“Oh, horror!” cry the addlepated young noblemen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Horror, indeed. Their world will be turned upside down if the Queen of the Fairies carries out her threat to turn the House of Lords into a meritocracy.
Small wonder if they cannot “hide the fear that makes them tremble.” After all, the whole point to a titled aristocracy is that dukes and earls have done nothing of themselves to deserve their exalted stations. As Lord Melbourne said of the Order of the Garter, what he liked was, “There’s no damned merit about it.” Of course there was always the odd hero or statesman—a Pitt or Nelson (who earned his title); they were exceptions. But as Britain evolved into a constitutional monarchy, aristocrats came more and more to deserve Nancy Mitford’s complaint that in a republic an aristocrat is like a chicken with its head cut off: “It may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead.”
A titled aristocrat owes his position in life not to anything he might have done but to the accident of birth. By virtue of being a Russell or a Churchill or a Seymour, and as heir to the previous incumbent, he is entitled to all the privileges of his order. Admittedly, these privileges do not amount to much these days, when honorable bimbos walk down fashion runways and compete with the Spice Girls for publicity, while their noble brothers fill their blue blood in their noble veins with heroin.
Here in these good old democratic United States, we pride ourselves on having eliminated all the falderal associated with hereditary aristocracy. Like most things Americans believe about themselves, this conviction is nonsense. If it were true, no one would receive any credit or attention from the mere fact of being a Rockefeller or a Kennedy, and in a meritocracy no-talent entertainers could not build a career on the accident of being related to Tony Curtis, Michael Jackson, or Bob Dylan, whose talents were not always apparent to eye or ear.
The modest though incomprehensible careers of Caroline Kennedy, Nancy Sinatra, and Jakob Dylan are trivial illustrations of an obvious point. If the rabble cannot mob the carriage of a princess or a duchess, they will line up to adore a film star, guitar thrasher, or any floozy that shows off her surgically enhanced assets on a reality TV show. If I had a hundred hands and an amiable publisher, I might devote a hundred despairing volumes to the mysterious popularity of Britneys, Lindsays, Beyoncés, and the Justins, but I cite these tawdry examples only to dispose of the distracting myth of American meritocracy. Once we are stripped of that particular pair of blinders, we can look around at the real world, a world in which people of no observable merit are granted legal status and privileges simply because of the accident of birth, genetic defect, or vicious character.
I am not thinking so much of celebrities created out of nothing by such cynical geniuses as Simon Cowell and the amazing sound and video engineers who could convince millions of people that I—like virtually everyone else in this country—have “got talent.” It is hard for someone without access to television to feel much outrage over the merit-free aristocracy of pop-culture stars. The fame and glory of the royal couple that spent their anniversary in Cuba costs me nothing except for the time it took to read the tedious complaints of Republican politicians. What is far more troublesome is the privileged nobility of designated minorities whose parasitical lifestyles are draining the country of its wealth.
These groups are defined not so much by what they are as by what they are not: They are not-whites, not-males (a.k.a. women), not-heterosexuals, not-normals (the physically disabled and mentally challenged). Let us not forget the not-married not-males, the not-young (clients of the AARP), the not-employed, not-thrifty, and not-hardworking and not-responsible. Some of these categories are more significant than others and are earmarked to receive greater benefits, but for the sake of argument let us assume each one gets a point. An employed and capable nonwhite heterosexual male gets only one point, albeit a big one in the form of affirmative-action opportunities. Let us call him a knight, though if he quits his job he can be promoted to baronet. By contrast, an elderly unemployed black Hispanic lesbian with an IQ under 80 and a drug habit, racking up a score of seven, is virtually royalty.
Americans older than I am may claim to remember a time when it was not so, when, apart from inevitable racial and religious biases, our people were free to compete for success without either the advantages of breeding or the advantages of celebrity. This theory of equal opportunity—and it is just a theory—was known as liberalism. Opposing the privileges of hereditary aristocracy and the status of established churches, 19th-century liberals argued for free markets and individual liberty. In our topsy-turvy world, this now goes by the name “conservatism.”
Within limits, liberalism is a noble dream, but the principle of meritocracy is as uncongenial to human nature as socialism. Human beings, by nature weak, corrupt, and slavish, are naturally averse to any creed that rewards the self-willed, the diligent, and the independent-minded. An ambitious outsider on the make will naturally find attractive any ideology that proposes to tear down all barriers to his personal success, but once he has what he wants, he quickly turns into what Russell Kirk used to call a “Fafnir conservative” after the Wagnerian giant who, from ages of sitting on his gold, turned into a dragon. When we were hunting, my father used to remind me that every socialist shipyard worker, once he got enough money, joined the Republican Party and stuck up No Trespassing signs on his property.
Nonetheless, for all its inherent and incidental failures, the ideology (if not the practice) of liberalism triumphed in 19th-century Britain and North America. By the early 20th century, however, liberals were on the defensive, and the New Deal revolution of 1932 would seem to have put their arguments beyond the pale. It took the heroic efforts of extraordinary liberals like Hayek, Mises, and Friedman to inspire liberal journalists, like our late friend Sir Alfred Sherman, who in turn converted Margaret Thatcher to the cause of economic and political liberty.
What that lady—for all her manifest failings—accomplished is extraordinary by any standards. Pre-Thatcherite Britain was like a failing business in a depressed economy. The windows are shuttered, the doors bolted, and the air is foul. Thatcher could not undo all the mischief made by socialist revolutionaries and their tame conservative partners, but she did throw open a few windows and pushed the doors open far enough to permit some resumption of business, though the combined efforts of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron have undone much of her good work.
Liberals are great businessmen and often effective managers of government. Their brisk efficiency, however, should not blind us to their principal delusion. It is the delusion of Rousseau and the communists—namely, that men are born good and naturally free and that it is only privileged elites and the institutions of government and Church that have corrupted and subjugated mankind. Status and privilege are regressive; liberty and individualism are the unfailing instruments of human progress. If only it were that simple!
In looking back at human history, the conservative liberal Sir Henry Sumner Maine concluded that the tendency of progress was to go from a social order based on inherited status to one based on contractual agreement between free individuals. Anthropologists have been sniping at Maine’s thesis for a hundred years, but there is enough truth in it to make it useful. In the early Roman Republic, the distinction between plebeian and patrician status dictated whom one could marry and what political offices and religious positions one could hold. In the latter days of the republic, patrician status was a mere religious formality of little practical significance. It is a neat illustration, though a bit muddled by the reemergence of rigid status categories in the later empire.
Status returns; it always does, but to understand the nature of a society we have to look at what qualities are privileged with high status. In the early Roman Republic, it was the fact of patrician blood, while in other societies prestige and privilege might attach to inherited wealth or descent from a successful war leader. In the later empire, one could inherit status as the son of a senator, but one might also earn it by receiving imperial appointment to certain offices. In other words, status was increasingly determined by the ever-growing authority of the imperial court. That is the nature of empire.
When the empire collapsed in the West, titles of imperial status disappeared, to be replaced by Germanic titles granted for meritorious service in battle and handed down—along with the duty to serve—to heirs of the ennobled warrior. In Roman territory, the Church had Her own hierarchy of statuses, lay as well as clerical. An easy rule, then, can be extrapolated from these examples: Status (like money) is determined by the ruler or ruling class. Here in the 21st-century United States, status is granted either by the masters of mass culture, who can make gods out of even so unpromising specimens as Beyoncé and Brad Pitt, or by the leaders of the Democratic Party, who have the power to grant minority privileges to whomsoever they find it useful to favor. Republicans and conservatives, no matter which party controls Congress and the White House, simply go along with whatever their masters decide. They and their children flock to the latest Spielberg or Cohen brothers movies, applauding these exercises in anti-American and anti-Christian propaganda, and they grovel, desperate for their votes, at the feet of the privileged minorities who reward their servility with the contempt it deserves.
In the old British aristocracy, before brewers, press barons, and stockjobbers were ennobled so long as they were friends of the government, status was passed down from generation to generation by families who claimed to have served their country in war and peace. Whether they actually had or not is relevant only to troublemakers. In principle, members of the nobility constituted the core of the ruling class, and if a commoner earned his way into that class, he expected to be rewarded with a title.
Put simply, aristocrats, no matter how personally unworthy, were people whose families had achieved distinction. Such people often had a distinctive look—they were taller and better looking than the rest of us. They had their own code of behavior, and their own way of speaking. (They still do.) For good or ill, in fact or illusion, old-fashioned aristocrats represented (or were supposed to represent) the best qualities in a society, and it is a wise nobility that recruits to its ranks the most successful men of a generation, thus ensuring the vitality of their class. Aristocracies are, nonetheless, always unfair in securing privileges to themselves, but those privileges are held, in principle, on the strength of merit and distinction, either in the individual or in his ancestors.
So much for the titled few, but of the entitled many, the exact opposite is true. Their status depends on the weakness and failures of their ancestors or on their own debility. Pity me because I am . . . fill in the blanks with whatever designated minority you support. Of course they do not say “pity,” because that would imply that the benefits they receive are an act of charity, made freely without compulsion, whereas the entire argument of the leftist advocates of the welfare state is that transfer payments to minorities are dictated by the iron laws of social justice. Paying lawless young men or “single moms” (there are more explicit terms) not to work is not up to our discretion or any feeling of charitable obligation. We owe it to them, not because of any merits they possess or any good deeds they have done. They are owed these privileges because of their privileged status, and there is no damned merit about it.
To understand some of the logic at work, consider the use of the word entitlement. The term seems to have been applied originally to social programs whose benefits were to some extent earned by taxpayers paying into Social Security and Medicare. Recipients are entitled to benefits (though perhaps not all the benefits that have been included in these programs) precisely because they have paid in to them. In more recent years, however, the term entitlements tends to be applied precisely to programs for which the only qualifications are poverty, failure, and ethnic or “gender” status. This usage is now so widespread that critics of our welfare system complain about the “sense of entitlement” displayed by whining recipients of public charity. But the sound we hear from welfare dependents is not whining at all: It is the cockcrow of triumph. I can almost hear these new lords singing a little variation on Iolanthe: Bow, bow, ye lower-middle classes. / Pay up, ye overworked jackasses.
British troops, surrendering at Yorktown, marched out to the tune of “The World Turned Upside Down,” but even the most radical advocates of the American Revolution—indeed, Tom Paine himself—could not have foreseen that the abolition of nobility would lead some day to the establishment of an antinobility whose only claims to privilege are that they are not strong, not brave, not intelligent, and not ashamed to live off the sweat of hardworking fellow citizens.
In Iolanthe, W.S. Gilbert was having a bit of his usual topsy-turvy fun, putting on the stage his chorus of lovestruck peers courting a simple shepherdess, who spurns her noble lovers on the grounds that only the poor can be virtuous. Even Gilbert did not imagine a time when the poor would be privileged not for their virtues but for their lack thereof. The liberal movement, which in its earlier days aimed at displacing the titled aristocracy, has now come full circle and is establishing an entitled kakistocracy that is going to be, is intended to be, the death-by-starvation of the American republic.