Sunday, December 9, 2018

New York Times Follow Up Opinion Piece: The Case Against Meritocracy

In Today's New York Times,  Opinion Columnist Ross Douthat writes, in a follow up to his Why We Miss the WASPs, a case against our current flavor of meritocracy.  Some quotes:
I think it was a good and necessary thing that the American upper class diversified, and that more African-Americans and Jews and Catholics (like myself) and women now share privileges and powers once reserved for Protestant white men... 
Here it’s important to stress that... WASP refers to a specific kind of American elite, mostly from the Northeast, mostly high-church Protestants... [who] shared the code of service and piety and manners that defined the elder Bush’s career. The WASPs were distinct from other white elites — including the planter class that ruled the South, the regional elites that emerged as the frontier moved westward, the immigrant tycoons who challenged WASP power in the East... In the middle of the 20th century, you could find elite Catholics who imitated WASPishness — think of William F. Buckley Jr. or the Kennedys. You could even find WASPish African-Americans... 
[But our current version of] meritocracy discourages inherited responsibility and cultural stewardship; it brushes away the disciplines of duty; it makes the past seem irrelevant, because everyone is supposed to come from the same nowhere and rule based on technique alone. As a consequence, meritocrats are often educated to be bad leaders, and bad people, in a very specific way — a way of arrogant intelligence unmoored from historical experience, ambition untempered by self-sacrifice.
- From The Case Against Meritocracy <https://nyti.ms/2zQot3L

25 comments:

  1. That last paragraph is particularly resonant. This is a very, very interesting way of looking at things and explains a good deal of the (to me at least) strange behavior today. As an aside I never hear the words "conceited" or "nouveau Riche" anymore. The notion of modesty has flown out of the lexicon as well. As a practicing Catholic (born of English immigrants) I do take exception to the statement about William F Buckley Jr. imitating anyone however.

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  2. For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction.

    There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.

    I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society. ~Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 28 Oct. 1813

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  3. Today there is a fight between globalists and populists. The old WASPS are fine as long as they respect and want the lower classes to succeed and not call them oh deplorable's maybe? When the upper classes lose the Noblesse Oblige and begin to treat the lower classes like slaves and chattel then you begin to have a problem.
    Lets stop dancing around the issue. The reason there is a problems today between the classes is because certain people in the upper classes known as globalists view the working class as useless replaceable widgets.
    This is the issue today which is causing all of the friction.

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    1. How do you define "upper classes" vs "lower classes". Increasingly pretense, posturing and affectation seem to be involved. Is this a by product of the meritocracy?

      I respectfully disagree with the notion of seeing people as widgets. I think there are still many more George Baileys than Potters. And upper class vs lower class has nothing to do with it.

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    2. Sorry, but did you even READ either of Douthat's articles? Your comments suggest otherwise.

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  4. The old American aristocracy collapsed because they got lazy and become elitist. Now, we have a classless, bureaucratic society. As Digby Baltzell stated, that is unhealthy and leads to totalitarianism. I don't think it will ever happen, but I agree with Digby. We need a leadership class and an aristocracy in America, but an aristocracy based on talent, hard work, and character, not pedigree or inherited wealth.

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    1. "An aristocracy based on talent, hard work, and character" is called a meritocracy.

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  5. I think one of the things Douthat is trying to say is that a consequence of the meritocracy (unintended, of course -- but then the bad ones always are) is that people begin to believe all their good fortune is the product of their own virtue (talent, hard work, etc.) and they become judgmental, lacking in empathy, without self-awareness, arrogant, etc. All the things our current meritocracy seems to be.

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    1. Agree - you concisely stated it in one sentence. I would add that the institutions that once instilled humility and a sense of duty - church, school, military, even some corporations - have lost their cultural relevance, with no replacement.

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    2. Yes. Auchincloss wrote, "The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place."

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  6. My .02 cents. The old aristocracy faded (Harriman, Lodge, Roosevelt, Mortimer, Fish, et al) because their capital dwindled or became “too small”. It’s a natural evolution. There are still folks wthose names in seats of power, just not as publicly facing.

    The WASPs aren’t dead. They just don’t care to be the Kardashians, or Trumps.

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  7. The only WASPS I ever knew were the people I read about from the past. The Kennedys, the Rockefellers, etc. Now in the present the well-to-do are frequently low class -- look at the behavior of certain billionaires who claim to be such great leaders. Would love to see the come back of WASPS, low key, successful, educated people who used their wealth to do good. However, I am also okay with meritocracy. Gifted children of all races are now able to attend the best colleges. And those same kids think they can make the whole world a better place. And I believe they will. Greed, without question, is a sin.

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    1. The point of the article was to highlight one of the unintended consequences of the meritocracy. If someone believes they "earned" their good fortune, they are less likely to help others. Baltzell, Delblanco, and others have written about this prior. WASPS, before the fall of the American aristocracy, led by example and served others. They served not because they wanted more money or power, but because they felt obligated because they were given something they didn't deserve. At least that's the argument in defense of the American aristocracy. It fell when the elite got complacent and became bigots so that the aristocracy became a caste. A lot has been written on this topic and I'd recommend Baltzell.

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    2. The Kennedys were classic examples of bad behaviour, e.g. Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick and JFKs numerous affairs. That's real low class! If politicians habitually cheat on their wives, they won't think twice about cheating on the voters that elected them.

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    3. ^ Of course you’re right. This may be a good opportunity, though, to ensure we are distinguishing between the code and actual behavior. The plea here, I think, is to say that our (inevitable) falling short of the standard is no argument against the value of the standard itself.

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    4. The JFK era is remembered as a halcyon time in U.S. history, and Kennedy himself continues to be an icon among U.S. presidents. The sort of people who think "low class" when they think of JFK are people who are out of touch with both the arc of history, and the present reality. And Ted Kennedy wasn't called "the Lion of the Senate" for nothing.

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    5. According to Baltzell, the American aristocracy fell before the time of JFK anyway.

      Thank you Sartesky for articulating so clearly. Great point.

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    6. The Kennedy's? Uh ... they aren't and weren't WASPs. They are Irish Catholics.

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    7. No one said the Kennedy's were WASPs, Dave. Did you even read the articles? Douhat already addressed the place the Kennedy's and William F. Buckley occupy in this discussion. Did you really think that, in 2018, anyone with opposable thumbs needs the religion of the Kennedys explained to them?

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    8. "The only WASPS I ever knew were the people I read about from the past. The Kennedys, the Rockefellers, etc."

      I was responding to this comment above by Connie.

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  8. Wonderful. I have struggled for years to understand and put into words what happened to the world in which I grew up.Thank you for this.

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  9. one irony in douthat's praise of the old WASP ideal is that George H.W. Bush himself betrayed it with his Texan affectations and (more importantly) by allowing W to avoid doing his duty during the vietnam war.

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    1. Those weren't "affections." He literally spent the majority of his life in Texas, and Houston was his home. He was a Texan by adoption, not by affectation.

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  10. Shaming has fallen out of style. Those to whom much has been given are no longer made to feel ashamed when they don't give back in return. It's considered quaint and of no real value to feel shame now. Virtues aren't as important. In the financial world, partnership structures used to enforce responsible behavior. Since they've been replaced largely by publicly held structures and the opportunities for golden parachutes the short term, get-away-with-what-you-can governs.

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