Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dear Withy:

Aristocratic ambition is more conservative in the Burkean sense, which is the one that matters to me.

"ambition to hold up the family name - ambition with an end that happily can result in virtue...They don't lack the ambition of meritocrats; they just direct it in a different direction." This is because one has a duty to the generations before you and those that come after. Indeed, this personalizes it even more to one's own familial generations, which I can only assume reinforces the Burkean conservatism.

An aristocrat knows explicitly that they are privileged and are typically habituated with notions that they have a responsibility to maintain the family name and wealth for the next generation and often a form of noblesse oblige, as MSI pointed out. When one is forced to consider that they've been given granted great privilege, one often chooses to act more responsibly, especially when the family name is on the line. For example, I don't think it's a coincidence that Ford is in the least amount of trouble of the Big Three.

What's interesting is that banking is even more tied to name. Going back to the Fuggers and Rothschilds, banking was very tied to name and reputation. Indeed, many banks still play off the name of their reputable founders. J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs to just name two examples among many other. Does anybody think that if Bear Stearns were headed by a Bear or a Stearn or that if Lehman Brothers' CEO's last name were Lehman that they would've collapsed so spectacularly?

Perhaps they might have, but I think it would've been less likely. A piece called Inside the Money Machine from 2004 contained this quotation:
"You don't sign on to Goldman for the retirement program," says one former partner. "You have a phase of the moon to make your money, and then you have to make room."

That's a far different mindset than somebody whose name is on the letterhead, and it's a direct consequence of the meritocracy.

The meritocrat are the best and the brightest. They were admitted to the best schools because of their talent and drive. They then graduated near the top of their class; thereby demonstrating yet again how they are the best. Then they went to work on Wall Street where they made more money than everybody else. Another example of their objective superiority.

But the score is constantly changing. One year, you're the best, next you're mediocre. Need to keep making money until you get forced out by the next meritocrat.

There's no sense of long-term stability or planning with respect to anybody but the meritocrat. They made it on their own through the smarts, drive, and cleverness. The next person will as well. Neither owe anybody anything. No need to conserve a family name or institution for the next generation. No caretaker instinct. The smartest and most driven will simply succeed the current personnel.

And elite schools only habituate these assumptions. Black, White, Latino or Asian, all are habituated and inculcated into believing that they are representative of the best of our society. That they are there through their dedication and intelligence. Even we leave aside the socioeconomic determinism aspect that many like to use to undermine the meritocracy. There's also that students at elite schools aren't representative of society in the single-mindedness of their drive. Elite schools, despite myths to the contrary, aren't full of well-rounded kids. They are overachieving and uberdriven who take little personal risk.

Unsurprisingly, the Harvard freshman class has a much higher percentage of virgins than the national average. Now, this may be a good thing, but it's still unrepresentative. Not to put to fine a point on it, but they're too busy studying to be fucking. Or deemed fucking to risky. Unlike financial leverage or venture capital, you can't borrow somebody else's body to risk when having sex.

Anyway, I'm not saying an aristocracy on Wall Street would be perfect, nor that all family firms will live forever. Both have their problems. I'm just saying that in something like banking that affects the economy so hugely I'd prefer aristocratic virtues to meritocratic ones.



Alpheus said...

They are overachieving and uberdriven who take little personal risk.

More and more I think this is the main trouble with the elites/meritocrats. But I agree with most of your other points too: we need an aristocracy -- or whatever you want to call it -- of relatively humble risk-takers; instead we have lots of elites who manage to combine arrogance with risk aversion.

I guess where I disagree with you is that I don't think the meritocrats are always the best and the brightest; they're just the group of folks who came out on top.

Withywindle said...

All this is catnip to me. But I still remember the critique of the aristocrats by the bourgeoisie - bloodthirsty blockheads - and I also consider the peasant-lumpenproletariat masses of America who display neither aristocratic nor meritocratic virtue, and shouldn't be dissuaded from meritocratic effort. Or: I want to move the national character in the direction of aristocratic virtue, but still in a mix with bourgeois virtue, meritocratic virtue.

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