A Lordship for Me, But Not for Thee

My friend Michael Anton explains pretty comprehensively why people often misunderstand the American founders’ teaching on political equality, and why those who pine for some kind of “aristocratic” alternative are simply absorbed in wishful thinking.

I do have one further thought that I think will clarify and strengthen the point. 

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is an eye-opening study of cognitive biases and fallacies. The erstwhile aristocrats to whom Anton refers—those who think they would be better off in a society that rejects equal rights—are falling into some of the cognitive traps Kahneman identifies. This is not totally obvious because, as I see it, a mixture of a few different biases are at work, including the gambler’s fallacy, a framing mistake, and the Dunning-Kruger effect. 

Let me explain, and I think their errors will become apparent. 

As Anton’s essay showed, “all actual aristocracies are, well, fake.” Whatever claims to virtue and manly spiritedness may originally inspire an aristocratic society, every historical class system has rather quickly descended into arbitrary privileges of birth or, more commonly, oligarchy. (How’s that working out for us?) “But,” the response goes, “that means we are due for a win!” This is a basic failure to understand probability, known as the Monte Carlo error. Just because the roulette ball lands on black 26 times in a row, that fact does not increase the likelihood of red . . . at all. (Hard to believe, but it’s true.) And by the way, does this attitude remind you of something? “Sure Communism has never worked before, but this time it will be different!

Because most people are optimists, another cognitive error involves unconsciously framing a scenario in a way that will be advantageous for you. For example: “Equality stinks, and I don’t like it,” the aspiring nobility argue. “Aristocracy is the alternative to equality and will produce a better society. Because aristocracy is generally better, it therefore must be better for me.” Whoops, there’s the error! There is really no reason for these keyboard warriors to assume that in any actual caste system they would be among the lords rather than the serfs. But that’s why it’s called a fallacy.

This tendency is exacerbated by the Dunning-Kruger effect, which arises from the basic human sin of vanity, or to put it more generously, self-confidence. Most people tend to believe they are better, more capable, and more deserving of reward than they really are. “Who, me . . . a serf? No way. I’m definitely part of the elite.” Shakespeare’s character Owen Glendower, in Henry IV Part I, shows how comical this tendency can be when taken to narcissistic extremes:


[At] my nativity

The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,

Of burning cressets; and at my birth

The frame and huge foundation of the earth

Shaked like a coward.

. . . I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

 If you believe, like Glendower, that “all the courses of my life do show I am not in the roll of common men,” it might be a good idea to step back, reflect on your biases, and make sure you don’t look as ridiculous as that peddler of “skimble-skamble.” And if you truly are superior, then in all likelihood the best society for you would be a regime of equal opportunity for all, as Anton persuasively shows. 

 One last point: Anton’s essay mentions Leo Strauss and the arguments from classical political philosophy about the natural superiority of the true philosopher. Let me draw out one implication that his essay doesn’t address, which is the aristocratic pretense among some Straussians that parallels the romanticism of certain traditionalists. Because the genuine philosopher is, by natural right, the wisest and most virtuous of men, and therefore the proper ruler in any society, some Straussians have flirted (or more than flirted) with the idea that they belong to this most exclusive of all possible clubs. 

 This conceit was deflated by Strauss himself, who once said that true philosophers “are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them in any classroom. We are not likely to meet any of them anywhere. It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one’s time.” 

 What Strauss didn’t say, but I will, is: Sorry dude, it ain’t you. 

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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