The New Liberalism

Walter Russell Mead has a typically powerful piece on the future of liberalism, at the core of which is what he sees as a transition from its traditional attempt to lift up the poor to a new acceptance of their permanent dispossessed status and the obligation of the liberal elites to tax themselves enough to provide services to those who can no longer be productive.

It is a penetrating and disquieting analysis, but I think one of its components doesn’t quite quite fit. He writes:

The concept of an elite guiding national development for the benefit of those it governs remains operative today among blue partisans, but what’s changed is that the blue elite no longer sees a bright future for the masses. It turns out that there are two ways to think about the trajectory of liberal society. The traditional view is that over time the differences between elites and non-elites can and should shrink, and it is the proper goal of liberal policy to ensure that they do.

The other view is to believe that differences of talent and ambition ensure that the world will always be divided between a creative minority and an inert majority, and that the goal of social policy isn’t to eliminate that ineradicable difference, but to ensure that the process of recruitment into the elite is genuinely fair. Once the privileges of race, gender and fortune have been neutralized so that the elite is a purely meritocratic body, the members of the elite are obliged to concern themselves for the welfare of the majority, but there is nothing more to be done about equalizing their condition with that of the elite. Authority must rest in the hands of the qualified; those who score poorly on aptitude tests, don’t do well in classes and/or lack extraordinary beauty, artistic talent or ambition must resign themselves to taking direction from the natural aristocracy that a well ordered society has brought so smoothly to the fore.

Whatever one thinks of the new liberal vision, the problem here is that today’s liberal elites do not believe in “purely meritocratic” recruitment mechanisms into their midst, that “authority must rest in the hands of the qualified” who ace aptitude tests and do well in class. The new faith in “diversity” has instead fueled fierce opposition among liberals to reliance on measures of merit in providing access to elite institutions. Because of their devotion to “diversity” they can no longer believe that a ruling elite that looks like them, or the way have traditionally looked, can in fact be “fair.”

The insistence of the new liberals that the ruling liberal elite must “look like America,” in one of their popular phrases, may look like more of the same old liberal effort at fairness and removing barriers, but it is in fact different. “Franklin Roosevelt presided over the incorporation of Catholics and Jews into the American Establishment and limited the power of wealth even as he very much relished his own standing,” Mead writes; “McGeorge Bundy helped bring African Americans and women into the world of power where he, as a high WASP male enjoyed special privilege.” Access to membership in the liberal elite could be extended to Catholics and Jews and women and even some African Americans without any lowering of the traditional meritocratic standards, but that is no longer true regarding today’s minority applicants. To prevent what liberals today regard as an unacceptable degree of “underrepresentation” of minorities in elite institutions meritocratic standards have been lowered for them … and must remain lowered at least for them, and possibly for everyone if the Supreme Court should rule that admission standards that differ based on race are discriminatory.

Say What?