The Limits of Meritocracy

Give me a Brahmin over a Quant any day.

by Christopher Orlet, from The American Spectator

IN HIS classic study Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville described what he believed was a true meritocracy at work. Here was a country lacking a nobility and an aristocracy. The Adamses, the closest America had to an elite, recently had been voted out of office, usurped by that Tennessee ruffian Old Hickory. For years, Tocqueville’s analysis seemed prophetic. Seven U.S. presidents were hatched in log cabins before the New England Establishment re-established itself.

The reign of the WASPs lasted well into the 20th century. But by the 1960s, America had elected its first Irish Catholic president and its prestigious colleges and universities were (theoretically, at least) thrown open to all smart kids — as opposed to all privileged kids.

Of course, we all know what happened in the 1960s. Things fell apart. And things have been falling apart ever since.

The lesson here is that one needs more than brains to be an effective leader/manager. The old elite knew this instinctively. Math skills were not as valuable as traditional values, a sense of duty, ethics, judgment, empathy and, most important, good posture. What’s more, the old establishment had noblesse oblige drilled into them from birth, they were “bred to rule with grace and wisdom,” notes author Chris Hayes.

For all their faults, the Bluebloods took responsibility for their debacles, unlike today’s too-smart-to-fail Quants who think accountability is for the 99 percent. If your too-big-to-fail company loses billions you still deserve a giant bonus. If your crazy, risky, multi-billion-dollar bets on toxic securities nearly sinks the entire inter-connected global economy, well, to quote Rick Perry: “Oops.” That is how meritocracy works. Or doesn’t.

The WASPs were rooted, even if their home turf was the rarified soil of Boston or Connecticut. Today’s status-crazed meritocrats remind one of wealthy gypsies. They drift (first class, naturally) wherever money or power blows them. Jon Corzine may be the epitome of the new meritocratic elite. Corzine left his family farm outside Taylorville, Illinois, to become U.S. Senator, New Jersey governor, and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Along the way he helped destroy both New Jersey’s economy and his former Wall Street firm, MF Global. Had he stayed on the farm where he belonged he would have had a far less destructive impact.

DURING THE OLD WASP dynasty power and privilege were handed down from generation to generation. That’s not supposed to happen anymore. Meritocrats are supposed to have Horatio Alger story lines, though they seldom do. For every Farmer Jon Corzine, there are a hundred morally challenged Boaz Weinsteins, Peter Orszags, and Timothy Geithners from elite ethnic East Coast backgrounds. Today, an established Tiger Mom’s cubs have a far better chance of getting into an Ivy League school than a smart poor kid from the sticks, because a) her children will have inherited smart kid genes and b) mom can afford to hire the best consultants, tutors, and lawyers, who know exactly what it takes to get into Princeton. Sorry, I mean Harvard.

Why anyone thought meritocracy was going to be a boon for the country is beyond me. Wasn’t it The Best and the Brightest that got us into the mess in Vietnam? And weren’t the Enron crooks the “smartest guys in the room”? Say what you will about the old establishment, but the WASPs did what was good for the country out of a sense of duty. The new elite do what is good for their pocketbooks and their children’s pocketbooks.

Where have you gone, Teddy Roosevelt? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

15 thoughts on “The Limits of Meritocracy

  1. Let’s be clear:


    These people are not us, and never will be.

    I witnessed first hand the destruction of places like Greenwich in the 1980s and 1990s as the cosmopolitan money from Manhattan moved in.

    Don’t get me started.

  2. This is a complicated subject. Certainly, character counts. In many ways it is more important than raw intelligence. But we need smart people too. Life (or at least economic success) is about competition. And the two are not mutually exclusive. Many old money people are bright and well educated. Bill Gates, for example, could be described as both a Quant and Old Money. His grandfather was a banker who made a small fortune and his father was a partner in a prominent Seattle law firm. I guess that makes him an OMQ (Old Money Quant).

    One of the pitfalls that OMGs can fall into is laziness and a sense of entitlement that destroys motivation. Character and values are arguably the most important thing, but intelligence, education, ambition and perseverance are no less important for OMGs than they are for anybody else.

    1. What do you feel about the “elitist” label that seems to be leveled at old school politicians right now? Indeed it seems to be leveled at New Money far more then old, but it certainly includes the Kennedys. Its sort of absurd to see a young Kennedy talking to blue collar Americans/middle class Americans, and telling them they need to share their good fortune with refugees. Obviously he is going to gain economically from their bad fortune.

      1. Hi Martine, welcome. I think the term elitist might mean ‘out of touch with their constituents’ in this context, though we don’t discuss politics much at all here.

        There are numerous examples of politicians, from Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, to Kennedy’s and Bush’s who were born into privilege, but nevertheless speak to working class people about improving their lives. While we don’t discuss the merits of their proposals on this blog, we do commend their commitment to public service, Republican or Democrat.

        Thanks again – BGT

  3. Very interesting and provocative. The Marshall Plan was probably one of our greatest moments and it was brokered by Old Money types, who might have suffered somewhat during the Depression and sacrificed during the war just like other Americans. FDR -who was dead by that time- was a “traitior to his class” according to some, but might have epitomized the generosity and duty of the establishment Old Money more than any other. How can TR and FDR, or even George HW Bush compare to these new Quants?

  4. One could argue that meritocracy has breed a selfish, dishonest, corporate climbing populace to upper and ruling ranks. Everyone seems out to live like they have it all but their lives are enslaved to their desks. Meritocracy encourages unsustainable lifestyles and corruption. Old money never needed to sell away its integrity for image.

  5. Orlet’s “elite ethnic East Coast backgrounds” and LBF’s “cosmopolitan money” remind me why I feel comfortable here BGT. We all appreciate the thinly veiled point and the dangers of taking it further.

    LBF talks of Greenwich. Here’s perhaps a more sobering illustration nearby. One can live in an understated 1792 homestead located in what was then called Locust Valley but is today Scarsdale. The railroad, when it came, was known as Popham’s Gate as if it emphasize the area’s agrarian gentility. Then, in the 1930s, came the Brooklyn immigrants on their day trips to the orchards. By the 1960s, the game was up and we moved out. One generation after the “elite ethnic” settlement programs began and Popham’s Gate is now reduced to Dario’s hypertensive melee of investment bankers, hedge funders and commercial litigators at rush hour.

    In 2016, there’s no sense of service. There’s no sense of noblesse oblige. There’s no gentility. Discrete brass plaques are now replaced with seven foot neon.

    To Amy’s point about competition. One can compete without the cut-throat smell of blood in the nostrils and overt selfishness. Rockefeller The Elder was our exemplar.

    In 2016, where is one to raise one’s children away from the cultural pollution?

  6. Are we using the word quant as in “newly arrived” or like a “quant fund” meaning mathematical?

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