Liberty Matters

Is a “Liberal Elitism” Possible?

Inspired by Alberto's reference to Deirdre McCloskey's analysis of bourgeois virtues, I would like to add a final consideration about the possibility for a "liberal elitism" to emerge within a realistic framework. We all agree that Pareto belonged to two traditions (liberalism and realism), though it is wrong to consider these in opposition to each other. Pareto himself is a great example of how they can be combined.
Pareto praised economic liberalism, promoted education in economic matters, founded economics as a science, and supported individual freedom as well as free exchange. He spent his whole life showing the utopian side of socialism and the religious dimension of Marxism. It is true that he acknowledged a utopian dimension in the liberal system too. Nonetheless, his critique was against a form of naïve liberalism based on a fictitious social contract which did not take enough account of the real nature of human beings. Pareto fought against Rousseau's benign anthropological nature of humans, but he never criticized Hobbes's homo homini lupus (man is wolf to man) within a natural context of bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Hence Pareto introduced the concept of élite to better describe the nature of power in realistic terms and to replace a naïve notion of liberalism with a much more realistic one. 
We mentioned several times that Pareto used the term élite in his sociological writings (Les systèmes socialistes and Trattato di sociologia generale). The term comes from the Latin "eligere," which means not simply "to choose" but "to make the best choice possible." Slightly different from Gaetano Mosca's notion of "ruling class," Pareto's notion of élite has a qualitative connotation in the end, although neutral from a moral perspective. This way of thinking precisely followed Machiavelli's realism: according to the Florentine secretary, a Prince might be the best politician even though his behavior could be particularly (if temporarily) heinous. In Machiavelli's terms, the élite can be "foxes" (more innovative and cunning) or "lions" (more conservative and stronger). The powerful élite which governs a country reflects its own society as a whole. It is not static, though; quite the contrary, its dynamics are well-known: it is bound to decline in favor of new ones (Pareto's well-known concept of the "circulation of elites").[13] To describe Italy in the early 1920s, Pareto defined the system as a "demagogic plutocracy," i.e., a combination of the two worst forms of government in the classic tradition since Plato and Aristotle: demagogy, which would have likely led to tyranny, was in fact the aberration from democracy, while plutocracy can be assimilated to "oligarchy" (the government of the wealthier), i.e., the degeneration of aristocracy (the government of aristos, the best ones).
Machiavelli suggested the Prince as a balance of the lion's side and the fox's side in order to achieve a stable and peaceful kingdom. Pareto suggested that a liberal society must emerge in the circulation of élites by adopting a kind of liberal elitism against any form of degeneration of society, which includes today's most virulent forms of populism. According to Pareto, the capable élite would be able to continuously renew and promote an open social order, which reminds one of Popper's notion of the "open society" against any form of social planning. Quoting Pareto: "all true liberals … should devote themselves to educating the lower classes, since it is because of their ignorance that we do not have good governance and only through education and teaching we will one day be able to improve this state of affairs."[14] (Pareto 2016) This is a very hard task, but maybe it is the only one we have, as history sometimes has shown us.
[13.] New elites arise either by assimilation or by revolution. See his "Un'applicazione di teorie sociologiche," In Scritti sociologici minori, Giovanni Busino, ed. Torino: Utet, 1966, pp. 178-238; which has been translated as The Rise and Fall of the Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology. Introduction by Hans L. Zetterberg (Totowa, New Jersey: The Bedminster Press, 1968).
[14.] Pareto's Letters to Benjamin Tucker's Liberty.