The Elite Debate
David Brooks responds to Chris Hayes in today’s New York Times. In The Twilight of the Elites, Hayes argues the dramatic “fails” of the past decade are attributable to an Iron Law of Meritocracy, which asserts “that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.” According to Hayes, this creates a self-enclosed elite incapable of policing itself or pursuing the common good. Brooks counters:
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.
I’m working on a review of the book for the print magazine, so readers interested in more extended reflections will have to wait. But I want to consider briefly where Hayes’ and Brooks’ disagreement actually lies.
As I understand it, Hayes’ view is not simply that inequality encourages corruption. It’s that meritocracy is especially vulnerable to corruption because it claims that the rich and powerful personally deserve their success. Rather than members of a responsible ruling class, in other words, our meritocrats tend to regard themselves as exceptional individuals who owe nothing more to society than bare compliance with the law. And that’s just what Brooks means by the observation that “today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.”
Brooks and Hayes basically agree, then, in their diagnosis. They disagree concerning the prescription. Hayes endorses redistributive taxation and affirmative action to reduce the material and physical distance between the few and the many. Brooks believes that if today’s hedge fund managers and TV hosts only recognized their privilege, they could be brought to revive “the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess.” For Hayes, in other words, the problem is the distribution of goods. For Brooks, it’s a psychological issue.
Brooks’ position seems like wishful thinking. The WASP elite relied on intermarriage, brutal social pressure, and pervasive discrimination to enforce its norms, often at considerable cost to personal fulfillment. At least after World War II, moreover, taxes were also extremely high. Brooks wants to reconstitute esprit d’corps and public spirit of the old Establishment by appealing to the consciences of individuals with little more in common than high test scores. As the kids say, good luck with that.
Why does Brooks miss the tension between meritocracy and noblesse oblige? I suspect it’s because he makes the mistake, characteristic of mainstream conservatives, of supposing that “values” determine the social practice. If we just had better values, this argument goes, society would function differently. Moral education thus becomes the crucial vector of reform.
This position is at odds with the Weberian tradition on which Hayes draws (and which is indebted to classical conservatism). On that view, values tend to reflect the structure of society. From the Weberian perspective, people’s behavior doesn’t change in a fundamental way because they are taught to be nice. It changes because the institutional and material conditions under which they live have been significantly altered.
Brooks opposes this kind of change because he thinks it’s too risky. Hayes embraces it because he thinks that it will reduce opportunities for corruption.
I think Brooks is probably too cautious, and Hayes too optimistic. We’re in not danger of a society without bosses, as Brooks fears. But there’s little reason to think that new bosses favored by Hayes–financial regulators and diversity officers, among others–would be so much more responsible than the old ones.