The Hypocrisy of Elites
Egalitarianism for thee, Elitism for me
Recently we discussed why the masses adopt redistribution/egalitarianism — because it means more status and money for them.
This week we’re going to discuss why the elites adopt redistribution/egalitarianism, since, after all, aren’t they the ones losing something by redistributing? Why then, do they unequivocally endorse giving away money and status? What’s in it for them?
Well. There’s one school of thought that says it’s a cynical ploy to prevent blowback from the masses. If the elites weren't advocating for egalitarianism, they’d be unpopular with the masses and would be at risk of rebellions. In that way, redistribution can be seen as a tax they pay to keep their power.
An even more cynical take is that the elites’ virtue signaling allows them to be seen as morally good without having to sacrifice much in terms of business interests. Corporations embraced the social causes of the last few years, but they didn’t embrace Occupy Wall Street. It’s easy for JP Morgan to promote diversity since diversity should only make JP Morgan richer. Occupy Wall Street, though, was asking for significant taxes on JP Morgan. JP Morgan didn’t like that kind of social progress — not one bit.
There’s likely truth to the idea that promoting this certain kind of egalitarianism is a way for elites to have air cover against a populist uprising — but this doesn’t do justice to the fact that many elites are, in fact, true believers.
As we’ve discussed, ever since Christianity we’ve conceived moral good to be valorization of the victim. We’ve since shed the theological roots of Christianity, but kept the same superstructure that redistributes status to the less well-off. When you see ambitious philanthropic projects started and funded by our ruling class, you can’t help but think much of it has good intentions. (What’s the Road to Hell paved with again?)
Another theory holds that promoting egalitarianism is just another way elites compete amongst each other. That it’s just another status game.
We recently discussed Rob Henderson’s Luxury Beliefs, the idea being that if people buy expensive luxury goods to showcase how well-off they are, people also hold “expensive” beliefs for the same reason.
This idea is not new: Jared Diamond has suggested one reason people engage in displays such as drinking, smoking, drug use, and other costly behaviors is because they serve as fitness indicators. The message is: “I’m so healthy I can afford to poison my body and continue to function."
Saying, “I’m willing to redistribute my money and status” is a costly but effective way of signaling, “I’m so secure in my status and money that I can afford giving it away, seeing as I have a surplus of both.”
Consider the phrase “Defund the police” as an example — a call back to a previous post. This phrase was popularized by highly-educated elites who will almost certainly not move to areas that suffer from high crime and a defunded police force. Regardless, the phrase has been adopted by a broader set of people — including those in high-crime areas who don’t have the means to hire security or move somewhere safer.
Why are high status people more likely to propagate luxury beliefs? Because they can afford it. And ironically, the highest status people are the most insecure about maintaining their status.
Another irony is that redistribution is always an aristocratic thing. Aristocrats want it even more than the peasants. People assume that conditions are economic, but nearly all social movements are led by the rich. (Fidel Castro went to college and wore two Rolexes).
This is what being an elite is about, after all. It’s not about money, although money plays a crucial role. It’s not even about education, though education plays a large role as well. It’s more about the set of behaviors and dispositions that indicate a person to be a member of the elite — which center around wanting to change the world. Recall we discussed the leveling and importance game: Wanting to change the world hits the sweet spot because it shows how important one is (you can afford worrying about the planet and not your rent), while also highlighting one’s empathy (wanting to take care of the less fortunate).
Which is the whole point of being an elite. It’s what separates a person from simply being a bourgeois. Aristocrats want to *matter*. Bourgeoisie just want comfort and safety. Meanwhile proletariats just want to put food on the table.
It’s worth noting, however, that the elites have evolved in one key respect: our elites are in denial that they’re elite. 100% of 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.
Ultimately, though, the egalitarianism of the elite is hollow.
People want egalitarianism when they’re being selected, but they’re elitist when they’re doing the selecting.
When people seek a job, partner, or doctor, they do not seek the average job, partner, or doctor — they seek the best.
This is the ultimate luxury belief: wanting average for everyone else while wanting the best for ourselves. We see this everywhere: Elites advocate for public schools that disavow gifted programs for the poor while simultaneously sending their own kids to fancy private schools with gifted programs galore. Elites advocate for defunding the police while living in gated communities with private security. Elites throw a fit about getting homeless people off the streets, while moving to neighborhoods where they will never see any homeless people.
Not only do they advocate for egalitarianism for others while pursuing elitism for themselves, elites also recommend practices for others that they themselves don’t follow. This isn’t just hypocrisy; it’s pulling up the ladder.
Rob Henderson quotes a study that showed that individuals with higher income and/or social status were the most likely to say that success comes as a result of luck and connections as opposed to hard work. Meanwhile, low-income individuals were much more likely to say success comes as a result of hard work and individual effort.
“This is where the hypocrisy comes in: affluent people often broadcast how they owe their success to luck. But then they tell their own children about the importance of hard work and individual effort.”
Again, we see this everywhere: elites promote body positivity — the idea that being overweight is healthy — while being most obsessed with maintaining perfect health. Elites promote sexual independence and polyamory, yet themselves are most likely to be monogamous in stable long-term relationships. Elites complain about overpopulation and carbon footprint, but they’re the ones having the most kids and inflicting the largest carbon footprint. The Last Contrarian twitter account summarizes this well.
Harvard is a great example of this hypocrisy. Harvard considers itself at the forefront of promoting social progress and egalitarianism. They invented schools of thought such as Critical Race Theory.
And yet, Harvard is the ultimate engine of inequality — by design. Harvard has the best brand in the world, with a 40 billion endowment to boot. If it wanted to, Harvard could expand its class size by several orders of magnitude in order to give a more egalitarian education for all. But Harvard doesn’t want to do that. It just wants to talk about equality. After all, the school literally advertises its low acceptance rates.
And yet, Harvard is willing to critique an entity like Amazon, which by comparison employs millions more people (compared to Harvard’s 1,000 people), and serves billions of people.
So we see a pattern: elite egalitarianism doesn’t practice what it preaches. It’s also actually counter-productive, since elites are insulated from the area they’re trying to help and thus have neither knowledge of the problem nor skin in the game.
One example of this can be seen in public housing in the 1960s in places like Chicago and New York. Public housing at the time was designed by elites who didn’t have any skin in the game — they were never going to live there. Because of this, they destroyed the natural ecologies of low income housing and replaced them with housing projects that may have caused more harm than good.
Yet again, we see this everywhere. Elites recommend dysfunctional behaviors and counterproductive policies for poor people while being precisely the ones most insulated from any and all consequences of such behaviors and policies.
The tragedy of luxury beliefs is that, since they're free, and since the non-elites aspire to eliteness, the beliefs themselves trickle down to the masses who can’t “afford” them. It'd be as if the masses bought a ton of expensive luxury products they didn't need and became saddled with credit card debt. And since being high status means avoiding what the masses are doing, as soon as the masses adopt the luxury beliefs, the elites drop them. So elites accrue the short-term status benefit while the masses get hit with the long-term debt.
And luxury beliefs are far more costly and dangerous than credit card debt — beliefs like polyamory is better. Marriage is sexist. Family is oppressive. Religion is bad. Fitness is fascist. Having kids is bad for the planet. Hard work isn’t needed to be successful. Success itself is an illness. Rationality, punctuality, and urgency are white supremacist values.
And yet, what do elites do? Work hard, work out, get married to one partner, have kids, and teach them the opposite of what they recommend to the masses.
This is the hypocrisy of the elites.
Thanks to Molly Mielke
This is such great article. Absolutely love it. I've always thought about the elites along the same lines, but I cannot imagine myself being so articulate about it.
You say: “This is where the hypocrisy comes in: affluent people often broadcast how they owe their success to luck. But then they tell their own children about the importance of hard work and individual effort.”
I am now retired. During my working years, I put a lot of effort into my work to achieve a reasonable amount of success and to build a secure retirement. When I was younger, I used to credit my success largely to my hard work and effort. But in my self-examination following that retirement, only now have I come to realize how so many times in my life there were things that only pure luck kept from going sideways, how many things that were poorly planned came out all right after all, etc. These reflections have forced me to acknowledge how greatly the element of luck has contributed to a positive outcome that may not be totally deserved.
That all being said, I do not agree that the belief you stated above is necessarily hypocritical. That is because I see life as a probabilistic process. You improve the odds where you can, and accept the vicissitudes of chance where you cannot, but you must acknowledge the importance of both.