The Big Bargain
Elites make a bargain with the middle class. This bargain determines how power, influence and wealth will be distributed in society. In each new generation, elites and the middle class review the current bargain and make alterations—sometimes minor and in other generations more drastic.
If things get bad for the middle class, more alterations are promoted. The lower classes seldom get involved in the bargaining, but if things are bad enough for them they’ll revolt and force a whole new bargain to be adopted.
This bargain is seldom written, but it is recorded in numerous documents, works of art, and the culture itself. It is passed down word-of-mouth from generation to generation.
In the United States, the last bargain was encouraged by the first truly international generation in American history. As the GIs came home from WWII, they brought with them a new level of widespread civic involvement and a heightened view of their potential role in the world.
Gone were the days of dominance by a Europeanized-elite class living in the New York-Boston corridor, of segmented wealthy staterooms versus mass housing on the Titanic and other luxury liners, hotels and restaurants.
In return for saving the world, the GIs demanded and got a new bargain—a different distribution of power, wealth and influence between the elites and middle class.
This time, they also demanded a more fair distribution to the lower classes. After all, nearly all military units which banded as brothers in places like Iwo Jima and Germany were made up of middle and lower class soldiers coming together in ways unprecedented since the taming of the American west.
Another similarity with the western expansion was the dominant role of youth in the nation’s evolution. As a rule the young are less fearful about losing their status and wealth. They are more likely to want everyone to succeed, and more sure that a level playing field will benefit us all.
Every civilization, it seems, has its revolutionaries who decry aristocratic privilege and demand a more just distribution of education, opportunity and wealth. Rome fell to such hordes, as did many European aristocracies after it. France, Russia, Italy and Germany all faced their revolutions.
But in America such changes in the grand societal bargain come at least each century. Great leaders like Bradford, Washington, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Carnegie, Roosevelt, Ray Kroc, and Martin Luther King, Jr. only mask the many others who promote American change.
The bargain is in nearly constant revision in the United States.
The GI generation demanded, and got, a college education for almost anyone who wanted it, along with unemployment pay, employer-provided insurance and other benefits, retirement and social security, elder benefits, public education for all, and a host of other social-net programs. The upper-middle and upper classes were to foot the bill.
There are really only two parties in history: those who want elites to enjoy special privileges and those who want the laws and traditions to establish equal opportunities for all. Ironically, a third group, which argues for equal results for everyone, always ends up as a front for elites.
After 1945, both major U.S. political parties adopted the “equal opportunity” platform. They debated the details, of course, but both were firmly in the opportunity camp.
The Higher Education Problem
Since 2001, this has all changed. The bargain is once again in flux, and a new bargain is being slowly discussed, considered and fashioned. This process is far from complete, but it is well past infancy.
Unfortunately, once again, it is a debate of the elites. Unlike during the western expansion and the post-World War II era, few in the middle class and even fewer of the youth are participating in the great negotiation.
The problem lies in our higher education system. Experts are fond of saying that while the U.S. university system is the envy of the world, K-12 education is lacking. But it is in America’s higher schooling that the disaster is occurring. There are at least three parts of this American swing toward class-system elitism.
First, in the emerging new bargain the middle classes go to college to train for a job while the wealthy still seek a classical, leadership education. This has split American into classes. It’s less blue collar versus white collar than Ivy League versus everyone else (just look at the makeup of the Supreme Court).
Once again elites expect special privileges—educational, career, social, financial, taxational, geographical, etc. They expect to buy luxury, and increasingly many seem to believe they somehow inherently deserve better than non-elites.
This is not meritocracy but elitism pure and simple.
Second, Washington, Wall Street and Madison Avenue are increasingly mere extensions of the Ivy League campuses. State houses and local corporate power centers are likewise often extensions of top state universities. The resulting groupthink castrates state leadership from exerting any significant influence against growing encroachments from Washington, DC.
In short, at the negotiation table for the upcoming elite/middle-class bargain, only the upper class is represented. Nearly everyone at the table is either upper class, works for the upper class, or is trying to fit in to (by trying to impress) the upper class.
The traditional power center for the middle class, state universities and state political houses, send their best and brightest to the Ivy League, Wall Street, or Washington.
Even the national media frequently flutters around the White House like it was Imperial Rome or China. The up-and-coming journalists want to go to New York or Washington. There are many other examples. Elitism is in.
A third challenge is perhaps the most damaging of all. An unfortunate side effect of the GI Bill and the increased availability of a college education has been the loss of citizen readers. We now widely equate “education” with college, and leadership with expertise.
Allan Bloom famously called this “The Closing of the American Mind.” We expect college to educate our citizenry, but the truth is that America became great because individual citizens educated themselves.
Few pioneers went west without a Bible, Shakespeare, Plutarch, Euclid or several of these. They read them over and over in depth, and applied their ideas and lessons to national, state and local leadership. A large mass of citizens were expected to have the same quality of education as any President, Senator or Governor.
The fact that college job training has replaced widespread citizen depth in the great classics and lessons of history is a sure warning of lost freedoms ahead. Every tyrant burns such books for this very reason.
We have so complicated the schooling profession that we seldom realize just how wise and refined a person can become with a few great classics in their satchel—and how often such great works are missing on the resume of the experts.
If you are one who believes in elitism, that a few should have many privileges while the rest work for their “betters,” these developments are a refreshing end of America’s age of opportunity. But if you believe in widespread freedom and prosperity, this is a burgeoning tragedy.
Surely something should be done about this. The answer is found on our bookshelves. It is found in Aristotle, in Montesquieu, in Bastiat. It is as powerful as ever in the writings of Jefferson and Adams. We just have to open the cover and stay a while. The future of freedom literally depends on it.
If this is too much to ask, we will see our freedoms and prosperity become the privileges of a few elites. America is better off with the Ivy League, the state universities and so many other educational, media and business options.
But without a true rebirth of the citizen-reader, our trajectory is toward decline. We are already well on this path.
And yet, Locke and Blackstone are found in nearly every library. We are surrounded by diamonds, but we ignore them in search of more transient and frivolous things. History is clear: freedom is not taken from a people by elites unless the people themselves have ceased to deserve it.
To deserve freedom we must earn it anew in each generation. Otherwise we are subsisting on intellectual ramen.
When we engage the classics, we pull up a chair to the negotiating table and influence the upcoming societal bargain. It is time for more of the middle classes to be represented. A new bargain is beginning to emerge—and it leans heavily toward elitism.
For our generation, the time is now. The classics of freedom sit on the shelf: Acton, Hume, St. George Tucker, and many others. We will earn our freedom, or not. It is up to us. Elites will not determine the bargain ahead unless we as regular citizens idly neglect our part until it is too late.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.