Knowing my background, a friend recently sent me a column from the New York Times.
Written by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, the article provides a short reflection on the decline of WASP dominance—a decline much commented upon in the aftermath of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, for, if she is confirmed, the Court will have no white Protestants, indeed, no Protestants of any color.
As Feldman sees it, WASP culture should be given credit for creating an environment of inclusion, opening up the higher reaches of power to diverse ethnic groups. In his view, WASPs were largely motivated by noble, meritocratic ideals.
Perhaps in part, but only in part.
By my reading of post-War American history, cold calculations about how to maintain power played an important role in WASP decline. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, James Bryant Conant, civilian head of the Manhattan Project and then President of Harvard, recognized that Big Science required American educational institutions to scoop up as many talented eighteen-year-olds at possible. We could not defeat the Soviets with WASP elites. We needed Irish and Jewish and Hungerian scientists.
As the meritocratic system was put in place, WASP hegemony actually increased. Wunderkinds such as McGeorge Bundy reflected the new WASP role: to manage the increasingly successful system.
The traumas of the 1960s altered the formula. Race riots, assassinations, WASP teenagers leading protests, women suddenly making demands—it felt as thought the wheels were coming off. And they were. Solution: an all out effort to remake the system with quotas and others sorts of radical surgery. Result: elite institutions survived and retained their legitimacy. Cost: WASP culture had to cede a degree of managerial control.
The third stage came with Reagan’s tax cuts, and the massive expansion of wealth among the highest earners in the American economy. People don’t realize that high tax rates have the effect of constricting entry into the elite, because the relative value of inherited wealth is dramatically enhanced when earned income is heavily taxed. Put simply, when income is taxed at a high rate, the meritocratically trained new members of the elite can’t earn their way into elite status—no large apartment on Park Avenue, no vacation house on Nantucket, no yacht, or ski chalet. More importantly, no wherewithal to finance causes, make big institutions defining donations, and establish foundations. (FYI, this is why the wealthiest Americans consistently prefer higher taxes. Old money tends to want to block new money.)
The recent Gilded Age—the age of vast new fortunes—did the most to ensure WASP decline. For in retrospect, we can see that the meritocratic epoch (1950s and early 60s) and the frenzied quota epoch (late 1960s and 1970s) were largely motived by the WASP desire to strengthen, and then stabilize and save the System that they had every intention of overseeing and managing in the (to their minds) unending reign of Liberal Progressivism.
By my reckoning, therefore, the ideas of Milton Friedman did far more to end WASP dominance than meritocratic rhetoric or the huffing and puffing of diversity mongers. Wealth displaces wealth.