Among the things we are definitively not into here at Adam Smith, Esq., is the question of ethnic or cultural identity, relative ethnic or cultural advantage or disadvantage, and historical prejudice for or against same.  Frankly, we don’t give a ____.


Every once in awhile a couple of stories come our way that deserve a bit of unpacking.  Today we have The New York Times’ Op-Ed piece by Noah Feldman, Harvard Law Professor, “The Triumphant Decline of the WASP,”  and also The New Republic‘s review off The Enlightened Economy:  An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850. The book review is by Edward Glaeser, Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard. 

What these two pieces bring into the spotlight is the historically astonishing, and also over a period of time, self-erasing, power of Protestant-driven Enlightenment era thinking.  (Yes, Dear Reader, you should know that I am a WASP, and, if that be offensive to you, I will compound it by noting that the MacEwen’s in my lineage came to the New World from Scotland nearly 250 years ago.  If one is going to write a piece such as this, full disclosure is not optional.)  But, to the facts.  Feldman’s column opens with, and states its thesis, thus:

Five years ago, the Supreme Court, like the United States, had a plurality of white Protestants. If Elena Kagan — whose confirmation hearings begin today [the column was published June 25, 2010]– is confirmed, that number will be reduced to zero, and the court will consist of six Catholics and three Jews.

It is cause for celbration that no one much cares about the nominee’s religion. We are fortunate to have left behind the days when there was a so-called “Catholic seat” on the court, or when prominent Jews (including the publisher of this newspaper) urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 not to nominate Felix Frankfurter because they worried that having “too many” Jews on the court might fuel anti-Semitism.

But satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court. Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Feldman clarifies that, while the white Protestant cohort is quite internally diverse, he’s actually “talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.”

He offers a specific example of the meritocracy triumphing, drawn from the history of my own alma mater:

Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Before this seems altogether too triumphalist, let me offer a personal note:  I attended Princeton in the wake of the changes he describes, but, perhaps as first-generation Ivy League, in retrospect I was obtusely oblivious to the magnitude of what had changed.  Coming from New York, “urban ethnic minorities and women” were not exactly strangers on my landscape.  Nor was the principle of a meritocracy. I took these as intrinsic to a vibrant culture.

But it was not always thus. Let’s step back historically and see what else might lay behind the notion that the best ideas and the best thinkers should come to the fore.

In The Enlightened Economy (see above), the premise is that the Industrial Revolution is “the inflection point of economic history.” Before, incomes were static and people were poor (even the rich were impoverished by today’s standards). Yet somehow, in the 250 years since mass production entered the scene, everyday life has been revolutionized: “A modern
Wal-Mart would have been a place of incalculable riches to Charlemagne.”

What happened to make the Industrial Revolution possible? What weird confluence of forces, that had (by hypothesis) never quite come together in the same way before, aligned in Britain during those years?

Why not medieval China? Why not France? Perhaps to the disappointment of those seeking sound-bites, Mokyr doesn’t a single explanation, but a panoply. Here are a few:

  • As an island nation, Britain was difficiult to invade.
  • It had a nice supply of coal and iron in reasonably vicinity of each other.
  • The economy was relatively open to trade.
  • Property rights, for the time, were strong.
  • Human capital, at least in the areas of practical experience in such trades as blacksmithing, mining, clock-making (read: fine mechanical work), and shipbuilding were strong and widespread. Universal education could wait.
  • And perhaps most important? The Enlightenment.

“What is new here,” he writes, “is not an argument that the Enlightenment changed history
for better and/or worse, but that its economic effects on the wealth-creating capabilities of the affected
societies have been overlooked.” Mokyr has long emphasized the economic value of new ideas and he
thus emphasizes that “Britain’s intellectual sphere had turned into a competitive market for ideas, in which
logic and evidence were becoming more important and ‘authority’ as such was on the defensive.”

Intriguingly, Mokyr notes that James Watt, of steam engine fame, was at the University of Glasgow at the same time as Adam Smith, but there’s no evidence they ever met. (The probability of their meeting in such close quarters, if you ask me, asymptotically approaches certitude.)

Ultimately, of course, the jury must remain perpetually out on the causes of such a sui generis event. One cannot, as has oft been observed, re-run history in a double-blind experiment. We shall therefore give the last word to our reviewer:

It is easy to envision the massive mills of Manchester and think that the Industrial Revolution was all
about scale and machines. But there was more. At its core, this economic and technological revolution
was created by connected groups of smart people who stole each others’ ideas and implemented them. I
tend to think that the chain of interrelated insights that brought us industrialization could have happened in
other countries and at other times, but there is every reason to think that the Enlightenment had readied
England’s intellectual soil for industrial innovation. Not least because it persuades readers of the
plausibility of such an unlikely and colorful causation, Mokyr’s book is a splendid achievement.

And the tie, then, back to the Protestants’ ceding their power to the call of the meritocracy?

Ideas have power.

If you truly believe them, they can not only fine-tune the course of your own individual life, they can, over time, alter societies and cultures. And count me naive or optimistic enough to believe that, as history marches on, the best ideas triumph. Ingrained elites and primogeniture were not powerful ideas, it turns out, when faced with competition from the concept of a meritocracy and no-holds-barred openness. The custom of doing things as our father, and our father’s father, and our father’s father’s father, had always done them, was finished when “connected groups of smart people stole each others’ ideas,” creating the Industrial Revolution, child of the Enlightenment.

Not only do ideas have power, but certain cultures (warning; your author is about to venture into the politically incorrect)  experience periods when they seem to have a comparative advantage in generating enduring ideas.

And we Americans, on this Independence Day Weekend, celebrating our separation from Britain 234 years ago, should look back, for a moment, with thanks for our intellectual inheritance from that culture.

In Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he enumerated the depredations of King George III in nearly vitriolic terms (many of these clauses were prudently edited out in Philadelphia in early July 1776), but even those surviving help give color to his outrage: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns. . . . He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compete the work of death, desolation and tyranny . . .”

Yet after all that, there’s one line the Philadelphia conventioneers took out, which I have always thought should have stayed in, for its simple human truth–and its expression of our connection to what remains in many respects a proud tradition:

“We might have been a free and great people together.”


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