Social inclusiveness and political power

It seems intuitively obvious that the political elite in previous historical eras consisted of people who had a level of intelligence and cunning that would impress us today. There is, however, at least one major reason for doubting that: social inclusiveness.

Think about the inner cadre of advisers to Henry VIII. In order to get into those positions, it was essentially necessary to be born into a circumstance that allowed such advancement. No matter how clever you were, and what an acute political mind you had, if you were born into a life of servitude in the fields, you were pretty unlikely to end up doing anything else. So, you take the population of Tudor England, exclude basically all the women and everyone otherwise trapped by the social system, and then those advisers are drawn from who remains. The same would have been true in relation to the advisers of Alexander the Great, Ramesses II, or any other historical leader you care to consider.

If you imagine society as a cone, with influence graphed on the vertical axis and the number of people graphed as the narrowing radius of the cone, those in ancient societies who ended up at the top were clearly drawn from a smaller pool.

By contrast, in states like Canada today, it is plausible that anybody who is extremely capable, savvy, and intelligent could rise and play a role within the top tiers of the political elite. By extension, it seems plausible to say that the caliber of people in such positions – both in Canada and elsewhere – is likely higher than has generally been the case in the past.

Of course, there can be a deep and wide chasm that separates advisers who are intelligent and savvy from those who urge courses of action likely to improve the general welfare of the population. That is especially true if being a psychopath helps with becoming politically influential.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “Social inclusiveness and political power”

  1. I think you’re greatly underestimating the social mobility involved in Henry VIII’s court. Not all his were born rich or noble, & some of them started off fairly lowly & acquired the wealth and titles in court – Cardinal Wolsey’s father was a butcher.

  2. “Social inclusiveness” doesn’t mean much unless a diversity of views are permitted. The best way to restrict debate in any society is to allow open debate and much discussion, but within a restricted realm. I doubt this is much different today in Canada as it was in former monarchical elites. The fact that anyone sufficiently savvy can join the elite doesn’t make the elite socially inclusive if joining the elite is conditional on adopting the frame of debate permitted by the elite structure.

  3. With the unprecedented movement of people from one country to another, improvements in access to education and increasing opportunities for women, people clearly have more ability and freedom to rise above their social standing. Within our educational system alone, we are benefitting from cultural diversity and the incredible motivation that many newcomers possess.

  4. “With the unprecedented movement of people from one country to another”

    Movement of people between countries peaked in the 19th century. Current neo-liberal doctrine is to reduce the mobility of labour. We see this directly in the militarization of the US-Mexico border by Clinton after the imposition of NAFTA which, as was understood, had a devastating effect on the Mexican economy (it’s called an “economic miracle”) – so the border was militarized to prevent the free movement of labour.

  5. Immigration continues to grow in Canada and elsewhere and I am not that interested in the numbers, but rather in the talent that it brings to us. Of course, that means that the countries that these people leave will have a talent deficit.

  6. Why does immigration “continue to grow”? What is the effect of WTO, G8 and G20 economic policies on the productive economies of those nations from which many migrants which to move? Also, it’s unclear how you can claim immigration is “growing” if you are not interested in numbers – numbers are how we measure migration.

    By the numbers, according to Wikipedia, the period of highest immigration to Canada appears to have been 1910-1913, peaking with 400,000 migrants in ’13. So, while Canada’s current target – about 250,000 per year, might be the highest per capita in the world, it is still nominally lower than it was a hundred years ago. And the more interesting per capita difference would be even larger.

    According to wikipedia Canada’s population in 1913 was 7.6 million, so 400,000 immigrants was one migrant for every 19 Canadians. Compared with today’s population of 34 million – we are currently admitting one Canadian for every 136 Canadians per year.

    So, in short, our current immigration rate is approximately 7 times smaller than it was in 1913.

  7. If you’re concerned about the “increase” in immigration as a good thing, you should likely be concerned about the increase in temporary migrant work visas as a bad thing. Canada’s temporary migrant worker program is akin to indentured labour, or even paid-slavery because the workers have no rights (because for no reason an employer can terminate his support for a worker and have them deported, i.e. if they complain about illegal working or living conditions).

    “This is not a new development in immigration policy. From 2002 to 2008, the number of temporary foreign workers present in Canada, most of them in clerical or manual work, increased from 100,000 to 250,000.

    However, this increase happened in parallel to new policies that limited the time those workers could stay in Canada. Workers were restricted to staying in Canada for only four years after which they would be banned from reentering Canada for the next six years. This made it harder for temporary workers to gain residency or skilled employment through experience, creating a disposable workforce. ”

  8. “By contrast, in states like Canada today, it is plausible that anybody who is extremely capable, savvy, and intelligent could rise and play a role within the top tiers of the political elite. ”

    “Women fleeing abuse leave their homes and friends; cross deserts and seas; go over borders and through checkpoints looking for freedom, for security, for refuge. Refuge that Canada refuses to grant. Survivors of abuse applying to be refugees are being rejected by Canada. Many many are unable to leave.”
    -No one is Illegal

  9. I think my basic point remains unchallenged:

    Generally speaking, societies that are more socially inclusive will have a higher calibre of people in positions of influence than those that are more restrictive.

    For instance, the incorporation of women into the workforce has probably improved the level of competence among various levels of managers. Also, institutions with a rigid hierarchy (like dynastic monarchies or the papacy) are likely to end up led by less savvy people than organizations that recruit and promote in meritocratic ways.

  10. Sure. But your original point is nearly trivially true. Hegel advocated this kind of openness to membership in the bureaucratic class (“estate”) in his 1820 work “Philosophy of Right”. This form of social inclusion is not specifically democratic – it is compatible with oligarchic monarchy, or even certain brands of fascism.

  11. My point is that Canada is much less socially inclusive than we generally believe. You might even argue that our exclusion of the poor and of non-Canadians really does hurt the bureaucracy and political elite. Certainly in the 250,000 migrant workers with no rights there are people who might help Canada very much – but it is illegal for them to learn English so they won’t get the chance.

  12. “Mr Bush’s one significant departure from conservative doctrine concerned immigration, where he unsuccessfully attempted a liberalising reform. Mr Harper is more orthodox. After a rise in the number of would-be refugees from Mexico last year, Canada required all visitors from Mexico—its partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement—to obtain visas. The government is now pushing a broader reform of immigration law which would make it harder for both bogus and legitimate refugees to reach Canadian soil. A poll this year found that 27% of Canadians see immigrants and refugees as a critical threat, up from 21% five years ago.

  13. I would eliminate the TFWP and replace it with a corresponding increase to the immigration quotas. I would alter the immigration points system to take into account the need for the labour no longer being supplied by the TFWP.

    Of course, there would be some negative effects. Labour costs would go up, because systematic garnishing of peoples wages would no longer be so easily swept under the table. But there were also negative economic effects with the end of slavery. Sometimes it’s absolutely morally required not to treat people inhumanely. Canada is literally an apartheid state – both because of the differential treatment of first nations people, and because of the precarious legal status of temporary migrant workers. No one should consider this acceptable.

  14. Ship full of migrants heading to Canada: foreign report
    Adrian Morrow
    July 16, 2010

    “This could end up being a prime example of individuals trying to take advantage of our generous immigration system,” said Celyeste Power, press secretary to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, in a prepared statement. “Our government is committed to cracking down on bogus refugees while providing protection to those that truly need our help.”

    “The federal government has been eager to do this because, once refugee claimants land in the country, the government must go through a lengthier process to examine their applications for asylum.

    Last October, for instance, 76 Tamil refugees landed in British Columbia in another ship believed to be connected to the Tigers. The migrants have been freed while their claims are processed, which could take several years.”

  15. I was very grateful to discover your essays and the generally interesting discourse that follows. I like the way you think and wanted to comment on the exchange already in progress. I think you attempted to reframe the original point in this follow on:

    >”Generally speaking, societies that are more socially inclusive will have a higher calibre of people in positions of influence than those that are more restrictive.”

    Okay, I agree with that; but the essay opened with the anecdotal test of Henry VIII’s inner circle: smarter, more capable, or dumb and dumber? This is a question that has intrigued me ever since my conventional assumptions were challenged by the schoolteacher-turned-philosopher John Taylor Gatto. His contention, which I find supportable, is that those receiving any type of education prior to mid-1800 were unquestionably broader and more flexible thinkers. There are a variety of factors, two primary ones being specialization/narrowing of focus; and managed cultural goals steered through institutions. Personally, I would also add the chemical assault on our bodies through our food and water sources.

    If you accept this (please don’t, without review) then the question turns to the nature of intelligence and the limits of both education and of natural selection. If other factors make people “dumber” today, are they counterbalanced by educational opportunities and a larger selection base? If so, where does the curve fall off, where is the population so big that marginal gains are negligible? Interesting to ponder.

  16. This Globe and Mail article is an example of decent liberal thinking, which I find less and less absent from Canadian civil discourse as a significant portion of the elite turn more sharply against Harper:

    Tamils of a different stripe
    Gordon Weiss
    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

    “As Michael Ignatieff says of the troublesome “terrorist” word, the equally fuzzy “link” word ought to be banned from the fraught boat-people debate. It is a word better suited to tabloids and gossip columns. True, in the late 1970s, a handful of Tamils trained with Palestinian factions in Lebanon. But “links” to al-Qaeda look rather shaky if one considers that every other terrorist group was there at the same time. The IRA was there, and Gerry Adams is not “linked” to al-Qaeda.

    Apart from all that, should Canadians consider the Tamil Tigers a threat to their own security today? The answer is no. Aside from the 1991 assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, their violence was shrewdly confined to Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers were a textbook insurgent group that resorted to terrorist tactics. Like the Kurds, Palestinians, Irish Catholics, the Karen of Burma or the Uighurs of China, the Tamils harboured a grievance born of both perceived and actual injustices. The Tigers mobilized those grievances into a broad-based revolution against the Sri Lankan state.

    The basis of their gripes is a no-brainer. In 1956, the Sinhalese-dominated government made Sinhala the official language. Tamil passports, degrees, legal judgments and land titles were issued in a language they could not understand. In 1972, the government further marginalized Hindu Tamils by making Buddhism the state religion. That same year, the government introduced legislation that discriminated against Tamil entry to university. In 1983, an orchestrated pogrom killed between 2,000 and 3,000 Tamils, and burned tens of thousands of others out of their homes and businesses. Over the following year, the Tigers grew from a rag-tag team of 50 men into an army of thousands.”

  17. There is also a case to be made that humanity has never been so educated as today. Even relatively poor countries provide primary and secondary schooling, and I think an unprecedented number of people have advanced degrees.

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