If you are a thinking person with a moral sense, you agree with the Enlightenment philosophers – including the founders of these United States of America – that all human beings are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among others life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, you believe in the essential equal dignity and rights of every human being. This means you are capable of reason.
You do realize, however, that not everyone is endowed with equal powers of body, mind and soul. You acknowledge that people differ in strength of body, mind, imagination, creative urge and character. Albert Einstein was better than most at mathematics; Leonardo da Vinci had an extraordinary gift for painting; Nikola Tesla could visualize engineering solutions others could not. Crazy Horse was better at military strategy than Custer. Elizabeth Tudor had exceptional talent for leadership. Shakespeare wrote a better play than anyone. You prefer to travel in an airplane designed by a qualified, reputable and credentialed engineer, not one designed and built by an amateur. This makes you an elitist.
There are, however, different kinds of elitism. Healthy elitism wants the most skilled heart surgeons to perform life-saving operations; the most incorruptible and magnanimous leaders to represent their communities in government; the brightest minds and sharpest wits to argue the merits and detriments of ideas; the most methodical and rigorous scientists to describe our world; the kindest and noblest souls to educate our children. This kind of elitism values – and, ideally, rewards – extraordinary individuals for their contributions to the general good. Society offers these elites power in trust, as a recognition of merit.
Unhealthy elitism is not concerned with the general good, but with egocentrism. Here power is not given in trust as a recognition of merit; rather, merit is assumed to be derived from the possession of power – often the power to destroy. This is the realm of the bully, who manipulates others with the threat of violence and calls it leadership; of the miser, who hoards wealth in an ever-growing yet sterile trove and calls it stewardship; of the glutton, whose pleasure is not in enjoying good things, but in knowing that he has more of them than his neighbor; worst of all, the truly evil such as are found in the boardrooms of American pharmaceutical, insurance and health service corporations, whose interest in medicine is not to heal, but to extract a maximum of profit – and if healing comes as a side effect, so be it. These elites take from society all that is in their power to take, and seek to destroy any opposition. Their puppets, meanwhile, mock the great-hearted, the intelligent and the good.
Elitism in power is a fact, not an option. The unhealthy kind of elite seeks power for its own sake, and generally finds it unless opposed with courage and vigor. The healthy kind will serve the common good with power or without. It is in the interest of us all to entrust power to the givers and deny it to the takers.