Aristocratic Justicee

April 20, 2012


We have now in this country a ruling class composed primarily of millionaires: 87% of top government positions are millionaires - 7 out of 11 Supreme Court judges are millionaires. What does this mean?

Once human institutions are established, they tend to select new members on the basis of their existing members - they select like for like, whenever possible. This is the way big organizations work. You can see this in government, the private sector, in churches and even in non-profit social service agencies. And despite the fact that politicians must get elected, the selection process for candidates within the political parties ensures that only people “like us” get offered to the electorate for election.

And in government, the process is even more insidious because for each of those similar politicians elected there are hundreds, or in some positions thousands, of appointed or hired people who tend to conform to the model selected by the leadership. Not to say that there isn’t the occasional different person who gets placed, but such a person is generally an exception and typically doesn’t hang around for 30 years like the other folks do.

So what? Well, the vast majority (87% according to their required public filing of personal assets) of men and women in top positions in our government are millionaires. What is wrong with that? After all, these are people who are obviously effective, successful and knowledgeable, and most people wouldn’t want their government run by file clerks and garbage collectors.  And there is something to be said for this point of view... but only for those millionaires who were principally responsible for their own fortunes. Those people who inherited wealth or married into it, we can really know nothing about their intelligence or ability based on their financial net worth. It is more difficult to research the ultimate timing or source of individuals based on public tax filings, but the public biographies of the top echelon of government posts indicates that fewer than half of these distinguished people had any hand in creating their own wealth, and almost none started from anywhere other than near the top.

Much more important than the individual's potential ability is their understanding of basic issues before government. People who work their whole lives in a job for pay have one view of life. People who live marginalized lives in and out of criminal undertakings and incarceration have a very different view of life. People who were born to money and have been millionaires most or all of their lives also have a much different perspective on life than either of these.

The most stark recent example of this difference was when George W. Bush commented that a woman who had to work three jobs to keep up with her bills was “uniquely American” - as if her chronic fatigue and almost total lack of personal options was somehow a good or commendable thing. I do not believe that Mr. Bush was being intentionally insensitive or that he was in any way natively obtuse; he just didn’t get it.

The millionaire experience is essentially different from the life experience you and I share. Mitt Romney is a good case in point. He isn’t a particularly egregious example (one could just as easily profile John Kerry, for example). When he talks about some people (like Hilary Rosen) who have never worked a day in their lives, I wonder about this comment. Romney just lacks many of the experiences common to my experience, my parents’ experience and my children’s experience. He has never had to live for years in a desperate race to make rent, food and utilities ahead of demand. He has never had to choose between rent or car payments and medical treatment for a sick child. He was never faced with having to tell his child that no, they could not go on the school outing, or participate in the team sport, or avail themselves of some brilliant educational opportunity because he was unable to come up with the $40 required to participate.

People in positions of power understand extreme circumstances as necessary motivations that influence the performance and participation of workers: you don’t want to lose the job or the promotion; it’s like you really want to be able to afford the new Mercedes and not have to settle for the Ford. They misunderstand that the negative incentives of hand-to-mouth poverty do not present people with choices; they take all choices away. When you and your family get thrown out of your apartment and have to live in your car, this is not necessarily because you made bad choices. People in this economy are faced with either/or alternatives. Do you want this bad thing to happen or this really awful thing to happen? Choosing between nothing and naught isn’t choice, it is survival. And the game is often rigged to keep people making what are essentially bad choices in the long-term, but which seem easier in the short-term.  Fast food is a good example: it’s quick and cheap, but it has lifelong health consequences, especially when you have no access to meaningful healthcare.

So we have the circumstance where the tiny minority of haves consistently make decisions about issues that affect the lives of the majority when they have no clear understanding of the impact that those changes will have. This is not a good state of affairs, and it is getting worse. When JFK was in office, there was a much smaller disparity in income between the elected and the electors. Even 20 years ago, many more people in top government positions grew up in working class families. This is becoming increasingly uncommon and the consequences on all of us can threaten the very existence of meaningful democracy in America.

One of the historical faults of aristocratic elites has always been a patriarchal attitude toward the lower classes - the attitude that they, with their superior education and intelligence, far greater experience of the world and access to information, are so much more able to make the right decisions for the common folk.  Another term for this is shepherding: treating the common people who elected you as sheep. Of course, in the modern world, the historic disparity between education and access to information which formerly differentiated the classes has been eliminated in most developed nations, although there are certain groups working to reinstate it.

But the important thing to understand here is not just that bad people will make bad government, but that good people will be almost as incapable of making good government. Democracy requires governance by one’s peers. In a democracy all people should be equal - equal under the law and with equal access to government (both to the governors and to the services). When a ruling elite forms with different understanding, different perspective, different agenda, and different interests and priorities, good government becomes increasingly unlikely. And historically all the good government we have achieved has been bought with the demands of the common people wrestling power and privilege away from the elites. The ruling class will never give away anything on their own initiative. Oh, they’ll talk a good line, but their promises will be empty. It takes risk and willingness to suffer (and if necessary, to die) to obtain the good government that we deserve.

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