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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reading List: The Ruling Class

Codevilla, Angelo. The Ruling Class. New York: Beaufort Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8253-0558-0.
This slim volume (just 160 pages) is a somewhat expanded version of the author's much discussed essay with the same title which appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of The American Spectator. One of the key aspects of “American exceptionalism” over most of the nation's history has been something it didn't have but which most European and Asian nations did: a ruling class distinct from the general citizenry. Whether the ruling class was defined by heredity (as in Britain), or by meritocratic selection (as in France since the Revolution and Germany after Bismarck), most countries had a class of rulers who associated mostly with themselves, and considered themselves to uniquely embody the expertise and wisdom to instruct the masses (a word of which they tended to be fond) in how to live their lives.

In the U.S., this was much less the case. Before the vast centralisation and growth of the federal government in the New Deal and afterward, the country was mostly run by about fifty thousand people who got involved in grass roots public service: school boards, county commissions, and local political party organisations, from whom candidates for higher office were chosen based upon merit, service, and demonstrated track record. People who have come up by such a path will tend to be pretty well anchored to the concerns of ordinary citizens because they are ordinary citizens who have volunteered their time to get involved in res publica.

But with the grand centralisation of governance in Imperial Washington over the last century, a new kind of person was attracted to what used to be, and is still called, with exquisite irony, “public service”. These are people who have graduated from a handful of élite universities and law schools, and with the exception of perhaps a brief stint at a large law firm dealing mainly with the government, spent their entire careers in the public sector and its cloud of symbiotic institutions: regulatory agencies, appointed offices, elected positions, lobbying firms, and “non-governmental organisations” which derive their entire income from the government. These individuals make up what I have been calling, after Milovan Đilas, the New Class, but which Codevilla designates the Ruling Class in the present work.

In the U.S., entry to the ruling class is not, as it is in France, a meritocracy based on competitive examinations and performance in demanding academic institutions. Instead, it is largely a matter of who you, or your family, knows, what university you attended, and how well you conform to the set of beliefs indoctrinated there. At the centre of this belief system is that a modern nation is far too complicated to be governed by citizen-legislators chosen by ignorant rubes who didn't attend Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or one of the other ruling class feeder belts, but rather must be guided by enlightened experts like, well, themselves, and that all the ills of society can be solved by giving the likes of, well, themselves, more power over the population. They justify this by their reliance on “science” (the details of which they are largely ignorant), and hence they fund a horde of “scientists” who produce “studies” which support the policies they advocate.

Codevilla estimates that about a third of the U.S. population are either members of the ruling class (a small fraction), or aligned with its policies, largely due to engineered dependency on government programs. This third finds its political vehicle in the Democratic party, which represents their interests well. What about the other two thirds, which he dubs the “Country Class” (which I think is a pretty lame term, but no better comes immediately to mind)? Well, they don't have a political party at all, really. The Republican party is largely made up of ruling class people (think son of a president George W. Bush, or son of an admiral John McCain), and quickly co-opts outsiders who make it to Washington into the Imperial ruling class mindset.

A situation where one third of the population is dictating its will to the rest, and taxing a minority to distribute the proceeds to its electoral majority, in which only about a fifth of the population believes the federal government has the consent of the governed, and two thirds of the population have no effective political vehicle to achieve their agenda is, as Jimmy Carter's pollster Pat Caddell put it, pre-revolutionary. Since the ruling class has put the country on an unsustainable course, it is axiomatic that it will not be sustained. How it will end, however, is very much up in the air. Perhaps the best outcome would be a take-over of the Republican party by those genuinely representative of the “country party”, but that will be extremely difficult without a multitude of people (encouraged by their rulers toward passivity and resignation to the status quo) jumping into the fray. If the Republicans win a resounding victory in the elections of November 2010 (largely due to voters holding their noses and saying “they can't be worse than the current bums in office”) and then revert to ruling class business as usual, it's almost certain there will be a serious third party in play in 2012, not just at the presidential level (as the author notes, for a while in 1992, Ross Perot out-polled both the first Bush and Clinton before people concluded he was a flake with funny ears), but also in congressional races. If the Republicans are largely running in 2010 on a platform of, “Hey, at least we aren't the Democrats!”, then the cry in 2012 may be “We aren't either of those foul, discredited parties.”

As fiscally responsible people, let's talk about value for money. This book just doesn't cut it. You can read the original essay for free online. Although the arguments and examples therein are somewhat fleshed out in this edition, there's no essential you'll miss in reading the magazine essay instead of this book. Further, the 160 page book is padded—I can summon no kinder word—by inclusion of the full text of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Now, these are certainly important documents, but it's not like they aren't readily available online, nor that those inclined to read the present volume are unfamiliar with them. I think their presence is mostly due to the fact that were they elided, the book would be a mere hundred pages and deemed a pamphlet at best.

This is an enlightening and important argument, and I think spot-on in diagnosing the central problem which is transforming the U.S. from an engine of innovation and productivity into a class warfare redistributive nanny state. But save your money and read the magazine article, not the book.

Posted at October 20, 2010 21:29