The role of elites

Why are we so uptight about elites? In the runup to last month’s Knowledge Wave conference both main parties worried that it might be an elite affair. It was.
For the Labour party this was standard fare. “Elitism” and “elite capture” are dirty words because they somehow disparage the modern PC version of the “working man” — though Labour’s own upper reaches are stuffed with members of the elite.

You might expect the National party to approve elites. Excellence has a place in National’s ideology and the party tries to entice elite people to stand as candidates. But National, too, respects the long anti-elitist tradition.

Both main parties believe that to be thought elitist alienates middling people and to be a 40%-plus party politicians must solicit the middle.

It is not that the middle spurns all elites. TV micro-starlets are gushed over and sports “stars” are permitted. The first qualify presumably because their vacuity keeps them recognisably middl-ish, even if slim and flashy, and the second are kept on a tight leash, to be cut down to size they minute they miss a tackle or a netball goal or have a bad day at the Olympics.

This view of elites equates elitism with snobbism.

A healthier view equates elitism with excellence. And if this country is to make it in the information age, now entering a new and more discombobulating stage with the biotechnology expansion, it will need lots of excellence.

It is elites who do the original thinking, produce the ground-breaking research, turn it into a project and make the rest of us richer — in money, in pleasure, in our environment.

The old adage about humans and insects applies: elites can do without the people — witness the hundreds of little firms which operate internationally and make international incomes, needing only a certain level of services here to keep them going — but the people can’t do without elites.

But there is one thing elites can’t do, at least by themselves. They can’t make and remake national choices. For that, there needs to be consensus. And for that the elites need the people.

In the 1940s, after 15 years of economic depression and war, a clear national choice was made for personal and social security.

There were some dissenters and the National party vowed in the 1949 election campaign to bring back free enterprise but in fact governments of both stripes stuck faithfully to the national prescription. Security was the prime guide for policy.

There was, of course, a cost in economic growth, as most command economies found by the 1980s. And eventually there was a rebound cost in personal and social security.

In the 1980s the political, bureaucratic and business elites flipped the policymaking coin over and gave primacy to economic imperatives. This did improve economic performance — in the 1990s our per capita growth was about the OECD average (though we slipped in comparative terms because our currency slid off the shelf in the late 1990s).

But the people disagreed with the elites. The elections of the 1990s were attempts to register that disagreement and in the 1999 election they succeeded.

But where does that leave us? Essentially with the 1940s national choice in tatters. The health system and tertiary education are underfunded. Considerable numbers depend on state charity. Personal security has deteriorated.

Moreover, many of the moves promised in 1999 and carried out since have run counter to the economic imperative of higher growth, which is needed to fund security measures.

Fifty years ago, it was believed an economy could be sealed off and taxes adjusted to meet the social imperative. Now, with the information revolution folding national economies into one big swirling international economy (as the industrial revolution folded local economies into a national economy), tax ceilings are in effect set by forces beyond governments’ control.

So putting the 1940s back together again is a chimera. The world has changed, is changing and will go on changing.

The poser for the elites now is how most effectively to respond with new policy. Clipping on some poorly funded measures to encourage research, innovation, startups and selected large investments by foreigners, while also boosting social services, the arts and the environment is a long way short of the quantum leap that will need.

For that quantum leap, there will need to be national consensus or it will just unravel. Leading a new national choice is the government’s task as it heads towards a second term.