Liberalism, Education and Affluence
When I first became politically aware back in the early ’80s, the Republicans were the party of wealth and privilege, while the Democrats were the party of the common man. The educated and affluent were expected to be “conservative”, while the working class and underprivileged were expected to be “liberal”. Such were the stereotypes, anyway, and they usually held true.
As any student of American sociology and demographics could tell you, these old stereotypes no longer hold much water. Liberal political and social views are increasingly aligned with education and affluence. This new reality is stark in California, where the wealthiest counties voted against Proposition 8 last year. The most liberal cities in the United States are also bastions of education and affluence. Seattle, for example, boasts the highest percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The ten wealthiest counties in the United States all voted overwhelmingly Democrat in the 2004 election. So what’s going on here? Has there been a major ideological shift? Perhaps. What remains consistent, however, is the ideological gap between rich and poor, between the highly educated and the working class.
THE DILEMMA OF THE ELITE
Wealth and education should really be treated as two separate variables. Education tends to be a prerequisite to acquiring wealth, but not always. In the ranks of the wealthy, there is some division between the intelligentsia and the commercial/entertainment class. Nevertheless, the policy views of Warren Buffet, Ted Turner and Bill Gates do not differ substantially from the faculties of Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities, so for our purposes we’re going to lump them together.
In the United States, it is wealth and education – not heredity, birth, race, religion, virtue, intelligence, knowledge or worldly achievement – that determines social status. I will call this ideological coalition of the wealthy and educated “the elite”. The voluntary racial segregation that still exists in some places is far less important than the near-universal segregation between the elites and everyone else. Don’t get me wrong – in a culture committed to radical egalitarianism, I am very happy to have at least one reminder that there still exists a social hierarchy, that human society still requires an aristocracy of sorts. I’m in favor of aristocracy. I’m in favor of elites. The danger is that, having forbidden other forms of hierarchy, the determinants of wealth and education take on a greatly exaggerated social importance, and the elites become captive to the intellectual currents that happen to dominate modern universities.
Now, here comes the twist. Our contemporary elites tend to be egalitarians themselves – a potent psychological combination. This egalitarianism is a function of indoctrination by our institutions of higher education. Let’s think about this. We have a minority class which is clearly superior in some ways to the majority – they live a much more comfortable material existence, are usually better educated, generally more intelligent (see the link between IQ and other forms of inequality), and always more influential. Their very existence is an affront to their egalitarian ideals. This presents a psychological dilemma of sorts. The world is not an egalitarian place: to the elites, nothing could be more obvious. Therefore – either something is wrong with their own class, or something is fundamentally wrong with everyone else. (It does not usually occur to them that something might be wrong with egalitarianism.) Human nature being what it is, most people do not regard themselves as parasitic or dispensable. So the obvious conclusion is that egalitarianism should be achieved by bringing the great mass of non-elites into line with elite standards.
THE SUFFERING MAJORITY
The world of the elites is an impressive one. The estates, condominiums, hotels, board rooms, offices, universities, resorts, beautifully landscaped neighborhoods, expensive restaurants, frequent traveling, easy access to every kind of pleasure and diversion – all of this make it easy to avoid the gritty reality of the outside world. To someone living in this environment, an intimate confrontation with poverty and material hardship can be shocking. The idea of large families eating macaroni and cheese for dinner several nights per week in a small rented home is horrifying. The thought that someone, somewhere, does not have health insurance is an outrage. But it gets even sillier. It should be recalled that suffering, for many liberals, is defined simply as not having one’s desires met. That is why same-sex marriage is such a priority for them: homosexuals desire to marry, and if this desire is not fulfilled, homosexuals will suffer, which is injustice by definition.
Part of the problem is that our contemporary elite class is lonely and bored. Very often the members of our elite have failed – whether by design or neglect – to forge those close human connections which are the preoccupation of the majority. Personal attachments and loyalties can impede the kind of “success” our elites tend to value.
My former boss once asked me why I wanted to have more than two children. He said that every family he knows with more than two children has invited suffering into their lives – a child gets sick, a child dies, a child fails in school, a child becomes a drug addict, a child ends up in jail, etc., etc.. My response was that yes, love is always a risk, and the more you love, the more you risk. Should we therefore stop loving, or love only “moderately”, in order to avoid the pain that often comes with it?
Our elites are therefore motivated by a fear of suffering and deprivation – first their own suffering, and then the suffering of the majority (who are assumed to suffer terribly because their desires are not fulfilled), which for them is also intolerable. The thought of suffering does not leave them alone. They are haunted by the knowledge that they are the “haves” and the majority are the “have nots”. Strangely, this “liberal guilt” usually translates into political and social activism rather than personal acts of charity towards their family, neighbors, and community. The attention they might otherwise have given to people whom they know and love is converted to an obsession with the suffering of the world, in the abstract.
THE CURSE OF INTELLIGENCE
On the whole, our elite class is blessed with above average intelligence. This really cannot be disputed. Intelligence, of course, can be used for good ends or bad, and can be cultivated or neglected, but the fact of superior intelligence exists apart from what is done with it. The economist F.A. Hayek wrote a book titled “The Fatal Conceit” which, among other things, attempted to explain why intellectuals tend to be socialists. In a nutshell, the reason is that intellectuals tend to overvalue intelligence, preferring to err on the side of infinite perfectibility. No system is too large or complex to be managed and perfected by human intelligence.
The intellectual has experienced the power of high intelligence, but he tends to disregard its limits and to deny that intelligence is unequally distributed. He disregards its limits, because if intelligence can be used to solve all problems, the intellectual is always in demand. He denies that intelligence is unequally distributed – against all evidence – because that violates his egalitarian dogma. Therefore the intellectual has boundless confidence in grandiose schemes of social organization and “equality of outcome” scenarios.
Most intellectuals do not sufficiently appreciate the human capacity for evil, believing that men would use their intelligence for the good if only they were freed from superstition (religion) and the oppression of certain institutions (church, family, nation). Some intellectuals deny the importance of virtue altogether, assuming that an intelligent act is also a virtuous act, and that a virtuous act cannot be unintelligent. Conflating the two qualities, intellectuals often consider lesser intelligence as though it were some kind of moral fault.
And so our elites believe that intelligent, well-planned, universal solutions exist for all problems. The liberation of human intelligence eliminates the need for traditional, parochial institutions which limit the scope of human activities. Hence the liberal’s indomitable belief in the power of education to transform society and create “world citizens”. Grand liberal initiatives ranging from universal pre-school to universal healthcare, from world population control to eliminating poverty or terrorism, tend to be the result of a conceit which radically overestimates the power of human intelligence.
To summarize, education and affluence can certainly be isolating, but these can’t be blamed exclusively for creating the liberalism of our contemporary elites. Rather, liberalism predictably arises from the combination of affluence with 1) the dogma of egalitarianism; 2) fear of suffering and deprivation; 3) loneliness and boredom; and 4) intellectual conceit.