Every January, I find myself juggling amusement and disdain for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where celebrities of business, finance, bureaucracy, academia, and entertainment hob-nob in a weeklong spectacle of wealth, pseudo-intelligence, and egomania. The motto of the annual event is “Committed to improving the state of the world,” but the actual purpose seems to be for the celebrities to influence and impress each other. It’s a spectacle of brazen elitism, certainly, which is what earns my disdain.

The amusement comes from the obvious fact that the Davos elites are so committed to proving they have serious minds and tender hearts that their designs on world-changing solutions are just a slogan. They may spend the week labeling problems and devising ways to fix an ungrateful world, but they’ve accomplished their primary mission just by showing up. Serious problems remain for more serious individuals to address.

Whether or not ‘elitism’ is a problem of its own standing is a matter of much concern now, in politics (who’s part of “the establishment”? who’s “the outsider”?) and in the policies of governments, businesses, and all the major institutions that direct how we live and work. The sense that some people are above the rules is pervasive in school admissions, hiring standards, lending policies, law enforcement, theories and regulations for taxation, and many similar guidelines that signify civil order and are meant to give individuals routes for self-advancement. While almost no one realizes it, such rampant cynicism represents a threat to the mutual trust among citizens of a free society.

It’s not wrong to have doubts about fairness or to raise such questions about the trustworthiness of people in positions of responsibility and/or influence. Without such oversight many of them would indeed be untrustworthy. My sense is, however, that the outbreak of distrust in recent years and months has more to do with effects than causes: the institutions and standards established to uphold common principles of justice, fulfill our basic expectations of fair government and free trade, have become authoritarian – not representational.

And, while there are numerous ripe examples to show this authoritarian streak in the government realm, the examples in the commercial sphere are equally galling. Airlines treat ticket-buyers like employees; banks and lenders treat customers like litigants. Employers treat workers like children. They do these things because they have to protect the “institution” (the airline, the bank, the corporate employer) from any possible misstep. Every customer, every client, every employee has to be viewed as a threat to the smooth operation of their establishment. Is it any wonder individuals’ resentment against “the establishment” grows? Individuals realize these institutions.    

The unresolved question is how to address that resentment. One hopeful view is that all these tensions are themselves a consequence of faster and more targeted channels of communication, and that when the balance has been restored we’ll have a wider community of individuals, interacting freely and honestly with institutions in an atmosphere of transparency that ensures trust and fairness.

I doubt it. Transparency may expose the missteps and excesses of our institutions and establishment figures, as visibility exposes the hubris of the Davos elite. That may make them more sensitive to the frustration of the public. But, transparency will not restore the trust that individuals must have in those figures and institutions. We remain ready to celebrate their failure. We have become the obstacles to order they must try to overcome.