Virtue Rewarded: The World According to Brooks

Give me some credit: For some months now I have successfully resisted the impulse to respond to David Brooks’ conservative writings about economic opportunity in America.  His logic is so extraordinarily selective that any critique of his arguments felt like hitting the side of barn; a target too big to miss…But today’s NYTimes column, in which Brooks tells us what is wrong with the American “meritocracy” of 2012, requires some attention from any social historian with a conscience.

Thinking about the Libor scandal and the many Wall Street troubles that have preceded it over the last couple of years, Brooks indicts the morals of today’s banking and corporate leaders, who unlike Groton and Yale graduates of yore, apparently possess no ethos of leadership.  They know “how to succeed,” but not “how to be virtuous” as did those previous generations, says Brooks.

Basically, Brooks wants us to distinguish between the ethics of “old” elites in U.S. history and “new.” The former, he says, were largely white, male members of the Protestant Establishment, born to privilege, and thus predictably “cruel” in their sexism, racism and anti-semitism. Still and all, these WASP stalwarts were competent and reliable directors of our banks, universities, country clubs and higher realms of government.  By contrast, today’s high achievers are more diverse in background and inherently pluralistic, having arisen not through social privilege but by being “brainy,” and Brooks sees in their success an index of these folks’ ambitiousness and discipline. But here’s the rub: despite their innate talents and vigor, today’s Wall Street financiers and economists are, sadly, nonetheless boobish and untrustworthy.  These new elites “stink,” and are giving merit a bad name.

They are, we read, “brats,” a condescending word Brooks clearly chose with care, and their immaturity and moral failings explain the dire financial straits into which these modern elites have plunged so much of the planet.  In gratuitiously characterizing themselves as anti-establishment (as they are wont to do, according to Brooks), today’s Harvard, Brown and Stanford grads deny responsibility for the conduct of the big institutions they in truth control. Brooks wants them to grow up and admit they are running the show because to do otherwise is… selfish!

Nobless oblige, anyone?  Putting aside for the moment Brooks’ willful denial that his subjects might be feeble conservatives precisely because they are trying to be effectual liberals (and just how hard they are trying is an important question, of course),  Brooks is hardly original in that accusation of selfishness.  The idea of there being “good” and “bad” elites is as old (and self-confirming) as Western philosophy itself.  Brooks is urging privileged Americans to acknowledge their elite status, to step up to the plate, and his naturalization of a hierarchical society is similarly unsurprising. We would expect him, as a conservative, to indict certain individuals as flawed while singing the praises of the social system from which those individuals derive their influence; a superficially reasoned stance perhaps, but again, not surprising.

What is important, however, is to unmask Brooks’ strategic deployment of “meritocracy” in this effort to depict American society as inherently democratic, despite the patently self-interested, classist aims of its corporate and financial institutions.  Focusing on merit,  a feature of individuals and not institutions or social structures, itself constrains the conversation profoundly.   It is only by denying structural problems like racism, gutted education budgets, and wage stagnation that one can use the term meritocracy unproblematically, as Brooks does.

Brooks’ is above all a deeply disingenuous argument, which pretends to care about the welfare of non-elites and to despise the bigotry of yesteryear, while actually reifying the power of privileged Americans and the closed, unreflexive nature of the institutions which produce and sustain that power.   Selective logic, indeed.