David Brooks is looking inward again. Which means he’s beating himself up for being special.
In his latest self-flagellation at the New York Times, Brooks suggests that a “we” of elites that he’s part of (natch) might be the “bad guys” in its pursuit of a “modern meritocracy.” In his words, “We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement.” Really? How?
More realistically, some of the most valuable businesses in the world today (think Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook) attained their value as a thorough rejection of what a meritocratic order from the past created. As opposed to their founders having accomplished what they did after “academic achievement,” more than a few were college dropouts. And of those who did graduate, does Brooks seriously think that Jeff Bezos learned e-commerce at Princeton? Sorry, but Bezos invented e-commerce, and did so in the face of immense elite ridicule.
Notable about the rise of the internet and the looming rise of artificial intelligence, for Brooks to contend that “we” created it is for him to suggest that his coterie of elite thinkers turned the proverbial gun inward. Indeed, consider what’s happened to a print media industry that once housed so many like Brooks, not to mention what AI has the potential to do to other professions populated by the credentialed. At piece’s end, Brooks cites E. Digby Baltzell’s observation that “History is a graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privileges to leadership,” but fails to connect the dots. It’s progress born of economic advance that puts the past out to pasture.
From there, please stop and think about this “social order” allegedly populated by the bad guys. Brooks laments what it signals broadly of the smart and economically prosperous marrying the smart and prosperous, but in a global marketplace that encompasses views beyond those held by Brooks, the view is entirely different. If you doubt this, ask yourself why the world’s poorest routinely risk it all to get to the United States, and having risked it all, more often than not migrate to the cities populated Brooks’s version of “bad guys.” Well, of course they do.
Missed by Brooks is that where the economically unequal are is where opportunity is greatest. Similarly missed by Brooks is that the economically unequal achieve that status not by creating advances for David Brooks, but for his opposite. Translated, wealth of the substantial variety is a consequence of mass producing luxuries once uniquely enjoyed in cities that house elites.
Please keep this in mind with Brooks’s lament that his “we” largely support “policies that help ourselves,” including the free trade that “makes the products we buy cheaper” minus the risk of our jobs being “moved to China.” Actually, the biggest job destroyer in the U.S. isn’t China, but progress that destroys the old meritocratic order for the new. Amazon put Borders out of business, Netflix ended Blockbuster’s reign, and Uber wiped out taxi cartels. In which case, please hold on to Brooks’s column with the future top of mind. The “bad guys” will soon enough be the vanquished.
Until then, Brooks might be wise to keep his turned-inside-out snobbery to himself. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to better themselves and opportunities for their kids through marriage. Which is why the world’s poorest continue their migration to the U.S. Not surprisingly, it’s those with the least who see the genius of a more spontaneous order that thankfully has nothing to do with the one Brooks imagines he helped create.