The problem with elitism

I am a believer in letting people make their own choices as much as possible, but that is not a universal belief.  I once had a internet conversation with a veteran of the mainland Chinese military.  Among other topics, he told me that “too much human rights” is a bad thing.  I was reminded of this when I read a letter by a former Soviet citizen, Victor Mishkevich (in the Wall Street Journal) who said this about today’s Russia
True enough, many people in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg want democratic institutions to be established, but the majority of the people do not want democracy. They consider it weak and uncertain. They want and understand “a strong hand.”
A commenter on this letter (on the internet) said this:
Different cultures have different values.  Their members have different desires. If you actually know real Russians, Russians that live outside Moscow, Russians that are not part of the westernized order of talking heads, you will understand that Putin is the perfect leader for them.  He not only promises, but delivers physical security, enough to eat and a motherland that is both feared and respected.  For Russians, that is enough.  They have their own measuring stick, as does every  other divergent culture around the globe.
Another letter appeared in the WSJ a few days later (12/29/2016), replying to Mishkevich:
…everyone wants social and economic freedom. They want to be able to live their life as they choose, speak their mind without fear, and exert full control over their property.
What they often do not want is for their neighbors to have the same freedom. And that’s where the trouble starts.
An implication of all  this is that Russians believe a strong leader like Putin knows what is best for the country more than many of their fellow citizens.  This is a kind of paternalistic attitude.  No doubt we all feel that way to some extent.
Paternalism does sometimes make sense.   I can see the need to lock some people up for their own good, if their minds don’t work correctly.  (Many mentally ill people have “died with their rights on”, because they became homeless and attracted predators or themselves engaged in fatal behavior.)
Obviously this idea is not the kind of clear-cut principle we would like to have such as “never lock a human being up who  hasn’t hurt another human being” or “never force a person to take drugs who has not agreed to it”, but there is a time when principles have fuzzy boundaries.
With children, the same applies.  Parents should give their children the freedom to make some mistakes, but not all avoidable mistakes.
If you believe a class of people is inferior to you, you may take a paternalistic attitude toward them.   Slavery provided one example.
One argument made for slavery by slave-owners in the south was that they were providing better living conditions than their slave would have working in a factory in the north.  These slave-owners thought they knew how to tell a slave to raise his children, or manage his property.
Many Americans also believed that freed slaves would undermine the social structure of the South.  In other words, they did not trust the black to be able to take care of himself, or to have a civilized society.
So that is one source of paternalism – not respecting a class or group of people.
Cliven Bundy is a rancher who got into trouble with the law because he let his cattle graze on public land.  He did get support by some other ranchers for his stand, and  he attracted a lot of attention and was interviewed.
One statement he made, on slavery,  did not go over well:
Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.
There are various things wrong with this statement, including the fact that many black Americans are not on welfare, and many whites are on welfare, but the interesting twist in his statement is that he contrasts two types of paternalism.  Slavery by people who see themselves as benevolent (not all did, of course) can be one, but being depending on the government (which really means being dependent on the taxpayer)  for your food and shelter and healthcare and childcare can be another.  In the latter case, the implication is that you can’t provide for yourself on your own.
clivenbundy
Cliven Bundy and supporters
An elitist may decide he knows what is best for you personally, better than you know yourself.  Or, he may decide he knows what is best for society, and that your selfish goals conflict with that.
Eugenics is an interesting example of how elitists decide what is good for society.  There have been compulsory sterilization programs in many countries of the world, sometimes on the basis that the person being sterilized was having many children without being able to provide for them, sometimes on the grounds that the person was disabled or crazy or belonged to the wrong ethnic/racial group.
In that case, an individual may want to have children, but an elitist decides that in the interest of society, he  must be kept from having children.
So we have two problems with elitism as far as the individual is concerned.  First is the elitist who knows what is best for you.  In that regard, Henry David  Thoreau, (1817 – 1862) known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” once remarked:  “[If] . . . a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
henry_david_thoreau_-_restored
Thoreau
The other type of elitist is willing to sacrifice you for the greater good of society.  David Horowitz, a former leftist who I probably overly quote in this blog, once said that progressives commit great crimes because:
 If you thought that you could, you know, return us to Eden or create a world in which there’s no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no poverty, no war, what lie would you not tell and what crime would you not commit to get there? And that’s why the greatest criminals of the 20th century were communists, were progressives. And they will be in this century as well.
[ To readers of my blog – this will be my last post for this psychology of evil blog.  Its been  enlightening to read for it, and to write it, but my next mission is to escape all this earthly evil by joining a mission to Mars.  (The last part (about Mars) is a joke).  Thanks for reading, and sometimes commenting.]
 marslander
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