In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when I was at college and graduate school, the moral and social validity of meritocracy was beginning to be challenged by the schools and in the press. Aristocracy of blood, a final casualty of World War II, was the one thing worse than aristocracy of intellect and talent. Since then, meritocracy has joined aristocracy as (to torture Churchill’s famous dictum) the two worst types of social system, including all the other kinds.
What possible alternative there might be between these two eminently workable but emphatically rejected systems and the old and now thoroughly discredited program “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is consequently a major issue implicit in the squabbles of our day, on which no one has made progress, as the stubbornly unreflective and unrepentant champions of mass democracy vainly persist in their attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. In recent decades, it has seemed only libertarians believed in meritocracy, while nobody—with the exception, perhaps, of Leona Helmsley—had a good word to say for aristocracy, an inhuman institution on a moral plane with Aryanism and apartheid. Thus, conscientious readers of the New York Times must have been flabbergasted to read, in a recent Books of the Times feature, a laconic notice by Michiko Kakutani of the historian Gordon S. Wood’s book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, the thesis of which is that the intellectual brilliance and political achievement of the founding generation have not been matched since for the reason that, “as the common man rose to power in the decades following the Revolution, the inevitable consequence was the displacement from power of the uncommon man, the aristocratic man of ideas.” Wood explains:
[T]he revolutionary leaders were not merely victims of new circumstances; they were the progenitors of these new circumstances. . . . They helped create the changes that led to their own undoing, to the breakup of the kind of political and intellectual coherence they represented. Without intending to, they willingly destroyed the source of their own greatness.
Before Gordon Wood, I doubt that “the common man” had been typed by any American author since H.L. Mencken, that ribald antidemocrat and staunch admirer of the Hohenzollern.
Professor Wood’s thesis is an expansive version of a succinct saying by the late Thomas P. Peardon, professor of political science at Barnard College, to the effect that America reached its apogee at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and has been going downhill ever since. Another way to put it is that the young American republic destroyed the untitled aristocracy of the colonial period, and that mass democracy, in turn, destroyed the Old Republic. Tocqueville, apprehending the transition early in the 1830’s, felt himself obliged to make his peace with democracy from the belief that God desired a democratic future for the world. From our vantage, nearly two centuries later, to question the great French aristo’s assumption in this regard hardly appears an act of blasphemy. Willmoore Kendall, writing in the 1960’s, wrote contemptuously of the irrelevance of diehard monarchists who, he believed, deserved to be ignored by realistic conservatives. Well, there’s been a lot of water under Concord Bridge since the 1960’s, too. Perhaps in his next book Gordon Wood will take a logical step further by arguing that the Founding Fathers made a fatal decision at Philadelphia in eschewing a titled American aristocracy and failing to crown George Washington king.
As late as the 1920’s, the democratic ideal persisted among ontological conservatives, many of them Christians and a substantial number of those Catholics (including G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and their fellow distributists), whose concern was for social justice and Church economic doctrine. In their day, eminently civilized people could be excused for believing that popular democracy had a civilized future. Since that time, the appeal of mass democracy has been not just to liberals but to anticommunist, market, and cornucopic conservatives alike, for whom it has functioned more or less satisfactorily, and often in conformity with meritocratic principle. But the enthusiasm mainline liberalism and conservatism feel for its benefits cannot disguise the unbidden truth that civilization and democracy are, finally, incompatible. If the history of the past two centuries proves anything, it is that a hierarchical society with a formal aristocracy is necessary to the formation of civilized values and the realization of these in great accomplishments, individual as well as collective, and to a vital society endowed with the capacity to sustain and defend itself over some appreciable period of time. The historical defenders of, and apologists for, aristocracy, with its implacable bias against industrial capitalism, commercial society, and an unrestricted suffrage, are now vindicated. Social, economic, and political egalitarianism has proved destructive of what advanced peoples used to call civilization.
Among the great works of historical literature produced in the last century is The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990), by the English historian David Cannadine. Though himself of middle-class extraction and seemingly a moderate Liberal, Cannadine treats his subject with critical sympathy and delicacy. Even so, he cannot bring himself to hazard the conclusion that strikes the reader as perfectly obvious: The decline of Great Britain, following the Third and Fourth Reform Acts and the agricultural crisis of the 1880’s, from the status of a great power to that of a minor one was not merely concurrent with the decline of the British aristocracy; it was a direct result of it. In the same way, the decay of the United States as a civilization is traceable to its founders having cut the newly established nation away from the aristocratic institutions and traditions of the mother country.
This is not to say that British civilization was solely, or even largely, the work of the aristocratic classes. Rather, the civilization of which the aristocracy was an integral, authoritative part was the source of Britain’s greatness. A true aristocracy is the flower of a nation, and that flower is, in some degree, a hothouse flower, like an orchid. Its value to society stems from its careful nurture over a very long period of time. Democrats protest that no class of people should enjoy special nurturing, not even by itself. That is also the individualist posture, which takes for granted that a nation is neither an organism nor a leviathan work of art, but an agglomeration of individuals whose material wellbeing is the raison d’être for the consensual association based on Locke’s social contract.
Half a decade after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Tocqueville recognized the choice confronting the American people in the Age of Jackson:
If it be your intention to confer a certain elevation upon the human mind, and to teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantage, to give birth to living convictions, and to keep alive the spirit of honorable devotedness; if you hold it to be a good thing to refine the habits, to embellish the manners, to cultivate the arts of a nation, and to promote the love of beauty and of renown; if you would constitute a people not unfitted to act with power upon all other nations, nor unprepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be the results of its efforts, will leave a name forever famous in time—if you believe such to be the principal object of society, you must avoid the government of democracy, which would be a very uncertain guide to the aim you have in view.
But if you hold it to be expedient to divert the moral and intellectual activity of man to the production of comfort, and to the acquirement of the necessities of life; if a clear understanding be more profitable to a man than genius; if your object be not to stimulate the virtues of heroism, but to create habits of peace; if you had rather witness vices than crimes and are content to meet with fewer noble deeds, provided offences be diminished in the same proportion; if, instead of living in the midst of a brilliant state of society, you are contented to have prosperity all around you; if, in short, you are of the opinion that the principal object of government is not to confer the greatest possible share of power and glory upon the body of the nation, but to ensure the greatest degree of enjoyment and the least degree of misery to each of the individuals who compose it—if such be your desires, you can have no surer means of satisfying them than by equalizing the conditions of men, and establishing democratic institutions.
Now Professor Wood tells us that this choice had indeed been made by the previous generation of America’s leaders, and I believe he is right. Long before the South was conquered by the North, the die was cast in favor of the common man over and against the aristocrat, and, in time, the mass man over the republican. The results of that decision, like Sir Christopher Wren’s London, lie all around us.
Surveying these, we ought to be able to discern that it was the wrong one. (The conclusion holds even if we grant that, as Tocqueville believed, democracy was to some degree inevitable in the West, since the “success” of egalitarianism in America was significantly responsible for the fact of its “inevitability” beyond America’s shores. It is easy to object, for instance, that Great Britain, which still has a monarchy, an hereditary aristocracy, and a class system, is today scarcely more civilized than the United States. Yet the democratic influence of her cousin across the Atlantic was certainly a major influence in the process of Britain’s decay, as it has been in the downward trajectories, both cultural and political, in the history of the other Western European nations since 1787.) Deprived of an authoritative aristocracy to direct its government, uphold a coherent social structure, fight its wars, and maintain high standards in learning and in the arts, Western civilization has approached near collapse, as the enfranchised rude republican of the 19th century has devolved steadily into the “empowered” mass man of the 20th and 21st, to the point where, today, democratic society exists only in the anthropological sense. The devastation is systemic, endemic, and all-pervasive, embracing government and public life, the professions, the arts, manners, morals, and religion. Modern Americans no longer recognize or appreciate civilization. They have ceased to be able to govern themselves, and they have ceased to be capable of thought, in part because mass democracy encourages thinking about everything in the mass—abstractly and statistically, according to the standards set by the social “sciences.” The mass man, Ortega said, thinks he is perfect. That is as good an explanation as any for the secularization of modern society and of religion itself, as only people who are aware of their radical imperfection can be expected to believe in the Christian God and to observe His commandments.
Aristotle taught that the form of government that both honors and embodies virtue is the aristocratic one. The tragedy for societies that destroy their aristocracies is that reconstituting or reestablishing them is nearly impossible. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that the problem with forcing the aristocrat into middle-class pursuits is that he thereby becomes middle-class himself. There are still a few real aristocrats to be found in mass-democratic societies, but they wield no power or influence whatsoever, having been replaced by the faux aristocracy we call “the elite,” which possesses all the wealth—and then some—the aristocracy formerly controlled, but nothing else. To hold the “elite” in its proper place, a titled aristocracy is required.
Americans are wont to pride their nation before the world as a country of “freedom.” So it was, and—to a lesser extent, owing to the tyrannical temptations of mass democracy—so it remains. Yet Britain, too, is a free country, with a long history of political liberty, in spite of her monarchical and aristocratic traditions. We in the United States, owing to decisions made by the founding generation, have subsequently equated freedom with equality, and equality with democracy. America, in her ideological obsession with republicanism, first, and democracy later, almost from the beginning left the concept of civilization out of the political equation entirely—perhaps from the conviction that government equals civilization. Whatever the reason, we find ourselves stuck with the results: an “aristocracy” comprising the likes of the Clintons, the Bushes, the Gateses, the Buffets, the Waltons, and the Trumps. Is it on account of my Tory ancestors alone that, when the crowd sings “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” I hear, at the back of my mind, the atavistic echo of the blood—“God Save the Queen”?