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The Elite and
Last week, we published a series of man-on-the-street interviews that dramatically illustrated how voters often are abysmally ignorant of political reality, and that led to the question: Would it be better if some did not vote?
That issue jogged my memory back to the outrage I felt in 1960 when I read an essay by Senator William Fulbright (Founder of the Fulbright Scholarships) entitled The Elite and the Electorate.
Fulbright was a pillar of the American liberal establishment and an honored lecturer at the Council on Foreign Relations. His thesis was that common people are incapable of self rule because they do not have the aptitude, the knowledge, nor even the interest in acquiring the knowledge required for decisions on matters of state. Therefore, he argued, there always must be a ruling class, an elite segment of society to execute the task of leadership. The masses may be encouraged to believe they are in charge via the electoral process, but the reality is that a small group will run everything of importance.
I was outraged at this concept. It ran counter to what I had been taught about the virtue of democracy and the inherent wisdom of the electorate. However, I had to admit there was some truth to Fulbright’s argument, and it upset me that he might be right.
Fulbright made the analogy of a passenger ship on which there are two classes of people: The passengers and the crew. The passengers decide where they want the ship to go, but the crew is in charge of getting it there. Once the passengers decide on the destination, they are well advised to leave the machinery and navigation to the crew which has specialized knowledge of such matters.
It was (and still is) a strong argument in favor of a ruling class that is left alone to perform its specialized tasks but which is subservient to the citizens-at-large regarding political destinations and principles. The analogy bothered me because I could not find a flaw in it. It wasn’t until a decade of observation had passed until I found the flaw.
The flaw was so huge and so simple that you cannot see it unless you back away from the theory and look at the practice. The flaw is that Fulbright was lying. He advocated that the passengers determine the destination of the ship but, in actual practice, he and his Establishment minions wanted the crew to determine everything, including the destination. They talked the line of limited government because it got them elected but, once in office, they immediately took charge of all aspects of the voyage, including its destination.
Next week, I will address the question of how to convert Fulbright’s analogy from deceptive rhetoric into honest practice; how to design constitutions to insure that the crew remains the servant of the passengers rather than their master.