Christopher Hayes of MSNBC and The Nation believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. In his book, "Twilight of the Elites," he argues that meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.
It's a challenging argument but wrong. I'd say today's meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room.
Today's elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.
If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.
The difference between the Hayes view and mine is a bit like the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wants to upend the social order. I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos and institutions that are more consistent with its existing ideals.
David Fuller's view I
agree with Brooks and would describe the problem as a question of ethics, a
subject often discussed by Fullermoney. Here is a previous
comment in response to an email on this subject:
As adults we all know how difficult it is to maintain ethical standards to which we hopefully aspire. This can be particularly true for needy or impressionable people who perceive that others are apparently prospering while ignoring acceptable ethical standards. Individual temptation is often greater during boom times when the disparity between so-called 'haves' and 'have nots' is most apparent. And the powerful sometimes flout ethical standards because they feel that they can get away with it.
Nevertheless, many people have high ethical standards which they also pass down to their children. Schools and communitarian services can and often do help by emphasising good citizenship and 'the golden rule' from nursery years onwards. I maintain that ethics should be a required course during higher education, not least at business schools and law schools. High ethical standards make good business sense.