I’m struck by a fascinating idea. I’m certain I’m not the first to think of this – and I’m not claiming to be. But I may be the most recent. I’m afraid that America is genuinely standing over a precipice; staring at a future of decline, balkanization, or worse. It would seem frankly that much of that decline can easily be traced to cultural failings. Whatever side of the widening cultural divide you sit upon, it’s hard to disagree with the claim that there is a divide, and a growing one.
If America is ever to fall, it will be from within. With the largest military in the world, there is little that any other nation can do to invade or conquer the United States. But why would you even want or need to do this in a day and age where economic, cultural, and information warfare are far more effective at delivering the ‘spoils’ of war – without the war.
I’m prone to take up various research binges on subjects that interest me. For example, I recently discovered that my family is a very long edge of one of the few remaining families with a claim to the High Kingship of Ireland. Now don’t get me wrong, that has very little to do with me personally – it’s more an anthropological exercise than anything else. But in fact, this article is itself an exercise in the study of man.
The Question of Meritocracy
It has become increasingly popular in America as of late to question whether or not meritocracy really has the power that we say it does. (If you were unaware, meritocracy is one of the most fundamental crowning principles of the American way of life as it has historically stood.) I’m privy to agree with the arguments that insist meritocracy isn’t actually all that.
There is this constant claim by those who are successful in America that they pulled themselves up. But very often this just isn’t the case. Maybe in many of the cases of very successful people, we come to find that they greatly improved their lot in life. That much is often true. But far be it from that they simply dragged themselves to the heights of success out of poverty. Those stories are very real when they do happen – but certainly much more rare than many have been led to believe.
No, it’s not so rare to hear of a millionaire becoming a decamillionaire. Or a billionaire with a dentist for a mother. But what is actually quite rare is the one in a million true and complete ‘rags to riches’ story. Usually, the success of even the most ‘bootstrapping’ of American success stories is girded by initial success in the previous generations for later generations to build upon. It’s a lot easier to start a billion dollar company in your garage when your parents have a garage to lend you (even better if they can give you a large loan to get started).
I’m not necessarily ready to believe the ‘American Dream’ is completely dead however. There are many stories of folks working their way from nothing to something. But I just mean to point out that it’s almost never a story of ‘nothing to billions.’ It’s more often a story of ‘nothing to $65k annual and a car payment.’ But to be clear, the ‘American dream’ isn’t to be a billionaire, it is more about home ownership and not being forced to live as a perpetual peasant.
There is a noble class in the United States. No matter how much Americans may wish this isn’t true, it absolutely is. One of the ideas America was founded on is that there shouldn’t be a need for ‘landed’ generational wealth. Yet the inequality between the rich and the poor is only getting larger. Billionaires of today are far more rich compared to the average person than kings of the past were to peasants. If our goal was to do away with this sort of thing, we’ve seemingly only made it worse.
No the really big difference between the aristocracy of Europe, and the aristocracy of the ‘new world’ is in the acquisition.
You could argue that the aristocracy of the old world had about it two primary qualities – power, and prestige. It would seem however that the American way is to slightly divide these two things and then divy them up among unique subclasses. Certainly the two generally find their way to be together. But for the American branch of nobility, the two sometimes find themselves slip apart even in a single person.
Take for example, an exceptionally rich and powerful person you may have never actually heard of: Phil Knight. You do know Phil Knight, right? If you don’t feel free to go do your research. The point is that you likely haven’t heard of him, and if you are one of the few folks who does know the name, then I hope you’ll forgive me for my choice and yet still hear my underlying message. Traditional nobility was power and prestige, it meant owning a castle on the hill and having everyone who lived below you know your name. But yet you live below Phil Knight, and have you heard of him? The man is a billionaire, and the choices he makes shape your world. This is power.
Phil Knight’s riches and power didn’t necessarily come with a castle on a hill that everyone in the land looks up to. At least not a castle large enough for everyone who lives in his shadow to know what they’re looking at. Today, the choices someone like Phil can make may have an affect on the entire country, or even the world. Wherebefore a baron might stand over a peaceful valley that he was in charge of, the power of today’s elites spans the entire globe.
There is another type of ‘nobility’ in the Americas. This is one nobility of prestige. You find this most often with the faces you know – politicians and movie stars. The money almost always follows shorty after the celebrity. But the two are not necessarily directly tied. It’s easy to think of celebrities who carry prestige, and yet, very little power. You could think for example, of the recent court case around the conservatorship for Ms. Spears. In this case her power was legally taken from her, though she retained her prestige.
What is most interesting is what exactly is missing from the acquisition of both of these types of nobility. What is missing, is oversight.
What America Ran From
The United States was founded on the idea of equality for “everyone.” That there should be no need for entrenched nobility to rule from generation to generation. The founding fathers thought that if the rule of the government was removed, and things left to fall as they pleased, that this would certainly be a better system than what the UK was doing at the time. This idea gave each man self-governance, no longer did you need to ask for permission. You could set out on the Oregon Trail, set up a home out west, and answer only to the wolves – who in turn answered to your musket.
Early America was brutal, lonely, and free. It was free because there was space to be free. But the west has long since been won. What have we been left with? The dream was to give each man and woman the freedom to choose their own destiny. But is that what we really have? Perhaps it is what we had for a time. But in today’s world, America is no longer a new experiment with grand adventures waiting to be discovered by those brave enough to undertake them. There are few new mountains to climb or rivers to ford.
Instead, we are left with an entrenched system of class, nobility and peasant, under different rules, in a different time. Arguably, the divide between the classes has never actually been wider. There is no opportunity for someone working two jobs trying to make ends meet, to dream of having children, let alone a mansion. In this way, meritocracy has failed and we are right back where we started, with peerage that very few are given a chance to join. This is the thing that the founding fathers ran from. The idea was that there should be no such entrenched class – yet here we are.
What is Missing
Politicians maximize their public face, at the expense of anyone in their way. CEOs maximize their profits at the expense of anyone in their way. It is only when the greats of America reach the absolute heights of their power that they often feel free to stop fighting. Even if their riches are millions of times greater than the peasants, they are happy to continue driving upwards to be the best among themselves. There is no care for the underclass.
Most specifically, the nobility of America is impersonal and cold. It is selected only by market forces, or whatever is most interesting to be shown on TV. There is no thought about who may be right for the country. There is no thought about who may be ‘worthy’. There is no pressure to be ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘just’.
The thing we have lost is the oversight of man. Now our nobles are chosen at the whims of forces beyond our control. Before it was the case that they were controlled by the gatekeepers of the civic nature. It was in times past (and in nations prior) that nobility was the decision of the ruler. Certainly some rules have used this to unfair ends. But how is the system America has come up with ‘fair’? To say we’ve solved the issue seems rather wrong. More likely we’ve simply found a way to leave the problem no more solved – while removing our responsibility from the scenario.
The issue is that when unjust kings choose nobles they may choose them unjustly. But when market forces choose nobles they are also often chosen unjustly. What is missing is the good king, who chooses moral, upright men and women of character.
If only all our celebrities were thus.