03 February 2021

American Elites Have Strayed From Meritocracy And Virtue

I generally don't share G. Cochran's political bent (he's a cynical curmudgeon of a conservative) but he brief posts at his West Hunter blog sometimes make important points and his latest one, that begins by recounting the career of an incompetent general in the American Army in its World War II campaign in North Africa is one such post.

His point is that the pre-World War II Army wasn't a well run organization and that as a result, men like him could get promoted to high offices that they were competent enough to carry out competently. He uses that for a launching point for his apt commentary on the current state of affairs, although in my opinion, some domains of American society are further from the mark than others in this regard:

Generally, the governing classes in the US, for the last generation or two, has not acted as if they think that winning, actually achieving your goal, is very important. Promotion follows failure: indeed, being right when almost everyone else is wrong just shows how undesirable you are. Iraq is a good example.

Covid-19 is another example. The professionals weren’t very good, aren’t very good. They didn’t know a lot of important, knowable things. Probably the most talented people were going into something other than epidemiology or virology.

We don’t have to make them unpersons, don’t have to send them to Kolyma. We don’t have to pull out their teeth and fingernails. There’s no reason to put on a black leather jacket and shoot them in the back of the head. That would be wrong.

But we can fire them. And we should.

Cochran seems to point the finger at inadequate epidemiology experts, and has previously pointed out one or two significant errors that they made. 

But I would point the finger primarily at their bosses in the federal government following the lead of President Trump (who single handedly dismantled the U.S. government's infectious disease response resources in the years immediately prior to the pandemic and then ignored the doctors and scientists when it hit) and in many Republican controlled jurisdictions that followed President Trump's lead, although the political sector, more generally, is certainly not the most meritocratic part of our society.

I think Razib Khan, who laments the lack of Confucian style virtue in our leaders, is closer to the mark. He states towards the end of a recent post on Vietnamese cultural history:

Lieberman’s thesis is that the full package of Confucian statecraft requires a large literate bureaucratic class. Vietnam after 1500 shifted in large part to this model, but it was the exception, not the rule. And Vietnam is the mainland Southeast Asian state that looks much more to China than India in its high culture. The reason the Chinese model was hard, and really only Korea pulled it off (Vietnam and Japan executed parts of it), is that it requires a level of cultural conformity and investment in education for the elites that is a massive opportunity cost in time. It’s a lot easier to just express loyalty to the semi-divine king rather than study classical texts in the hopes of achieving high office.

But, I just realized that the modern world is much more amenable to the Confucian model! Mass literacy is already common, and the bureaucratic state is the rule, not the exception.

And now, more than ever, we need virtue in our elites. The rational “eat what you can kill” model of modern elite culture in the West is producing a group of individuals who are feeding off the massive carrion of their dying societies.

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