When we think about elites today, we typically think about people with a lot of money. We might think about industries like oil, finance, or even tech. We might even think about economic inequality concentrated into a very small, yet very dominant income bracket. The truth is, of course, that the concept of elitism transcends mere money, and has been used to describe everything from academic enclaves to ethnic groups. To call oneself “elite” is to define oneself as capable in a way that most others are not. The fact that our society normally talks about the wealthy when speaking about elites implies that to be capable in today’s world is to have money.
And while money and elitism do often go hand in hand, it’s often important to pause and remember that they are not one in the same. The founding fathers of the United States, for example, were considered elites in their day not just because of their wealth, but their education. The colonial-era slave economy, although far more unjust and unequal than today’s America, did produce social classes of people who never had to work, and therefore had the free time to focus on being worldly, cultured, and above all else, informed.
We have evolved much since this time, largely for the better. The United States no longer has massive slave plantations, but it still has many ultra wealthy people who don’t have to devote the majority of their time to making money the way that most people do. We don’t like to focus on these people in modern culture, preferring instead to look at entrepreneurs, industry titans, and working people who through extreme devotion to business have created massive fortunes. We are fascinated by the imbalance and excess that money creates, and give special regard to those who master the process of acquiring wealth, yet we don’t hold any unified social expectation of the people among us who are the wealthiest.
In the eighteenth century, however, this was not the case. Tradesmen were seen as lower on the social pyramid than those with enough financial means to devote all of their time to culture, art, science, and diction. Not all were the renaissance men that the likes of Thomas Jefferson were (though he was, of course, not without his faults), but there was a clear social expectation that the wealthy and the educated had a social responsibility to improve civic life. In an era where public education and even literacy was not a guarantee, elites focused on making intellectual, scientific, and philosophical contributions to society. Men like Benjamin Franklin were figuring out how to conduct electricity AND engaged in diplomatic talks with countries like France. We don’t have such people as often anymore.
In most fields from human rights to the treatment of women we are light-years ahead of the era of the founding fathers, but part of that is because of the very institutions that these people set up. We can pat ourselves on the back for having a fairer world than one built upon mercantilism, but what institutions have we created lately that have any promise of moving society forward? The news loves to speak about the growth and decline of the economy, but speaks little about quality of life. People like Bill and Melinda Gates, wealthy individuals who want to make social improvements all over the world, are seen not as a norm, but an exception to what wealthy elites typically do. Bill Gates also made his billions, he didn’t inherit them, so his sensibilities do not reflect a great deal of America’s one percent.
If anything, industries like tech have done a lot to discourage civic participation and intellectualism among the wealthy. Success stories of college dropouts and billionaire dyslexics who leave school to build business empires have given rise to rampant techbroism, “tech bros” being workers whose skills are financially very valuable, but not necessarily the product of traditional education. As economies of scale and skyrocketing student debt have made their mark on people’s minds, we are gradually turning educational institutions designed for higher thought into Silicon Valley style job-training facilities, with no incentive to prioritize philosophical discussion, civic duty, or even meaningful discourse about how our world should be governed.
The boom of tech has revived the U.S. economy, but it also has stigmatized academia, and touted higher education’s distance from modern job descriptions as a point of weakness. But in situations where we hit ideological stalemates on greater issues such as climate change, human rights, or the distribution of wealth, people who have vicariously studied less economical fields like sociology or political science are more likely to have a thoughtful answer than those who went straight into business admin so they could cover their student loans.
We have no problem facilitating and even idolizing business elites in our world, but elitism needs to be prioritized in other fields as well. We have to facilitate thoughts that go beyond the logistical needs of business. To do that that we need to advocate for policies in schools and governments that empower more thinkers, public administrators, philosophers, philanthropists, policy analysts, artists, scientists, and any other profession that is built around making accomplishments that benefit not just individuals, but all of society. The first step in getting there is to expect more from the people who already have the means to pursue such work. Wealthy people don’t ignore the arts and sciences out of dislike, but because there is more status in business. Let’s spread that status around. Embracing some ideas of elitism just might very ironically foster a more equal world.