Thursday, April 7, 2011


In political discourse you will see a reference to “elitists”. Generally the term elitists is used to designate the few somehow, someway enlighten individuals of the political, intellectual, or academic
classes who’s particular vision of society is somehow, some way more enlightened than the vision of others.

Some award the political term of “elitist” to Karl Rove. (1) However, Rove by no means was the first to refer to the label elitist. Milton Friedman referred to an “elite class” when discussing the emergence of the modern welfare state in his classic 1979 book Free to Choose. (2) Whereas
others argue the elitist label is merely anti-intellectual.  That is, people use the term in the positive
or negative. (3)

Is there a better definition, less political /more empirical, more thoroughly researched definition of “elitist”? Yes there is such an animal. Its most likely related to Thomas Sowell’s definition of
“special knowledge” as it appears in Sowell’s books A Conflict of Visions and Intellectuals and Society.

The term “special knowledge” as used by Sowell appears related to F.A. Hayek’s discussion of central planning and the inability of any one individual to have enough information to organize economic activity and associated outcomes.

F.A. Hayek’s discussion of decentralized knowledge trumping centralized knowledge is nicely summed up by Harold Demsetz as follows:

“…the historically important central puzzle of economics was to explain how independently acting people in an unplanned decentralized, private ownership economic system allocate their resources and, in particular, to explain how it is that the uses they seem to make of resources seem to be
well coordinated”.(4)

What is “special knowledge”?

An expert might be categorized as someone who is perceived to have acquired the most knowledge in one particular field of study such as geology or mathematics. Moreover, other participants within a particular field of study consider a particular person as an expert in the field of study. “Special knowledge” is when one leaves his/her particular field of expertise and acquires a self-designated position as an intellectual.

The self-designated and self-appointed intellectual designation is an attempt to transfer particular expert knowledge from an unrelated field to another field and instantaneously acquire “special knowledge” in a completely unrelated or mildly related field of study.

Special knowledge, the self-appointed intellectual, and political-economy?

Most notably, as pointed out by Rove, Friedman, and Sowell, the self-appointed intellectual , the elite as it were, want to comment and shape opinion specifically in the field of political-economy. For example, Paul Krugman trying to transfer his expertise in trade economics to political-economy commentary on society as a whole. Bill Gates trying to transfer his expertise in the field of computers to political-economy commentary on society as a whole. Barack Obama trying to transfer his expertise as a community organizer to political-economy commentary on society as a whole.

The once expert in a particular field, now a self-appointed intellectual in an unrelated field, has somehow, someway acquired “special knowledge” in the unrelated field. That is, the expert knowledge in a particular field becomes “special knowledge” in an unrelated field. Hence
“special knowledge” is merely notional propositions of the way things ought to be of a particular self-appointed intellectual with the premise being that an expert in one field is surely an expert in an additional field, that being most notably the political-economy.

Elites as the self-appointed intellectual?

Hence the definition of “elitist” as merely anti-intellectual misses the mark. It’s not that an elitist is anti-intellectual; it’s that an elitist is a self-appointed intellectual making political-economy
commentary on society as a whole through use of special knowledge which is in fact no knowledge. That is to say, we have a group of people, self-appointed people that have no expert knowledge in the field of political-economy, making notional statements which are in fact statements of “the way things ought to be”. That is, an elitist is a non-expert, making notional comments and putting forth
the notional propositions as fact, when the actual case is the notional propositions are merely their particular non-expert view of the way things ought to be and hence painting the world in one’s own self-image or self-vision.

(2) Free to Choose, 1979, Milton Friedman, chapter four,
page 98

(4) From Economic Man to Economic System, Harold Demsetz.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post W.E. I think one simple litmus test for an elitist is someone who never considers that they might be wrong.

    I certainly have nothing against folks who branch out from the their field of expertise, but it is annoying when they do so believing they already know all there is to know.