David Brooks has no regard for the old Establishment and admires the new meritocracy based on equality of opportunity.
Yet here's the funny thing. As we've made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We've increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. It's not even clear that society is better led.
The elites of finance, government, and journalism, for example, have not produced better policy than before. Brooks proposes some interesting possibilities for these lousy results: there is too much transparency (and therefore less trust) in government, there is less mutual trust within each elite, merit has been ill-defined, and quick results count more than steady growth.
But Brooks is describing what Progressives have wanted from their new vision of government. See Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a century ago. The character of elites in fact reflects the perversity of meritocratic education. (See Plato's Gorgias or recall the foul-mouthed Ivy League-educated traders at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities.) Moreover, Brooks avoids discussing the effects of feminism and its peculiar place in the pathology of elites and meritocracy. Racial preferences would seem to play little role, but the power of sex does. One observation: Consider women who started their careers as public school teachers and wound up in powerful Washington positions. Were their former teaching positions occupied by people as talented? The women who rose doubtless went to more satisfying positions but at a social cost.
Consider as well the abolition of the draft. It is hard to imagine Professors Seth Benardete, Harvey Mansfield, or James V. Schall as army privates, but there they were. The professionalization of the military made it more effective but again at a social cost.
We observe one of the problems of a free society: the individual good frequently clashes with the social good. Statesmanship seeks to harmonize the two, but no one is rushing to fulfil this obligation.