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In Praise of Elites

The Natural Elites, That Is.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 28, 2003

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In Praise of Elites_James Leroy Wilson-The Natural Elites, That Is George Fitzhugh was a Virginian pro-slavery advocate before the Civil War. He believed that 95% of all human beings were incapable of governing, of even being "responsible," for themselves, and that slavery was necessary, the natural condition. He believed that northern white factory wage-laborers would be better off if they were slaves, because then their masters would be responsible for their entire well-being, instead of just paying them low wages for long and dangerous workdays.

Edward Banfield was a 20th-century sociologist who held to another kind of belief, that no matter well-ordered and organized, and moral and just, and technologically advanced a society might be, there would still be some 5% of the adult population who would just not be able to take care of themselves.

I think, as a matter of common sense, we can all agree with Banfield. Certain levels of mental handicaps, kinds of mental illness, and forms of physical handicap or illness just don't lend themselves to independent living. Some people just won't be able to provide for their own needs. This isn't, in most cases, their own fault (though some may suffer self-inflicted damage by accident, foolishness, or deliberate intention), or anyone else's fault.

These would be the "genuinely helpless" as opposed to the able-bodied who can't catch a break or earn what they deserve no matter how hard they try, with their own children going hungry as a result. These are the people in "poverty" often called the working poor. Politicians tell them that "capitalism" is the problem, even though it is the politicians who deny opportunity to people through their legislation.

I don't think anyone would agree with the pro-slavery Fitzhugh, however. Even if the idea, based on "compassion," sounds tempting, there is no way to find out which of this "elite" is fit to rule over other people. Democracy can't work in this instance, because according to this theory that most people deserve to be slaves, that would be the equivalent of proverbial "inmates running the asylum." But hereditary heirs wouldn't work either, nor some form of objective "merit." Whose objectivity? Whose merit?

That said, I think there is a bit of truth in what Fitzhugh says, not about slavery, but about leadership. Just as there are five per cent at the "bottom" who will always, by their very condition, need more than they can provide, so I think there is a 5% who, in what they contribute to other people and to civilization, will always produce far more than what they actually *earn."

So Fitzhugh, being a socialist at heart, did give me at least this idea. One in twenty are, in one way or another, "ahead" of the rest of the herd. In might be in the arts, or the sciences or technology, or in social analysis. Some people are just able to take everything to the next level, to advance civilization.

Does this mean that these people, whoever they are, ought to each care for a plantation or other enterprise employing nineteen slaves? Far from it! Rather, it is to that 5% to whom the entire civilization is entrusted. That is, these people must be free to express themselves, work on their inventions, write their treatises or novels, and come up with their theories. It would be disastrous if they did this out of a sense of "obligation" or "social responsibility" and all the better if they acted out of pure curiosity, enjoyment, and other means of profit.

They must be freed from all responsibility of "governing" other people, and instead do as they please. For their ideas, their self-expression, is the inspiration for those who might not fall into that 5%, but into a larger group intelligent enough to understand their lessons, and to communicate them to the masses.

Civilization rests not in following the tactics of politicians, but in learning from and adapting to the teachings of peculiar people, gifted in intellect and talent, who enhance the freedom, prosperity, morality, and happiness of the culture. For them to do their work in peace, they must be allowed maximum freedom, so long as they do no violence to anyone else. Since we don't know who they are and where they are, this freedom must be granted to all of us, not just to them. That would enable each of us, even those who might not quite be in that 5%, to maximize our own potential for the benefit of ourselves and for society. We would then have enough wealth to provide for the unfortunate and helpless - the 5% who will always be among us.

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