Saturday, July 14, 2012

Elitism and meritocracy

David Brooks is puzzled:
Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Protestant Establishment sat atop the American power structure. A relatively small network of white Protestant men dominated the universities, the world of finance and even high government service.

Over the past half century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance.

Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. It's not even clear that the brainy elite is doing a better job of running them than the old boys' network. Would we say that Wall Street is working better now than it did 60 years ago? Or government? The system is more just, but the outcomes are mixed. The meritocracy has not fulfilled its promise.

For starters, it is arguable whether the old boys' network wasn't replaced with a meritocracy so much as it was an affirmative action pageant, and wreckers whose primary interests are to line their own pockets and deconstruct Anglo-America.

When America was a 90% Anglo-Saxon polity, the interests of its WASP elite were largely aligned with the interests of its non-elite classes. Immigrants faced a stark choice: buy into the American ethos or be marginalized. The WASP elite was essentially proprietary. They ascended the ladder by being WASPs, a genetic and cultural trait they shared with the majority of their countrymen. While considered unjust by current norms, such a system had the advantage of insuring more commonality of interest between elite and non-elite. In the same sense, a hereditary noble could command the loyalties of what were, in a genetic and proprietary sense, his people. NB: When Europe's royal lines started coalescing into an inbred, pan-European ubermensch, the nobility lost much of their legitimacy. This is not a new idea. Israeli kings who took foreign wives were considered a big problem under the Old Testament.

Steve Sailer has remarked that Brooks (whom Sailer assures is a regular reader of his blog) has an excellent grasp of the issues, but then has to do backflips to reach the politically correct conclusion. Brooks is true to form here:
[T]oday's elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys' network did possess...The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Today's elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

If you read the emails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the emails in so many recent scandals: These people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.

Brooks cannot allow himself to reach the simpler and more elegant explanation: modern elites have no proprietary sense for an inter-generational institution larger than themselves because, obviously, they are not in any generational line. It would be crimethink for Brooks to accept that 1) the old system was not actually broken, and 2) the new system inherently is.
The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.
Brooks's handwaving "solution" (i.e., safely free of all practical detail) cannot work because he offers nothing of substance to which any elite loyalties can attach: the Christian Faith, the Buddhist Faith, the English, Israeli, Turkish nation. Consequently, the elite's default loyalty is toward preserving a process that is really not good for much beyond lining their own pockets.

UPDATE: Sailer has focused his smarter and better-connected mind on Brooks's column as well. He reads it as a thinly veiled homily addressed to Brooks's fellow Jews to for-God's-sake stop raping the country that has provided you with so much opportunity.


Cowboy said...

Steve is a nice guy, he is gentle with Brooks, Steve is 1/4 Jewish himself, adopted by a Catholic family. He knows the score but is very circumspect about it.

Perhaps people are better off not knowing what occurred to make America become what it has.
Maybe ignorance is bliss, yet knowledge is power.

If you have ever seen John Carpenter's film, 'They Live', which stars Roddy Piper, you will know what I refer to when I say, THIS is the "glasses":

Knowledge Brings Fear

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the incredibly long fight scene in They Live, an oblique comment on the difficulty of getting people to put on the eye-wear.

Now, which is better, red or green?