The populist revolt against governing elites sweeping advanced democracies is the latest chapter in the oldest political story. Every society, regardless of its form of government, has a ruling class. The crucial question is whether elites rule in their own interest or for the common good.
In the decades after World War II, the ruling classes in Western Europe and the U.S. managed their economies and social policies in ways that improved the well-being of the overwhelming majority of their citizens. In return, citizens accorded elites a measure of deference. Trust in government was high.
These ruling classes weren’t filled by the traditional aristocracy, and only partly by the wealthy. As time passed, educated professionals assumed the leading role. … They were, in a term coined in the late 1950s, the “meritocracy.”
In some human endeavors, meritocratic claims are largely problematic. Not so politics, especially democracies.
In democracies, meritocracy will always be on the defensive. Its legitimacy will always depend on its performance—its ability to provide physical security and broadly shared prosperity, as well as to conduct foreign policy and armed conflict successfully. When it fails to deliver, all bets are off.
This is what has happened throughout the West. Failed wars, domestic insecurity and uneven growth have undermined the authority of governing elites. Although the pro-Brexit vote in the U.K. came as a shock, it was the latest in a series of surprises tending in the same direction.
Our current elites are, sadly, dopey, as the episode over the carbon dioxide theory of global warming shows. Keynesian economics is another case of mass dopiness induced by state incentives and propaganda. Both will be looked back upon in a decade or two with amazement that people believed such nonsense.