Rightly understood, governance is a public service. To the extent that they are virtuous, the people should be the ultimate masters of politics, even when particular matters are disposed of by their representatives.
But what is a poor master to do when those pretending to serve decide to lord it over him instead?
Before we can think about reforming or replacing our elites, we must understand them: who they are, how they got there, and how they intend to stay there. Only then can we devise the means, and calculate the true costs, of remedying their faults.
Every society has its division of powers, and therefore its own peculiar corps of rulers and influencers. To understand the virtues and vices of our own elites, we must look to the defining features of our economy and culture.
Ours is an age of comforts and conveniences, which are most efficiently provided by centralized structures of production, information, and organization. In his classic 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills takes stock of the effects of this centralization on American political culture.
In the lingo of objective social science, he helps us to confront the fact that “the very framework of modern society,” by focusing relentlessly on goals such as efficiency, productivity, and control, demands that we concentrate power in ever larger organizations.
This in turn requires us to elevate a handful of our fellow human beings to “positions . . . from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday world of ordinary men and women.”
The flip side is that the rest of us, as individuals but also as members of smaller organizations such as neighborhoods, schools, churches, clubs, or charities, are affected by the decisions of these elites, without being able to influence them much in return.
Mills concedes that the elite are not (necessarily) conspiring against us. They are just doing their jobs. If they are frequently secretive, manipulative, or disdainful in relation to the general public, it’s nothing personal. They simply recognize in their fellow elites the only peers capable of aiding with or advising on the gargantuan business they must routinely transact.
Is it possible to gain our elites’ attention, or persuade them that we have something meaningful to contribute when it comes to our own governance and well-being? I will return to this question soon.
For now, I want to point out one implication of Mills’s analysis: we will be subject to the decisions of a technocratic elite as long as we prefer the allurements of a technocratic society to the sacrifices (and joys) of a life devoted to virtuous self-governance.
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