Class is a libertarian issue.
Classical liberals Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer pioneered class analysis before Karl Marx, and he gave them credit for doing so. Class was a central feature of the work of such libertarian stalwarts as Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov, former editor of The Freeman. Class theory formed the heart of libertarian Carl Oglesby’s The Yankee and Cowboy War. Class analysis lies at the heart of much of the revisionist history practiced by libertarians like Murray Rothbard. And class analysis has continued to be an aspect of the work of such scholars as Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Roderick Long.
Libertarian class theory understands stratification as rooted in aggression—especially the aggression of the State. In a market free from politically secured privilege, it is difficult for people to amass and keep great wealth. Unfortunately some people improve their economic positions by stealing land and other property (often in partnership with the government or with its blessing) and by using their wealth to obtain privileges from the government—monopoly power, for example—that enable them to further increase their holdings. Some people who may have become wealthy through voluntary exchange go on to use their wealth to secure privileges from the State. And some people who have acquired governmental office use their positions to do the bidding of the wealthy or to enter the ranks of the wealthy themselves. From a libertarian perspective those overlapping groups make up the ruling class.
Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class initially seems to echo this libertarian analysis. America’s class structure, he says, is reflected in the fact “that big business, big government, and big finance are linked as never before and that ordinary people are more unequal than ever.” He argues that the Ruling Class (his capitals) comprises those, “whether in government power directly or as officers in companies,” whose “careers and fortunes depend on government.” The Ruling Class, Codevilla argues, enjoys the political support of perhaps one-third of the population. That third is, roughly speaking, socio-culturally “liberal” and, according to Codevilla, enthusiastic about expert management. (A disproportionate number of technocratic managers belong to it.)
The interests of the Ruling Class are sharply at odds with the two-thirds of Americans Codevilla calls “the Country Class,” or the “Country Party.” The key characteristics of this group are its members’ (conservative) attitudes toward “marriage, children, and religious practice.” They believe in human equality; thus, they oppose the authority of paternalistic experts and value the independence of civil society.
It seems clear that people can value equality of authority, appreciate civil society, and oppose managerialism without embracing conservative views of religion and the family. But Codevilla seems to suppose that cultural identity has as much to do with the membership and agenda of the Ruling Class as political and economic power—if not more. In fact, though, America’s rulers seem primarily interested in extracting wealth at gunpoint (in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)—at home and around the world. And achieving that goal is quite compatible with holding a range of beliefs about religion, marriage, children, and related matters.
Even if he’s wrong about the relationship between class politics and the culture war, Codevilla is absolutely right that the real Ruling Class, the elite that holds the reins of power, needs to be unseated. As a strategy for change he suggests that the Country Class organize a political movement of its own. But he realizes that such a movement, even if successful, would face severe challenges. Most important: How would it avoid becoming entrenched and oppressive itself?
If the penchant for power is simply a product of Progressive managerialism, perhaps government officials with the right values could turn the machinery of the State around. But if the people who run the State are almost unavoidably going to be members of the power elite, if the power elite can exert pressure on the State that others cannot, and if the kind of person likely to become a government official is almost certainly more ambitious and thus less principled than the average person, a simple replacement of personnel won’t do the trick.
The managerial technocrats who do the bidding of the Ruling Class may come disproportionately from a particular cultural subgroup (though Codevilla offers no real evidence that they do). But the division that matters most is between those who deploy or reap massive profits from aggressive force and those who are the victims of that force.