Being a lifelong elitist myself, I have long had a sneaking sympathy for a Trollope character, Sir Timothy Beeswax. In The Dune’s Children (1880), Beeswax is a dignified old politician who lives not for power but, quite unashamedly, for the trappings of office. Parliament, he believed, was a club so eligible that any Englishman would want to belong to it; it was “the cream of the land.” To be in the cabinet was still creamier; and as for the prime minister himself, who could create dukes and appoint bishops, he had achieved “an Elysium of creaminess not to be found in any other position on the earth’s surface.”
The portrait is satirical, but we all have some Beeswax in us. Everybody, or nearly everybody, wants to join an elite and enjoy the cream. Once such simple needs as food and shelter are satisfied, status is the next thing to want, and it is hard to live without wanting something. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a friend was asked why Kennedy had wanted to be President at all, and the answer was, “He had money and women already—what else is there?” John Pierpont Morgan, when he and his friends were refused admission in the 1890’s to New York clubs, raised the principle of an open elite to its ultimate and majestic conclusion by founding one for himself. If you can’t join them, lick them. And so on down the scale. In the armed services men fight harder, any commander will tell you, for medals; in public life they work and scheme for honors and titles. To that extent an honors system is not merely decorative. It works. In fact, for those who already have enough money, or more than enough, it works in the supreme sense that nothing else does. So if public service is to be maintained and advanced, there is a plain case for elite-systems like clubs and academies, along with titles, medals, and prizes. There may even be a case for inventing more of them.
It is still commonplace to be told that elitism is wrong, for all that, and those who think we need it, and need more of it, seldom argue the case. It is easy to forget how recent all this is. Elitism and elitist are new words in English, adopted as late as the 1950’s, so there are plenty of people who can remember when they did not exist at all. Elitist is first recorded as used by David Riesman in an article in Psychiatry in 1950, referring to the ideas of Freud, Nietzsche, and Carlyle. His use was perhaps only mildly disparaging; but by the 1960’s, there were few worse things you could say, and by now it is only necessary to call a view or an institution elitist to declare war on it. It is rare to call yourself an elitist, rarer still to be proud of it. So though many people—perhaps most people—long to join an elite, they are forbidden to say so, in a new and tyrannical system of hypocrisy more pervasive than the Victorian taboo on sex.
I call anti-elitism hypocritical on the evidence of daily observation. Have you ever known a declared anti-elitist decline to enter an elite when the chance came? You are supposed to say you want no cream, but you are not expected to refuse it when it comes. In academic life, I have often noticed that the left seeks promotion and honors as assiduously as anyone else. It is a rich source of jokes. The late Sir Herbert Read, the art critic who held anarchist views, was known in his last years as the anarchist knight.
And so in public life. The status of politicians, we are often told in an age of lurid press revelations, has never been so low. But bring a member of Congress or Parliament to a social gathering and see for yourself how reluctant people are to meet politicians. They cluster round. Social snobbery is not much different. The last time I heard an American claim that the United States has less snobbery than Europe was shortly after he had assured me that his neighbor in Washington, D.C., was a Supreme Court judge. Anti-elitism, in short, is a mode of mock-modesty and a technique of concealed boasting. It would be boasting to say you know monarchs, presidents, and Supreme Court judges. So the way out is to imply that you have met them and don’t much care. A likely winner in the mock-modesty stakes was a professor in Victorian Oxford who once casually remarked, “Quite the nicest emperor I know is Germany.”
Perhaps, at long last, someone should give thought to the highly anti-factual question of what it would be like to live without elites. It would be a more ignorant world, presumably, and perhaps dangerously so. Elites are highly self-educative, after all. Bankers, it is said, lunch with bankers, and on the natural assumption that they talk about money, the money market could only be more ignorantly conducted if they did not lunch. Country clubs, similarly, spread gossip, and gossip is a sort of knowledge, sometimes an indispensable sort. Universities do too, and whenever I teach in the United States, there is a departmental lunch where business and gossip are talked. The beginner has to tread carefully here. Years ago, in a Midwestern university, I blundered into a daily lunch for professors of American literature. They were entirely welcoming to a newcomer from England, and my innocent mistake taught me a good deal about American literature and how it is studied. But it was a mistake, and after a week or two I corrected it and moved to a table where Shakespeare and Dickens were the conversational fare, not to mention the personal shortcomings of the department chairman. Plainly I was lucky. Worse things can happen. There is a harrowing story about someone attending an academic conference in Chicago who found himself frozen out of a circle entirely composed of experts on the Cantos of Ezra Pound. No doubt elitism can go too far. No doubt an expert on the cantos should sometimes talk to people who have never read them. No doubt, for that matter, he should talk to strangers on the bus. In fact, it is only by talking to people outside your elite, which may be as modest as an academic department or as grand as the Supreme Court, that you realize how fortunate you are to belong to an elite at all.
There are some assumptions too lightly made here. One is that elites are necessarily cozy and protective. In fact, they can easily be internecine, and a world without them would in all likelihood be a flabby and uncritical world. A banker learns what he does wrong, among other things, when he lunches with his colleagues. Professors, too, are not slow to cavil. All the 40 members of the French Academy that Richelieu founded in 1635 have had to wait to get in until somebody died, in a classic instance of a self-perpetuating elite, and were probably voted down at their first attempts; so that the whole experience of becoming an academician can be depended on to wear you down and hone you up. Elites are not in their nature complacent; and if, by some unimaginable act of policy, their competitive edge were removed, whether in clubs, academies, or the higher professions, it is not just snobbery that would diminish but effort too. That would have its cost. Money would be worth less, teaching would decline, the justice of courts would probably grow more inept and less pure. If status mattered less, wealth would come to matter more. I wonder if anti-elitists have contemplated these probabilities and what they would cost in terms of justice and creativity. Money, to be sure, in the world there is, can buy entry into an elite. But perhaps that is one of the best ways to spend it.
It is curious that, with so much evidence to the contrary, it is still widely assumed that the desire to be rich is never anything more nor less than a vulgar greed for material things. Europeans are perhaps easier victims of this illusion than Americans, whose history has trained them to admire the parvenu and to understand what, as an outsider, I venture to call the Great American Truth: that it is more honorable to create wealth than to inherit it. American private wealth is often newer than European, its economic dynasties of shorter lineage, and their sheer newness, as the television soap called Dynasty used to prove nightly, understandably a source of fascination, of an envy unmarked by rejection. New wealth in Europe, by contrast, is still sullied by the taint of vulgarity. Perhaps its ultimate symbol was the luxury yacht from which Robert Maxwell drowned a few years ago. Maxwell was a refugee from Czechoslovakia, as it was then called. He arrived in England as a penniless teenager in 1939, made millions after the war, and was briefly a member of the House of Commons; so his career illustrates the fundamental principle of the open elite and how to break into it. His social manners and business ethics did not endear him, it must be said, to the nation he chose to make his own, even though he gave widely to charity. No one would accuse the late Captain Maxwell of having become rich in order to be charitable. But he was, and there are those who get rich, among other reasons, in order to give it away. Odd, in the rich nations of the West that owe so much to private munificence, that the possibility is so little regarded. In 1923, for example, John Pierpont Morgan, Jr., handed over a great library in New York with its art treasures to a trust, and his portrait hangs there on the wall wearing the gown of an honorary Cambridge doctorate. So, like many a banker, he belonged to more elites than one, and was proud of it.
But suppose the rich did choose to be selfish and to spend only on themselves and their families. How harmful, in sober truth, is a rich and selfish elite? Their lawful enterprises may be presumed to have profited the economy as a whole. They pay taxes that fund welfare. They give employment; and if they collect works of art, they hinder their dispersal or destruction. Rich collectors, it is said, are egotists who seek their own aggrandizement. Long may they do so. It is because they seek it that our public collections are what they are. To enter the Frick Museum in Manhattan is to praise the name of Henry Clay Frick. Pierpont Morgan, as every visitor to 36th Street must know, did not waste his substance. Tax not the royal saint with vain expense, as Wordsworth once wrote, contemplating what King Henry VI had achieved in glass and stone at King’s College chapel in Cambridge. If this is how elites behave, if this is what comes of liking cream, perhaps elitism is something more than inevitable. It is a blessing.