College Admissions and America’s Second-Rate Aristocracy

What quickly came to be known as the “college-admission scandal”—charges being brought against several score of people, including parents, for bribing their children’s way into admission to elite universities—brought to mind Whit Stillman’s 1990 film, Metropolitan. While hinting the children (and their parents) consider themselves the American equivalent of aristocracy, a decidedly unaristocratic hint of desperation nonetheless suffuses their lives.

The issue is not merit. It is consciousness of merit and the coordinate need to justify oneself. The requirement that each generation replicate or even exceed the success of one’s parents in the U.S. makes all the difference relative to authentic aristocracy.

After the initial generation, aristocrats live oblivious to merit. This obliviousness is a luxury American meritocrats can never experience. Consciousness of the possibility of loss creates a fear that makes American elites the vulgar, grasping class we see in the scandal.

Tocqueville suggests in Democracy in America that the critical factor in creating authentic aristocracy is not wealth itself. Rather it is keeping wealth intact across generations, particularly instantiated in land passed from generation to generation. The rotation of wealth or, more particularly, fear of the rotation of wealth, means rich Americans might be as wealthy as aristocrats—wealthier even—but will never replicate aristocratic virtues even as rich Americans replicate aristocratic vices.

Early in Democracy, Tocqueville discusses the seemingly obscure topic of the “laws of inheritance.” He wonders at neglect of these laws as a driving force in human development: “I am astonished that the public law experts, ancient and modern, have not attributed to the laws of inheritance a greater influence in the course of human affairs.” He adds, “They have an incredible influence on the social state of peoples, of which the political laws are only the expression.”

While European aristocracy originated in a meritorious deed by a forefather in the often distant past, the system created subsequent generations unconscious of the possibility of privation. While this can create “sumptuous depravity” among the aristocrats—Tocqueville was not uncritical of aristocracy—it can also have the opposite effect.

The natural and instinctive taste that all men feel for well-being, being thus satisfied without difficulty and without fear, their soul heads elsewhere and becomes attached to some more difficult and grander enterprise, which inspires it and carries it off.

Critical here is that aristocratic well-being is met “without fear.” In contrast, without the intergenerational stability of authentic aristocracy, contingency and fear infects even the richest Americans.

[When] ranks are mixed together and privileges destroyed, when patrimonies are broken up and enlightenment and liberty spread, the desire to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor person, and the fear of losing it to the mind of the rich one . . . .  [Those who possess fortunes] never obtain them without effort and never indulge in them without trembling with fear.

Tocqueville adds that he “never saw among the rich of the United States that proud disdain for material well-being that is sometimes shown even in the midst of the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies.”

Instead of a “proud disdain for material well-being,” fear of loss of status among the rich in the U.S. creates the opposite. The grasping, vulgar competition for admission to elite universities is just the leading edge of the desperation to sustain a family’s all-too-contingent success for yet one more generation.

It’s all done in the name of the children, and fear about their future. A part of it, however, is parental fear about themselves. They fear what it says about one’s parenting when they fail to replicate and sustain their success in their children: their failure when children of an Ivy-league educated couple isn’t also admitted to an Ivy League school. More than anything, however, this grasping, hypercompetitive dynamic creates a grim life for children. The very children parents desire desperately to sustain, but fear they will not.

The parents who bribed their children into selective schools, and those who assisted them, merit prosecution and punishment. But the desperate fear that motivated their behavior goes much deeper, and extends far wider, than this group of parents. They are only a glimpse of the dark side of America’s democratic soul.