Posted in Democracy, Inequality, Meritocracy, Public Good

What the Old Establishment Can Teach the New Tech Elite

It is unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and the other lords and ladies of Silicon Valley spend any time in English churchyards. But if they were to visit these delightfully melancholic places, the first things that they would encounter would be monuments to the fallen of the Great War. Their initial emotion, like anybody else’s looking at these morbid plinths, would rightly be one of relief. It is good that the West’s young men are no longer herded into uniform and marched toward machine guns.

If they looked harder, however, today’s elite would spot something else in these cemeteries. The whole of society is commemorated in stone: The baronet’s heir was shot to pieces in Flanders alongside the gamekeeper’s son. Recall that in the controversial D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lady Chatterley is driven into the arms of the local gamekeeper in part because her husband, Sir Clifford, was paralyzed from the waist down in the Great War.

Such monuments to the dead, which can be found across Europe, are a reminder that a century ago the elite, whatever its other sins, believed in public service. The rich shared common experiences with the poor, rooted in a common love of their country and a common willingness to sacrifice life and limb for something bigger.

That bond survived until the 1960s. Most young men in Europe did a version of what was called “national service”: They had to serve in the armed forces for a couple of years and learned the rudiments of warfare in case total war struck again. The U.S. called on people of all classes to fight in World War II—including John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, who were both nearly killed serving their country—and the Korean War.

The economic elites and the political elites were intertwined. In Britain, a “magic circle” of Old Etonians helped choose the leader of the Conservative Party, convening over lunch at the Beefsteak Club or dinner at Pratt’s to discuss the fate of the nation, as well as the quality of that year’s hunting. What became the European Union was constructed behind closed doors by the continent’s ruling class, while Charles de Gaulle set up the Ecole Nationale d’Administration for the purpose of training a new ruling elite for a new age. American presidents turned to “wise men” of the East Coast Establishment, such as Averell Harriman, the son of a railroad tycoon, or one of the Rockefellers. The “best and the brightest” were supposed to do a stint in Washington.

A memorial to soldiers who died in the two world wars, Oxfordshire, U.K.


The Establishment on both sides of the Atlantic was convinced that good government mattered more than anything else. Mess up government and you end up with the Depression and Hitler.

That sense has gone. The New Establishment of Wall Street and the City of London and the New New Establishment of Silicon Valley have precious little to do with Washington or Whitehall. The public sector is for losers. As today’s elite see it, the best thing that government can do is to get out of the way of the really talented people and let them exercise their wealth-creating magic. Pester them too much or tax them too heavily and they will pick up their sticks and take their game elsewhere.

As for common experiences, the smart young people who go from the Ivy League or Oxbridge to work at Google or Goldman Sachs are often as distant from the laboring masses as the class that H.G. Wells, in “The Time Machine,” called the Eloi—pampered, ethereal, childlike creatures that the time traveler discovers at the end of his long journey into the future. Separated from the masses by elite education and pricey lifestyles in fashionable enclaves, today’s elite often have few ties to the country they work in. One former British spy points out that his children are immensely better educated than he was and far more tolerant, but the only time they meet the working class is when their internet shopping arrives; they haven’t shared a barracks with them.

Does this matter? Again, many will point to progress. The old elite was overwhelmingly male and white (with a few exceptions, such as Lady Violet Bonham Carter and Katharine Graham, who often wielded power through dinner parties). It often made a hash of things. Britain’s “magic circle” didn’t cope well with the swinging ‘60s—most catastrophically with the Profumo sex scandal, which greatly damaged the Conservative Party—while America’s whiz kids hardly excelled in Vietnam. By the 1960s, the very term “The Establishment” had become an insult.

Modern money is also far cleaner than old money. The officers who were mowed down at the Somme often came from grand homes, but they were built with the grubby proceeds of coal, slavery and slaughter. (Clifford Chatterley, in his wife’s view, treated miners “as objects rather than men.”) Say what you like against monopolistic tech barons, greedy hedge-fund managers or tax-dodging real estate tycoons, they aren’t sinners in the same league. Men like Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg build great businesses and often give away their money to worthy causes. What more should they do?

Quite a lot, actually.

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, right, and his PT 109 crew in the South Pacific, July 1943.


The idea that the elite has a responsibility to tend to the state was brilliantly set out by Plato more than 2,000 years ago. In “The Republic” he likened the state to a ship that can easily flounder on the rocks or head in the wrong direction. He argued that for a voyage to succeed, you need a captain who has spent his life studying “the seasons of the years, the skies, the stars and other professional subjects.” He wanted to trust his state to a group of Guardians, selected for their wisdom and character and trained, through an austere and demanding education, in the arts of government.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the West, especially for its elite. This year could mark a reverse in history. Five hundred years ago, Europe was a bloody backwater while China was the most advanced country in the world, with the world’s most sophisticated civil service, selected by rigorous examination from across the whole country. The West overtook the East because its leaders mastered the art of government, producing a succession of powerful innovations—the nation-state, the liberal state, the welfare state—while the Chinese state ossified, its Mandarin elite unaware that it was even in competition with anyone else. By the 1960s, America was putting a man on the moon while millions of Chinese were dying of starvation.

Since the 1960s, however, this process has been reversed. Led by Singapore, Asia has been improving its state machinery while the West has ossified. Covid-19 shows just how far this change in the balance of competence has gone. Countries like South Korea, Singapore and even China have done far better at protecting their citizens than either the U.S. or Britain, where governments have conspicuously failed to work.

The elite bears much of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. The 1960s was the last time that they had a marked sense of public duty. What followed might be called the great abandonment. The Vietnam War discredited “wise men” such as McGeorge Bundy, a self-styled Platonic Guardian who served as national security adviser to both JFK and LBJ. The Establishment split into warring tribes of progressives and conservatives who were so divided by the culture wars that they seldom come together to fix anything. The explosion of pay in the private sector drew talent away from government. The constant refrain from the Right that the state is a parasite on the productive economy eroded what remained of the public ethic, while the Left, drugged by its ties to public sector unions, lost its appetite for reform. Government became a zombie, preserved and indeed inflated by its staff and clients, but robbed of ideas and talent.

National Service recruits in the U.K. line up to be issued caps, 1953.


The difference with the East is marked. Singapore has put a Platonic premium on public service. It recruits the brightest young people for the government, makes sure they move frequently between the public and private sectors, and pays them well: Its top civil servants can earn more than a million dollars a year. (It stops short of forbidding its Guardians to marry and laying on orgies for them, as Plato advised, but it does force them to live in public housing.) Other Asian dragons have recruited a cadre of elite civil servants. China’s attempt to follow suit is complicated by the corruption and secrecy that surround the regime, but at its best it is learning from Singapore, creating a new class of mandarins, this time trained in technical fields and science rather than the classics.

What could the West do to rebind the elite to the state? Better pay for civil servants is one answer, especially if it comes with a keenness to shed poor performers in the public sector, as Singapore does. The idea of giving students generous university scholarships in exchange for working for the civil service for a number of years was pioneered by Thomas Jefferson. An even more ambitious idea would be to reintroduce nonmilitary national service, an idea that Emmanuel Macron has raised for France.

But the biggest change that is needed is a change of mind-set. Unlike the dead aristocrats in the churchyards, the geeks who run Google and Facebook have no sense of guilt to give them pause and few ties of blood and soil to connect them to a particular patch of land. They believe that their fortunes are the product of nothing but their own innate genius. They owe the rest of us nothing.

This needs to change. Over the past decade both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been shaken by the forces of populism. The shaking will only get worse if the elites don’t play a more active role in politics. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, we have been reminded that good government can make the difference between life and death. Look at the two cities where the Western elite feel most at home: New York has lost more than 20,000 people, London 6,000 (at times the mortality rate was higher than the Blitz). By contrast, in Seoul, a bigger city with subways, nightclubs and everything else, only around 30 have died.

We live in a knowledge economy. For elites, exercising social responsibility should mean more than giving away money, though that is an admirable thing. It should mean sharing your brain—serving, not just giving. Michael Bloomberg did that as mayor of New York during the difficult decade after 9/11 (disclosure: Mr. Bloomberg employs one of us), and Bill Gates is the greatest philanthropist of his time not just because of the amount of money he has spent but because he devotes so much time to designing and driving his philanthropic work.

The habit must be set from early adulthood. More bright young things need to remember John F. Kennedy’s call to duty and think not of what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country. If more of the young flowing out of the Ivy League and Oxbridge worked in the public sector, its technology wouldn’t be so shoddy and its ethos so sluggish.

There is a twist in the dystopian tale that H.G. Wells told in “The Time Machine” more than a century ago. The Eloi seem to live wonderful lives. They frolic above the ground, subsisting on a diet of fruit and living in futuristic (if deteriorating) buildings, while the Morlocks, brutish, apelike creatures, lurk underground, tending machinery and occasionally surfacing to feed and clothe the Eloi. But this is an illusion. The Morlocks are in fact farming the Eloi as a food source, just as we farm cattle, sheep and pigs.

Unless the ethic of public service is once again reignited, the American world order will ossify, just as other empires did before it. That is the message today’s Eloi should take from English churchyards.

Mr. Micklethwait is the editor in chief of Bloomberg and Mr. Wooldridge is the political editor of The Economist. This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Wake Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It,” published by Harper Via (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

Posted in Democracy, History, Liberty, Race

The Central Link between Liberty and Slavery in American History

In this post, I explore insights from two important books about the peculiar way in which liberty and slavery jointly emerged from the context of colonial America. One is a new book by David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy. The other is a 1992 book by Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The core point I draw from Stasavage is that the same factors that nurtured the development of political liberty in the American context also led to the development of slavery. The related point I draw from Morrison is that the existence of slavery was fundamental in energizing the colonists’ push for self rule.

Stasavage Cover

The Stasavage book explores the history of democracy in the world, starting with early forms that emerged in premodern North America, Europe, and Africa and then fell into decline, followed by the rise of modern parliamentary democracy.  He contrasts this with an alternative form of governance, autocracy, which grew up in a large number of times and places but appeared earliest and most enduringly in China.

He argues that three conditions were necessary for the emergence of early democracy. One is small scale, which allows people to confer as a group instead of relying on a distant leader.  Another is that rulers lack the knowledge about what people were producing, such as an administrative bureaucracy could provide, which means they needed to share power in order to be able to levy taxes effectively.  But I want to focus on the third factor — the existence of an exit option — which is most salient to the colonial American case.  Here’s how he describes it:

The third factor that led to early democracy involved the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers. When rulers had a greater need for revenue, they were more likely to accept governing in a collaborative fashion, and this was even more likely if they needed people to fight wars. With inadequate means of simply compelling people to fight, rulers offered them political rights. The flip side of all this was that whenever the populace found it easier to do without a particular ruler—say by moving to a new location—then rulers felt compelled to govern more consensually. The idea that exit options influence hierarchy is, in fact, so general it also applies to species other than humans. Among species as diverse as ants, birds, and wasps, social organization tends to be less hierarchical when the costs of what biologists call “dispersal” are low.

The central factor that supported the development of democracy in the British colonies was the scarcity of labor:

A broad manhood suffrage took hold in the British part of colonial North America not because of distinctive ideas but for the simple reason that in an environment where land was abundant and labor was scarce, ordinary people had good exit options. This was the same fundamental factor that had favored democracy in other societies.

And this was also the factor that promoted slavery:  “Political rights for whites and slavery for Africans derived from the same underlying environmental condition of labor scarcity.”  Because of this scarcity, North American agricultural enterprises in the colonies needed a way to ensure a flow of laborers to the colonies and a way to keep them on the job once they got there.  The central mechanisms for doing that were indentured servitude and slavery.  Some indentured servants were recruited in Britain with the promise of free passage to the new world in return for a contract to work for a certain number of years.  Others were simply kidnapped, shipped, and then forced to work off their passage.  At the same time Africans initially came to the colonies in a variety of statuses, but this increasingly shifted toward full slavery.  Here’s how he describes the situation in Tidewater colonies.

The early days of forced shipment of English to Virginia sounds like it would have been an environment ripe for servitude once they got there. In fact, it did not always work that way. Once they finished their period of indenture, many English migrants established farms of their own. This exit option must have been facilitated by the fact that they looked like Virginia’s existing British colonists, and they also sounded like them. They would have also shared a host of other cultural commonalities. In other words, they had a good outside option.

Now consider the case of Africans in Virginia, Maryland, and the other British colonies in North America who began arriving in 1619. The earliest African arrivals to Virginia and Maryland came in a variety of situations. Some were free and remained so, some were indentured under term contracts analogous to those of many white migrants, and some came entirely unfree. Outside options also mattered for Africans, and for several obvious reasons they were much worse than those for white migrants. Africans looked different than English people, they most often would not have arrived speaking English, or being aware of English cultural practices, and there is plenty of evidence that people in Elizabethan and Jacobean England associated dark skin with inferiority or other negative qualities. Outside options for Africans were remote to nonexistent. The sustainability of slavery in colonies like Virginia and Maryland depended on Africans not being able to escape and find labor elsewhere. For slave owners it of course helped that they had the law on their side. This law evolved quickly to define exactly what a “slave” was, there having been no prior juridical definition of the term. Africans were now to be slaves whereas kidnapped British boys were bound by “the custom of the country,” meaning that eventual release could be expected.

So labor scarcity and the existence of an attractive exit option provided the formative conditions for developing both white self-rule and Black enslavement.

Morrison Book Cover

Toni Morrison’s book is an reflection on the enduring impact of whiteness and blackness in shaping American literature.  In the passage below, from the chapter titled “Romancing the Shadow,” she is talking about the romantic literary tradition in the U.S.

There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated. The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness. This black population was available for meditations on terror — the terror of European outcasts, their dread of failure, powerlessness, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed. In other words , this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than the abstractions of human potential and the rights of man.

The ways in which artists — and the society that bred them — transferred internal conflicts to a “blank darkness,” to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies, is a major theme in American literature. The rights of man, for example, an organizing principle upon which the nation was founded, was inevitably yoked to Africanism. Its history, its origin is permanently allied with another seductive concept: the hierarchy of race…. The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.

Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism — a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.

Such a lovely passage describing such an ugly distinction.  She’s saying that for Caucasian plantation owners in the Tidewater colonies, the presence of Black slaves was a vivid and visceral reminder of what it means to be not-free and thus decidedly not-me.  For people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison, the most terrifying form of unfreedom was in their faces every day.  More than their pale brethren in the Northern colonies, they had a compelling desire to never be treated by the king even remotely like the way they treated their own slaves.  

“The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.”