse of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and was elected chairman of the board of defense contractor Sperry Rand ten years before the famous speech. These were the days of "what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."
In examining how shame has weakened our faith in institutions and corrupted our leaders, Lasch synthesizes the left, center and right arguments about social decay by agreeing with the leftists about the degrading of virtue in the upper class, the end of watchdog journalism and the gatekeeping of social mobility while rejecting communitarianism as mere political therapy. He critiques social programs as "The therapeutic discovery of shame [which] finds its political expression in remedial programs administered by caretakers professing to speak on behalf of the downtrodden but concerned, above all, to expand their professional jurisdiction." The left's solution to the shame brought on by a rigged system proclaiming to be a meritocracy, Lasch suggests, is the replacement of religious morals with therapeutic culture. "We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what accounts for this wholesale defection from the standards of personal conduct—civility, industry, self-restraint—that were once considered indispensable to democracy.... An exhaustive investigation would uncover a great number of influences, but the gradual decay of religion would stand somewhere near the head of the list."
Modernity is defined by lack of belief, a topic covered in detail last week. The radical egalitarianism of the 1970s brought the politicians, generals, corporate executives and clergy down to eye-level with the rest of society and the elites, with their hypocrisies in full view and infighting on display, could no longer convincingly promote the mythos of standards in personal conduct. Furthermore, counter-elites began to pander to the general public by embracing therapeutic public policy and positioning themselves to obtain the highly-sought-after remaining positions of privilege. Whether from the top-down, or the bottom-up, we are enrobed in cynicism as the counter culture has become the mainstream.
To return to our two guiding questions, "were historical elites of better character?" and "can elites steer society towards progress?" the consensus view is that the former was never true and the latter is immoral or impossible. Next week we will continue our exploration of stagnation with a deeper dive into cynicism and existentialism as we discuss motivation and imagination in America.