The Decline of the WASP

Joseph Epstein, writing in the WSJ, waxes nostalgic for the heyday of the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants:

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.

I recommend reading the whole article, but the cliffs notes version is this: WASPs used to run the country, but now they don’t and instead the country is run on a ‘meritocratic’ basis, meaning that people achieve high status through competition, not family background.  But the ‘meritocracy’ is producing selfish people who don’t care about the greater good, whereas the bygone WASP leaders had a sense of social responsibility.

There are a lot of questionable things about Epstein’s argument. His criteria for who is and is not a WASP  is a bit weird.  His reasons for why the WASPs stopped running the country are murky.  Even his proof that the WASPs were better at running the country is shaky.

I will address that last issue first. His strongest evidence for the superiority of WASP governance is the claim that “The last unashamed WASP to live in the White House was Franklin Delano Roosevelt”.  (He claims the last WASP President was George H.W.  Bush, but he was apparently ashamed of it.)

Well, many historians would definitely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  But was that because he was a WASP?  And if so, what exactly was it that made the WASPs so good at it?

Is Epstein trying to say that Whites are better at running society? That’s going to be a rather controversial claim, but if that’s what he wanted to say, why didn’t he come out and say it, instead of dancing around the issue?

Maybe it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” bit of the equation?  Again, that’s going to be controversial, and it has the added problem of being more obscure.  People barely think about the distinction between “Anglo-Saxon” and, say, “Celtic” anymore, and so who is going to know the difference? And again, what is it about Anglo-Saxons that would lead to them being better leaders?

Or again, maybe it’s the “Protestant” bit. Max Weber wrote about “the Protestant ethic”, and how Protestant beliefs fueled the growth of  capitalism.   This actually seems like the most likely explanation for the purported dominance of the WASPs.  Accumulating a lot of money would certainly have been helpful to their success, and perhaps the religious underpinnings would explain the supposed selfless aspect of the WASP-run society.

But Epstein never advances any of these theories in that article. He just writes that the WASPs were better at running the country for some reason. But why?  He never explains.

Personally, I think that the whole WASP thing is a red herring that Epstein fell for.  The real phenomenon he is talking about is the transition from a society based on family heritage to one based on… what, exactly?

Throughout the article, Epstein keeps alluding to the dominance of the WASPs giving way to the “meritocracy.” This is a suspiciously squishy word, and I think it’s telling that he keeps using it.  It’s in keeping with the general vagueness of the article, but I think it’s important to briefly explain just how useless the word “meritocracy” is.

The idea of “meritocracy” is that status should be gained through merit. How could you possibly have a problem with that? You couldn’t–that’s just it; it’s one of those political terms that’s so generic nobody can disagree with it.

The top tier of any given society will always think it is a meritocracy. For instance, in the 1500s, the official line was that the King was the King and everyone else was a peasant because it had been so ordained by God.  And really, what could be more meritocratic than that?

As long as society has winners and losers, the winners will always think they got there by “merit” of some sort.  The nobility of past times didn’t go around saying “yes, some of the commoners really have more merit than we do, but we’re not a ‘meritocracy’, so we get to rule anyway.” They simply defined “merit” as “ancestry”.

The funny thing is, Epstein is attempting argue against the meritocracy, but he doesn’t really have the words for it.  One can’t argue against “meritocracy” as such, because that is tantamount to saying “I don’t want the best person for the job”.

I think a better word for what Epstein is attempting to talk about is “oligarchy”.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had the idea that there were three “types” of constitutions (or governments): Royalty, Aristocracy and Constitutional Government. But of these three types, there were also perversions, these being Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy, respectively. (This handy chart on Wikipedia explains it.)

Note that in their “True” forms, these governments are supposed to work for the “common good”, but their “Perverted” forms work for the few at the expense of the many.  Basically, the phenomenon that Epstein is attempting to describe is the change from an aristocracy to an oligarchy.

I think this dichotomy makes far more sense, although I am still not convinced that it is actually true. And even if it is, Aristotle himself is a bit vague on why these things happen.  Assuming that this is even accurate, it still does not clarify anything.

Remember what I wrote earlier: the strongest evidence for Epstein’s thesis is that historians and political scientists widely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  Epstein seems to assume that this was because FDR was an “unashamed WASP”. But that is assuming too much, in my opinion.  Rather, we should simply ask: “why is it that none of the administrations that succeeded Roosevelt lived up to that standard?”

What's your stake in this, cowboy?