Rule of the Wise

Obama’s nascent administration gives new license to meritocracy

The aspiring bureaucrats, think-tankers, and state legislators that spend their extracurricular hours at wonkish policy discussions and study groups at the Institute of Politics ought to be nothing short of giddy.

For, if Barack Obama’s administrative appointments give any indication of future trends, an Ivy League education will be the sine qua non for entrance into the higher echelons of government—and there is no shortage of Harvard students lustfully eying such positions.

David Brooks, in a recent well-circulated column, gushed about the “valedictocracy” that the President-elect has established by selecting an almost exclusively well-credentialed cabinet and senior staff. Enumerating the impressive almae matres of these Obama appointments, Brooks imagined a new era of government in which its chief stewards do not come from the “insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon [the president] for their well-being,” but are putatively the best and brightest America has to offer—and have the Ivy League pedigrees to prove it.

The idea that the “wise” should rule is as old as politics itself. The ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle preferred what, in Greek, would be termed “the rule of the best.” Such a regime, however, seems to collide fundamentally with the egalitarian principles enunciated in our founding documents and the democratic sensibilities about government held by many, if not most, Americans. We like to think that in America anyone—even the descendant of an East-African goatherd—can become president. Anyone, nowadays at least, who has gone to Harvard.While a government of elites may appear obnoxious to American democratic impulses, for the most part the supposed intellectual quality of the Obama administration elicits praise and not blame. For in America, the aristocracy—at least, as it considers itself—is in fact a meritocracy, since the contemporary arbiters of prestige—the elite universities—are open to anyone with a record of high achievement. Obama, eschewing party hacks and otherwise unenlightened loyalists, has issued in a new era of American meritocracy—where SAT scores and not cronyism will figure most decisively.

But does the intellect assured by an Ivy League diploma grant its bearer a sufficient title to rule? Is political virtue equivalent to the type of knowledge and intellectual agility required for success at places like Harvard? The point, pace the politically ambitious set at Harvard, remains far from certain.

The late William F. Buckley, Jr., himself a graduate of Yale, once famously remarked that he would prefer a government of the first 400 names in the Boston phone book to that of the Harvard faculty. Ancient collegiate rivalries aside, Buckley’s sentiment abides.

Essayist Joseph Epstein recently wrote a critique of Brooks’s “valedictocracy” in the Weekly Standard. According to Epstein, the “good student”—the one who meets assured success at elite universities—has “only one pertinent question, which is, What does this guy, his professor at the moment, want? Whatever it is—a good dose of liberalism, libertarianism, feminism, conservatism—he gives it to him, in exchange for another A to slip into his backpack alongside all the others on his long trudge to the Harvard, Yale, Stanford law or business schools, and thence into the empyrean.”

Epstein rightly calls attention to the content and quality of these elite university’s curricula—especially in the humanities and the social sciences—but the critique extends beyond the evisceration of the liberal arts into politically tendentious disciplines, to a fundamental problem in the ideology of meritocracy.

Businesses and analogous enterprises like government do right to favor candidates with proven abilities to succeed in challenging and competitive environments, and no doubt a proven track record of success at an elite university speaks highly of its holder. Education, however, traditionally has been conceived as its own end, the pursuit of truth and the acquisition of virtue—good in and of itself. Meritocrats inevitably see education as a means to an end, some merely instrumental good. Therefore, an excessive reliance on meritocracy at the cost of, say, strength of character or capacity for virtue, would seem to favor not the wisest or the most prudent candidates—but, rather, those most ambitious and lustful for power.

High-achieving Ivy Leaguers no doubt should be proud of their academic records and their long and impressive resumes—but, they ought not, at least not for the time being—think themselves capable or deserving of rule.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.