"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 13, 2012

Should We Return To More Aristocratic Values?

The debate over the nature of governance is as old as Ancient Greece, Rome, and China.  Shakespeare’s plays have dramatized the relationship between the governing and the governed and the suspicion of the mob by an aggressive, self-centered monarchy. Roman society was unapologetically aristocratic and educated its young leaders in the art of governance which included both political and moral elements.  As I have reported in an earlier post this week (A Confucian Constitution for China), Confucian thinking is more complex and suggests that an ideal state is made up of a Humane Authority:
The legitimacy of heaven (a sacred, transcendent sense of natural morality), the legitimacy of earth (wisdom from history and culture), and the legitimacy of the human (political obedience through popular will).
Image result for confucius

In a Confucian model there is no stark distinction between the ruler and the governed and a clear acknowledgment of the importance of moral authority, knowledge and wisdom, and the self-governance of the people according to the precepts set forth by ‘natural’ and intellectual leaders.

In the early days of the American republic, a vigorous debate went on, especially between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on the nature of democracy and the balance between the governing and the governed.  Hamilton was suspicious of Jefferson’s populism – i.e. a deep faith in the wisdom of the people – and new that the American electorate could easily vote with unenlightened self-interest and venality no different from Jake Cade, the anarchist/populist of Henry VI, or the plebeians of the fickle mob of Coriolanus or Julius Caesar.  In his Speech on the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton said:
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second.
Hamilton wrote further of his concerns in his Federalist Papers:
"The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden gust of passion, or every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests... When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited, in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from the very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men, who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure."The Federalist 71
The Framers agreed with Hamilton and created the Senate which would be the venue for such ‘cool and sedate reflection’; but Hamilton was far more of an aristocrat to trust an institution which was still an elected body.  His view of statesmanship reflected his views:
Alexander Hamilton described, and attempted to be, an aristocratic yet visionary statesman. Hamilton's statesman would resist and rise above popular prejudices and passions; occupying a commanding eminence, he would plan grand projects for the nation's future. His architectonic vision detailed instruments for efficient action: the energetic executive and the administrative state. Having shaped these powerful tools, he turned them to economic use, fashioning a carefully integrated set of policies that fostered the rise of manufacturing in the United States. While the aristocratic statesman did not expect the public to understand his vision, he did expect it to respond to the prosperity and power that his efforts produced. As the nation rose to greatness, so, ultimately, would his fame. (Bruce Miroff, The Aristocrat As Visionary, International Political Science Review)
 Image result for alexander hamilton
In an interesting review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites, a book which laments the decline of America’s aristocracy and the old English values it espoused, David Brooks takes exception and reaffirms his belief in meritocracy.  He summarizes a central point of Hayes as follows:
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, the local country clubs and even high government service.
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.
This commitment to stewardship and a belief in service was in part a legacy of Hamilton.  George H.W.Bush was perhaps the best recent example of this belief that the well-born owed something to their country, a modern-day noblesse oblige.  Bush served his country in WWII, seeing action as a Navy pilot.  He went on to serve in the Congress, as Ambassador to China, the head of the CIA, and as Vice-President and President of the United States.  His father, Prescott Bush also saw action in WWI and served as Senator from Connecticut.  George Bush went to Andover and Yale, the premier institutions of the WASP elite, as did his father, grandfather, and various uncles, and both at home and at these traditional institutions was educated to be a leader in the classical tradition, one who was academically solid, committed to the underlying values of ethics and morality, and prepared to serve.

Image result for george h. w. bush

Whatever one can say about Bush’s political legacy, there are few who would doubt his honest and honorable sense of service.  In Christopher Hayes’ view, he was but one of many of America’s aristocratic elite who were the stewards of the principles of the Founding Fathers.  This aristocratic philosophy is no different from that of other countries.  In France, for example, the ‘best of the elites’ as Brooks puts it – the aristocracy – considered themselves as protectors of the historical and cultural legacy of France.  They felt themselves the anointed guardians of France’s contributions to the world of arts, literature, and the political philosophy of Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Sartre. 

Hayes’ second and principal point is that meritocracy has eroded this aristocratic stewardship; and because of its focus on individual success and the hard-driving means to obtain it, has been a corrosive rather than positive force in American public life:
Hayes 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.
Hayes points to his own elite training ground, Hunter College High School in New York City. You have to ace an entrance exam to get in, but affluent parents send their kids to rigorous test prep centers and now few poor black and Latino students can get in.
Baseball players get to the major leagues through merit, but then some take enhancement drugs to preserve their status. Financiers work hard to get jobs at the big banks, but then some rig the game for their own mutual benefit.
Far from being the fairest of all systems, he concludes, the meritocracy promotes gigantic inequality and is fundamentally dysfunctional. No wonder institutional failure has been the leitmotif of our age.

While this may be accurate, it is far too dismissive of the achievements and successes of those who go through the elite educational institutions.  A reading of Harvard’s most recent ‘Red Book’, a compilation of graduates’ reflections every ten years, displays the impressive confidence, versatility, intelligence, and ambition of the class of 2002.  All of them went through the rigors of competitive schools, some from their earliest years, and because of the discipline, academic requirements and demands were able to take advantage of everything Harvard had to offer – and more importantly able to quickly contribute to the real world of academics, business, and public service.

Image result for images harvard logo

Damning the meritocratic educational system because it is exclusive, demanding, and ‘elitist- i.e. favoring the best and the brightest – is a specious and self-serving argument.  These schools, while no longer providing the same classical education of 100 years ago, still are the foundations of an American elite.  It is no accident that every recent administration has been filled with graduates from Harvard and Yale.

Hayes, however, makes a very important point – because of the take-no-prisoners, every-man-for-himself philosophy of the new meritocracy, the sense of duty, responsibility and selfless service has been lost.  If you are clawing your way to Harvard,suggests Hayes, how can you be expected to lose those ambitions and self-serving motives once you are out?
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? 
These failures, Brooks argues, are not the fault of meritocracy per se, but our own American version of it.
The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.
As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the…old boys’ network did possess. 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.
This is the central issue – regardless of how well meritocracy works in rewarding the talented, intelligent, and ambitious, it lacks the most essential quality necessary for good governance – a sense of morality, ethics, responsibility, fairness, and service.

Brooks ends up in the middle.  He acknowledges the importance of these enduring, classical values, but says that the meritocracy operating today, warts and all,  is the best system for America.  Ambition, drive, and persistence – very American values – of course have negative consequences; but that does not mean that they should be rejected.  On the contrary, today’s meritocracy embodies the best American drive for success and the best education possible; but it can be improved:
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.
True, but there is no turning back.  Not only are we returning to a  laissez-faire capitalism but a laissez-faire society as a whole and the rough-and-tumble, raw individualism that characterized the turn of the last century.  These socio-cultural swings are to be expected.  In the days of the framing of the Constitution, the country was new, ambitious, and cohesive.  The articles of federation were accepted by most, and the principles of polity and good governance were not disputed. 

Even during the Civil War, although there were disputed visions of society and culture, there was a sense of larger community and nation.  Only in the early part of the Twentieth Century did these traditional principles unravel, and the age of anything-goes capitalism hurtled forward. The brakes were eventually put on this unrestricted drive and the New Deal and The Great Society turned us all outward towards a more community-oriented vision.  Now, we are returning to another Age of Individualism. 

This only means that while this current Age lasts, there will be no turning back to earlier moral principles, and the checks and balances of the social marketplace will have to regulate self-interest. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.