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The Demise of Noblesse Oblige

Jonathan B. Wight

Noblesse oblige means literally, "Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly."

David Brooks laments the passing of a Protestant-leader age in which the elites understood that virtue went with the territory:

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Today's elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.

Think no further than the difference between President George H.W. Bush and scion George W. Bush—one a war hero who dutifully sacrificed through many ranks of faithful service, the other….

Krugman was drinking from the same well today.


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Thought to ponder: the era that best objectifies Brooks' ideal is framed by two socio-economic sea changes. First was the internalization by the western capitalist system of the various marxist critiques. Second was the abandonment of corporate social responsibility, as taught by Friedman, which could be seen as the repudiation of those same marxist critiques.

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