A Review of Vilfredo Pareto's 

The Rise and Fall of Elites

G. Stolyarov II
Issue XXIII - June 20, 2004
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Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian sociologist, who, in his 1901 treatise, The Rise and Fall of Elites, foretold the ascent of socialism as a ruling doctrine in the decades to come. Pareto, to his credit, does not even remotely consider socialism capable of achieving the existential and moral utopia that its advocates espoused. Moreover, he extensively attributed socialism’s rise to “the sanction of the victim,” a concept that Ayn Rand would discover explicitly a half-century later. Pareto’s general analysis of human nature and his starting premises are severely flawed; nor does he pretend to attempt to justify them. Nevertheless, many of his observations correspond with the reality of events in politics, economics, and the general society.

            Pareto’s groundwork for the treatise is immensely shaky; his basic premise with respect to human nature is that people’s motivations are inherently irrational and based on sentiment rather than logic, and that any reasons that individuals ostensibly present for their actions are in fact post-rationalizations. To this my response to Pareto would be a parafrase of Rand: “If you do not consider people capable of genuine rational judgment, do not check their premises, check yours.” Certainly, some individuals, perhaps most of those who lack a systematic worldview, do act on whim and impulse, and Pareto may well have been one of them, which might have led him to attribute his own inner state to all others. Indeed, he had not presumed to use rational thought to justify the very premise about people’s sentimental motivations! He merely stated that the matter is out of the scope of the given treatise.  

            If anything, sentimental motivations in the less rational of men are what leads to the downfall of elites and what had led to the rise of socialism. Pareto observes that, for the greater part of a society’s existence, it is dominated, politically, culturally, and economically by a certain paradigm of men and ideas—this elite usually possesses at hand the police power of the state and the means to maintain some manner of order within the society, for good or for ill. He does not state whether this monopoly on force is necessarily abusive or whether it can be employed in a just and limited sense; he merely asserts that an elite holds this monopoly during its tenure. The elite lays claim on certain resources (rightfully or wrongfully, using production or force) and its ability to gain those resources and maintain its position depends on the degree in which its willingness to employ force to protect its claims corresponds with its asserted claim. This is a value-neutral proposition for Pareto in that it can be actualized for good ends or for ill ones. A business elite in a capitalistic society could use the retaliatory police power of the state to punish arsonists that attack the factories of entrepreneurs or to persecute thieves of its property; a socialist elite, on the other hand, can use force to unjustifiably coerce some into sacrificing the fruits of their produce to “needy” others, something for which Pareto repeatedly and eloquently demonstrates aversion and loathing.

            How does an “old elite” lose its dominance and become replaced, after a brief turbulence, by a “new elite?” Pareto cites conditions in which, though the old elite’s claims to resources remain the same as prior or expand, the elite is less willing to defend those claims. Citing the French aristocracy of the late 18th century and the bourgeoisie of his own time as examples of this, Pareto clearly refers to the principle of the “sanction of the victim,” though he could not have known this concept by name. With a rising “religious-humanitarian impulse” in the general culture (and Pareto rightfully recognized socialism to be just another religion in worship of the State), the old elites become prone to exercising uncommon generosity, mercy, forgiveness, and even aid to the very forces that would depose them! Pareto cites endless examples of the bourgeois business elite of the late 19th century offering financial aid to Socialist causes, agitating for coercive “moral improvement” of the society, and requesting that punishments for delinquents, criminals, and murderers of their time should become virtually non-existent. Amid this “moral softness” and subservience to sweet-sounding credos, the old elites still hope to claim their former share of resources, except no longer by honest production, but by exploitation of government favors, including subsidies, trade barriers, and connections with the rising promoters of newly fashionable causes. They seek a little temporary security by conceding to their enemy the battlefield of ideas, resources, and policy. Pareto brilliantly illustrates why they are bound to lose.

Here are two armies, A and B, confronting each other. In A, there is no discipline whatever, little courage, no vigor, no faith in their own flag. These people do not even dare say clearly that they are fighting against B, but wish to pretend that they are at peace in the midst of war. They raise subscriptions to provide arms for B and are unwilling to spend a penny for their own. They prate and lose themselves in vain talk, they bring grist to their mills and seek to get something out. The best soldiers desert their own camp and go over to that of B. On the other hand, the men of B know what they want and they want it strongly, they maintain discipline, they have faith in their flag, they hold it high, they say very clearly that they want to defeat army A, that they want to disperse and destroy it. They are tied together in a close group and each one of them is ready to make any sacrifice for his comrades and for the flag. They never dream of aiding the enemy, they procure arms for themselves and not for others. Their number grows constantly. Then you would be asked: “On whose side do you think will be the victory?” Would you be in doubt what to reply?

            In contrast to the old elite, the rising elite does not give tacit sanction to the forces and principles opposing it; hence its vigor, intensity, and endurance in pursuing a reform of the social order. Yet, the victory of the new elite does not necessarily mean the actualization of the principles for which it rallied the lower rungs of society; after victory the elite becomes more rigid and establishes its own hierarchy; in the case of the socialist elite, as history has demonstrated, it has been a hierarchy of favor-mongers, bureaucrats, special interest group leaders, and flowery orators who manage to say nothing at all in an hour’s speech. This elite was on the rise at different times in different countries; what Pareto observed in France from 1880 to 1901 took place in the United States from 1929 to circa 1969, as Ayn Rand observed the tacit compliance with which the American middle class and business leaders surrendered the battlefield of ideas and the moral high ground to a coalition of New Dealers, global altruists, and screeching hippies that today dominates the intellectual institutions of this country.  

            Nevertheless, if Pareto’s theory is to be extended to today’s conditions, the socialist/hippie elite is clearly in decline.  No more does it arouse college campuses in waves of violent activism; no more do its youngest heirs champion “saving the world” (though the hippies could only have ruined it), but rather they seek to pay ritual homage to left wing principles in order to get acceptance into elite academic institutions and thus “get ahead in life.” Gradually, the young elites are falling prey to the rising doctrines of materialism, self-interest, and prudence, which are to overturn all remaining vestiges of socialism. Government continues to expand and redistribution of wealth continues to occur, but this more due to cultural inertia rather than any deliberate, devious, and coordinated scheme from the New Deal or the Great Society. In the meantime, a growing, vigorous, dynamic, principled, and broad-based ideological backlash is emerging; it covers multiple constituencies, as Pareto said in well might; from the neo-conservatives to the libertarians to the Objectivists, the advocates of limiting government, liberating free enterprise, and making more room for individuals to exercise their own self-responsibility, are colorful, creative, industrious, and vocal personalities. The spokesmen of the leftist elite, on the other hand, are bland, predictable rehashers of the same credos they had espoused forty or even seventy years ago. They have nothing new to offer, and are gradually themselves being infused with bits of free enterprise materialism in their personal lives, if not their explicit statements.

            It needs to be recalled that Pareto is not a critic of elitism and does not see elite dominance as the equivalent of an oppressive government. There is no reason why an elite cannot be commercial, meritocratic, non-coercive, and productive in proportion to the values it receives. The prospect is ripe in the coming decades for establishing that “natural aristocracy” which Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers predicted to emerge in a free market of goods and ideas. Pareto’s recipe for the survival of an elite is a balance of “consolidators” and “innovators” within it, of those who would wish to preserve existing prerogatives and those who would seek to expand into new realms. Without sufficient membership in either category, an elite either grows stale and repressive, or falls prey to the trend that would displace it. A meritocratic elite, by not confining membership to a select group existing by virtue of birth, race, gender, nationality, or connections with authority, would admit anyone into its ranks who is sufficiently productive to have made a name for himself—there would be no formal initiation process, nor a hierarchical ladder to climb. The elite would be self-made, and self-perpetuating through voluntary association.

            If Pareto’s unfounded touches of cynicism concerning the sentimental motivations of all men can be ignored, and rational principles can be employed to secure the ascent and maintenance of a free-market natural aristocracy, it may well be that a setting of eternal stability, growth, and liberty is at hand.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.