Death by Meritocracy

Modern America runs by merit - but that's created ethical problems.

For many decades, our heart has been warmed as we watched America become more meritocratic, extending opportunity to all.   Most Americans have rejoiced with us and for good reason.

Half a century ago when your humble correspondent was on the rise, American government and business were dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS.)  These largely male leaders joined the same clubs, went to the same colleges, and ran the "commanding heights" of America.  This practice was clearly effective - the 1960s were in many ways the height of American technology, power, engineering prowess, and cultural influence - but they were manifestly unfair to everyone not so favored genetically.

Over the following decades, the ranks of the ruling elite were opened to women, blacks, and people of multifarious other backgrounds based solely on their hard work and ability to succeed except where tempered by affirmative action.  This has led to considerably more diversity at the top, though as the liberals daily remind us, far less diversity than they'd prefer.

We're beginning to wonder, however, if rule-by-pure-merit, so apparently fair and just on its face, has turned out to be entirely a Good Thing.  We've noticed that a great many "banksters," crooked government officials, and others are enriching themselves unjustly at our expense, and in far greater amounts than previously observed.  Why might this be?

The Death of Noblesse Oblige

The concept "Noblesse Oblige," which literally means "nobility obliges," originated in France.  The French academy says, "Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly."  Past generations of American leaders were expected to operate according to that concept, partly because of traditions inherited from Europe and party based on the idea that God was always watching everyone and that He disapproved of ignoble behavior.

Although there was a minimum level of competence expected, mere competence wasn't enough.  Leaders were stewards who had to take care of the institutions their ancestors had built.  Leaders not only had to do acceptable work, they also had to play by the rules of the game.  This widespread attitude that there were certain things that a gentleman simply didn't do gave rise to sayings such as, "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," or "That's not cricket."

That attitude persists in the spot of tennis.  Tennis players desire to win, to be sure, and skill and hard work make a difference, but tennis has a rich mesh of unwritten laws and traditions.  A player who violates these laws may have high scores but is not respected by his fellow players.  Push the rules hard enough, and the offender will eventually be ostracized from the court and banned competition.

Major professional sports players were once expected to set worthwhile examples of virtuous behavior in additional to demonstrating skill on the field.  The players involved in the famous "Black Sox" scandal of 1919 were expelled from the game.  They never played professionally again, even though they were not convicted of any crime.  When Kobe Bryant was charged with raping a hotel escort in 2003, in contrast, his career wasn't damaged in the least, despite his behavior being reprehensible even if it couldn't be proven to be criminal.

In areas all across our modern nation, as diverse as winning political power, making profits by falsifying information banks give regulators, or even getting a ball through a hoop or goal, the prevailing attitude seems to reflect Slick Willy's observation that it's wrong only if you get caught.

Professional Sports

This attitude shows vividly in sports, both at the professional level and in college.  Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, "Winning isn't the most important thing.  Winning is the only thing."  Mr. Freech, former head of the FBI, investigated the culture at Penn State University after it was revealed that an assistant football coach had sexually abused a number of boys.  The New York Times reported:

In 2000, a janitor at the football building saw Mr. Sandusky assaulting a boy in the showers. Horrified, he consulted with his colleagues, but decided not to do anything. They were all, Mr. Freeh said, afraid to “take on the football program.”

“They said the university would circle around it,” Mr. Freeh said of the employees. “It was like going against the president of the United States. If that’s the culture on the bottom, then God help the culture at the top.”  [emphasis added]

The janitors were completely correct - after being told of the charges by an eyewitness, the university leadership had circled 'round to protect the football program.  Why not?  Football generated $72 million in revenue last year and attracted vast numbers of fans.

Sex abuse and rape by sports stars are OK, but there are limits.  Michael Vick was the first African-American quarterback selected first overall in an NFL Draft.  In his six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, his team made the playoffs twice.  Neither his race nor his celebrity could protect him from going to jail for operating a dog-fighting ring.  Abusing kids and women is business as usual, abusing dogs is apparently over the top.


Rigging LIBOR is the latest "bankster" scandal to hit the news.  To oversimplify, trillions of dollars worth of business contracts are based on the interest rate known as LIBOR.  Changes in LIBOR make the values of such contracts go up or down.  Traders make immense profits if they know which way LIBOR will move.  Traders at the few big banks which determine LIBOR persuaded their colleagues to move LIBOR in favorable directions and pocketed huge bonuses.

In explaining what had to be done about such scandals in the financial world, the New Yorker got to the heart of the matter:

If recent history has taught us anything, it's that self-regulation doesn't work in finance, and that worries about reputation are a weak deterrent to corporate malfeasance. ... all that self-regulation gets you is bankers gone wild. ...

Most important, though, we need an attitudinal shift on the part of regulators, who need to recognize that their gentleman's-club ethos is ill-suited to today's financial world, and who need to be aggressive not only in punishing malfeasance but in preventing it from happening.  [emphasis added]

The New Yorker is provably wrong: regulation simply doesn't, won't, and can't work.  Regulators couldn't keep Bernie Madoff from stealing billions of dollars despite being repeatedly warned by insiders.  Regulators couldn't prevent a a $33 million Ponzi scheme by the Financial Resources Mortgage company in New Hampshire which turned millionaires into welfare recipients.  They couldn't stop Allan Stanford until 2012 even though they started investigating him back in 1990.  Even when regulators are on to something, they can be diverted by well-placed campaign contributions.

The New Yorker forgets that "gentlemen's-club ethos" worked for nearly two centuries.  Was it perfect?  Of course not; there were scandals and panics then as now, but they certainly weren't anything like on the world-girdling scale that we see today, and their perpetrators seemed to have a higher chance of paying a significant price.  At the very least, they'd be banned from society, their clubs, their friends, and any public respect.

Why did the "gentlemen's-club ethos" mostly work?  Why were old-time financiers concerned about their reputations?  Why didn't politicians cheat on the scale they do today?  Because gentlemen simply didn't do that.  Rather than being rewarded with huge bonuses or being appointed to the United States cabinet, cheats were thrown out of the club and shunned.

The Death of Duty

Our society used to be based on duty.  The example of virtuous attention to duty was set by those WASPS at the top who worried about the all-seeing eye of God or at least of their peers.  Men and women didn't have sex until they were ready to support children; bankers didn't make loans that couldn't be paid back and they didn't gamble with taxpayer's money.

There were exceptions, of course, but they were rare enough that "gentlemen's-club" regulators could cope with them.  Now that duty no longer restrains our society, there's no way we can hire enough cops or regulators to stop the rot.

What happened?  Woodstock.  Free love.  No-fault divorce.  "Turn on, tune in, drop out."  It became acceptable for individuals to ignore the needs of society and solely pursue their own selfish interests as banksters, politicians, and government employees have been doing since the 1970's.

Where will it end?  Confucius said that society fell apart when the Emperor stopped enforcing virtue and government officials stopped setting an example of virtue at the top.

The men who founded America didn't trust kings to be virtuous; they hoped that voters would pick the virtuous to be their leaders.  They said society would fall apart when the people stopped enforcing virtue on politicians by voting the rascals out.  Either way, society depended on virtue.

China fell over and over when the Emperors lost virtue.  Our society has rotted from the bottom as individuals abandoned responsibility for their own choices, whether familial, sexual, or financial.

The old WASP patriarchy is gone and isn't coming back.  The gentlemen's-club ethos has been replaced by a cult of meritocratic individualism where winning is the only thing that matters, and by any means necessary.

In short, our modern meritocratic, hard-working, superbly educated, brilliant elites no longer share the WASP's worry about what God would think.  So they simply grab whatever isn't nailed down. Why? Because they can.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Virtue out the door? I'm shocked! Just kidding, your analysis is spot on how we jumped on the slippery slope and are riding it to the bottom at an ever increasing speed.

Since it can't be stopped then perhaps a punishment that fits the crimes of the banksters should be passed. It is a very simple law. If they are convicted of cheating they relinquish all of their money, property, stock, everything of value and are put on the street. Nothing brings a wealthy man faster than to be flat broke. Will it hurt their families? Yes but that will be the personal price that you pay when you cheat.

July 27, 2012 1:15 PM

I enjoyed Will's column as always but want to point out a few things.

First, sports is a reflection of society and not the other way around, not that Will implied else wise, but I wanted to clarify that.

Second, Vince Lombardi's never said "Winning is the only thing." What he said was, "“Winning is not everything – but making the effort to win is.” Here is a link to his family's website and his quotes and comments about life. I think you will find them quite inspirational.

Third, Will must be a great fan of tennis, but I think a better example of sportsmanship and honor is the game of golf. Tennis players routinely question line calls, faults, etc. While court behavior may be better today (I seldom watch anymore), it was horrid in the time of Connors, McEnroe and Nastase. Golf on the other hand routinely shows players penalizing themselves for the most arcane of rules, sometimes at the cost of winning a given tournament. However, even in golf there are "bad boys" in terms of behavior; though most of it is not very public owing to the nature of televised golf.

Fourth, I think that it is somewhat of a myth that things were more meritocratic in the 50's and 60's. Watch any episode of Mad Men and you will see what I mean. Perhaps the advertising business was a subculture, but performance evaluations were often crude and subject to personal whimsey. Bringing the boss home for dinner was quite common, especially if you were up for a raise or promotion. Nothing like seeing the lady of house working hard to please and then remembering that come time to hand out the raises.

I would agree, however, there does seem to be a general in morals and probably it has more to do with our materialistic culture. The late Pope John Paul II often talked about the world's obsession with material well being at the sacrifice of our values and our inner being. Nor was he the first. Whether in Faust or even in the First Commandment(other gods being money and material wealth in addition to pagan idols) and the Eighth (stealing) and Tenth (Coveting thy neighbor's wife, goods, etc.), we have always been warned about that pitfall. Saying we cheat because we can
is not true by itself. We cheat because we can AND because we are motivated to by something we believe is in our self interest, no matter how skewed or short-sighted that may be. Essentially we have devalued our view of our selves in exchange for how others view us through the prism of material well being. That view is no better epitomized in the saying "He who dies with the most toys, wins." As we all know great truth can sometimes be spoken in jest.

July 27, 2012 1:18 PM
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