David Brooks tells a nice story about oligarchy in his recent column – Why our Elites Stink. It’s hopeful to think about an ethical elite. I find it appealing – like we’ll be looked after by munificent masters. He paints the WASPy elite with the same brush, but he describes a false choice – one between an ethical and unethical oligarchy.
Oligarchy and ethics, however, are independent concepts. Oligarchy just reflects a leadership structure, and ethics reflects a mode of conduct. You can have an oligarchy with no consistent set of ethics. You can have ethical structures without an oligarchy.
Brooks confounds the two. He assumes that the choice is between an unethical or an ethical oligarchy. But it’s not. Oligarchy is not the only leadership structure that can be ethical or unethical. The real question is whether you want an oligarchy at all.
That Brooks’ oligarchy is ethical is moot. What matters is that he proposes an oligarchy, period. That’s a bold suggestion and one that begs an answer.