The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


The People & the Intellectual Elite

Thomas Jefferson has been called an elitist, and in a sense he certainly was. He believed that government should be run by a trained elite, that young people who possess outstanding talent should be selected from all classes, poor as well as rich, and that those young people should receive the highest levels of education possible to enable them to serve in positions of responsibility.

His chief concern was with the talented poor, since the talented rich have means at their disposal to develop their talents on their own. But whatever their origin, his elite was based on virtue and talent, not merely on wealth and birth.

It is this elite of virtue and talent, wherever found, that should be nurtured and chosen to run the government. But in no case was confidence to be placed in even this aristocracy of virtue and talent so as to give them unlimited powers to run the government as they pleased. No elitist group was to be trusted to that extent. The fundamental structure of government was controlled by a Constitution which bound this elite of virtue and talent to certain principles.

This was to be a government of the people, not an aristocracy of the elite. Governmental purpose rested on the inalienable rights of the people, not on a confidence in the experts who run the government. Because certain talented persons are needed to operate the government does not mean that those persons will somehow be free of interest.

No person is to be trusted with the powers of government independently of the oversight by the people.

There exists today an sentiment opposed to democracy that is founded in a mistrust of the masses. Democracy itself and ideas of popular sovereignty and natural rights were considered a "myth" by Max Weber, who believed that the best democracy could do is to select elites who were themselves fit to rule. His ideas along with other elitist theories have had a considerable influence in the 20th century. But a theory of government by intellectual elite ignores the weaknesses of human character which are not overcome by intellectual achievement. Government, in Jefferson's view, can never be safe when trusted to any elements independent of the people.

    "Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Roane, 1819.

Therein lies the danger of abandoning government based on the inalienable rights of the people to govern themselves, in favor of a government based on the progressive notions of an intellectual elite. Such notions are contrary to the American system, and Jefferson often warned of the danger of foreign philosophical ideas and practices that threaten to invade our American republican system.

    "I hope we may still keep clear of [the broils of Europe], and that time may be given us to find some means of shielding ourselves in future from foreign influence, political, commercial, or in whatever other form it may be attempted. I can scarcely withhold myself from joining in the wish of Silas Deane that there were an ocean of fire between us and the old world." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Gerry, 1797.

This view was not based on simple xenophobia, but on a full recognition of a different philosophy of governance, one that is ingrained in the American character from the cradle and is different from those systems that prevailed in other parts of the world. The American system is founded on a confidence in the people themselves, and that confidence is uniquely American.

    "Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.

Intellectual elites favor rule by an aristocratic class of experts that know what is best for the masses. This was certainly the thinking of many in the European ruling classes when this nation was founded, and it is basically the same theory of "only the experts know what is best" that pervades much of political thought today. Jefferson considered such influences in education something to be avoided, and even recommended against young people studying abroad in order to prevent their minds from being poisoned by these sentiments.

    "I do not count on any advantage to be derived... from a familiar acquaintance with the principles of [a] government [which has been] rendered... a tyrannical aristocracy, more likely to give ill than good ideas to an American." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Banister, Jr., 1785.

One would think that with the advancement we have seen in the general intellectual level of people in the 20th century, especially those in the developed countries, this kind of elitist thinking would have fallen into disrepute. But, in truth, such elitist "Big Intelligent Brother Knows Best" sentiment never dies; whatever the general development of mankind, there will doubtless always be an elitist element that wishes to dictate the policies of government to the rest of mankind based on an assumption of their superior knowledge. But knowledge is not the only factor in good governance. There is also the matter of corruption that is born of interests contrary to the general welfare that must also be taken into account. This is why the oversight of the people in general is so important. Jefferson himself would never have asked for political power that was not responsible to the people.

    "If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." --Thomas Jefferson to E. Carrington, 1787.
The intellectual elite, "the Best and the Brightest," are those people who gave us the Vietnam War, the present Welfare System that makes dependents of those who fall into its web, and Socialism itself, which was the product of Marxist intellectualism. Though always confident in their own abilities, the intellectual elite are no more to be trusted with the independent control of government than any other aristocratic element.

    Intellectual Tyranny

There are essentially two approaches that may be taken to government: the one founded on Natural Rights, the other founded on speculative thought apart from Natural Rights. Natural Rights recognize the reality of man's life on this earth and derives from that reality man's inherent and inalienable rights. It then proposes government that recognizes those rights, is formed to protect those right, and permits its citizens to enjoy those rights to the fullest extent possible. This is the essential purpose of government.

Speculative approaches are based on theories of what constitutes good and progressive government. Because such theories are not founded on factors inherent in human existence itself, but rather on value judgments on the conditions of human existence, they represent the latest intellectual achievement of thinkers in the fields of sociology and political science, and the findings are not stable but are subject to change, to improvement, and even to fashion. As Max Weber pointed out, all science has a short shelf life. Today's theories exist only to be replaced by even better ones tomorrow.

As intellectual inventions, theories that reject Natural Rights are unavoidably anti-democratic. They vest sovereignty, not in the people, but in the individual (apart from the people) or in the State itself. They embrace the liberal concept of progress; but loosened from the foundation of Natural Rights, progress evolves into government programs that are derived from an evaluation of the conditions of life, programs that undermine and replace Natural Rights.

Because the focus of a theory is on an intellectual creation, not on human beings and their natural attributes, these theories easily become a form of Intellectual Tyranny, in which the theory is viewed as more important than any other elements, including the people themselves! This happens because when a theory is viewed as really valid, nothing is more important than the implementation of that theory, and anything or anyone who stands in the way must be eliminated in order for the ends of the theory to be achieved. Whereas many such theories are relatively benign, many others, such as Nazism and Communism, become some of the most destructive forces working within civilization. All such theories, however, are eventually found to violate the inherent and inalienable rights of the people, because it is the rejection of those rights that is their starting point. They begin with the premise that those rights are not immutable, and they proceed with speculative ideas that ignore Natural Rights principles.

Because political systems that reject Natural Rights rely on the experts who devise the theories and systems, government influenced by these theories easily falls under bureaucratic domination. Implied in any non-natural system is the primacy of the intellectual theorist who directs and plans the implementation of the theory, and such implementation requires heavy bureaucracies to carry out those plans and directions. The result is a government overrun with bureaucracy and a people burdened with its expense. Bureaucratization makes the following results inevitable:

  • There is a loss of any sense of meaning. Tolstoy's question, "What shall we do and how shall we live?" cannot be answered apart from an understanding of our nature. Science can only bring us knowledge to be used for meaningful ends, but it cannot supply those ends. Theories that rely on speculative ideas and not on Natural Rights lose touch with meaningful ends in the human sense. They create their own ends, which are a product of the theories.
  • There is a loss of freedom. Natural rights are the only firm basis for freedom, and when those rights are rejected as the basis of government, other determinants come into action. Centralized authority in government bureaucracies, needed to implement any planned system, diminish existing freedoms. Security and other ways of defining freedom (usually in economic terms) replace inherent and inalienable rights. The result is greater control over our lives by government through social planning, and a loss of freedom by the individual.
  • There is a loss of moral sense. Without meaning, there can be no morality, and since science cannot supply meaning, the moral sense must come from some other source. The ends of ideological systems define morality within those systems. And when those systems reject Natural Rights, then morality loses its connection to human nature. The end result is the vital principle of human existence is missing, and along with it, any firm basis for a sense of right and wrong. What is right and what is wrong becomes a matter of theory, and is not coordinated with the normal, natural moral sense within man.

The fact is, the purpose of government is not to find an intellectually satisfying solution to the question, What is good government, or even What is a good society? The purpose of government is to protect the inalienable rights of the people and to keep them secure in their lawful pursuits. For the needs of forming a government, meaning in human life is sufficiently defined by the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When government makes allowance for such rights, it enables each citizen to discover meaning in his own life. To seek to find the answer to the problem of meaning for each member of society would impose a control and direction of the life of individuals and a tyranny upon all. Good government, therefore, is not a matter of governing the people in ways that some expert determines is best for them, but rather it is to permit the people to exercise peacefully their natural rights. Rather than being a "myth," the foundation of natural rights is the only rational basis for government, the only reason for having government in the first place.

    "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to M. D'Ivernois, 1795.

Other systems begin with an abstract theory of what is "the good," and place philosophical ideas above natural rights. Natural rights, however, are not merely intellectually devised theories, but are a comprehension of reality itself.

    "The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Georgetown Republicans, 1809.

Since, as Max Weber himself acknowledges, "scientific work is chained to the course of progress," and is inevitably subject to being unseated by its own advancements, since it is unable to tell us "What we should do, and how we should live," and since even if it were able to do that, the message would no doubt be revised every few years, it is evident that no stable system of government could be based on the shifting sand of scientific work. When we consider the total life of humanity and the basis for its governance, we must look to something that has more permanence, more reliability, than the constant turnover of intellectual discoveries made by man. In an age torn between the worship of money and the worship of scientific and technological advancement, it may be difficult to conceive that neither of those idols can provide an adequate foundation for existence. But the truth is, it is life itself and the liberty to experience the full development of human existence that rightly serve as the starting point for a political philosophy.

    "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

Science is at best an aid and a tool. Politics and government are the areas that are most responsible for providing the opportunities for us to experience effectively and fully the development of our own human potential. Once we have the institutions of government well-established and on proper grounds, knowledge and science become means to accomplish our ends. But science itself does not and cannot furnish us with those ends.

When science and knowledge try to devise the ends of human existence, we end up with Systems: intellectually contrived theories that usually end in an -ism, and that always mean some form of totalitarianism, whether of the mind or of the whole of existence, because by their nature they are absolute. In other words, any intellectual system of governance that sets itself forth as "the answer," is logically exclusive of all other systems and takes precedence over all other moral ends. Thus, a political philosophy based on an abstract theory necessarily results in the belief that "the end justifies the means," because if the theory is valid (as assumed), then nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of its implementation. If it is not valid, we throw it out and look for another.

Therefore, only through a philosophy of Natural Rights can we achieve a valid moral judgment. No socialist or "scientific" theory of society has ever been able to serve as the foundation for a valid moral theory. Ethical or normative questions are impervious to rational evaluation in the absence of a system based on the Natural Rights of man. All other systems are necessarily based on abstract mental inventions and invariably are found wanting. Since science cannot provide us with meaning, meaning can only come from a fundamental view of human life founded in the reality of existence. Ideas and theories separated from reality only produce utopian delusions. It is within the life of man itself that meaning exists. And nothing is more fundamental to that life than man's inherent and inalienable rights. They define the meaning of his life. They define what it means to be a human being, and there can be no other source for meaning.

    "Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance." --Thomas Jefferson: Legal Argument, 1770.

When we abandon Natural Rights as the source of meaning for man's existence in favor of other abstract theoretical explanations, we lose the fundamental connection to life itself. Every cultish practitioner will offer an intellectual explanation of life that may also cater to our psychological vulnerability and thus it may all seem of some value. But in fact, all these theories rob us of our freedom, because they substitute a new allegiance, a new dedication for that which is grounded in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Becoming devotees of that which is opposed to freedom could hardly ensure our freedom. As in religious cults, the political cult follower is still in bondage.

Modern-day social scientists have abandoned confidence in Natural Rights; they have realized that Science is incapable of supplying meaning to our existence; they note the increasing power of bureaucracy and that we are engulfed by "an iron cage," in the words of Max Weber; they see that along with all these factors has been a decline of freedom; yet these experts treat all of this as isolated phenomena. They fail to see that every one of these factors is a part of the abandonment of principle, an ignoring of the foundation upon which meaning, rightful power, and freedom itself rests: our inherent and inalienable rights! Neither have they been able to recognize that when that foundation is discredited and replaced by social theories derived from nothing more than the creative intellect of man, the natural result of such abstract ideologies is that the ends of action are all that matter. Moral decisions become, as Weber says, "products of pure choice."

    Blaming the People

Those who reject Natural Rights as a basis for governance assume that the masses of people are "irrational and unreliable," in Max Weber's words, and are not to be trusted with their own governance; that their participation in the democratic process must be kept to a minimum if the nation is to avoid being led into totalitarianism. But in fact, totalitarianism's first task is always to destroy government of the people by controlling the press, eliminating opposition parties, and preventing the people form exercising their rights of self-governance. Moreover, forms of totalitarian government such as Nazism, Fascism, Communism, are all founded on well-developed social theories and ideologies. In fact, rather than totalitarianism being the result of democracy and an unreliable people, such theory-based governments are always the product of an intelligentsia and their speculative creations. In Jefferson's view, the people were our only hope for good government.

    "No government can continue good, but under the control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1819.

Even in the United States today, there is a belief that the will of the people is an obstacle to government by the experts, who see themselves as qualified by their superior understanding to disregard that will and to replace government by the people with government by the expert. We have witnessed the failure of government that this produces: the "iron cage" of bureaucratic domination that results from this assumption of power by the "experts." This is the ethos of Socialism: that some theoretician knows best and should be permitted to plan the whole life of the society. It is not the foundation of a free society.

    Limitations on the Competence of the People

Though Jefferson was a "man of the people," he recognized that there are many functions in society for which the people are not competent. Indeed, this lack of competence by the people in mass is one reason for our representative form of government.

    "Action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic." --Thomas Jefferson to P. DuPont, 1816.

The people should do as much as their competence permits, and choose representatives to whom they delegate those responsibilities for which they lack competence.

    "We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

While functions requiring higher levels of competence were to be delegated to higher orders of functionaries, their powers were always to be strictly limited, however.

    "I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free (and it is blasphemy to believe it), that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cabell, 1816.

In this way, though persons of high competence are given the trusts of government, they necessarily are responsible to, and ultimately controlled by, the people themselves.

It often happens that out of frustration with a failed bureaucratic system, proposals are made for letting the people determine directly how an agency of government should be run. Such a denial of the efficacy of a trained elite goes too far, relying on a competency in the people that does not exist and would hardly be likely to lead to real improvement. Jobs requiring professional assessments and skills cannot be performed by ordinary people. If present "experts" are not doing the job, the solution is not for the people to replace them with their own lack of expertise, but to use their judgment in selecting persons who are more competent to replace those who have failed.

    "With us, the people (by which is meant the mass of individuals composing the society)... being unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level yet competent judges of human character, they choose for their management representatives, some by themselves immediately, others by electors chosen by themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

This, then, is the key to good government: not a government run by experts free from control and interference by the people; neither a government run according to the wishes and finding of the people directly; but a government run by an "aristocracy of virtue and talent," responsible to the people, controlled ultimately by the people, and answerable to them always.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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