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The Merit of the Fathers inherited by the daughters, even

The news that Bush daughter Jenna Hager joins TODAY staff has set off a blogstorm about meritocracy and whatnot. Glenn Greenwald has an uncharacteristically short but characteristically caustic note about it called It’s time to embrace American royalty. Broadly speaking Left Blogovia is whacking Conservatives over the head with their (perceived) hypocrisy in combining inherited privilege (and outright nepotism) with rhetorical support for meritocracy and disdain for preferences and support, particularly in connection with Justice Sotomayor and her personal history.

Um, and they are right so to whack. My contrariness isn’t so overdeveloped to disagree. I mean, rhetorically they are right, and I think this sort of situation emphasizes the extent to which (a) there exists an elite connected to the Republican Party, who use their connections and status for their own personal gain, and (2) the members of the elite are startlingly, wildly and deliberately out of touch with people outside that elite. Meaning you, sister, and meaning me.

But I am sufficiently contrary to note that some of the residents of Left Blogovia fundamentally misunderstand the difference in worldview between Conservatives and Progressives. Or at least pretend to, and pretend to convincingly and not to much point. So I am going to talk about merit, meritocracy and Conservatism as I understand it.

Digression: Andrew Cline over at Rhetorica has several times complained about his local newspaper having op-ed space devoted to columns labeled From the Left and From the Right, which he says encourages a fact-free partisan pissing match. He is probably empirically correct; I am certainly not going to read the columns in question to find out. But my contrary defense of the idea of such columns led me to make the point that it would be really wonderful for a newspaper to devote space to detailed explanations from the Left and Right of how their differing worldviews and biases interacted with the policy urgencies of the moment. That is, how (f’r’ex) support of the proposed health care reform followed from a Liberal viewpoint, and opposition from a Conservative one. That would be a tremendous benefit for readers, most of whom don’t (I think) really get how the two Parties do have fundamental differences that lead them to come to different conclusions on most policy matters, and that leads to differences in how people’s lives actually work, depending on which Party is in power at which time. Oh, there are lots of variations, and people can certainly start from the same assumptions and come to different conclusions on particular issues, but on the whole, there is a Left and a Right, and it matters.End Digression.

Here’s the question I’ll be talking around: Can a person inherit merit? Which of course demands the question: what is merit?

You see, when we talk about meritocracy, I think we are talking about different things, Liberals and Conservatives, in large part because we have different ideas of merit. I’m going to make a stab at what those ideas are, on both sides. My ideas of Conservatism are based more on Clinton Rossiter than Newt Gingrich, but I think that when it comes to the worldview, the underpinning biases, Mr. Rossiter has great insight coming from a largely historical view of his own. And for the Liberal end, I’m going with my own biases, largely, I’m afraid, so y’all will have to supplement, correct and clarify.

A Liberal view of merit: Merit is derived largely from an accumulation of good actions; the appropriate metaphor is a ledger or bankbook, in which deposits to your merit are made in the form of accomplishments, and withdrawals in the form of failures. Thus, a person will have different amounts of merit at different times; the Peter Principle (people will rise to a level of their incompetence) is a kind of guiding spirit. There are, however, characteristics commonly associated with merit: intelligence, persistence, discipline, compassion, honesty, and so on. In looking to see if someone has merited their position, you would attempt to judge those qualities together with their record of accomplishments and failures.

A Conservative view of merit: Merit is derived largely from adherence to an inherited value system; The appropriate metaphor is not a bankbook but a seal of approval. While it is true that a meritorious person will backslide or stray, the mark of merit is the return to traditional values. These values include honesty, discipline, intelligence, persist, compassion and so on. Application of those values is often associated with success in business or other endeavors. In looking to see if someone has merited their position, you would take into account their record of accomplishments and failures together with their fundamental values and character traits.

A Liberal and a Conservative talking about merit may talk for a long time in the large overlap without ever realizing they are talking about different things. And then suddenly a Liberal will be astonished that a Conservative seems to take breeding into account, as if being born into a good family is an accomplishment. Or a Conservative is perplexed that a Liberal seems to thing being raised by a single parent in an impoverished ghetto is a good thing. But where do you get your family values from, if not a good family? And isn’t overcoming obstacles an achievement?

Liberals, or at least progressives, tend to knock the idea of meritocracy as being blind to antecedent benefits and burdens. Conservatives tend to knock the idea of meritocracy as being a front for quotas and officiousness. I think the Liberals are correct, of course, being a Liberal myself. No surprise there. But we still knock meritocracy.

While, of course, supporting it. Meritocracy is the baby that shat in the bathwater. We can’t quite bring ourselves to throw it out. It would be such a lovely baby if it didn’t smell so bad. And, you know, you can clean it! But then it starts to stink again. Oh, well. It’s cute, and maybe someday it’ll grow up.

Another Digression: while many Conservatives are not racist as such, or even xenophobic as such, Conservatism my its nature preserves the ISRVs, and if those ISRVs are racist or xenophobic, then preserving them is racist and xenophobic. And even of they aren’t racist or xenophobic in attitude, the preservation of the status quo is very likely to be racist in execution. If, for instance, a good family is important to inculcating good family values, then the Conservative will place great emphasis on good family. Unless you are willing to do a lot of work to eliminate the natural pattern-matching that misleads you into thinking that good families look alike, you are going to have racist misperceptions. And even then, simple arithmetic is going to preference the majority. It takes a commitment to actively fight racism, that is, it takes active affirmation to effect a Conservative view of meritocracy without a racist result. Sadly, in our country, only a tiny minority of Conservatives believe in that kind of ongoing affirmative action. End Digression.

My point, to get back to it, is that Conservatives can certainly believe in both meritocracy and nepotism. There is nothing necessarily hypocritical in that, so long as you understand what is meant by merit. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me what merit could be inherited by the great-grandchildren of Prescott Bush at this point.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,