Build a better noble lie

It is natural that in any society, the people with the most money and power will want to believe that they deserve to have the most money and power. Plato proposed that the “noble lie”, the belief in a superior ruling class, was an important foundation of a stable society. In any case, the propaganda in favor of this myth is powerful, so many people tend to accept it. The mark of a true modern conservative may be his ability to believe that some older version of the noble lie is superior to the current version; here is Bobo, for example, lamenting the fact that today’s Asian and Jewish high-achievers lack the character of the WASP overlords of yesteryear.

Anne Applebaum has a reasonably interesting requiem-for-the-meritocracy column today. She blithely accepts today’s noble lie, the notion that our society is meritocratic — something that seems ridiculous for anyone in national media to do, given what a stagnant old boys’ sewer it is — but she actually does make some good points:

The old Establishment was resented, but only because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved. Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on “the system.” Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as “deserving.”

I think this is right, that today’s form of the noble lie is more potent than the one that Bobo liked (although I suspect there was some argument that the old Establishment was meritocratic, just not one that seems at all convincing to contemporary observers). Applebaum is also right that it is interesting that today’s “anti-elite-education” talk comes from conservative whites, not from liberals and non-whites, as Daniel Bell and others had predicted it would.

But this is taking it all too far:

If working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won’t go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country — and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.

The Tea Party movement isn’t nearly so Real Murkin as it pretends to be: Scott Brown is a millionaire Boston College law grad, Joe Miller went to Yale, and the whole thing is funded by the MIT-educated billionaire Koch brothers. There’s more misguided pseudo-intellectualism — Glenn Beck University, Ayn Rand, the strange fixation with Hayek — than overt anti-intellectualism among teatards, from what I can see. Sure, Christine O’Donnell told voters “I didn’t go to Yale”, but that seemed more a euphemism for “I don’t know what I’m talking about” than anything else.

Modern conservatism is about wealthy, often elitely educated people getting what they want by playing head games with middle-class white voters. It’s not about turning over any kind of social order, “meritocratic” or otherwise.

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Pinterest
Share On Reddit

26 replies
  1. 1
    El Cid says:

    Remember, at the 2008 GOP convention, Mitt Romney denounced the Eastern Establishment elites. I’m pretty sure nobody there laughed.

  2. 2
    beltane says:

    Teabaggerism is just an extreme, less genteelly worded version of David Brooks’ view. Teabaggers are actually very pro-elite; they just happen to be nostalgic for the days when “elite” meant WASP, no exceptions allowed. Middle and working class white people are fine being at the bottom of the heap just as long as the people at the top of the heap look like them and have names that sound the same.

  3. 3
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @El Cid: But he’s a Mormon, so it doesn’t count.

  4. 4
    El Cid says:

    The question of the self-generated mythology among the upper classes has been a subject of scholarly study for a long while.

    The upper class probably makes up only a few tenths of one percent of the population. For research purposes, I use the conservative estimate that it includes 0.5% to 1% of the population for determining the over-representation of its members in corporations, nonprofit organizations, and the government.
    __
    Members of the upper class live in exclusive suburban neighborhoods, expensive downtown co-ops, and large country estates. They often have far-away summer and winter homes as well. They attend a system of private schools that extends from pre-school to the university level; the best known of these schools are the “day” and “boarding” prep schools that take the place of public high schools in the education of most upper-class teenagers.
    __
    Adult members of the upper class socialize in expensive country clubs, downtown luncheon clubs, hunting clubs, and garden clubs. Young women of the upper class are “introduced” to high society each year through an elaborate series of debutante teas, parties, and balls. Women of the upper class gain experience as “volunteers” through a nationwide organization known as the Junior League, and then go on to serve as directors of cultural organizations, family service associations, and hospitals (see Kendall, 2002, for a good account of women of the upper class by a sociologist who was also a participant in upper-class organizations).
    __
    These various social institutions are important in creating “social cohesion” and a sense of in-group “we-ness.” This sense of cohesion is heightened by the fact that people can be excluded from these organizations. Through these institutions young members of the upper class and those who are new to wealth develop shared understandings of how to be wealthy.
    __
    Because these social settings are expensive and exclusive, members of the upper class usually come to think of themselves as “special” or “superior.” They think they are better than other people, and certainly better able to lead and govern. Their self-confidence and social polish are useful in dealing with people from other social classes, who often admire them and defer to their judgments.

    It’s not always negative — i.e., the long term societal contributions of the Kennedys. But it would be better if the upper classes could somehow be less dominant.

  5. 5
    Kyle says:

    Any remaining pretense that America was a meritocracy died when The Idiot Son was criminally hoisted into the White House in 2000. That was the final turd on the shit-sundae of fetid nepotism and aristocracy that is the US political-media-business establishment.

  6. 6
    Cacti says:

    To any thinking person, George W. Bush should have buried forever the idea that America is a meritocratic society.

  7. 7
    suzanne says:

    O/T, but, whatever.

    I am watching as engineers in Chile prepare to pull out the first of the trapped miners. In reading about this disaster and the rescue operation, I’ve been so impressed by the willingness of to put blame and politics aside in order to accomplish the goal of getting these guys out safely. Once they’re out, I expect all sorts of finger-pointing and blame-laying, and that’s okay. Whoever is responsible needs to be held accountable. But that’s to be sorted out later. I wish that we had seen that sort of unity this summer with the BP disaster—solve the problem, THEN sort out the blame.

    I’m very eager to hear some good news in this story.

  8. 8
    jl says:

    I think Bobo is wrong.

    There is not one James Fisk, not one Jay Gould, or James Flood among thse new fangled non Wasp tycoons.

    Even the ones that have done the most damage, like the South Asian dude (Kaskani?) from Goldman Sachs are pathetic deluded would be do gooders trying to perform a public service, and thinking that they rightfully getting rich doing so.

    Not one is as goofy immoral and dim as those three olden goldy Robber Barons.

    I think Bobo just retypes faxes that get sent to him. I remember Bobo writing the John Maynard Keynes was ‘no mathematician’. But Keynes wrote his ‘Treatise on Probability’ which has had a very big influence on theoretical work on the interpretation of probability, and interval versus point probability estimates.

    A brief glance at Wikipedia would reveal that little fact.

    We need to quit blaming Brooks and start blaming whoever is feeding him substandard propaganda fodder through the fax machine. Or at cocktail parties.

    I bravely volunteer to go to these cocktail parties, find out who is making Mr. Brooks look bad, and set it right, on a necessarily, and regrettably, handsome Balloon Juice expense account.

  9. 9
    slag says:

    Anyone who believes in meritocracy has never had an idiot for a boss. Who are these people? And how do I get into their line of work?

  10. 10
    Stillwater says:

    Modern conservatism is about wealthy, often elitely educated people getting what they want by playing head games with middle-class white voters.

    Modern conservative voters, considered as a group, prove the exception to the rule that you can’t fool all the people all the time.

  11. 11
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    I’ve seen others posit that the teabaggers want to take us back in a time machine to a mystical golden age that nobody can seem to figure out the exact year of. Seems to me that what they want can be fixed with some precision – it is the parallel reality America in which Taft won the GOP nomination in 1952, went on to win the general election in a landslide, and swept away the red stain of FDR and Truman leaving nary a trace. Perlstein’s opening chapter in Before the Storm about the Marionites captures the mindset we are seeing today almost perfectly, allowing for the differences in the media environment between then and now.

  12. 12
    Stillwater says:

    Modern conservatism is about wealthy, often elitely educated people getting what they want by playing head games with middle-class white voters.

    Modern conservative voters, considered as a group, prove the exception to the rule that you can’t fool all the people all the time.

  13. 13
    schrodinger's cat says:

    @jl: We are sorry to inform you that Tunch has denied your request

  14. 14
    El Cid says:

    @suzanne: Live video here from the BBC. Not much going on. Probably will start in another 2 hours, says the Preznit.

  15. 15
    aimai says:

    I had to swear off bobo in order to preserve my health but is he really under the impression that the working and middle classes “work hard and go to elite schools”( when they do) in order to receive the plaudits of all around them–and that they will “go galt” when they don’t receive, along with their bankster millions, enough emotional stroking as well? What other game in town is there? If you are wealthy enough, and independent enough, not to have to get that “went to Yale/Harvard” stamp on your ass to get that first unpaid internship then, sure, you probably won’t bother to go to the ivies at all. Why should you? I am pretty sure Paris Hilton didn’t bother. But in reality the rest of the country still has to go to school to get a job and, all things not being equal, everyone in the top bracket would rather go to a top school than look like a loser. Even, or especially, if they have to pay someone to take their tests.

    aimai

  16. 16
    El Cid says:

    @ThatLeftTurnInABQ: It seems to me a combination of 1890 / 1920s / 1950’s / Reagan’s 1980s. And some sort of mix of Midwest farms / suburbs / churches and Southern segregationist myth.

  17. 17
    LarryB says:

    Apples to oranges. Applebaum’s “old establishment” was tolerated because we taxed the f**k out of them in the decades after WWII. Not only did this make the rest of us feel less likely to go commie but it also kept the assholes slightly more humble. At the corporate level, there was also functioning anti-trust regulation (remember the “baby Bells?”). Now, it’s back to the days of the robber barons. You have to compare the banksters to guys like Jay Gould to really get the flavor.

  18. 18
    Martin says:

    I don’t argue with the notion of a meritocratic society. As flawed as we all know that it is, it’s not a bad goal to have that as a component, and it’s often the case that what we define to be merit isn’t quite what everyone else defines to be merit.

    My complaint is with the magnitude that the merit is rewarded. I’ll concede for the sake of argument that Steve Ballmer is more meritorious to be CEO of Microsoft, but does he deliver to the company or to society benefits proportional to his compensation? Absolutely not. And I don’t think people would so much mind if the boss was an idiot provided they were making no more than 10%-20% more than they were – we can tolerate a reasonable amount of injustice. However, when they’re making 100% or 500% more and are an idiot, well, that’s when those rifts in the social fabric really tear open.

  19. 19
    DougJ is the business and economics editor for Balloon Juice. says:

    @aimai:

    but is he really under the impression that the working and middle classes “work hard and go to elite schools”( when they do) in order to receive the plaudits of all around them—and that they will “go galt” when they don’t receive, along with their bankster millions, enough emotional stroking as well?

    No, that was Applebaum saying that. Bobo’s column was much worse. Writing — apparently with a straight face — that the old quotas on Jews at Ivy League schools was part of a larger emphasis on “character”, that just turns my stomach.

  20. 20
    DougJ is the business and economics editor for Balloon Juice. says:

    @Martin:

    Also a very good point.

  21. 21
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Martin: In addition, people can accept that a certain amount of luck is involved, that people are going to be born into circumstances that give them a headstart, but they don’t want to feel like they are shut out of the race.

  22. 22
    Ruckus says:

    @slag:
    Remember the Peter Principal?
    Boiled down.
    Shit with no substance floats to the top where it is easier to see. As the bigger boss got his/her job the same way and feels those that float to the top are like themselves, that’s who they select as the finalist in the boss sweepstakes.
    Now you know how you get a shithead idiot for a boss.

  23. 23
    El Cid says:

    Science is not entirely but much more heavily than other institutions a meritocracy; the economy, far less so.

  24. 24
    Stillwater says:

    @Martin:

    However, when they’re making 100%100x or 500%500x more and are an idiot, well, that’s when those rifts in the social fabric really tear open.

    Fix-a-teth.

  25. 25
    El Cid says:

    @Stillwater: A CEO etc. who gets $1B / yr has an income 20,000 times that of someone getting $50K. Is that labor really 20,000 times more valuable to society than the other?

  26. 26
    Stillwater says:

    @El Cid: Is that labor really 20,000 times more valuable to society than the other?

    With ya brother. A different way of phrasing your (rhetorical)question is whether the societal benefits of a single persons labor are equal to the productive labor of a group of 20,000 others? I know it’s anti-American of me to say that, but still…..

Comments are closed.