Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Moral Degeneracy of the Elite

In any society, there will be sharp bifurcations of wealth and social standing.  Even in societies founded around the notion of an egalitarian ideal, such as Soviet Russia and communist China, elites have emerged within the very party structures designed to promote uniformity of standing.  The challenge within any society is how to lessen those bifurcations by making one's labor and the merit thereof the criteria for advancement; rather than, say, one's connections by network or bloodline or political affiliation.

Market economies have, throughout history, lifted previously disadvantaged people to the merchant class, where they could deploy their newfound capital to agitate for increased political representation and access to the legislative process to ensure that their rights and prerogatives were honored and respected.  Capital ownership is the foundation of individual power; moreover, it is the only means by which individuals can truly assert their rights.  Everyone has paper and ink rights, and equal standing on paper in most Western societies, but those with capital have rights with fangs and claws.  Iron comes into the glove when an individual owns property of his or her own.

The problem with many societies throughout human history has arisen when the elites of those societies have lost sight of why their standing exists: to promote justice, equality, order, and opportunity for the various elements within their society.  The divine right of kings today is taken to mean an arrogant arrogation of power by a sovereign who seeks to be unaccountable to all.

The counterpoint to this is the Basilikon Doron, or royal gift, a document written by King James I to his eldest son Henry expounding on the proper dispensation and purpose of a king's power.  It begins with a sonnet that sets forth certain themes that are most informative:

GOD gives not Kings the stile of Gods in vaine,
For on his Throne his Scepter doe they sway:
And as their subjects ought them to obey,
So Kings should feare and serve their God againe
If then ye would enjoy a happie raigne,
Obserue the Statutes of your heavenly King,
And from his Law, make all your Lawes to spring:
Since his Lieutenant here ye should remain,
Reward the just, be steadfast, true, and plaine+,
Represse the proud, maintayning aye the right,
Walke alwayes so, as ever in his sight,
Who guardes the godly, plaguing the prophane:
And so ye shall in Princely vertues shine,
Resembling right your mightie King Divine.

The elites of this world struggle with the idea that their power is a mere grant from God, not to be deployed solely for their own benefit, but to be utilized as a stewardship for the benefit of the world at large.  Rulers are supposed to be a terror to evil works and not to good, and this is hard to reconcile in a world where rulers deploy their power at the service of corporations and industries to shut down groceries that sell raw milk or put farmers out of business when their corn crosses with the genetically modified corn of Monsanto.

Today, the elites of the world may be identified as those who have come to possess a great deal of capital, and with that capital they have attained the ability to influence public policy and drive legislation.  Unfortunately, their influence over public policy and legislation has become entirely self-serving.  Over the past decade and a half, we have seen Enron achieve federal regulatory approval for mark to market accounting, which enabled its executives to report future expected profits as current profits.  It was charlatanism, financial chicanery at its worst.  Shareholders were misled, employees were bilked of their retirements, and the basic integrity of our markets was subject to skepticism because the overseers had enabled the entire debacle.

With every single financial crisis of the past thirty years having its genesis in such misfeasance by federal regulators who acted at the behest of elites seeking to legalize bad behavior, or at least to give fraud the patina of legal legitimacy, the credibility of our governing institutions has come into question.  Our society has started to unravel.  Today's elites peddle propaganda in the form of artistic expression, promoting licentiousness and self-centered consumerism to our children and to us.  The society that they have wrought is in full view: Americans are heavily indebted to credit cards with usurious rates, and they routinely live beyond their means on credit. What is more, they are ashamed of the very idea of living within their means.  They are aspirational consumers, aspiring to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on haute couture bags and shoes, coveting aviator watches that have no practical purpose for the lifestyle they actually live.

This is promoted at all levels by an elite whose members are morally and ethically bankrupt, void of any sense of larger responsibility to their fellow man or the society in which they transact their business.  Their sense of responsibility ends with their bottom line.  The fact that they have appropriated the organs of government to legitimize their unhealthy and unethical means of enhancing that bottom line does not make their behavior any better than that of rioters in the streets in London.  It simply means that their method of rioting through the world financial system, burning and razing our credit markets and acting as nihilists in tailored suits, are not classified in the same terms as that of looters in the street.

There was a time when individuals had some concept of something larger than the self, and that used to be the nation-state, or God, or some common sense of humanity.  To some extent, these sensibilities are still present among the proletariat, but among those who drive our public policy and legislative agendas, nation-states are an antiquated concept, God is dead, and humans are nothing more than cattle to managed according to some sense of population control in order to maintain some neo-Malthusian sense of equilibrium.

The author David Rothkopf captured this reality to some extent in his book Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.  He highlighted the emergence of a new class of elites, who are bound to have more in common with their peers amongst the class than they do with, say, people from their country or fellow members of their religion.  Theirs is a camaraderie of ideals, and the hubris thereof, a self-perpetuating sense that they are correct and cosmopolitan, and that they will lead the world one way or the other towards the vision they have for everyone.

They are not content to appeal to the rest of us on the merits.  In point of fact, the elites have historically felt that the masses are too stupid to comprehend their visions and ideas.  The masses are prisoners to obsolete paradigms and ideals, be it traditional values or ideas of government.  The elites are blazing the way towards a brave new supranational world.

To some extent, the elites are correct in their diagnosis of mass ideals and beliefs.  The problem with doctrine and dogma, and the prophecies thereof, is that the followers of said prophecies tend to do whatever they can to see those prophecies fulfilled. There are individuals in the world today who are trying to breed a red heifer, one that is perfect and can be taken as the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies.  It is no matter that such a prophecy and its fulfillment will bring about unquantifiable human suffering and a loss of life, for these individuals are convinced of the righteousness of their cause.  In much the same way, there are individuals of means who are utterly convinced that the world's population is totally out of control, even though you could fit every individual in the world on an acre of their own land within the state of Texas.  One of these individuals commissioned a landmark in Georgia known as the Guidestones, the written content of which advocates reducing the human population to just 500 million people.

What the elites fail to entertain is that their dogma may be fundamentally incorrect.  World governments, through the various empires who have flourished and faded throughout history, have never been beacons of humane treatment for those individuals who worshipped or thought differently.  Human suffering, disease, warfare, and other ills of human experience have still occurred.  Torture and executions at the behest of state power have occurred on far larger scales.  Brutal repression has been the norm.  Respect for democratic expression that flouts the limitations imposed on democratic expression by the state has been non-existent in the history of such modes of government.

Then again, what the elites regard as necessary is a type of freedom that produces only one outcome, and that outcome is whatever they agree is the correct outcome.  Freedom exists so you can do as you ought, as opposed to whatever you want to do.  The critical issue is who determines what it is that you ought to do.  The following example from B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity embodies the attitude of the learned elites:

"IN TRYING TO SOLVE the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology. To contain a population explosion we look for better methods of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope, control disease, better housing and transportation will solve the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said, “Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee.”"

The problems with this pessimistic and defeatist attitude are obvious from a logical point of view. Technology is not at fault for any of the ills listed above.  In point of fact, increases of population are not in and of themselves bad, and the advances in sanitation and medicine that give rise to expanded life are not to be condemned as making population problems more acute.  In truth, the reason people have more children than they support is a lack of technology; namely, a lack of access to education about procreation and reproductive self-determination.  Name me one country that possesses nuclear weapons and has been invaded since it joined the nuclear club.  The affluent pursuit of happiness is not responsible for pollution; the affluent pursuit of false concepts of happiness is.

The Darlington quote is pure poppycock; and one most clearly sees this in the fact that prior advances made by men have clearly not diminished the prospect of those who came afterwards, which is why you can buy a laptop computer today that has many times the capacity in memory and many times the capability in work output of former models at a tenth of the price.  People who previously would have been frozen out of the computing revolution today have access to vast quantities of information because their predecessors' advances expanded the opportunities available to people today.  When men have damaged the environment and polluted their world, their crimes have been compounded by the fact that the damage they inflicted was entirely foreseeable and largely avoidable.

The Skinner quote is informative because it gives us insight into the attitude of elites who think that a world in which wars are fought to avoid collateral damage, and where the use of torture and inhumane behaviors is decried and even criminalized under international law is somehow worse than the world which came before it, even though that world had the plague, and women who wandered the countryside unaccompanied had to worry about being raped by bandits.  Wholesale extermination of conquered peoples was the norm, and genocides through pogroms were encouraged.  Today's world is not worse than that world, for large pockets of the modern world no longer endorse such inhumanity and savagery.

The problems of this world lie in a rejection of values that are commonly agreed upon by a majority of the world population.  The rejection takes place in the halls of power by men and women who believe in extreme situational ethics.  That is, what is wrong in one context may be permissible in another context. This is reasonable to believe in certain contexts, and we all hold to it one way or another. Which of us would tell the truth to a child molester when he came to us inquiring about the location of his intended victim, even as that victim hid in our closet while the pederast stood on our doorstep asking us such questions?  It is moral in that context to lie.  Averting harm to a human life trumps absolutism in truthful disclosures.

Our elites, on the other hand, believe in twisting such principles to apply in commerce, with the end result being a global economy in flames.  Moreover, they believe in the moral and ethical justification of a publicly financed bailout to save the wider world from the consequences of their narrow actions, even as they decry the idea that a bailout should be extended to homeowners facing foreclosure on the grounds of personal responsibility.  The intellectual incoherence and cognitive dissonance is absolutely breathtaking.

If the elites are not afforded their bailouts or their requested accommodations, they send the stock market plummeting until governments and central banks capitulate.  Investor confidence must be saved, they say.  Otherwise, the market upon which we all depend will be savaged.  Though we wrecked that market, you cannot hold us to a meaningful account for our actions, because we are the only ones who know how to fix the mess we have made.  The lawlessness of elites, and the accompanying lack of culpability, outrages the broader population.  The governments that fail to take a principled stand against such behavior in order to hold those responsible to an account for their behavior lose their credibility in the eyes of young people who find their opportunities limited and the future prospects diminished.

If you would look upon the rioters in London and wonder at the genesis of their attitudes, you have no further to look than the lawless and unethical conduct of elites who control banks, media outlets, and the markets of our global economy.  It is trickle down lawlessness and immorality, and it has infected every aspect of our society.  The attitudes promoted by media outlets and their entertainment divisions are impractical and not all conducive to an ordered or decent culture, because there is no sense of responsibility or obligation towards one's fellow man that can be absorbed off of the  television unless of course such "responsible" attitudes benefit the bottom line of multinational corporations who seek profits from the desire of individuals to be "green" or wear or buy pink themed attire in support of breast cancer. Our morals and values are only of utility if they can be commoditized in some way or another, and when they cannot be commoditized, they are to be condemned as antiquated, old-fashioned, and regressive.

Despite the fact that chastity is not a harmful behavior, it is mocked and derided at every opportunity.  The ideal put forth is one of wanton promiscuity and libertine behavior as a means of enjoying life, but few sitcoms ever examine the real-life consequences of such unfettered sexual behavior. With one in six Americans infected with genital herpes, you do not see art imitating life on shows that routinely depict characters engaging in sexual liaisons with multiple partners.  There is nothing wrong per se with waiting for a monogamous sexual relationship within the confines of marriage, but those who advocate for such conduct are mocked as unrealistic.  In the same respect, there is nothing wrong with stipulating that you want a monogamous sexual relationship within the confines of commitment, but in today's society, those of us who do not subscribe to an anything goes sexual normative standard are viewed as quaint at best and bigoted at the worst.

Human choice ought to be the determining factor in sexual relationships: but when people are influenced at all turns by waves of propaganda that promote one ideal at the expense of all others, let us not pretend that choice isn't negated to some extent by social conditioning and the pressures thereof, especially when the people in question are teenagers who get their ideas about love and relationships from television sitcoms and personalities.  Art does not imitate life; it practically guides it along in our society.  To the extent that it can be said to imitate life, it does so by imitating those parts of life that are conducive to selling a product in the most effective way imaginable.

These realities are why the backlash against consumerism and consumption are so pronounced among certain camps.  It isn't that these individuals are anti-capital or anti-progress; instead, they simply don't believe in a value set where capitalism and progress are aligned with placing objects and destructive behaviors over human life itself.  It's why marketing cigarettes to children and teenagers is wrong.  Yes, you can sell more cigarettes, but the question is not whether you can, it's whether you should.  It's why lying about cigarettes and their effects by enlisting doctors and dentist to say that smoking a certain brand is actually good for you exposes you to tremendous civil liability later.  Yes, you can sell more of your brand by engaging in deceit, but the question is not whether you can, it's whether you should.

God help us when the attitudes of our elites are rotted through with such immoral and unethical beliefs, because as the elites go, so shall the masses over time, and when the masses go in the direction of elites given over to cosmopolitan moral degeneracy, all hell breaks loose.  We have barricades in the streets and mindless vandalism, but make no mistake, the cause is not some disconnect within the minds of everyday youths, it is the world in which they live and that world is shaped to a large degree by the elites who own the media outlets and publishing houses and convey moral rot and self-centeredness as an acceptable lifestyle in order to profit.

If elites do not view their standing as being accompanied with requisite responsibility, they will sow the conditions of their own demise and the society that favors them to such a disproportionate degree. There is only so far you can go in making a mockery of law and order by exempting your own kind from it before the masses view the law with the same contempt exhibited by the ruling classes.  At every level, the elites of this world have forgotten that their standing exists to ensure the freedom, liberty, and perpetuation of opportunity for those who wish to labor to advance their own cause.  The elites have created conditions that are antithetical to a good and ordered society; instead, they have created an environment whereby immoral behavior is rewarded and those who pursue good and upright conduct operate in business and in life at a disadvantage.  If our civilization seems like it is turning upside down, it is because our leaders have used their influence to flip the entire moral order on its head for their own short-sighted goals.

The masses do not have to surrender to the lesser impulses of their nature; rather, they can rise above the tends of their deficient leaders in order to assert order and law by their own hand and promote a new elite that respects the responsibility that arises with the privilege of power.  But first, the masses must reject that which has been inculcated within their minds by the current elite for decades. A moral and ethical turning must occur, and we must turn away from their values and back towards our shared humanitarian ideals.  We must commit to fight fire with fire, joining together to reclaim our government and our shared civic institutions without further delay.  We must make markets safe for good business and those who run their businesses ethically.  We must set up a system whereby those who operate with moral and ethical standards are rewarded rather than handicapped for their volitional decision; and we must further set up a system whereby those who operate their enterprises with fraudulent practices are extinguished completely and stripped of all ill-gotten gains.

Our elites have for too long led us in the wrong direction, and to the extent that we have followed, we are to blame.  But we have a choice: to fight back for the restoration of decent leaders who understand that their power is a grant rather than a possession, and for the emergence of a system wherein ethical business practices are rewarded and given carte blanche to drive unethical businesses into extinction and obscurity.  There is no justification for respecting a market simply because it is a market.  When a market produces diseased and even counterproductive results, it no longer serves the interest of the society within which it exists, and when markets become destructive of those interests or ends they can be deracinated and replaced entirely, just like governments.

Moral degeneracy among our elites is only here to stay if you resign yourselves to such an outcome.  Let us not have an attitude of resignation, but one of hope and empowerment as we reclaim our civic institutions and our markets for our shared values and interests.  Let us make the world unsafe for the type of unethical and immoral business practices that have defined our markets over the past forty years.

try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said, “Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee.”