The Long Night of Elite Imagination

Why aren’t our elites more interesting? It might sound like an odd question to ask, but consider that throughout history aristocrats, elites of old, captains of industry, and those who have “already made it” pursued eccentric and visionary personal projects and passions. The universe of possibilities given modern technology and technique is, or at least should be, much larger than it was a century or two ago, yet a surprisingly small proportion of elites pursue such endeavors today, and indeed, as I have touched upon in a previous post, it seems that the proportion has actually shrunk over time.

The strange Dullness of the Elites

As Harold Lee points out in his provocative post at The Future Primaeval (sadly deleted but since archived), “The value of being cavalier”, of today’s billionaires Trump, Soros, Musk, and Thiel “jump out as exhibiting, in very different ways, the sort of agency you’d expect from someone who’s already made it.”

While the real list is surely broader than just four men, consider that there are roughly 2000 billionaires in the world, of whom about 500 are in the United States. Let’s be generous and raise that figure of 4 by an order of magnitude; that gets us to 40, or roughly one in ten American billionaires that are doing anything genuinely interesting aside from their primary business.

This strikes me as very odd. Are we to believe that out of a group of people who have abundant resources and are much more likely than the general population to contain brilliant or unusual minds, more than nine in ten don’t have any eccentric and visionary personal projects or passions?

Odder still, consider that the universe of possibilities has grown, and the resources to accomplish them has grown with it; there are more billionaires now than there were a century or two ago. A billionaire in 1800 that might have loved to have started an orbital rocket company might not have found anything then that interested him, but now would be happily competing with Musk, Branson, and Bezos in the space race.

All other things being equal, we would expect the biographies of our elites to be much more interesting, eclectic, and unusual than the biographies of their 18th or 19th century counterparts, yet a cursory examination reveals that the reality of the situation is clearly the opposite. Why is this?

The Dullness of the Middle Class

A clue might be found in a similar phenomenon seen among the modern middle class. Although middle-class culture has always been rather conformist, it has been noted in recent years that selective universities, including the most prestigious “Ivy League” universities, have rewarded with their tickets into the professional class the demographic known pejoratively as “excellent sheep”.

Who are these “excellent sheep”? They’re the people who work diligently for a goal that’s given to them by prestigious institutions, who will strive for and chase social status, who will also not do anything illegible by these same institutions or anything that might put at risk their chances of having a comfortable, high-status, but ultimately mediocre life. Safety, stability, and security are, whether adopted implicitly or explicitly, their goals in life.

Managers without Leaders

I often portray these aspirations as being all but sinister, but there’s really nothing wrong with them as such. They are the aspirations of people who are conformist, diligent, agreeable, uncreative, unimaginative, and mediocre, and are readily achievable by those of this group who happen to have bright intellects. Better yet, there are plenty of positions where such people are genuinely useful and where they will feel fulfilled in life.

The problem comes when you attempt to put such people in command of a society, which is effectively what we have done. Although they are good at managing, “excellent sheep” don’t have a clue about actual leadership. Our bureaucratic institutions, which more or less monopolize the best opportunities our society serves people on silver platters, systematically select and promote “excellent sheep”.

Paths to true Leadership

Even so, by itself this wouldn’t be a serious problem. Although they are an ever-growing and very unwholesome influence on society, bureaucratic institutions only monopolize the ready-made opportunities. Entrepreneurship offers an alternative to pleasing bureaucrats, where a man can seize opportunities directly and be the master of his own domain. This salutary alternative is also provided by business ownership more generally, as well as investing and financial-markets trading. The arts and the other creative fields are another route to success without pleasing bureaucrats.

To some extent this is only natural. Genuine leadership or anything very risky, creative, or innovative doesn’t really fit the pattern of “A pays B a steady wage on a permanent basis to do labor A is unwilling or unable to do” that has always characterized normal employment. In particular, great projects often demand large amounts of resources; while a visionary can seek patronage from rich individuals or bureaucracies, it’s far easier for a visionary to bring a great project to life if he personally owns the wealth needed to do so.

Of course this model only explains why employees would be dull and unimaginative. It does not explain why business owners, investors, traders, and entrepreneurs also lack visionary leadership in today’s world. So why don’t we see a middle class of excellent sheep coupled with an upper class of true leaders?

Institutional Subordination

The answer, I believe, comes from the fact that our society trains everybody, including those on the most prestigious academic and career tracks, through prolonged subordination to some institution or another. As Harold Lee points out, this is historically freakish; before relatively recently, people on prestigious paths in life were trained by being given a personal command with subordinates to lead. This puts one in the frame of mind where initiative, risk-taking, and making decisions, i.e. leadership, is the default and is expected, indeed necessary to accomplish anything that grants you social status.

What do we do with our “best and brightest” today? We place them in a position where they labor under the supervision of a nameless faceless representative of a huge bureaucracy, where they do not have command over subordinates but rather are a subordinate. What frame of mind does this put one into? One where risk-taking is unwelcome, initiative is for someone else to take, and decisions are for an amorphous collective to make so responsibility and any consequences can be diffused into nothingness.

Which system, which youth experience, makes the pursuit of eccentric personal passions and visions to change the world seem like a normal and natural thing for a man of means to do? Obviously the former system, not the latter.

Even those who choose entrepreneurship or some other independent career track are subjected to this process through the one bureaucratic institution virtually all people in modern societies are exposed to during their childhoods and youths: schools.

A youth of institutional subordination not only caters to excellent sheep, it actively manufactures more excellent sheep, and encourages those already in that group to become more excellent and more sheepish. Even the upper class are transformed by our social system into a group more and more resembling the archetypal excellent sheep, more and more resembling the archetypal middle-class bureaucrat, with each passing generation.

A sinister Diminution of Beauty

I would even speculate that elite men’s taste in women is more and more like a middle-class bureaucrat’s as well. It strikes many people, myself included, that billionaires’ wives tend to be remarkably plain, certainly not nearly as pretty or glamorous as one might expect.

One might retort that they have better taste in women than gaudy trophy wives or some such, but it’s not as if there’s any shortage of classy beauties who are willing to marry or date a billionaire; there’s likely not even a shortage of classy beauties who said billionaires would genuinely like personally, not just physically. This is supported by the fact that billionaire men who are so inclined don’t seem to have any trouble finding such women.

Frankly, this tendency is a bit perturbing; there’s something unwholesome and soulless about a (straight) man who could have all the finer things and women in life not appreciating feminine beauty and compaionship enough to fill his private life with it, as if the masculine drives nature endowed him with have been dulled. As it turns out, that might have been precisely what has happened as the sinister effects of institutional subordination in childhood and youth make themselves felt. And yes, sinister is the right word; a diminution of beauty is a sure sign the forces of darkness are at work.

The new Dawn of Elite Imagination

New developments, however, have disrupted that process among the upper class. The rise of the tech elites has after around 2010 actually caused the proportion of the Forbes 400 (all of whom are billionaires) that have college degrees to enter a downtrend for the first time in decades if not centuries. Perhaps not coincidentally our time has also seen a notable upsurge in eccentric personal passion projects among the upper class. Though he has a college degree, Elon Musk using his fortune from PayPal to found an electric car company, a tunneling company, a brain-machine interface company, and most notably a rocket company to reach his visionary goal of colonizing Mars, is emblematic of the trend.

The rise of homeschooling, unschooling, and self-directed education is reducing the number of years spent in educational institutions among the most cutting-edge segments of society, elite and non-elite alike. It is well-known that homeschoolers and unschoolers choose independent paths in life at a much higher rate than the mainstream, but as far as I know whether those who become wealthy (or are wealthy to begin with) go on to have more “interesting” biographies and pursuits is an open question. My model predicts that they would.

These two developments portend a future where the relentless centuries-long trend of ever-more schooling being required to (in the case of the middle class) access opportunity or (in the case of the upper class) be considered a normal member of society might actually stop and go into reverse.

Peak Education: already Here?

This might seem like a bold prediction, but our society is flashing even more indications that tell us “peak education” might be here. A deep sense that something is wrong with higher education has set in across the culture, with a consequent turn against the idea of going to college. There is no one dominant alternative in most people’s minds, but apprenticeships have seen a rise in status in cutting-edge circles, and there has been more interest in direct examinations rather than requiring people to get degrees.

Indeed, peak education might already have happened at the university level. Total higher education enrollment in the United States peaked in the early 2010s and thereafter entered a slight but steady downtrend, falling off a cliff in 2020 with the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. This might be symptomatic of an even longer-term trend; college enrollment growth as a percentage of the youth population noticeably slowed starting in the 1970s.

Interestingly, since the 1970s we have also seen a steady rise in the rate of homeschooling and unschooling, and even more interestingly self-directed education spiked in 2020, the same year college enrollment cratered. Although still representing a small portion of the population, the rise of homeschooling and unschooling may be a symptom of a broader cultural turn against formal education and credentialism.

Like most cultural turns, this is showing itself most forcefully in high-status segments of society, some of the same places where overschooling had reached its more advanced stages. While it would be amusing to envision a future where the lower class have more years of education than the upper class, a future that isn’t inconceivable, the ever-increasing costs of formal education make a future where all segments turn against schooling much more likely, especially since that has been the trend to date.

Entrepreneurialism versus Professionalism

These developments might represent a resurgence of the more traditional culture of self-help and entrepreneurialism, which after its Gilded-Age late 19th century peak was decimated at the hands of the culture of credentialism and professionalism. James Fallows’s article in The Atlantic from 1985, “The Case Against Credentialism”, is something of a time capsule of the culture of profesionalism near what was in retrospect its zenith. The college wealth premium has since trended toward zero, professionals have trended toward losing autonomy in their work, and the then “current romance of high tech” has since blossomed into a passionate marriage.

Given an environment where following the conventional wisdom and staying in school costs more and rewards less on one hand, and on the other hand taking the initiative and becoming an entrepreneur, an investor, or even an artist costs less and rewards more, why wouldn’t entrepreneurial culture advance and professional culture retreat?

After all, becoming an entrepreneur, a business owner, an artist, an investor, or a trader requires no formal education whatsoever. Technologically, the Internet itself should lead to self-education becoming much easier and thus more widespread; although adoption to date has lagged hopes, it is clear that just such a transition is happening.

Credentialism in Retreat

So a variety of social forces are working against the conventional wisdom that average years of education will increase in the future. One of the biggest forces working for it still is “upcredentialing”, businesses raising requirements to obtain jobs because they can, and for other complex reasons. Businesses, however, cannot keep raising credential requirements forever in a world where fewer and fewer workers are well-credentialed. Eventually either people will pour into colleges again despite everything else working against the idea, or businesses will relent and accept less credentials. To some extent the latter is already happening at the cutting edge. Quite a few large corporations have recently announced that college degrees are no longer a hard requirement to be hired.

The biggest force preventing this “downcredentialing” from happening is probably the government’s occupational licensing requirements, steadily expanding and often requiring particular educational credentials. Very interestingly, even that has recently been challenged by free-market and leftist political movements. Occupational licensing may well diminish in the future, though the corrupt interests that push it are very powerful and will not be dissuaded easily.

Moving back to the original topic, a diminution of institutional subordination as a childhood and youth experience among the upper class and those who join the upper class, a development that is realistic and even appears likely to occur in the near future, may be the element that our society needs to cultivate an upper class that can match or exceed the interesting biographies, projects, endeavors, passions, and eccentricities of the pre-20th-century elite.

The strange Cultural Ferment of the pre-modern World

This is very important, because as Harold Lee points out in another blog post at The Future Primaevel (sadly since deleted but still archived), “Why study aristocracy”, we often pride ourselves on how democratic or meritistic our societies are, how we no longer exclude people from opportunities to achieve great things, and although saying our society is merit-based is, to put it mildly, an overstatement, it is true that the average office worker now can much more easily create high-quality art or other cultural output that can reach the rest of the world than the average ancient Greek peasant did.

Given that, we should have a far greater number of far more talented people producing culture, and consequently pre-modern culture shouldn’t even be in the same league as ours in terms of quality. Yet by almost any fair measure the best of what has been thought and said has mostly been thought and said by a tiny number of nobles in pre-modern culture that were not selected meritistically at all. I think this should cause us to seriously question how well the meritocratic model of the world describes the generation of great art and culture.

The simplest explanation is that some other factor is holding back the people of great merit active today, and this institutional subordination I’m talking about might just be that factor. It might also be the case that some other factor, perhaps the same one in some fashion, is keeping those with the most talent from succeeding or making any headway.

I suspect this may in fact be true; my impression is that the generation of genuinely great culture flowered under the sun of freedom and opportunity in the 19th century, along with the raw numbers of talented people society let into the mainstream, just as one would ordinarily expect, only to go off the rails in the 20th century.

Toward a new Dawn of Elite Imagination

It’s entirely possible that abolishing the culture of subordination to bureaucratic institutions is the missing element separating our societies from realizing far more of their potential. An elite that devote their fortunes, after they earn or inherit them, to a panoply of personal personal passion projects driven by their own imaginations and eccentricities is an elite that will see at least some small fraction of these moonshots achieve results, helping to advance all of humanity in much more fruitful and unexpected directions than a society of bureaucrats focused on the incremental improvements that will keep their reputations safe, secure, and stable could ever hope to achieve.

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