Bolingbroke and Burke on Leadership, Meritocracy, and Inequality

In most of my blog posts, I try to, like a good analytic philosopher, articulate some relatively narrow points with utmost clarity, in a way that I hope would be persuasive to almost all readers. In this blog post, I’m going to do just the opposite, and try to alienate my readers with a winding discursion on some ideas that will be discomfiting to pretty much everyone, as a way of stretching our imagination about the topic. To use a spatial metaphor, the typical blog post tries to hone in on a narrow target, while this blog post attempts to expand the territory that we include on the map. In fact, this is one of those posts which, were I ever to become known or influential, people would try to use against me. And that’s because I’m going to express some premodern ideas about inherited privilege that we moderns find radically strange and noxious.

So, here goes: We Americans, and, more generally, we modern Westerners, are at least weakly committed to the idea of meritocracy. That is, nearly everyone would agree with the idea that “All else equal, giving everyone in society, regardless of birth or station, more of an equal chance is a moral improvement.” We put different caveats on this claim—e.g., in the private sphere, a small, less well-endowed university often finds that as a matter of financial realism, it must give admissions priority to ‘full-pay’ students; in the policy sphere, sometimes we conclude that an effort to promote greater equality of opportunity for some has too great costs for society as a whole; Left and Right disagree descriptively about how much equality of opportunity our society actually has, and normatively whether we should also strive for greater equality of outcomes as well (that is, many on the Left would say ‘even if it were true that a wealthy person had meritocratically deserved all of her wealth, we would be in favor of taxing some of that away to support poor people, even if were true that those poor people’s poverty came from bad choices’). So our debates about meritocracy and inequality take place along these dimensions, with everyone ultimately thinking that meritocracy is by itself a worthy goal.

This weekend, I saw a production of Henry IV, Part I, at a women’s college in Massachusetts. As you know, Henry IV, Part I  chronicles the rise of Prince Hal (who is to become Henry V), who goes from being a prodigal son who spends his day carousing with commoners at the Eastcheap bar, to assuming his role as a prince, defending his father’s claim to the crown . I like Henry IV, Part I, because there’s a lot of interesting political theory to it. Notably, the king, Henry IV, Bolingbroke, has great difficulty carrying gravitas as a king, because the theoretical basis of his claim to the throne is questioned throughout the play—he is often troubled with guilt over his murder of Richard II, and the idea that he is elected by God to rule is questioned. His most basic commands are disobeyed, his whole reign is characterized by rebellion.

But the much more interesting aspect of the play, particularly to modern audiences, is Prince Hal’s coming of age story. Prince Hal has spent his youth drinking and playing pranks and sleeping late with people whom others of his class regard as lowlifes—the fat, lascivious drunkard Falstaff, and his band at Eastcheap. Yet Hal insists that he is not abandoning his princely duty in doing this. He soliloquizes, defensively:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

In other words, Hal claims that he is doing all of this merely to contrast the rise he plans in his future, to make him shine all the brighter, increasing the authority of his future office. This is his justification for hanging out with low-lifes, before assuming political leadership. (There’s also another implicit justification. Later on, when Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, he becomes, at least in Shakespeare’s rendering, a charismatic, popular King with the common touch, and greater legitimacy and gravitas than his father, perhaps stemming from his early life among the people. Shakespeare puts in Henry V’s mouth the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which he promises to the commoners that “this day shall gentle your condition.”) So Hal claims that he will be a better leader by, in a sense, emerging from the lower classes. He signals his commitment to leaving this low life behind when, role-playing with Falstaff, he says, “I will, I do [banish Falstaff and the Eastcheap crew from his company].”

When King Henry IV summons Hal on the eve of civil war, the king is, to say the least, skeptical. He says to Hal,

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney’d in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession…

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’

In other words, Henry says that Hal has made his presence ‘cheap’ by offering it too freely, while Henry made his presence very rare, and hence, very dear, and thereby retained his majesty, which allowed him to command with greater authority and legitimacy. The commoners, Henry says, could not have respected his rule if he had lowered himself to their level.

If you catch my drift, I’m getting at, in somewhat oblique fashion, a broader and still relevant question of “from which classes should our leaders emerge?” To the modern ear, this question sounds somewhat antiquated. To the pure meritocrat, it is obvious that our leaders should emerge from any old class—wherever the best talent happens to be found, as represented by SAT scores or GPAs or whatever. Someone with more left-leaning, progressive inclinations caveats this idea with, “Yes, but, all else equal, let more of our leaders come from the working and lower classes, and underrepresented groups, so that they can better sympathize with the plight of the poor and marginalized.” I wrote a few months ago about my conversation with Professor Jeffrey Liebman, who claimed that the source of Bill Clinton’s charisma, common touch, and policy successes, was life in the small, poor state of Arkansas, where he learned to inhabit the lives of “people in trailer parks.”

One of the more provocative and, in the modern world, discarded ideas in the history of political theory however, is the idea, which King Henry gestured at, that in fact it is better for our leaders to, all else equal, come from the highest social strata. I.e., that we should almost have a reverse class-based affirmative action. This is an idea defended by Edmund Burke, who is most noted as an opponent of the French revolution, including (obviously) its attempt to overthrow the aristocracy and their inherited privileges. A friend of mine who is doing her PhD in political theory at Harvard recently did a seminar on Burke. She wrote afterward that the seminar leader said at the end of the term that the seminar was the greatest failure of a course in his career, because, ultimately, nobody in the seminar could bring herself around to support Burke’s idea of inherited privilege. So with that in mind, here is Burke’s idea, which most of us find unacceptable:

Burke claims that a man who has grown up as a part of the aristocracy is more fitted by nature for good political leadership. Burke claimed this despite the fact that he, himself, was not an aristocrat, and made his way to Parliament on his merit. His  basic argument is that by being told, “you are an aristocrat,” from an early age and knowing that you are hence subject to public scrutiny, you grow up with a greater gravity of bearing, a greater attention to the large consequences of your actions, a greater attention to the public sphere, all of which will fit you for the challenges of political leadership when you come of age. Burke gives so much attention, in all of his work, to how the unconscious mores, unwritten rules, and inarticulable ideas of tradition govern the behavior of society. This is sort of a micro-level version of that idea: Leadership, Burke claims, is something that cannot be learned or expressed algorithmically, but must be passed down, from one generation to the next, in family dynasties. One’s character is ultimately fixed by these deep, persisting influences, and so a person cannot truly emerge from ‘base’ society, to come to comfortably and reliably assume political leadership.

This is, as I warned, noxious to the modern ear. But we clearly see the influences Burke is talking about in every other sphere, every day. A son of two journalists may grow up to be sharp and quick with language and up on the news and opinion, but somewhat more oblivious about the mundane details of how most people make a living in the private sphere; the daughter of a financier will quickly gain a grasp of Wall Street, even if she majored in art history, simply by virtue of having been exposed, from early age, to the language of equities and leverage, etc. While it is certainly okay to allow the sons of journalists to become financiers and vice versa, Burke might say that the stakes are so much higher for political leadership (if you screw up as a journalist, you just lose your own job; if you screw up as commander in chief, you lose much more), that we should take fewer risks, and select more of our political leaders form the leadership class.

I guess a more accessible way of saying what I’m saying is that Burke conceives of leadership as a craft which must be passed down, rather than as a method that can be learned by the sufficiently clever. Just as we are not particularly surprised or scandalized that the son of a fine carpenter is more likely than the general population to himself become a fine carpenter, because he breathed in the knowledge and the sense of the craft from birth, perhaps, under this interpretation, we should not be so scandalized by political dynasties.

So on the basic question of, “from where should we draw our leaders?” Burke gives the provocative, anti-modern, answer that we should essentially, reproduce political privilege and accept some measure of aristocracy.

Burke was a very beautiful and sharp writer, but he didn’t have access to the knowledge that we have accumulated with modern social science. One social-scientific phenomenon I’m really interested in is the so-called “Matthew effect.” The name of the effect is taken from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that says something like, “To him whom much has been given, more will be given.” The modern social scientific take on this idea is that, if you start out initially with a small advantage, that advantage will allow you to also gain and accumulate other advantages as well, compounding your advantage over time. Let me give a stylized example of how this works.

Suppose you are born to affluent and educated Americans. In your most basic fetal development, you are among a small lucky class of persons in all of human history, as one whose mother will probably not do anything or have any major nutritional deficiencies that will impair your brain development. When you are out of the womb, you will quickly be exposed to smart conversations between your parents, and will have a functional and loving home environment. This will give you a great facility with language from an early age, improving your ability to read, and hence to succeed in school, which will also make you feel more rewarded by schoolwork, increasing your proclivity to compound this advantage by studying more in the future. The functional social environment that surrounds you will also make you more trusting of other people, and more inclined to pro-social interaction, which will make you more affable, confident, and popular for life. If your parents are affluent and educated, chances are so are their peers, which means your peers will enjoy your advantages as well, and so your interactions will compound those advantages. You get into a good college, which helps you land a good job, which strengthens your application for business school, whose prestige then helps you land an even better job. This professional prestige helps you land an awesome marriage partner, with whom you have kids who… and so on, ad infinitum.

There are even weirder, more surprising effects going on: Your dad’s social status at the time of your birth effects the hormonal environment you are exposed to in utero. This is why the offspring of Fortune 500 CEOs are disproportionately male. Certain of these hormonal influences will effect, for life, your aggression and proclivity to seek and bear risk, which is a huge influence on your potential success in the business world.

There is a left-wing and a conservative interpretation of these stylized facts. The left-wing interpretation is that the sources of inequality go so incredibly deep that nothing short of a radical transformation of the structure of our society will adequately deal with them—small amounts of redistribution, class-based affirmative action, etc., simply cannot do the job, because they cannot overcome this series of compounding advantages. The conservative interpretation is that the sources of inequality go so incredibly deep that nothing short of a radical transformation of the structure of our society, a transformation that could have unintended consequences that could bring tremendous harm (see: history of socialism), could deal with them, so we must accept that the universe is tragic, and inequality will reproduce itself.

But even further to the Right is Burke’s claim that we should not only accept this inequality, but embrace it, because inequality itself—the experience of growing up thinking “I am part of the leadership class; I need to get my noblesse oblige on”—is the very thing that prepares people for the enormous challenges and responsibilities of statecraft.

How do these reflections check out with lived experience? Well the most recent salient example of a political dynasty was a major disaster: namely, George W. Bush. But there are others. Recently, we elected a new, young Kennedy to office in Massachusetts. No doubt, some of his success came simply from the resonance of his name in this state. But, as I saw his acceptance speech, I couldn’t help but think he seemed pretty fit for office. Pretty good at bearing himself publicly, with dignity and gravitas, without self-deprecation. He’s checked all the right boxes in his life—no scandals have come to light, which is pretty impressive for a young person in the digital era. Presumably this good behavior and weighty bearing comes from growing up knowing, “You are a Kennedy; you must behave accordingly.”

I often debate whether, in the future, I would like to send my kids to elite private schools. I went to an excellent public high school of the sort that, e.g., had at least a dozen kids at Yale during my time there. The main thing that probably separated my experience at BCHS from the experience I would have had at, say, Stuyvesant, was probably not the quality of the coursework itself, but probably simply the experience of walking through the halls each day and thinking, “This is the best high school in the country; we are the future leaders of America.” I think that experience could have had very negative effects on me, like greater arrogance, or very positive effects, like a faster maturation, stemming from a feeling of oblige from an early age.

For me, the question of whether I should send my kids to elite private schools is not a question of how much I should value the quality of their academic instruction—in the right highly-educated suburbs, the public schools could make room for my offspring’s maximum academic efforts. The question is whether I want them to grow up conceiving of themselves as members of the leadership class or not. I have within me both populist-democratic and revanchist instincts, which carry me in different directions on this question.

 Let me close with a caveat: I really do not think our society is anywhere near suffering from a glut of too much equality of opportunity. This discursion is very much on the most highly theoretical level. As a matter of policy, I am very much in favor of efforts to promote much greater equality of opportunity than we have today. As a matter of theory, however, I am interested in a transgressive philosophical discussion of how many caveats we should place on the ideal of meritocracy, and how many political dynasties, or how much reproduction of inequality, is inevitable and/or acceptable. I am especially interested in this philosophical discussion in light of the fact that so many of my friends, who claim to be committed to equality of opportunity, will eventually send their kids to elite schools whose traditions train their pupils to think of themselves as members of a leadership class. How do you, gentle limousine-liberal reader, resolve this dissonance?

I by no means want to make American more of an aristocracy, but I’m also not sure that I think meritocracy is the right answer for political leadership either. I say this as one who is, with the exception of my tendency to voice uselessly controversial opinions online, the very model of a modern major meritocrat, exceptionally good at standardized tests &etc. The same goes for most of my friends. We’re sharp, clever, and good at jumping through hoops. Most of us, not coincidentally, also hail from the upper-middle class, where our parents passed down to us the skills of being sharp, clever, and good at jumping through hoops. We, not coincidentally, then, have relatively homogenous world-views and perspectives. The question that troubles me is this: If our ‘abilities’ are largely inherited privileges, what, then, makes us either more fit for, or more deserving of, political leadership than the old aristocrats, other than the fact that we feel more morally entitled to it, and that we have not been raised in the craft of statesmanship?


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