Sometimes the Self-Made Can Be Worse Than the Blue Bloods

Timothy Egan has a decent piece in the New York Times about the phenomenon of former blue-collar types like Scott Walker, Joni Ernst and John Boehner getting rich and becoming stingy Republicans:

Meanwhile, Walker’s low-wage fortress of Wisconsin lags behind the national average in job creation. If paying people next to nothing at the entry level were such a design for growth, employers would be flocking to the Badger State. Even Walmart, which built the original business model for how to make billions on the backs of people who need state assistance for the basic things in life, will soon be paying its serfs more than Scott Walker thinks is necessary to live on.

Senator Ernst loves to talk about growing up in the rosy patina of near-poverty. “My mom made all our clothes,” she wrote on her campaign website. “We went to church every week, helped our neighbors when they needed it, and they did the same for us.”

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but it strikes me again that one of the silver linings to a hereditary aristocracy a sense of noblesse oblige. Sure, you have your robber barons–but you also have your Roosevelts. Under modern capitalism you have fewer embarrassing goons in the landed gentry, but they’re replaced by a class of sociopaths who crushed countless people underfoot to become billionaires. And even when they’re not sociopaths, their charity tends to be focused on pet projects like space exploration or curing malaria, rather than reorienting the social contract toward greater justice and equality like FDR or the Kennedy children.

Meritocracy is usually seen as superior to aristocracy–and it usually is. But only when the social contract between labor and capital is adequately tended to, and only when the definition of merit extends beyond the ability to engorge oneself on riches at the expense of others. But when “meritocracy” is simply plutocracy, it often devolves into a kakistocracy: rule by the worst elements of society, the ones whose single-minded pursuit of profit leads them to believe that those who don’t share their twisted vision of human value shouldn’t have the dignity of a decent social safety net.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.