How Elites Abandoned the Masses
Elites stopped preaching what they practice and instead celebrated the opposite
Inspired by reading Coming Apart, in this piece we’ll discuss a non-obvious way elites have abandoned their responsibility to the masses: they have stopped celebrating the habits and structures that they abide by in order to be successful, and have indirectly encouraged the opposite.
Who are the new elites?
In The Hypocrisy of The Elites, we discussed the key difference between old and new elites: that our new elites are in denial that they’re elite. Our present aristocratic oligarchs think aristocracy is evil and that they personally are fighting for the little people.
Pareto called this the aristocracy of lions vs. the aristocracy of foxes. Lions are proud, forceful aristocrats who explicitly own their position as leaders. Foxes, however, are humble servants who will forever deny that they’re in charge. While lions want to run the world, foxes want to save the world.
Because our new elites are foxes and not lions, they no longer feel comfortable celebrating productive habits for the rest of society.
Our old elites used to share a sense of common responsibility and noblesse oblige — not just to give back, but to expect the masses to act in a way that would let them rise up as well. Old elites knew that on average they had more productive habits than the masses (e.g. marital fidelity, two-parent households, steady employment, etc), and so it was thus their job to provide the masses an example to aspire to.
But our new elites are less likely to admit they’re more productive; if anything, they deny it. While this humility seems generous on the surface — it’s nicer to imply that elites are successful solely because of privilege and not also because they’re more productive — this also denies the elites of any responsibility to the masses.
To be sure, new elites do recognize their privilege, but this only necessitates that they give resources, not that they also need to transmit the right habits. So they try to provide a safety net which is great, but they don’t bestow the behaviors that would help the masses best utilize that safety net after they get it. Give a man fish, sure, but also teach him how to fish, etc.
The soft bigotry of low expectations
It’s interesting to note that this shift in how elites treat the masses has also coincided with a great divergence between elite and non-elite outcomes — both economically and also in other measures of quality of life. The lower class has become increasingly worse off, as seen through the disappearance of family, vocation, community, and faith.
Consider marriage. In 1960, 95% of working class children were born in two parent households. In 2005, it had dropped to 30%. Meanwhile, 85% of wealthy children were born in two parent households.
Now consider the labor force. In 1960s, everyone worked. By ~2010, 1 in 7 males was now looking for work — and they were nearly all of low class. Meanwhile the wealthy of course have jobs.
Part of this can be explained by the failure of elites to hold high expectations for the masses anymore. When you stop expecting people to have jobs, be religious, and get married — shocker — they stop doing those things.
Instead of imposing high moral expectations on the masses, our new elites instead focused on explaining their problems away. We don’t want to assign responsibility to victims, so we began instead to blame the system. George Bush once called this reducing of agency “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.
Think about groups of people you hold high expectations of — like the marines, for example. They are told to adapt and overcome. They aren’t told that no one expects them to succeed and that it’s all society’s fault. While it may have good intentions, the people you pity are not the people you respect. Loving someone is not shielding them from obstacles or responsibility. After all, shielding people from responsibility shields them from the ability-to-respond — robbing them of their agency and placing their fate in the hands of others.
One area where elites have shielded the masses from responsibility is marriage. Having a child out of wedlock used to make you a pariah. Now having a baby as a single parent is sometimes celebrated. I understand the desire to destigmatize — after all, someone who has a baby out of wedlock may already be in a tough position, so why make it harder? However, the slippery slope from destigmatizing something to tolerating it and then eventually to celebrating and promoting it seems inevitable.
But why did this change happen to begin with? Well, at some point elites stopped feeling like they could prescribe or even celebrate productive habits and norms. For example, from the founding of this country until well into the 20th century, it went unquestioned that children should only be born within marriage, and that a decrease in marriage would produce catastrophic consequences for society.
While elites could get away with not getting married — even though they get married at higher rates — much of society has needed marriage as a grounding structure to have a family. These were well-founded conclusions. As a result, if you had a kid out of wedlock, you became an outcast. If you weren’t a good father — if you walked out on your kids or otherwise didn’t provide for your family — you were considered a bum. Compare that to today, where we seem sheepish to say that it's suboptimal for women to have babies outside of wedlock or for fathers to walk out on their kids or drop out of the workforce.
Now, we certainly don't want to make life more difficult for women in that situation, though, as “Coming Apart” proposes, maybe we could judge men for not taking sufficient responsibility. But by doing neither and wanting to be nice, we have ceased to think about what's good for the child in the long-term, let alone the general health of society. Herein lies the distinction: there is a significant difference between being nice and being good. Being non-judgmental may seem like the nice thing to do, but it has real costs: children living in fatherless homes are ten times more likely to experience abuse (often from the mother’s boyfriends) or neglect than those who grow up with fathers. By destigmatizing fatherlessness, we are implying that those costs stem from the continued stigma on single parents, and not from the consequences of the actions the stigma aimed to prevent—fatherlessness itself.
Rob Henderson puts this well, emphasis mine:
“The luxury belief class thinks that the unhappiness associated with certain behaviors and choices primarily stems from the negative social judgments they elicit, rather than the behaviors and choices themselves.”
But in fact, negative social judgments serve as guardrails to deter detrimental decisions that lead to unhappiness.
To avoid misery we have to first admit that certain actions and choices are actually in and of themselves undesirable—fatherlessness, obesity, substance abuse, crime, and so on—and not simply in need of normalization.”
This counterproductive attitude of non-judgmentalism extends well beyond marriage. Another example is the plight of homeless people in California.
Michael Shellenberger has discussed at length that the homeless problem is also an addiction problem and a mental illness problem. Many homeless people struggle with addiction and need to go to rehab. And yet we’re often told that sending a homeless person to go to rehab is either inaccurate, because it implies that we know what’s best for them, or it’s heartless, because it requires forcing homeless people to do something against their will. This is partly why California spends over a billion dollars a year and has little to show for it.
One ostensible reason we withhold stigma is to grant people dignity, which here means not judging them for making choices that hurt themselves and those around them. This non-judgmentalism, however, is an ineffective version of dignity. Real dignity is the feeling one gets when they know that they have done the best that they can with what they have. Real dignity cannot be given. It can only be earned.
Today’s elites don’t want to judge the masses because that would imply they think they’re somehow better. So instead of recommending behaviors explicitly, they try to “nudge” people to make better decisions via policy. But nudging is patronizing—it’s how we treat recalcitrant children because we don’t think they can follow directions.
By destigmatizing behaviors that are harmful to social cohesion — e.g. not getting married, not taking a job — the new elite are enabling the masses to stay poor, all in the name of not making them feel bad about it. Norms like marriage will have higher adherence if breaking them is stigmatized. That’s why the stigma exists in the first place—it’s the OG nudge!
And it’s worth noting that stigmas can’t be dissolved, they can only be transferred. If a society stop shaming people for being obese, for example, it’ll inevitably start shaming people for losing weight. If a society stops shaming people for going to therapy, it’ll eventually start shaming people for not going to therapy. For most behaviors, there’s no neutral equilibrium where there’s no shame. You can either stigmatize or celebrate something, there’s no stable in-between equilibrium.
Both have tradeoffs. One tradeoff of destigmatization is that there’s less attention focused on trying to “improve” the problem the stigma was originally put in place to prevent, so the problem only gets worse. This can be helpful if the situation is unchangeable, but harmful if it can be improved upon.
In our attempt to be nice to the homeless, we give out needles to addicts, worsening their addiction. In our attempt to be nice to people with disabilities, we call it “ableism” to try to cure the disabilities where it’s possible, discouraging related scientific research as a result. These attempts to be nice hurt the very people they’re trying to help.
There is a general pattern that applies to lots of situations: In order to make life easier for the person at the fringes, we sacrifice cohesion for the majority. We pathologize the normal and normalize the pathological. While reversing the direction of stigma may be helpful for the struggling person who can’t change their circumstance, it may also make it harder for the struggling person who can improve their condition to get help.
Of course, we should try to find a way to have strong norms without shaming people. If we need to keep certain stigmas, we should also try to solve for their downsides. After all, there are many injustices that people can’t change, that they’re suffering through due to no fault of their own. Life is unfair, there is no equality of opportunity.
But everyone has some things in their life that they can change, however small, and elites would do better to (without shaming) encourage the masses to behave like they do rather than recommending the opposite.
And unfortunately, that’s exactly what new elites are doing today: they’re implicitly encouraging people to take little responsibility for their outcomes while taking maximum responsibility in their own lives. They’re criticizing the same accountability structures that they themselves use to rise up.
The new elites say: You don’t need religion, religion’s dumb. You don't need family, family’s oppressive. You don’t need marriage, marriage’s sexist. You don’t need your relationship even, it’s holding you back. You don’t need kids, you’ll hate being a parent. You don’t need to send kids to gifted programs, it won’t make them better anyway. You don’t need to work harder, everyone else should work less hard.
You don’t need to do any of those things, but which of those things do the elites do? All of them.
Today’s elites are not only denying that they’re elite, they’re denying other people the opportunity to become elite by claiming it’s impossible, minimizing the effects of hard work, or celebrating the opposite of what they practice.
Today’s elites are too ashamed to admit they’re elite, let alone acknowledge the behaviors that keep them elite. While elites think they’re being egalitarian, by celebrating something different from what they’re practicing, they’re actually just widening the gap between them and everyone else.