Having been born in London, I take a bit too much interest in the political goings-on over there. I’ve recently read up a bit on the various parties, and I must confess somewhat more sympathy to the Tory party than I would have expected. I’m generally left-wing in my outlook, but the deeper history of England would seem to suggest that the Tory’s combination of class chauvinism and mild racism was at least effective as a political strategy, in establishing the British empire. I’ve often wondered how, precisely, this came to be, and have read the basic explanations of luck, sea power, disease, and what I’d like to comment on as relates to the USA: The competence of elites.
One of the most important parts of British dominance for so long is its quality of military officers, which is one reason it’s system has been adopted by many other military forces across the world. But I recently read that this was for a broader reason than simply a good system, in that the system had many very high-quality, educated members of the aristocracy to draw upon. This is why Britain proved so formidable against larger enemy forces across the globe, but was also its Achilles heel: in World War 1 high quality officers proved just as vulnerable to machine guns as everyone else, and their deaths mortally wounded the British aristocracy.
Here in the US, the defense of the terrific inequality we see around us is that it provides us with extremely high-quality individuals. And this is backed up by the evidence, as detailed in the current issue of the Economist. The children of American elites get into elite colleges because they deserve it, they are smart, driven, capable. But they lack that particular quality which made the British aristocracy stand out, which prompted British aristocrats to stand with their lower class countrymen in battles and wars across the country. American aristocrats do not seem to have any sense of obligation towards society as a whole, any sense of giving back. Their status is purely their own doing, and to expect any thing from them is un-American.
This is one reason I didn’t mind the idea of Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman for President (although I am glad neither of them won). Clearly aristocratic families, both seem to have a real sense that they and their families were still a part of America, not rarified John Galts flying above it all. Romney did have his 47% speech, but as a citizen of Massachusetts, his actions clearly showed a broader perspective.
In the end, I don’t know how to solve this conundrum. If America is going to continue to have a growing aristocracy, we must make them contribute more to the general welfare, somehow. Alternatively, we can just take away their wealth through taxes, and redistribute it. Another interesting possibility is national service, forcing American aristocrats and commoners to work together and learn about each other.