Nils Gilman writes:
Perhaps the most insidious threat facing Western democracies has been the progressive decline of elite accountability and responsibility. “Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous),” David Brooks observed in 2012. “They have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends upon; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.” This “hollow elite,” as Charles Murray called it in Coming Apart, is doubtless one element of the rise of populisms across the Western world—nor are such observations restricted to right-of-center critics.1 Poll after poll shows a collapse of ruling-class credibility, particularly among the young, and an increasing inclination to embrace strongmen who promise accountability and results.
I think all of that is true. But why is it the case?
Gilman provides a clue in the quote he uses the open the article:
“Good government is the outcome of private virtue.”
—John Jay Chapman, Practical Agitation
Also true, I believe.
This is hardly news. Sound government depends on virtue–something that, however nebulous, is inarguably cultural, and not political much less institutional.
We see the sentiment behind this passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:
The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.
And we see it in the exchange on the street between Benjamin Franklin and someone asking about the outcome of the Constitutional Convention:
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
And it was a republic, not a democracy, that we got. And that means elites, and elite rule, are all but guaranteed. So, yes, the question of the private virtues of our elites is an important one. And if, as Gilman suggests, our current elites are not accountable then we will have problems–indeed we will have exactly the problems we have at present.
What is the answer? Gilman would like a “self-draining swamp”. That is, it would be wonderful in his view if elites magically adopted and held onto the proper collection of virtues. But will they?
Our entire structure of government is based on human fallibility, the threat of faction, and the need for checks and balances. And so we have a structure in which, among other things, the power to act (the Executive) is kept in check by the power to consider (the Legislature) and that is kept in check by the power to judge (the Judiciary). Rock, paper, scissors.
And since a republican form of government will give rise to elites, and to a split between the elites and the people, one should ask: by what measure should the elites be held accountable? There are elections, of course, but are elections a sufficient method for guaranteeing elite accountability? You have only to look at the present moment to doubt that proposition. If elites run things they can corrupt things. Indeed, that is exactly why Gilman would argue that virtues such as restraint, honor, duty and public service are essential.
But here we get to a conundrum. As Madison wrote, if all men were angels we would have no need for government. That goes for everyone. Gilman would like a “self-draining swamp”–that is, an elite with strong and permanent virtues, good for all time. But how is that possible if the members of the elite are not angels?
Gilman acknowledges the problem at the end of his article, suggesting that certain institutional mechanisms may have to be considered that would have the effect of giving the elites a good thwack on the head. He writes that we may wish to revive
various largely forgotten practices that republics have traditionally used to enable popular control of both economic and political elites. University of Chicago political scientist John P. McCormick, for example, has pointed to three elite-accountability institutions common in pre-18th-century popular governments: magistrate appointment procedures combining lottery and election; offices or assemblies excluding the wealthy and political incumbents from eligibility; and political trials enlisting the entire citizenry in prosecutions and appeals. If elites cannot be relied on to police themselves, and the evidence that they can is not good, then bringing new/old methods to the fore to impose such accountability may be the only option remaining.
That seems like a promising avenue. But once again we come round to where we started:
“Good government is the outcome of private virtue.”
Yes, and that virtue is not just required of elites. It is required of the people, too. The keeping of the republic is not just a matter of elites reminding one another of noblesse oblige. The most effective check on elite misbehavior will not be institutional. The true check on elite lack of accountability are the private virtues of the people.
Thus we the people are in large measure complicit in the lack of accountability of our current elites. If the culture is all about getting for me and the hell with you should it surprise us that the elites might behave in similar fashion?