Modern Elites: Not So Bad After All?

| Fri Jul. 13, 2012 10:13 AM EDT

David Brooks writes about the problem with today's leaders:

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.

....It’s a challenging argument but wrong. I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined....As a result, today’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.

I enjoyed Twilight of the Elites, but I had a big problem with it, and it's the same problem I have with Brooks's competing thesis: I think they both view the past with unjustifiably rose-colored glasses. Hayes does a good job of describing all the pathologies of today's meritocratic aristocracy, but his book never seriously addresses all the pathologies of past aristocracies, meritocratic or otherwise. You're left thinking that cheating and corruption and nepotism are somehow unique to the 21st century West. But not only is none of that stuff unique, it's not clear that it's even any worse than it used to be. The scale is bigger than it used to be, because there's just more money sloshing around the system than ever before in history, but if you let your memory wander back a century, two centuries, or two millennia, it's pretty obvious that today's meritocracies not only aren't any more corrupt than past elites, they aren't even much better at it. Past aristocracies might not have had the high SAT scores of today's elites, but apparently their animal cunning was every bit as well developed.

Brooks, if anything, is worse on this score. He's careful to admit the problem with the elites of the 19th century, but even so he idealizes them. Sure, the best of the old WASP elites were good people in a noblesse oblige sort of way, but the best of any set of elites are good people. Today's meritocracy is loaded with fine, upstanding citizens. The problem is that they're a minority. But the upstanding folks were a minority back in the days of the WASP aristocracy too.

I'd like to understand better why Hayes and Brooks don't just believe that today's elites are corrupt, but apparently believe that they're uniquely corrupt. I'm not sure I see it, but I'm open to argument. Just be sure to think long and hard about all the corruption and cruelty and nepotism of the past first.