Free Teaching Aid: A brief ‘fairy tale’ that gives students a quick and accessible introduction to the Murray Milner Jr’s new book Elites: A General Model
The Parable of the Poor Robbers
Once upon a time all of Aville was populated by robbers. Since people spent most of their time robbing, the pickings were pretty poor. Some got tired of plunder and poverty so they decided to become producers. It was a better life and they would have been much richer, except they kept being robbed. So they made a deal with some of the robbers to protect them for a share of what they produced. These robbers changed their name to police persons and called their share of the produce taxes. The new safer producers now called themselves propertied persons or owners. Under the new conditions the owners could become rich if they worked hard.
The very first producers decided to grow potatoes. Though there was more food, people eventually grew tired of spuds. Some younger owners decided to raise pigs by feeding them potatoes. The old potato planters were horrified and said the young upstarts came from bad families and had no respect for sacred traditions. Most people acknowledged that this was true, but were happy to have pork with their potatoes. Even some of the potato planters were sick of spuds and offered to trade them for pork. But the planters and the piggers constantly argued about how many potatoes a pig was worth. Planters said everyone knew that spuds were sacred, and hence much more valuable per pound than unclean pigs and yucky pork. Piggers retorted that this was a lot of PP, (i.e., potatoist propaganda). Most of the time piggers and planters worked out a trade, but both sides resented the other. Yet, they agreed that being a rich producer—whether of spuds or pork—was better than being a poor robber.
Yet being a prosperous propertied producer was not as much fun as they had hoped; you had to work all of the time. So, the richer owners decided to hire some of the remaining poor robbers to help them work. This second group of ex-robbers called themselves laborers; it seemed to sound better and the police gave them less hassle. The police were adamant that only they had the right to collect taxes so the laborers share of the production was called wages. Since everyone else now had a name for their portion of the produce the owners decided to call their share profits.
Now the world would have been a much better place except that the owners were always arguing with the police and the laborers about how much they should receive in taxes and wages—in addition to producers arguing with one another about how many potatoes a pig was worth. Because the police specialized in force and violence, they would eventually win such arguments, but this was dangerous and tiring. Moreover, this squabbling took so much time that some of the policepersons began to specialize in arguing, and, though they were still policemen, they took on airs—and others began to call them politicians. Sometimes the owners were so stingy that it was hard for the police to remember that they were no longer robbers. Accordingly, the producers often had trouble telling the difference between the policepersons (sometimes called cops) and the robbers. Some of the laborers also forgot that they were no longer robbers and would take more than the owners said they should. The laborers called this redistributive justice, but the owners called it stealing and had the police punish these laborers. Some laborers, however, kept claiming that the owners were making big profits, but the owners swore they were not. They said these complainers were not really laborers at all, but were outside agitators—and they fired them.
These ex-laborers kept making trouble so the owners had the police make them go live someplace else. They called these trouble-making laborers outcasts. Not surprisingly the outcasts resented unemployment and being forced to move. They called the owners exploiters, the police pigs (and the politicians crooks), and the place they now had to live the ghetto. All this helped keep the other laborers in line, but it created more work and hassle for the police. Consequently they wanted more taxes and said that if they did not get them they might side with the laborers next time. The owners retorted that you did not have to be very smart to be a policeperson (and even less smart to be a politician) and that they would simply hire some of the remaining poor robbers to replace these greedy upstarts. Now the police, the laborers, and the outcasts were all mad and they threatened to get together and take all of the property away from the owners and have a revolution. The problem was that they could not agree among themselves about who would get the property after the revolution. Moreover, robbers still frequented the neighborhood. Hence, there was a danger that they might take over during a revolution and this would create what was called anarchy. While no one was sure what this was, everyone knew it was bad. In short, most people were richer than they had been when everyone was a robber, but life was much more complicated and the future did not look good.
To make matters worse, a neighboring society called Bville became envious of Aville’s new riches, resentful of their uppity attitudes, and aware of their bickering. They sent their own robber/police (renamed soldiers)to demand a share of Aville’s new largess. To fend off Bville’s invasion Avlle had hired more police and soldiers. But soldiers wanted even more money to fight wars than police did to catch robbers, so taxes had to be raised. Some Avillers called Peaceniks said it might be cheaper to share with Bville than to go to war. Most people thought this would be a dishonorable sellout and accused the Peaceniks of being unpatriotic—and even traitors. This led to even more squabbling. The planters, the piggers, the police/soldiers, the laborers the outcasts and the Peaceniks all agreed that bickering was bad. What they needed was a formula for how to divide the produce fairly, but they could not agree on what this would be.
Now in the meantime some had become very bored and depressed about bickering and war. They gave up their property and jobs and went off by themselves to figure out the meaning of life. They were even poorer than poor robbers. Since they did not have much and were not involved in the wrangling they were left alone—separated from everyone else. They became known as holypersons. Perhaps because they were often hungry and spent a lot of time alone, some of them began to hear voices and see visions. Someone named God kept talking to them about the meaning of life. One thing God talked about was justice, which had to do with how to fairly divide up what was produced. Now since God knew the meaning of life, and these holypersons weren’t involved in the usual squabbles, it seemed like a good idea to take their advice about what was fair and just. This helped reduce some of the arguments and the holypersons developed quite a reputation. They seemed purer and less corrupted, and best of all they knew what justice was. Moreover, they were buddy-buddy with God who according to them had lots of power and knew everything. This made them even holier. Hence if you wanted to improve your own status you could do so by going to see a holyperson regularly and listen to them talk about God, the meaning of life, and justice.
But holypersons were poor and most lived under some tree in a bad neighborhood—even in the ghetto. Owners, policepersons, and laborers did not like going into such areas. Moreover when it rained the tree did not offer much protection to holypersons or visitors. Some of the owners, police/soldiers, and laborers decided to take up a collection to construct a nice building in a good neighborhood for the holyperson they liked best; they called these churches or temples. Now that many of the holypersons were out of the rain they could write down what God had told them and so they created Holy Scriptures.
Some holypersons figured out that they were on to a good thing and they began to ask for more than just a roof over their heads. Because they were holy it was beneath their dignity to collect taxes, be paid wages, or make profits, but they agreed to receive gifts and donations—which everyone knows are much less corrupting. Moreover, they let it be known that they were not going to spend all their time listening to other people’s problems and teaching about justice, the meaning of life, and God, unless the donations came in pretty regularly. To distinguish these uptown more expensive holypersons from just any old ordinary holyperson, their devotees began to refer to them as priests.
These priests soon got accustomed to this new life. The thought of having to move back under a tree did not have much appeal. Therefore when people came to them wrangling about how much should go to each group, it was hard for them to ignore the fact that owners and police usually built nicer temples and churches than laborers did. Of course, they continued to be guided mainly by what God said was justice. Now priests were busy important people and had less time to talk to God. Nor did they did have as many visions or hear as many voices. Before long it was hard to tell the priests from anyone else—except that they were more sanctimonious.
The laborers increasingly suspected that what the priests said was justice had more to do with the gifts they received than with what God had said to them. Some laborers began to say that the priest were not so holy after all. Some of the priest felt guilty and returned to the frugal life under the tree. They started to have visions again—only this time God told them to go tell everyone that the priests were corrupt, that the police/soldiers were engaged in waste, fraud and abuse, and that the owners were making big profits. These new loud mouths were called prophets—which supposedly made their advice and approval even more valuable than that of priests. But it was hard to get them to say what people wanted to hear. Sometimes they would even blaspheme the Holy Scriptures. So the police often had to beat them up to keep them quiet. Unsurprisingly some of the prophets got tired of being hungry and unappreciated; so they started accepting gifts and approving of what the owners and police wanted. Some people began to call them false prophets or ideologues.
The true prophets called on God to put a curse on the false prophets, the priest, the police/soldiers and the owners. They also began to organize the laborers, the outcasts, and some of the remaining poor robbers. Worst of all they began to say what the laborers already knew, the priests suspected, the police couldn’t figure out, and the owners had always denied: that the owners were making big profits. Now since they were true prophets the police decided that what they said must be true. It made the police mad to learn the owners had been holding out on them so they joined the revolution.
[Choose an ending]
Ending A: The police took all the property away from the owners, but a squabble immediately began over what to do with it. Soon everybody was fighting and even killing each other. The one good thing to come out of this was that people finally figured out what anarchy meant. Before long it became impossible to be an owner, policeperson, a soldier, a holyperson, a laborer, or even an outcast—so everyone became poor robbers.
Ending B: The police decided that their politicians should form the People’s One and Only Party (POOP). The party would make all of the decisions and this would do away with squabbling (and free speech). POOP had to put a lot of loudmouths in jail, but they promised that in a few years inequality and social classes would wither away, solidarity and consensus would blossom, and everyone would live happily ever after.
Ending C: The police asked the politicians to create a More Effective Safe Society (MESS). So they came up with a set of complicated rules called laws and a set of rules about how to make laws called a constitution—and this did result in a MESS. Often people disagreed about what the laws said and so, in addition to the politicians, a second group of professional arguers emerged called lawyers. Just as the priests claimed to know what God said, the lawyers claimed to know what the laws said. But before they would tell you, they demanded even bigger fees than the police, the priest, or the politicians. Some of the laws were about voting and elections. Everyone got to vote for their favorite politician and the ones who received the most votes formed what was called a government—and they got make all the decisions. But the owners, laborers, the holypersons, and the lawyers were not satisfied with just getting to vote; they also tried to tell the elected politicians (now called government officials) what to do. The politician/officials would pretend to listen, especially if you gave them a big fee which they called a contribution (but others called a bribe). Now there was even more squabbling, but relatively little killing. It wasn’t the best of times; it wasn’t the worst of times; but it was a far, far better thing than the known alternatives.
1. What are the three kinds of elites that tend to emerge in complex societies?
2. What divisions commonly occur within each type of elite and within non-elites?
3. Can you think of parallels or examples of such divisions in contemporary American society?
4. In addition to some religious clergy, who serves as priests in contemporary societies? Who are the prophets?
5. In what category would you place Bill Gates? Betty Friedan? Jimmy Carter?
6. How would you use the parable to characterize the Tea Party?
Murray Milner is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His latest book Elites: A General Modelwas published by Polity in November 2014