Reigning in those who reign

By Paul Fallavollita
web posted April 10, 2000

Elites are easy to bash. Conservatives do it all the time. Americans have always had an anti-elitist streak in them, asking "who are they to impose their will on the lives of others?" I find myself asking that question a lot, especially when those elites reside in the DC Beltway.

A good friend of mine, a fellow graduate student and conservative, recently challenged my anti-elitist views. He pointed out that in defense and foreign policy "Joe Sixpack" simply cannot be allowed to make the major decisions. He also added that my intended career path in academia makes me part of "the elite" as well.

It was hard to argue against that. Clearly, expert opinion should reign in matters of defense policy and military doctrine. These are the professionals that know how to fight and win wars, and one does not idealistically pursue democracy in the face of national security. However, I'm not as generous on the foreign policy side of the argument—the elites are the ones that have advocated a costly and chaotic pattern of intervention abroad, in places including Haiti, Somalia, and Kosovo. And it is never their sons that fight these wars.

But the idea that I was an aspiring elite myself was more unsettling. I come from a middle class background. The ordinary guy in the local bar largely agrees with my conservative vision—it is his paycheck that the elites dip into to finance their lofty projects. And it is his son that fights these wars. My friend responded that the ordinary working guy may be with me in spirit, but he usually doesn't care enough (or have the time) to vote. Liberal activists win by default, even though they are a tiny minority in comparison to the silent, forgotten majority George Wallace and then Richard Nixon first appealed to in 1968.

So leadership is necessary, and unfortunately, it usually flows from the top-down, notwithstanding the occasional, admirable grassroots movements that sprout now and again. But if I am an "elite," then the question, I told my friend, is what you do with the power and status you have. Do you use your influence to empower the ordinary working guy, or do you use it to micromanage his life as the Left proposes to do? Do you enthusiastically embrace it, the way Hillary Clinton tried to do in her failed bid to revamp the American health care system, or do you view it as a "necessary evil?" These are precisely the questions that need to be asked as we embark on this new millennium, as bureaucratization and specialization increases in our society.

The British historian Lord Acton's classic quote remains a reliable guide to management: "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." More recently, these same issues of elites and power were covered by Paul Edward Gottfried in his 1999 book After Liberalism. Gottfried suggests that in the postliberal age we are now in, the relevance of terms such as "capitalism" and "socialism" has declined, since the new issue is one that he calls "administrative engulfment" (p. 55).

Gottfried identifies the newer version of liberalism as a universalistic version that engages in crusades both at home and abroad (p. 17). "Managerial liberalism," for Gottfried, is aggressive, as evidenced by its desire to impose speech codes and legally define hate crimes, for example (p. 25). "Liberal democracy" has come to mean not a form of government, but a process akin to evangelism where the government impresses it on its own people and then on the world (p. 68). Liberals are attempting to self-fulfill their own prophecy. Gottfried points out liberalism must expand itself, otherwise it will not be able to claim that its principles are universally applicable. The United States has been hijacked as well as liberalism by the managerial elite. It now is a tool for their agenda—it is billed as a "universal nation (p. 76).

Gottfried's thesis, and mine to my friend, is that in an attempt to make citizens free, the managerial state has created a type of prison. There is great irony in managerial liberalism as an ideology that uses totalitarian methods for antitotalitarian ends. The word "totalitarian" describes the ambitions of managerial liberalism, in terms of its desire to reach into every aspect of the lives of the citizenry, including private thoughts and lifestyle preferences. It does not necessarily mean physical, violent, secret-police style repression.

My friend is right; elites may well be an unescapable part of life. He did convince me they are a necessary evil, probably one we can never completely do away with, like government in general. However, managerial ambition is controllable. With awareness, humble moderation, and a sense of principle, freedom for the ordinary guy can win the day.

Paul Fallavollita is currently a first-year graduate student in political science, studying international relations and political theory, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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