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Fri Jul 13, 2012, 04:30 PM

David Brooks misses Chris Hayes point, offers own, then refutes himself by not committing seppuku...

...or becoming a monk with a vow of silence, or just putting himself out to pasture.

Brooks focuses on one part of Chris Hayes' book Twilight of the Elites, where Hayes argues that even under ideal circumstances meritocracy leads to circumstances where it's not merely merit or performance that determine outcomes, that even when working as advertised it builds up hurtles against those outside the elite to show their merit and thus join their ranks.

In making this point Hayes uses examples he's seen in real life in New York City's magnet schools. (The NYC school system is large enough that it can support a number of schools with more specialized curricula, e.g., for mathematics and science, or for the performing arts, etc.). Brooks focuses on this to the exclusion of all else, and decries a general lack of integrity.

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. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.

The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. 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 racist, sexist and anti-Semitic 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.


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.

Hayes does not, in fact, argue for upending the social order, just argues for why a messy system like democracy works better despite the way it offends the sensibilities of elites and technocrats.

Brooks also mentions that in the LIBOR scandal "they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role." This from a guy who in two NY Times columns a week and numerous TV talking head appearances does exactly the same thing in regard to journalism.

The seppuku option would be the one most cathartic for the rest us, methinks.

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