America is the great democratic experiment, but it has been transformed into an aristocracy. And it’s not an aristocracy of the “one percent.” In fact, many of the “one percenters” are entrepreneurs who have risen from modest beginnings to the very top echelons of wealth and influence, and thereby reinforced the democratic American dream.
Instead, we are witnessing the emergence of an aristocracy of high-earning executives, professionals, intellectuals who are transforming America from a dynamic democracy into a sclerotic aristocracy. It’s the very well-to-do, but not the super rich, who are undermining American democracy.
This startling hypothesis is advanced by George Mason University scholar Francis H. Buckley in his important new book, The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America. Buckley dubs this emerging aristocracy the “New Class.” Members of the New Class are high earners, alumni of the country’s best colleges and universities, and fluent in a set of norms and behaviors that mark them as members of the country’s elite. They send their children to private schools, or else they can afford to live in a zip code with top-flight public schools. They have much invested in the way things are today, and they are not entrepreneurial or rich enough to be willing to chance big changes in how the American economy and society run. And, they tend to judge that they have fully earned their status through their education and hard work. (This makes them fundamentally different from the old European aristocracies, who knew their position depended upon their birth and thus adopted attitude of noblesse oblige towards the lower classes.)
So invested in how things are today, and so convinced are they that they have earned their lofty position, that the members of the New Class have become, in Buckley’s damning formulation, “the enemies of promise”—that is, enemies of the promise of the American dream that one can rise on the basis of merit and hard work.
Buckley’s thesis is sure to provoke an indignant response from many; after all, many of the elite—such as the opinion-writers in the pages of the New York Times—see themselves as defenders of the promise of the American dream and proponents of policies that will restore economic mobility. But drawing on history and economics, as well as comparisons to countries like Canada, Buckley argues that many policies favored by elites further undermine the prospects of the middle class.
Buckley is not the first to raise the alarm about the dangers of this New Class. Friedrich Hayek’s seminal 1947 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” also describes how executives, professionals, journalists, and the like establish a “climate of opinion” in favor of engineering social and economic improvements through government programs. But Buckley does so with a keen eye on today’s most pressing issues, and he sketches reforms of education, immigration, and tax policies that would check the power of the New Class—and, in so doing, proposes a way back to a more dynamic, and a more fair, America. In this contentious election season, Buckley’s The Way Back is a thoughtful guide to the most vexing questions about inequality and how we might truly tackle these issues.
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