The reputation of government elites, which once formed the backbone of public service both in America and abroad, has fallen in recent years, and that may not be a good thing.
THE SOURCE: “In Defence of Mandarins” by Michael Lind, in Prospect, Oct. 2005.
In America and overseas, the reputation of ruling political elites is plummeting. In France, the highly educated Énarchie, who formed the backbone of the civil service for many decades, are being blamed for the country’s economic stagnation, while in Britain, senior civil servants have become figures of fun. In the United States, the “once-powerful northeastern establishment” has gone the way of the Chinese mandarins.
Governing elites first arose in response to a problem of democracy, writes Michael Lind, a New America Foundation senior fellow and author of What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President (2005). The American founders, along with many later 19th-century thinkers such as Thomas Macaulay, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, worried that universal suffrage would produce a “mobocracy.” But those fears proved baseless, as a “meritocratic elite provided the natural leadership for a modern society.” The old ruling class, built from an alliance between the aristocracy and the church, was supplanted by this new alliance between what Lind calls the “mandarinate” and the university. It served to check “the elective ‘monarchy’ of democratic executives and the majority ‘tyranny’ of democratic legislatures.”
So what has gone wrong? Lind reports that the West’s governing elites have come under attack on two fronts. Starting in the late 20th century, “in both parliamentary and presidential democracies, the chief executive has been elevated from first among equals to the status of a monarch.” At the same time, there has been a crisis of legitimacy within the elite, as the liberal arts education has moved toward “a more flexible pattern of instruction, including modern classics, modern history, and modern languages.” Increasingly, education has come to mean mastery of some type of technocratic knowledge, and this, in turn, has altered the character of the high government official from generalist—think Clark Clifford—to professional specialist—think Karl Rove.
Lind believes that other cultural changes have made the mandarin “a scapegoat for all of the major forces in contemporary society.” Free-market economists view government careerists as “plugs in the mouth of the market’s cornucopia,” while egalitarians, on the left, and populists, on the right, both reject the notion that good education is a prerequisite for manners and taste. In Lind’s analysis, the prototypical minister who held sway for so many years in Europe and America was “an amateur, to the professional; a statist, to the libertarian; an elitist, to the populist; and a heathen, to the religious believer.” What could be worse, he asks, than a society run by such people? His answer: “a society without them.”
In Lind’s view, the current political patronage system, with “Bushies,” “Clintonites,” and “Reaganites” succeeding one another, is a clear signal that career public servants are a dying—and possibly already extinct—species. Yet the lack of long-term government officials, particularly in the United States, leaves the country—blown left or right by the ideological winds of the moment—susceptible to the very “mobocracy” the Founders feared.