In his classic study Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville described what he believed was a true meritocracy at work. Here was a country lacking a nobility and an aristocracy. The Adamses, the closest America had to an elite, recently had been voted out of office, usurped by that Tennessee ruffian Old Hickory. For years, Tocqueville’s analysis seemed prophetic. Seven U.S. presidents were hatched in log cabins before the New England Establishment re-established itself.
The reign of the WASPs lasted well into the 20th century. But by the 1960s, America had elected its first Irish Catholic president and its prestigious colleges and universities were (theoretically, at least) thrown open to all smart kids — as opposed to all privileged kids.
Of course, we all know what happened in the 1960s. Things fell apart. And things have been falling apart ever since.
The lesson here is that one needs more than brains to be an effective leader/manager. The old elite knew this instinctively. Math skills were not as valuable as traditional values, a sense of duty, ethics, judgment, empathy and, most important, good posture. What’s more, the old establishment had noblesse oblige drilled into them from birth, they were “bred to rule with grace and wisdom,” notes author Chris Hayes.
For all their faults, the Bluebloods took responsibility for their debacles, unlike today’s too-smart-to-fail Quants who think accountability is for the 99 percent. If your too-big-to-fail company loses billions you still deserve a giant bonus. If your crazy, risky, multi-billion-dollar bets on toxic securities nearly sinks the entire inter-connected global economy, well, to quote Rick Perry: “Oops.” That is how meritocracy works. Or doesn’t.
The WASPs were rooted, even if their home turf was the rarified soil of Boston or Connecticut. Today’s status-crazed meritocrats remind one of wealthy gypsies. They drift (first class, naturally) wherever money or power blows them. Jon Corzine may be the epitome of the new meritocratic elite. Corzine left his family farm outside Taylorville, Illinois, to become U.S. Senator, New Jersey governor, and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Along the way he helped destroy both New Jersey’s economy and his former Wall Street firm, MF Global. Had he stayed on the farm where he belonged he would have had a far less destructive impact.
DURING THE OLD WASP dynasty power and privilege were handed down from generation to generation. That’s not supposed to happen anymore. Meritocrats are supposed to have Horatio Alger story lines, though they seldom do. For every Farmer Jon Corzine there are a hundred morally challenged Boaz Weinsteins, Peter Orszags and Timothy Geithners from elite ethnic East Coast backgrounds. Today, an established Tiger Mom’s cubs have a far better chance of getting into an Ivy League school than a smart poor kid from the sticks, because a) her children will have inherited smart kid genes, and b) mom can afford to hire the best consultants, tutors and lawyers who know exactly what it takes to get into Princeton. Sorry, I mean Harvard.
Why anyone thought meritocracy was going to be a boon for the country is beyond me. Wasn’t it The Best and the Brightest that got us into the mess in Vietnam? And weren’t the Enron crooks the “smartest guys in the room”? Say what you will about the old establishment, but the WASPs did what was good for the country out of a sense of duty. The new elite do what is good for their pocketbooks and their children’s pocketbooks.
Where have you gone Teddy Roosevelt? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.