In the comment thread to this Samizdata post there’s been a debate over what it means to be an elite. Nina D. uses the term to describe those who have an economic advantage over the majority of the world – which means the vast majority of Westerners.
There are two types of elites. The first is that of one who has gained illegitimate influence over one or more institutions – by usurping government authority and/or individual liberty. Some elites are political officials who exercise powers not duly granted to them. Some are lobbyists who bargain for the State to perform acts of fraud, theft, assault, vandalism, murder, and/or restraint of trade for their benefit. Some bypass the State (or bargain for State approval) and engage in fraud, theft, assault, vandalism, murder, and/or restraint of trade themselves.
One example of elitism by force can be found in the Cuban government’s own brand of apartheid. Tourists are restricted to certain posh areas that are off-limits to the locals, insulated from the poverty-stricken areas that make up the vast majority of the Cuban landscape. NewsMax has a pictorial tour illustrating the contrast between the Potemkin resorts and the real Cuba.
The second type of elite – typified by much of the entertainment industry – is that of the capitalist whose line of products receives far more accolade from the mass media and other high-profile institutions than from the marketplace. Being this kind of elite isn’t necessarily bad. What matters is the elites attitude toward those outside of its niche market. I’m not aware of the makers of Dom Perignon thumbing its nose at those of us who prefer Coca-Cola or Bigelow Plantation Mint Tea to champagne. There are certainly moviemakers who sneer at audiences who don’t like their product, regarding those non-customers as rubes for failing to appreciate nihilism or political leftism or whatever the niche cinematic product is.
What all types of elites have in common is that they have earned something disproportionate to their success in the marketplace – or, in the case of politicians, disproportionate to the powers they have been endowed. Dom Perignon and CNN have more prestige than they have customers. Enron (thanks to the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation) had more capital than a free marketplace would have been willing to invest. The Supreme Court exercises more power than the Framers gave it.
Nina D.’s error is in equating wealth with elite status. True, Westerners (and certain others) are richer than most of the world. But most of us earned that income; we do not exact influence over markets disproportionate to our abilities to honestly compete. Let me say it again: elite status is an unearned asset.
What separates us from the rest of the world is not the level of privilege but that of liberty. We live in the freest markets on Earth – because we live under the least elitist governments on Earth. The war on worldwide poverty begins with worldwide government reform..