How’s Your Circulation (of Elites)?

I recently re-read Vilfredo Pareto’s brilliant little book The Rise and Fall of the Elites, which is a good example of how much sociology can contribute to our understanding of, well, society. (In contrast, it seems that most current academic sociology departments can best be described as a huge waste of otherwise valuable biomass.)

Pareto considers an important ‘law’ of social change: ‘the history of man is the continuous replacement of certain elites: as one ascends, another declines.’ The old elite fails and is replaced (often with great violence) when its members both lose their willingness to use decisive force against their new rivals and are unable or unwilling to admit into their ranks the ambitious who wish to move up. Pareto distinguishes what’s really going on from the subjective perception of what’s going on; the objective reality is that a new form of elite rule is established, while the perception is that ‘The decline of the old elite appears as an increased humanitarian and altruistic sentiment; the rise of the new elite appears as the vindication of the humble and weak against the powerful and strong.’ What’s most interesting is that the essay was published (1901) before the rise of Bolshevism, Fascism, National Socialism, and other movements that claimed to vindicate ‘the humble and weak against the powerful and strong,’ but which merely fastened on the populace new and far more frightening forms of elite rule. (In discussing religious enthusiasm, he insightfully argued that ‘the growing religious sentiment will benefit socialism, which is a new form of religion, more than it will the old forms.’) Pareto’s understanding of the free and open circulation of elites is vitally important for understanding the benefits of dynamic capitalism and the source of strength of free societies.

The book is not only insightful; it’s a great read, full of remarkably funny, witty, and wry observations about numerous forms of social uplift, from the desire to regulate personal morality (e.g., prohibition of alcohol, the arguments for which are astonishingly similar to those for prohibition of narcotics), to attempts to abolish property and impose socialism, to various self-defeating rejections of science and logic in the name of a more pluralistic approach to knowledge (‘science can’t explain everything, you know’).

I was also struck by Pareto’s understanding of the willingness of those who have prospered under the conditions of property, freedom of exchange, and the rule of law to destroy the very system that made their prosperity possible. As he notes, ‘Our bourgeoisie spends energy and money only to aid the enemy. Societies to help the vicious, the incapable, and the degenerate, spring up in extraordinary numbers; and among all these societies the bourgeoisie did not have the spirit to establish one, I say a single one, to defend their own rights. But then, do they have rights? It seems that they do not, for they are ashamed to speak of them. It is the owners who negate their right of ownership and donate money to the People’s Universities, which teach that everything should be taken from the owners. Viewed from a certain point, it can be said that in effect they have no rights, because they do not know how to defend them.’ That has a remarkably familiar ring to it. Just read about the donations of wealthy ‘philanthropists’ in America who give astonishing amounts of money to collectivist causes that would eliminate (or at best, undermine) the individualism and the rule of law that made possible the wealth they donate.

P.S. You can skip the little introductory essay in the edition to which I link above. It wasn’t that enlightening, and moreover, it brings up the old lie that somehow Pareto ‘contributed to’ the ideology of fascism, mainly because he was critical of Marxism, when in fact he was a strong critic of all forms of collectivism and had no taste for any of its various poisonous flavors. The author of the introductory essay raises the issue, only to downplay it with the weak claim that, “Although activist-rightist groups often claimed him as their man, Pareto himself was a proud, detached, and ironic man without much desire to align himself with any political movement.” Red herrings like that simply serve to create in a reader’s mind the impression that Pareto was associated with terrible causes, which was absolutely not the case. He was one of the most prominent intellectual figures writing in Italian and he died at an advanced age just as the Fascists were starting to take power, but that’s about the extent of his connection to that cause.