Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is America a Meritocracy?

Last Friday David Brooks wrote a column bemoaning the demise of the Protestant Establishment, the old boys network. The blame, Brooks believes, lies in our increasingly meritocratic culture.

In Brooks’ view the eclipse of the WASP elite has caused our public institutions to become increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional. Concomitantly, the general public has ceased to respect these institutions.

Even though he falsely presents the WASP establishment as something of a hereditary aristocracy, Brooks does recognize that its real foundation was its ethical principles.

In his words:

If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

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.

The old WASP ethic placed duty over self-expression; it punished deviation by ostracism, not prosecution. It valued responsibility over self-esteem, good behavior over good feelings. 

Such an ethic valued dignity, self-respect, and integrity, coupled with self-control, discipline and thrift.

In a curious omission Brooks does not mention that this Protestant ethos has been under constant attack since the 1960s.

The counterculture has been fighting a war against it. By now most everyone believes that the WASP ethos was bigoted, repressive, and fundamentally unjust. 

No one has ever claimed that the WASP ethos was perfect, but, in discarding it entirely, we have, if Brooks is to be believed, thrown the baby out with the bath water. 

However correct his observation, Brooks is clueless when it comes to explaining how this all came about.

At the least, he is wrong to see this form of WASP shame culture as antithetical to meritocracy. The WASP establishment did discriminate, but it was not merely an aristocratic cult. It was far more open than the aristocratic and tribal cultures that it replaced. A century ago WASP Wall Street had many Jewish investment bankers who functioned according to the same rules.

If the WASP establishment ran institutions that functioned well and were highly respected, then clearly the stewards of those institutions were capable people. They chose new leaders from within a narrow circle, but they did not choose just anyone. It was not antithetical to meritocracy.

According to Brooks, America’s institutions are dysfunctional and disrespected because they are led by people who earned their jobs by merit, not by the accident of birth.

In one sense, Brooks is addressing at an important sociological phenomenon. When a group of leaders was brought up together, when they came from the same neighborhood and attended the same schools, they had a great deal in common. They understood the rules and the customs and the manners of their group. Following these rules was second nature.

This produced group harmony and camaraderie that was essential in promoting ethical behavior. When you feel in perfect harmony with the members of your group and when your identity is tied to your membership in the group, you are more likely to behave ethically.

If people from highly diverse backgrounds are hired and given authority they will find themselves in a culture whose customs are alien to them. At times, they will not even know what the correct behaviors are. This will cause them to feel some degree of anomie. The less they feel attached to the group the more they will feel that they live in an every-man-for-himself world.

There is nothing very new about this. Problems associated with social mobility have been with us since the Industrial Revolution.

British and American cultures have dealt with them by creating codes of conduct that could be practiced by anyone, regardless of where they were born or how they were raised. These were ultimately meritocratic cultures.

These codes constituted the Protestant ethos. One might say that they have been too slow in opening their doors to those who were not born into the cultures, but they are not inherently discriminatory.

Brooks looks at things differently. He believes that what he calls the new “meritocracy” leads to systemic corruption:

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.

Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.

One does not know where to begin….

Do you really believe that American schoolchildren are taught the value of merit? Isn’t the school system largely geared to reward the skills in which girls excel and to downgrade the skills in which boys excel?

Our school give out grades based on self-esteem and other extraneous considerations. Does this teach children the importance of hard work and merit?

Children are taught from an early age that the game is rigged, that it is most especially rigged against boys. Why wouldn’t such an ethos engender a widespread culture of corruption?

If hard work and merit are not rewarded, children learn that it’s all about gaming the system. Eventually, they will take these values into the workplace and into the government. Why is anyone surprised?

Moreover, the new American culture most certainly does not teach codes of gentlemanly conduct. Today’s children are not taught to be gentlemen; they are not taught masculine values; they are not taught to protect and provide, to be stewards of the nation’s institutions.

More often than not, they are being judged by standards that are supposed to favor girls: intimacy over courtesy, reliance on feelings over the call to duty, self-expression over self-restraint.

Surely, these standards favor girls-- though they also might be selling girls short, burdening them with a stereotype. Whatever their purpose, if you put these supposedly girly values into practice in corporations, banks, or social institutions they will produce systemic dysfunction.

In a world where affirmative action rules and where gender parity is the order of the day, how can anyone say that our institutions are meritocratic?

People think that affirmative action programs are about social justice. Certainly, they are not about promotion by merit and what is best for the efficient functioning of institutions.

The proponents of gender parity want to see an equal number of men and women at all levels of all American institutions.

They do not care about how well the institutions function. They do not care about whether these institutions are respected.

They care about how it all looks. Their goal is aesthetic more than ethical. They are trying to force our institutions to fulfill what amount to aesthetic considerations.

When the counterculture set out to undermine the nation's institutions, it declared that the WASP ethos was inherently corrupt.

Thus, it proposed a rigorous system of controls in the form of rules and regulations… the better to police the predatory impulses of the WASP elite.

The old boys network died out because it was stifled by lawyers and bureaucrats.

If the culture declares its leaders to be fundamentally irresponsible and corrupt, in it for themselves and no one else, thus requiring outside controls, it will remove the incentive for good behavior.

If your virtues are not rewarded because they are supposed to be covering up your vices, what incentive do you have to act virtuously?

If you accept that everyone is corrupt, then the only question is who can best get away with it.

Under the new regime bankers are involved in a cat-and-mouse game with the lawyers and bureaucrats. In that case, the goal is no longer to make an honest living or to be a good steward for the system. The new rule becomes: let’s see what we can get away with.


David Foster said...

"a rigorous system of controls in the form of rules and regulations"...the idea that all human behavior can be regulated via highly-detailed rules established by remote "experts" is stifling our entire society. See my post here

Dennis said...

Isn't it interesting how well the statement you utilize is descriptive of the Soviet Union and other dictatorships?