It is unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and the other lords and ladies of Silicon Valley spend any time in English churchyards. But if they were to visit these delightfully melancholic places, the first things that they would encounter would be monuments to the fallen of the Great War. Their initial emotion, like anybody else’s looking at these morbid plinths, would rightly be one of relief. It is good that the West’s young men are no longer herded into uniform and marched toward machine guns.
If they looked harder, however, today’s elite would spot something else in these cemeteries. The whole of society is commemorated in stone: The baronet’s heir was shot to pieces in Flanders alongside the gamekeeper’s son. Recall that in the controversial D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lady Chatterley is driven into the arms of the local gamekeeper in part because her husband, Sir Clifford, was paralyzed from the waist down in the Great War.
Such monuments to the dead, which can be found across Europe, are a reminder that a century ago the elite, whatever its other sins, believed in public service. The rich shared common experiences with the poor, rooted in a common love of their country and a common willingness to sacrifice life and limb for something bigger.
That bond survived until the 1960s. Most young men in Europe did a version of what was called “national service”: They had to serve in the armed forces for a couple of years and learned the rudiments of warfare in case total war struck again. The U.S. called on people of all classes to fight in World War II—including John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, who were both nearly killed serving their country—and the Korean War.
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The economic elites and the political elites were intertwined. In Britain, a “magic circle” of Old Etonians helped choose the leader of the Conservative Party, convening over lunch at the Beefsteak Club or dinner at Pratt’s to discuss the fate of the nation, as well as the quality of that year’s hunting. What became the European Union was constructed behind closed doors by the continent’s ruling class, while Charles de Gaulle set up the Ecole Nationale d’Administration for the purpose of training a new ruling elite for a new age. American presidents turned to “wise men” of the East Coast Establishment, such as Averell Harriman, the son of a railroad tycoon, or one of the Rockefellers. The “best and the brightest” were supposed to do a stint in Washington.
The Establishment on both sides of the Atlantic was convinced that good government mattered more than anything else. Mess up government and you end up with the Depression and Hitler.
That sense has gone. The New Establishment of Wall Street and the City of London and the New New Establishment of Silicon Valley have precious little to do with Washington or Whitehall. The public sector is for losers. As today’s elite see it, the best thing that government can do is to get out of the way of the really talented people and let them exercise their wealth-creating magic. Pester them too much or tax them too heavily and they will pick up their sticks and take their game elsewhere.
As for common experiences, the smart young people who go from the Ivy League or Oxbridge to work at Google or
are often as distant from the laboring masses as the class that H.G. Wells, in “The Time Machine,” called the Eloi—pampered, ethereal, childlike creatures that the time traveler discovers at the end of his long journey into the future. Separated from the masses by elite education and pricey lifestyles in fashionable enclaves, today’s elite often have few ties to the country they work in. One former British spy points out that his children are immensely better educated than he was and far more tolerant, but the only time they meet the working class is when their internet shopping arrives; they haven’t shared a barracks with them.
Does this matter? Again, many will point to progress. The old elite was overwhelmingly male and white (with a few exceptions, such as Lady Violet Bonham Carter and Katharine Graham, who often wielded power through dinner parties). It often made a hash of things. Britain’s “magic circle” didn’t cope well with the swinging ‘60s—most catastrophically with the Profumo sex scandal, which greatly damaged the Conservative Party—while America’s whiz kids hardly excelled in Vietnam. By the 1960s, the very term “The Establishment” had become an insult.
Modern money is also far cleaner than old money. The officers who were mowed down at the Somme often came from grand homes, but they were built with the grubby proceeds of coal, slavery and slaughter. (Clifford Chatterley, in his wife’s view, treated miners “as objects rather than men.”) Say what you like against monopolistic tech barons, greedy hedge-fund managers or tax-dodging real estate tycoons, they aren’t sinners in the same league. Men like Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg build great businesses and often give away their money to worthy causes. What more should they do?
Quite a lot, actually.
The idea that the elite has a responsibility to tend to the state was brilliantly set out by Plato more than 2,000 years ago. In “The Republic” he likened the state to a ship that can easily flounder on the rocks or head in the wrong direction. He argued that for a voyage to succeed, you need a captain who has spent his life studying “the seasons of the years, the skies, the stars and other professional subjects.” He wanted to trust his state to a group of Guardians, selected for their wisdom and character and trained, through an austere and demanding education, in the arts of government.
Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the West, especially for its elite. This year could mark a reverse in history. Five hundred years ago, Europe was a bloody backwater while China was the most advanced country in the world, with the world’s most sophisticated civil service, selected by rigorous examination from across the whole country. The West overtook the East because its leaders mastered the art of government, producing a succession of powerful innovations—the nation-state, the liberal state, the welfare state—while the Chinese state ossified, its Mandarin elite unaware that it was even in competition with anyone else. By the 1960s, America was putting a man on the moon while millions of Chinese were dying of starvation.
The 1960s was the last time that the American elite had a marked sense of public duty. What followed might be called the great abandonment.
Since the 1960s, however, this process has been reversed. Led by Singapore, Asia has been improving its state machinery while the West has ossified. Covid-19 shows just how far this change in the balance of competence has gone. Countries like South Korea, Singapore and even China have done far better at protecting their citizens than either the U.S. or Britain, where governments have conspicuously failed to work.
The elite bears much of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. The 1960s was the last time that they had a marked sense of public duty. What followed might be called the great abandonment. The Vietnam War discredited “wise men” such as McGeorge Bundy, a self-styled Platonic Guardian who served as national security adviser to both JFK and LBJ. The Establishment split into warring tribes of progressives and conservatives who were so divided by the culture wars that they seldom come together to fix anything. The explosion of pay in the private sector drew talent away from government. The constant refrain from the Right that the state is a parasite on the productive economy eroded what remained of the public ethic, while the Left, drugged by its ties to public sector unions, lost its appetite for reform. Government became a zombie, preserved and indeed inflated by its staff and clients, but robbed of ideas and talent.
The difference with the East is marked. Singapore has put a Platonic premium on public service. It recruits the brightest young people for the government, makes sure they move frequently between the public and private sectors, and pays them well: Its top civil servants can earn more than a million dollars a year. (It stops short of forbidding its Guardians to marry and laying on orgies for them, as Plato advised, but it does force them to live in public housing.) Other Asian dragons have recruited a cadre of elite civil servants. China’s attempt to follow suit is complicated by the corruption and secrecy that surround the regime, but at its best it is learning from Singapore, creating a new class of mandarins, this time trained in technical fields and science rather than the classics.
What could the West do to rebind the elite to the state? Better pay for civil servants is one answer, especially if it comes with a keenness to shed poor performers in the public sector, as Singapore does. The idea of giving students generous university scholarships in exchange for working for the civil service for a number of years was pioneered by Thomas Jefferson. An even more ambitious idea would be to reintroduce nonmilitary national service, an idea that Emmanuel Macron has raised for France.
But the biggest change that is needed is a change of mind-set. Unlike the dead aristocrats in the churchyards, the geeks who run Google and
have no sense of guilt to give them pause and few ties of blood and soil to connect them to a particular patch of land. They believe that their fortunes are the product of nothing but their own innate genius. They owe the rest of us nothing.
This needs to change. Over the past decade both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been shaken by the forces of populism. The shaking will only get worse if the elites don’t play a more active role in politics. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, we have been reminded that good government can make the difference between life and death. Look at the two cities where the Western elite feel most at home: New York has lost more than 20,000 people, London 6,000 (at times the mortality rate was higher than the Blitz). By contrast, in Seoul, a bigger city with subways, nightclubs and everything else, only around 30 have died.
We live in a knowledge economy. For elites, exercising social responsibility should mean more than giving away money, though that is an admirable thing. It should mean sharing your brain—serving, not just giving. Michael Bloomberg did that as mayor of New York during the difficult decade after 9/11 (disclosure: Mr. Bloomberg employs one of us), and Bill Gates is the greatest philanthropist of his time not just because of the amount of money he has spent but because he devotes so much time to designing and driving his philanthropic work.
The habit must be set from early adulthood. More bright young things need to remember John F. Kennedy’s call to duty and think not of what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country. If more of the young flowing out of the Ivy League and Oxbridge worked in the public sector, its technology wouldn’t be so shoddy and its ethos so sluggish.
There is a twist in the dystopian tale that H.G. Wells told in “The Time Machine” more than a century ago. The Eloi seem to live wonderful lives. They frolic above the ground, subsisting on a diet of fruit and living in futuristic (if deteriorating) buildings, while the Morlocks, brutish, apelike creatures, lurk underground, tending machinery and occasionally surfacing to feed and clothe the Eloi. But this is an illusion. The Morlocks are in fact farming the Eloi as a food source, just as we farm cattle, sheep and pigs.
Unless the ethic of public service is once again reignited, the American world order will ossify, just as other empires did before it. That is the message today’s Eloi should take from English churchyards.
Mr. Micklethwait is the editor in chief of Bloomberg and Mr. Wooldridge is the political editor of The Economist. This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Wake Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It,” published by Harper Via (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).
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