Quick expansion on a comment I made on this piece at Z Man’s. I’ve said here somewhere that we’d have been spared a lot of grief as a nation had we repealed the Constitution’s “titles of nobility” clause. Had we created Bill and Hillary Clinton Lord and Lady Cornpone, Duc and Duchesse d’Arkansas, they’d have no need to pester the rest of us in politics.
We have a worst-of-both-worlds system when it comes to our Elite. Our Elite, like most elites always and everywhere, is largely hereditary. Take a stroll through any Ivy League campus; you’ll always find a Vanderbilt or two, a couple of Kennedys, and lots of guys with names like Slade Jackington van Pelt VI. You probably don’t recognize Mr. van Pelt — who is, of course, the latest son of the Van Pelts, of Manhattan — but he’s the knight to the Vanderbilts’ earl. Only 92 lords actually sit in the House of Lords, after all. The van Pelts don’t have coats of arms, but they do have legacy spots at Harvard.
But our Elite is also “meritocratic.” Under the old blue-blood system, that talented, ambitious commoner, the Vicar of Nowhere-in-Particular, wrote all the legislation, with the unspoken but obvious promise that his son would be created First Baronet Nowhere-in-Particular. It was inefficient, but worked pretty well for the pre-modern state — talented men got the job done, and their aristocratic sons, if not as talented, would more than make up for it with their unswerving loyalty (nobody is more fanatical about the ancient privileges of the nobility than a guy who bought his patents two weeks ago).
Our “meritocracy,” of course, rests on fancy degrees from name-brand schools. The British did it that way too, of course, when the state started needing more talented commoners than it could safely ennoble. The Empire let them get away with it — instead of going Eton-Oxford-House of Lords like the bluebloods, talented commoners went Eton-Oxford-Overseas. As Orwell said, the talented middle-class boy who would be disgruntled at home could live in the style he felt entitled to out in the colonies — a guy who could barely afford a flat in London lived like an Earl in Lagos.
We don’t have a formal Empire, alas, and we’ve outsourced most of the informal Empire’s functions to the private sector. In England, rich twits with more connections than brains and talented commoners on the make could join the Indian Civil Service. I can’t even think of an American equivalent — our foreign service officers live fairly well, I suppose, but there are only 13,000 of them. To live like a pukka sahib in the Informal Empire, you’d need to make rank in an oil company or suchlike… which takes the kind of brains and drive the van Pelts haven’t had since old Johannes van Pelt swindled the Indians out of a few thousand acres of upstate New York.
Worse yet, these two strains combine in America. Our Elite actually gets its position via blue blood, but — since everyone has to take the SAT and go through the college application process — feels it got where it is on merit. A British blueblood has “being a blueblood” as his life’s vocation; the phrase “our class does/don’t do that sort of thing, old chap” really means something to him.* American bluebloods feel guilty about being bluebloods. They feel they have to prove they deserve it. So when they get bored, they don’t call up the hounds and go hunting like a proper knight-of-the-shire does; they start looking for people’s lives to Improve.
That’s at least half of America’s problem right there. Our Elites, of whom there are way too many,** feel excluded from real power, and because they feel excluded, they feel they have to “prove” they belong. Which is bad news for us Dirt People. Create a real blueblood ethos here – give ’em hawks and hounds and say “M’Lady” to them in the street — and most of them will shut up and go away.
*Note that even those goofs the press are always going on about, Princes William and Harry, did their hitch in HM Army, and seemingly did real jobs while they were in. One of them was even in Afghanistan, and not in the cushiest job, either — a helicopter pilot or something.
** cf Peter Turchin and “overproduction of elites.”