The New Old Nobility

Aristocrats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held tradesmen in contempt.  Although aristocrats recognized that businessmen (and they were almost entirely men) provided a few useful services, they also saw merchants as money grubbers who lacked both an appreciation for the higher things in life and insight into the rural lower class that lived near aristocratic estates. As a result there was general agreement among the high born that the business class should not enjoy an equal share in setting the political and social norms of the nation.

Aristocrats tried to enforce the distinction between themselves and those in trade in various ways. The Court around the monarch was their preserve.  The families of peers married largely among themselves. They jealously guarded the prerogatives of the House of Lords. And they believed all such exclusions were in the interest of the nobility of the nation, not just the nobles themselves.

When academics and the press write in favor of regulating campaign contributions and outside expenditures, they remind me of nothing so much that attitude of the nobility of Old England. They are horrified that the Koch Brothers intervene at election time to press their views on the public. But they think nothing of the fact the Arthur Sulzberger, a media aristocrat from birth, can propagate ideas on his own editorial page without restriction, even though there is ample evidence that an endorsement from The New York Times can make the difference for a candidate for city or state office.  Nor do academics have any trouble enthusiastically supporting “reforms” to  prevent their fellow citizens from influencing the next election, although many of them hope their ideas transmitted through their students and acolytes will permanently transform society.

One easy explanation is ideological. The news media and academics overwhelmingly favor the Democratic party.  While the partisan views of the wealthy are much more mixed, permitting them to fund election  messages would result in more politically balanced messaging and slow the current in public discourse that would otherwise flow sharply to the left. On this view, the media and academics simply want campaign reform to silence the other side.

But I think the motivations of what we may call the symbolic class are much more like the old nobility. They see themselves as group apart with higher motives and purer intentions because they float above the compromises and crassness of commerce. They think they come to know the interests of the less well off as they report or study their travails.  Fortunately, as with the old nobility, time is not on their side. The digital age disintermediates the media and has already diminished the power of the mainstream press.  Many colleges also face a great disruption over the horizon, as online courses substitute for professors.   Like the nobility of old, the symbolic class’s enthusiasm for excluding competition provides an intimation of their fading power.

Reader Discussion

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on August 29, 2014 at 12:13:54 pm

Rather liked the term "symbolic class." Right on point!

Perhaps, we can view the urge for campaign "reform" as the modern day version of the Corn Laws which had the effect of protecting the status / finances of the symbolic class of that day, the agricultural aristocracy. One can see a continuum over the centuries of the "snooty" class seeking / succeeding legislative protection for their privileged status.

I have never liked corn!

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on August 30, 2014 at 09:09:19 am

Not to be supercilious, but Professor McGinnis takes a different reading of English social mobility that sustained the "Aristocratic Class" as compared with that of continental Europe where the bourgeois (commerce & mercantile) distinctions were strictly maintained from around 1630 onward.

The English "Aristocracy" was constantly refreshed from the successful (economically and politically) commercial and mercantile classes from around 1600 at least. It was a "money" class, with appurtenances.

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R. Richard Schweitzer
on September 07, 2014 at 12:57:53 pm

The school system seems to be set up to discourage actual study, as opposed to simple regurgitation of the fair provided. I hope to see a resurgence in study as the internet has broken down the barriers to discovering supplemental ideas. Easier access to the thoughts of other knowledgeable people through blogs, easier acquiring of other sources through Amazon and the movement to scan out of copyright texts online and even the odd blog comment encountered that can provoke thought, all make discovering different perspectives easier. In the past, finding such discussion meant long hours trying to find, then filter books and periodicals at the library. Often the text wasn't available and if not "necessary" for the class, the search would be abandoned rather than hassle with an inter-library loan that might not appear until very late in the semester. Especially if the professor was less agreeable to information outside the syllabus being offered for grade.

It is the easy availability of other ideas from outside the university that threatens the academic power. Now a curiosity doesn't require setting aside time to travel to a library or to attend a happenstance lecture. In a spare moment, you can expand your horizons. Not to mention, to sort through all the easy information, the student must develop a deep skepticism that can also be of use in the classroom.

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on September 16, 2014 at 07:10:26 am

"... as online courses substitute for professors ..." There is an even greater change just beyond the current horizon: when these MOOCs carry with them academic credits that can be earned, exchanged and combined globally (all it takes is setting up a respective framework, like the EU attempted for its own "Bologna" reforms), then as of now disenfranchised parts and populations of the world will be able to earn degrees and, above all, knowledge that hitherto they had no access to. Currently Africa is still held back by the fact that these MOOCs require a landline and a computer with enough capacity (speed, memory, graphics etc.) to even get to run - not easy in a country where land lines were not laid down as the mobile revolution leap-frogged that stage of "Western" development and where, above all, you go without electricity for most of the day in many parts. But this will come and the class of graduates coming from that wilderness will likely be much more work- and profit-oriented than Berkeley could find attractive.

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Darragh McCurragh

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.