Vilfredo Pareto: The Theory of Elites and the Circulation of Elites

It is a basic axiom for Pareto that people are unequal physically, as well as intellectually and morally. In society as a whole, and in any of its particular strata and groupings, some people are more gifted than others. Those who are most capable in any particular grouping are the elite.

Let us assume that in every branch of human activity each individual is given an index which stands as a sign of his capacity, very much the same way grades are given . . . in examinations in school. The highest type of lawyer, for instance, will be given 10. The man who does not get a client will be given 1--reserving zero for the man who is an out-and-out idiot. To the man who has made his millions--honestly or dishonestly as the case may be--we will give 10. To the man who has earned his thousands we will give 6; to such as will just manage to keep out of the poor-house, 1, keeping zero for those who get in. To the woman "in politics" . . . who has managed to infatuate a man of power and play a part in the man's career, we shall give some higher number such as 8 or 9; to the strumpet who merely satisfies the senses of such a man and exerts no influence on public affairs, we shall give zero. To the clever rascal who knows how to fool people and still keep clear of the penitentiary, we shall give 8, 9, or 10, according to the number of geese he has plucked. . . . To the sneak-thief who snatches a piece of silver from a restaurant table and runs away into the arms of a policeman, we shall give 1.

The term elite has no moral or honorific connotations in Pareto's usage. It denotes simply "a class of the people who have the highest indices in their branch of activity." Pareto argues that "It will help if we further divide that [elite] class into two classes: a governing elite, comprising individuals who directly or indirectly play some considerable part in government, and a non- governing elite, comprising the rest." His main discussion focuses on the governing elite.

There is a basic ambiguity in Pareto's treatment of the notion of the elite. In some passages, as in the one quoted above, it would appear that those oc- cupying elite positions are, by definition, the most qualified. But there are many other passages where Pareto asserts that people are assigned elite posi- tions by virtue of being so labeled. That is, men assigned elite positions may not have the requisite capabilities, while others not so labeled may have them.

The label "lawyer" is affixed to a man who is supposed to know some- thing about the law and often does, though sometimes again he is an ignora- mus. So the governing elite contains individuals who wear labels appropriate to political offices of a certain altitude--ministers, Senators, Deputies. . . and so on--making the apposite exceptions for those who have found their way into that exalted community without possessing qualities corresponding to the labels they wear. . . . Wealth, family, or social connections also help in many other cases to win the label of the elite in general, or of the govern- ing elite in particular, for persons who otherwise hold no claim upon it.

It would seem that Pareto believed that only in perfectly open societies, those with perfect social mobility, would elite position correlate fully with superior capacity. Only under such conditions would the governing elite, for example, consist of the people most capable of governing. The actual social fact is that obstacles such as inherited wealth, family connections, and the like prevent the free circulation of individuals through the ranks of society, so that those wear- ing an elite label and those possessing highest capacity tend to diverge to greater or lesser degrees.

Given the likelihood of divergencies between ascribed elite position and actual achievement and capacity, Pareto is a passionate advocate of maximum social mobility and of careers open to all. He saw the danger that elite posi- tions that were once occupied by men of real talent would in the course of time be preempted by men devoid of such talent.


In the beginning, military, religious, and commercial aristocracies and plutocracies . . . must have constituted parts of the governing elite and some- times made up the whole of it. The victorious warrior, the prosperous mer- chant, the opulent plutocrat, were men of such parts, each in his own field, as to be superior to the average individual. Under those circumstances the label corresponded to an actual capacity. But as time goes by, considerable, some- times very considerable, differences arise between the capacity and the label. . . . Aristocracies do not last. . . . History is a graveyard of aristocracies. . . . They decay not in numbers only. They decay also in quality, in the sense that they lose their vigor, that there is a decline in the proportions of the residues which enabled them to win their power and hold it. The governing class is restored not only in numbers, but . . . in quality, by families rising from the lower classes and bringing with them the vigor and the proportions of residues necessary for keeping themselves in power. . . . Potent cause of disturbance in the equilibrium is the accumulation of superior elements in the lower classes and, conversely, of inferior elements in the higher classes.

When governing or nongoverning elites attempt to close themselves to the influx of newer and more capable elements from the underlying population, when the circulation of elites is impeded, social equilibrium is upset and the social order will decay. Pareto argued that if the governing elite does not "find ways to assimilate the exceptional individuals who come to the front in the subject classes," an imbalance is created in the body politic and the body social until this condition is rectified, either through a new opening of chan- nels of mobility or through violent overthrow of an old ineffectual governing elite by a new one that is capable of governing.

Not only are intelligence and aptitudes unequally distributed among the members of society, but the residues as well. Under ordinary circumstances, the "conservative" residues of Class II preponderate in the masses and thus make them submissive. The governing elite, however, if it is to be effective, must consist of individuals who have a strong mixture of both Class I and Class II elements.

A predominance of interests that are primarily industrial and commercial enriches the ruling class in individuals who are shrewd, astute, and well- provided with combination instincts; and divests it of individuals of the sturdy impulsive type. . . . One might guess that if cunning, chicanery, combinations were all there was to government, the dominion of the class in which Class I residues by far predominate would last over a very, very long period. . . . But governing is also a matter of force, and as Class I residues grow stronger and Class II residues weaker, the individuals in power become less and less capable of using force, so that an unstable equilibrium results and revolutions occur. . . . The masses, which are strong in Class II residues, carry them up- wards into the governing class either by gradual infiltration or in sudden spurts through revolutions.

The ideal governing class contains a judicious mixture of lions and foxes, of men capable of decisive and forceful action and of others who are imaginative, innovative, and unscrupulous. When imperfections in the circulation of govern- ing elites prevent the attainment of such judicious mixtures among the govern- ing, regimes either degenerate into hidebound and ossified bureaucracies in- capable of renewal and adaptation, or into weak regimes of squabbling lawyers and rhetoricians incapable of decisive and forceful action. When this happens, the governed will succeed in overthrowing their rulers and new elites will institute a more effective regime.

What applies to political regimes applies to the economic realm as well. In this field, "speculators" are akin to the foxes and "rentiers" to the lions. Speculators and rentiers do not only have different interests but they reflect different temperaments and different residues. Neither is very good at using force, but they both otherwise fall roughly into the same dichotomous classes that explain political fluctuations.

In the speculator group Class I residues predominate, in the rentier group, Class II residues. . . . The two groups perform functions of differing utility in society. The [speculator] group is primarily responsible for change, for economic and social progress. The [rentier] group, instead, is a powerful element in stability, and in many cases counteracts the dangers attending the adventurous capers of the [speculators]. A society in which the [rentiers] al- most exclusively predominate remains stationary and, as it were, crystallized. A society in which [the speculators] predominate lacks stability, lives in a state of shaky equilibrium that may be upset by a slight accident from within or from without.

Like in the governing elite where things work best when both residues of Class I and Class II are represented, so in the economic order maximum effec- tiveness is attained when both rentiers and speculators are present, each pro- viding a balance by checking the excesses of the other. Pareto implies through- out that a judicious mixture in top elites of men with Class I and Class II residues makes for the most stable economic structure, as well as for the most enduring political structure.

From Coser, 1977:396-400.