I don’t like to praise David Brooks because I’m afraid it makes me look middlebrow. But sometimes he nails it. Today’s column is a tentative, perhaps merely arguendo, defense of the old WASP establishment.
Sure, Brooks observes, positions of power in America are more open to talent—especially the talents of women and ethnic minorities—than they’ve ever been been before. But does anybody think we’re better governed, better banked, better educated, better informed, or even better entertained than we used to be? The old, closed elite had its defects, which include parochialism, puritanism, sexism, racism and the rest of the litany. Nevertheless, they did a pretty good job running our major institutions, partly because the security of their wealth and status allowed them to consider the general interest, and to take a longer view of things.
Another way of putting it is that this country once had a naturally conservative governing class. Needless to say, it no longer does. But does that justify the anti-elitism that’s characterized the conservative movement for the last fifty years—including the present Tea Party fad? I don’t know, but I fear–as I think Brooks does–that populism only exacerbates the problems of a society without a meaningful establishment.
ADDENDUM: Deneen responds to the Brooks piece at the Porch. His post helpfully enumerates some major criticisms of meritocracy. The bottom line is that the old establishment was more humane, but less just.
But I’m not satisfied by his parting shot: that the failure of meritocracy “calls for a different way of being in the world.” That’s true enough in itself. But the suggestion that we can simply choose our way of being in the world is too existentialist for my taste. If we’re to restore any of the old humanity, it must be with the intellectual and cultural materials we’ve been given historically and which circumscribe our possibilities. These now include an expanded sense of justice. It really is a problem of squaring the circle.