Rod Dreher

I was struck last week by the David Brooks column in which he considers a paradox of our time and culture:

As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.
It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago?
Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before?
Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then?

Brooks has some insightful answers as to why improving the mechanisms for accountability have perversely led to deleterious consequences. Read his piece to see what he has to say — he doesn’t offer any answers, either, because, I suppose, it is hard to see how we get out of this one.
It’s interesting to think about our meritocracy as applying the logic of the market to the way we run the institutions of our society. You would think that this would result in greater efficiencies, as more transparency and the promotion of people who can produce results (as opposed to those who are merely well-connected) would facilitate best practices, along a “survival of the fittest” model. But that’s not how it’s worked out in practice. I think market logic undermines all this by making people see things as a matter of all-out competition, and valorizing short-term gain over the long-term interests of the whole. Tragedy of the commons, in other words.
The factor Brooks cites that most troubles me as a journalist is the role transparency plays in the delegitimation of elites. My longtime readers will know that I think it on balance an extremely good thing that the media shone the light onto the dark recesses of the Catholic hierarchy’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Without that truth-telling, nothing would have changed. But as a (non-Catholic) friend remarked to me a couple of years ago, it’s starting to look like no elite authority — political, religious, economic — can withstand the relentless scrutiny now given them. You might say, fine, elites ought to be held to high standards. And I would agree with you. But what do you do when there are no leaders left to believe in — but you still need leaders?
While I was in Louisiana last week, I ran into an old friend who has spent his career working in Louisiana politics. We got to talking about how we’re both so burned out on politics, and convinced that both parties are filled with people who are only looking out for themselves, not the greater good. And we agreed that the system we have set up encourages this; voters are entirely complicit in this decadent state of affairs. He said to me, of what he sees at the state legislature, “I tell you, if the people could actually see how things get done down there, they’d never stop throwing up.”
Again, I’m all for greater transparency. The people in this democracy need to see what lawmakers are doing with the authority they are granted. Yet it must be admitted that humans being what they are, effective authority cannot withstand too much scrutiny. Was it Walter Bagehot who famously said, of the British monarchy, that we must not let too much light shine upon the mystery? Something like that.
You knew that Patrick Deneen would have something smart to say about the Brooks column, and he does not disappoint. Here’s how Deneen restates Brooks’ point about transparency, with an eye toward Bagehot’s wisdom:

Meritocracy seeks to rationalize society, eviscerating traditions, myth and mystery (including religion) – which are necessary for the functioning of society. Human society is less a machine than an organism. Dissect a living organism, and it dies.

Deneen doesn’t accept Brooks’ open-ended conclusion, writing:

Lurking behind each of these reasons for this contemporary crisis is the fact that meritocracy disconnects people from place, context, memory and obligation. Were Brooks, or any of the modern meritocratic cheerleaders, to follow the logic of their complaints, they would need to acknowledge that our deepest problems lie in the studied inculcation of placelessness, deracination, atemporality and selfishness. This deserves more than “oh well” and a shoulder-shrug. It calls for a different way of being in the world.

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