Category Archive 'Helmuth von Moltke'

07 Nov 2011

The Meritocratic Officer Corps

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Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)

Ross Douthat, I think, rather laboriously reaches the same conclusion Count von Moltke reached long ago, but Douthat miscategorizes the offenders.

In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)

Field Marshall von Moltke conceptually divided his officers into a four part matrix:

• Smart & Lazy: I make them my Commanders because they make the right thing happen but find the easiest way to accomplish the mission.
• Smart & Energetic: I make them my General Staff Officers because they make intelligent plans that make the right things happen.
• Dumb & Lazy: There are menial tasks that require an officer to perform that they can accomplish and they follow orders without causing much harm
• Dumb & Energetic: These are dangerous and must be eliminated. They cause thing to happen but the wrong things so cause trouble.

In which category, do Ross Douthat’s meritocrats really belong? It seems obvious to me.

Douthat has the precise same problem our contemporary “meritocracy” has: mistaking credentials and narrowly focused technical expertise for intelligence. In reality, the meritocratic system of education rewards energy and proficiency in areas requiring certain kinds of intellectual ability almost entirely divorced from wisdom, integrity, and good judgment. What our system of education characteristically produces are skilled sophists and opportunists, most conspicuously ingenious in conformity. It is a system designed to promote the energetic but stupid.


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