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

It has taken a while, but other publications are catching on about the death of noblesse oblige

Cory Booker (Yale Law ’97) broke Senate rules to release documents he hoped would undermine Brett Kavanaugh (Yale Law ’90) in Kavanaugh’s quest for a Supreme Court seat, while Ronan Farrow (Yale Law ’09) published a New Yorker piece containing uncorroborated allegations that Kavanaugh exposed himself to a fellow student at a Yale dorm party.

An old boys’ club, as some news-gathering organizations have naïvely suggested? More like the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs in Dante’s Florence, ever ready to plunge a dagger in a former brother’s back.

Scarcely had the allegations against the judge been leaked to the press than other graduates of the school turned with a vengeance on one of their professors, Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

She, it is alleged, “was known for instructing female law students who were preparing for interviews with Kavanaugh on ways they could dress to exude a ‘model-like’ femininity to help them win a post in Kavanaugh’s chambers.”

When told that Chua denied the allegations, a young Yale Law School alumna was succinct: “She’s lying.” Note: Other articles said she urged them to dress modestly and professionally, and not in marketing mode.


Yale Legal Realists such as William O. Douglas changed the face of American law when they argued that judges should decide cases in ways that advance their own personal notions of progress, the whole while conning rubes with a show of old-fashioned jurisprudence, fidelity to precedent, etc.

Under what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the “Yale thesis,” the “judge chooses his result and reasons backward.” Emancipated from traditional methods of applying the law, the liberated jurist chucks Hamiltonian least-dangerous-branch sentimentalities and becomes a Numa or Hammurabi in his own right.


The roots of today’s establishment are found in the decades that followed the Civil War, ...

The establishment they created was narrow and privileged, all but entirely white and male, and overburdened with preppies who had bonded in drinking rituals ... Yet it rendered a quantity of first-rate public service, and prepared the way for the more open and diverse meritocracy we know today.

Under FDR’s leadership the patricians helped defeat Hitler, and with the counsel of the Wise Men laid the groundwork for the West’s victory in the Cold War. In the same years, WASPs such as Henry Chauncey (Groton ’23, Harvard College ’28) developed the SAT, a crucial step in the Ivy League’s transition from privilege to merit.

Yet perhaps the greatest achievement of the WASP establishment was its ability to subordinate the desire for power to an ethic of service. Deeply enamored though they were of authority, the old magnificos accepted limits. Averell Harriman was aghast when Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, undermined Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. “If I had gotten in the way of the relationship between the President and the Secretary of State,” Harriman said of his own service in the Truman administration, “I would have been fired, and properly so.”

Today the code by which the patrician establishment at least tried to live — its ideas of duty and honor, of good manners and seemly three-martini lunches, of public service conceived as an almost religious undertaking performed in the sight of God — is an antediluvian curiosity.

Already in 1969, Robert F. Kennedy’s civil-rights maven, Burke Marshall (Yale Law ’51), flouted the code and degraded himself when he hurried to Ted Kennedy’s side in Hyannis to help cover up the killing of a young woman at Chappaquiddick. Two decades later, George H. W. Bush kicked what remained of tradition to the curb when he availed himself of the services of Lee Atwater.

You do what you have to.

October 6, 2018 2:09 PM

It happened in Britain, too:

Americans, unlike the British, don’t talk much about working-class consciousness; it is sometimes said that all Americans are, by self-conception, middle class. But this, it turns out, is not currently what Americans themselves think. In a 2014 National Opinion Research Center survey, more Americans identified as working-class than as middle-class. One (but only one) strand of the populism that tipped Donald Trump into power expressed resentment toward a class defined by its education and its values: the cosmopolitan, degree-laden people who dominate the media, the public culture and the professions in the US. Clinton swept the 50 most educated counties, as Nate Silver noted shortly after the 2016 election; Trump swept the 50 least. Populists think that liberal elites look down on ordinary Americans, ignore their concerns and use their power to their own advantage. They may not call them an upper class, but the indices that populists use to define them – money, education, connections, power – would have picked out the old upper and upper-middle classes of the last century.

And many white working-class voters feel a sense of subordination, derived from a lack of formal education, and that can play a part in their politics. Back in the early 1970s, the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb recorded these attitudes in a study memorably titled The Hidden Injuries of Class. This sense of vulnerability is perfectly consistent with feeling superior in other ways. Working-class men often think that middle-class and upper-class men are unmanly or undeserving. Still, a significant portion of what we call the American white working class has been persuaded that, in some sense, they do not deserve the opportunities that have been denied to them.

They may complain that minorities have unfair advantages in the competition for work and the distribution of government benefits. Nevertheless, they do not think it is wrong either that they do not get jobs for which they believe they are not qualified, or that the jobs for which they are qualified are typically less well paid. They think minorities are getting “handouts” – and men may feel that women are getting unfair advantages, too – but they don’t think the solution is to demand handouts for themselves. They are likely to regard the treatment of racial minorities as an exception to the right general rule: they think the US mostly is and certainly should be a society in which opportunities belong to those who have earned them.

October 19, 2018 12:00 PM

John Adams said something about a limited government being only suited to a moral and religious people.

July 17, 2019 9:16 PM

@Hcat - you are correct about SOMEONE making the point you attributed to John Adams. As we see liberals cneat at the polls, eliminate the filibuster, gtrash Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and Justice Kavanaugh, we see that they are ignoring the moral guidelines in our society.

The breakdown of our traditional norms of civility will not end well, and Democrats are the primary offenders.

July 18, 2019 11:29 AM

Our article was writen in 2008. 12 years later, the Wall Street Journal gets on board:

What the Old Establishment Can Teach the New Tech Elite
At a time when their talents are sorely needed, the privileged class in the West has forgotten the tradition of public service

It says, "The 'best and the brightest' were supposed to do a stint in Washington." Elites were supposed to engage in public service.

Everyone recognized that good, efficient government was essential to overall stability. Why are government data centers so out of date? Because computer-literate people no longer engage in public service. Why wouldn't Mr. Bezos some some techies to fix computers in the New York State unemployment system as goole sent people to fix Mr. Obama's disastrous obamacare web site?

The WSJ points out that up until the 1960's, elites and commoners both served their countries together in time of war. That sense of mutuality is gone, just as we said:

It is unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and the other lords and ladies of Silicon Valley spend any time in English churchyards. But if they were to visit these delightfully melancholic places, the first things that they would encounter would be monuments to the fallen of the Great War. Their initial emotion, like anybody else’s looking at these morbid plinths, would rightly be one of relief. It is good that the West’s young men are no longer herded into uniform and marched toward machine guns.

If they looked harder, however, today’s elite would spot something else in these cemeteries. The whole of society is commemorated in stone: The baronet’s heir was shot to pieces in Flanders alongside the gamekeeper’s son. Recall that in the controversial D.H. Lawrence novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lady Chatterley is driven into the arms of the local gamekeeper in part because her husband, Sir Clifford, was paralyzed from the waist down in the Great War.

Such monuments to the dead, which can be found across Europe, are a reminder that a century ago the elite, whatever its other sins, believed in public service. The rich shared common experiences with the poor, rooted in a common love of their country and a common willingness to sacrifice life and limb for something bigger.

That bond survived until the 1960s. Most young men in Europe did a version of what was called “national service”: They had to serve in the armed forces for a couple of years and learned the rudiments of warfare in case total war struck again. The U.S. called on people of all classes to fight in World War II—including John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, who were both nearly killed serving their country—and the Korean War.

September 19, 2020 3:13 PM

We are less alone.

A Case for Noblesse Oblige

When our Founders wrote the Constitution, they had a sense of noblesse oblige toward this country and its citizens. Too many people in today's government, despite taking an oath to the Constitution, have no sense of fealty or obligation to America or her people-and they aren't shy about showing that.

The Smithsonian's new Futurist exhibit asks the question "When might there be a single global government?" Another asks, "Which of these might unite different people most effectively?" Choices for the answer: Alien invasion; universal language; virtual reality travel; or shared world government.

Let's see-alien invasion sounds right. So, in addition to having to worry about your children being exposed to Critical Race Theory, pornographic books in the public school library, anti-parenting attacks by the FBI, and pressure regarding gender fluidity for your six-year-old, you now have to worry about a field trip to the Smithsonian.

Everywhere we turn in America, someone or some group is trying to deconstruct our Rule of Law and our culture. In a recent article in the American Thinker called A Broader Oath For Those in National Power Today, we recall that public servants take an Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

The Constitution contains rights for individuals from God that most governments in the world do not recognize. Questions in a Futurist display that imply a loss of American sovereignty and a replacement of our Constitution are exactly what those who work for the Smithsonian promise by Oath not to do.

All around us is soft propaganda meant to create in the American people a sense of the inevitability of the loss of the nation. We will be told by some global governance system what to think, what to say, what to do, and what assets we are allowed to have. The unspoken notion is that the Rule of Law in the United States is insufficiently bathed in diversity, inclusion, and equity because our system warrants process, not outcomes. Its focus is on the individual, not the group to which that individual belongs.

The notion of American Liberty involves individual choice with duty and promises an opportunity, not a result. The concepts of diversity and inclusion are warmly embraced-after generations of working toward it-if there is equal merit. There is no such thing as the concept of equity in our system if equity is defined as a surety.

In addition to the exhibit at the Smithsonian, the National Archives indicates that the U.S. Constitution contains "harmful content." "Harmful content" or "historic content"? The Constitution was written in 1787. It is a document of its time but it contains the ways and means of moving society forward (possibly backward) for future times. This is part of the genius of the document and why it is revered in our country by American citizens. There is nothing harmful about it.

The twenty-seven Amendments are testimony to its flexibility. Americans have even changed their minds. The XVIII Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors, and was repealed in 1933. What is called "progress" or "reform" does not always turn out to be so. Our system allows for this change of mind once the "reform" is experienced. Historic documents do not need to be censored; they need to be found, studied correctly, and understood in the context of their times. The Archivist of the United States should know this. He took an Oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution.


December 11, 2021 8:25 PM
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