Michael Knox Beran, a frequent contributor to National Review and National Review Online, is the author of a number of books, including The Last Patrician, on Robert Kennedy, andJefferson’s Demons. Beran is the author of the new book Pathology of the Elites, which he discusses with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez here.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so pathological about elites?
MICHAEL KNOX BERAN: Elites become pathological when they mask their will to power with a philosophy of social pity. Lionel Trilling said of a character in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima — an American-born woman who marries into the European nobility and becomes a social reformer — that she “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.” What Trilling is saying is that the ostensibly beneficent policies of the elite reformer very often conceal an instinct to coerce. “Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling says, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
LOPEZ: Who is to blame for it?
BERAN: Not who, but what: human infirmity. Our fallen and imperfect nature is certainly the root of the problem. But where human nature is concerned, too many of our elites are in denial. Edmund Wilson once observed that the “sincere reactionaries” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky are beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, finds in his vision of a better world what he thinks is an escape from the imperfections of his nature: He has “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.” The elites who would save the world with social legislation are conscious only of a magnificent generosity of intention: In believing their motives to be pure, they have erected utopias in their hearts, Potemkin villages in their minds — specious constructions that allow them to feel good about themselves and to disavow the harmful consequences of their policies. Trilling’s point is that the social imagination makes the moral masquerade easier to accomplish than it was in the past. By reducing people to a mass of social groups and types, social policy obscures their individual humanity and turns them into statistics.
LOPEZ: How far along is this social revolution of theirs?
BERAN: Hannah Arendt warned that intrusive social policies might yet “reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.” She foresaw a world in which elite social technicians would impose behavioral norms on people through “innumerable and various rules” — bureaucratic harnesses intended to “normalize” men and women, to compel them to “behave,” and to punish their “spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” We are a long way from the Pavlovian nightmare Arendt envisioned, in which a servile population springs reflexively to the bells of the social state. But the ever-growing number of rules, regulations, pat-downs, filings, and taxes to which we are subject is becoming an obstacle to the full and free development of human individuality.
“Almost all the projects of the social reformers in these days,” John Stuart Mill wrote in 1855, “are really liberticide — Comte particularly so.” Mill’s words are as true now as they were then. One of the tasks of the conservative today must be to convince people that many of the beneficent ends which elite reformers seek to attain through coercive legislation can be better achieved by policies that leave the initiative to act and the freedom to choose to the individual.