Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Whither the Mandarin?

The liberal arts-trained, senior civil servant is quickly becoming a creature of the past, writes Michael Lind. He describes how trends in education and politics have eroded the influence of the class of elite public official ("mandarins"), stemming from the rise of four distinct sources of authority:


The mandarin thus is a scapegoat for all of the major forces in contemporary society. The humanist programme of mandarin education is rejected alike by the professional (for whom education is vocational), the positivist (whose task is to expose the power relations that works of literature or history conceal, in preparation for doctrinal instruction in an ideological system), the populist (whose goal is either to replace the classics with a contemporary canon or to reinterpret them to make them "relevant" for today) and the religious believer (for whom the substitution of mandarin humanism for revealed religion was always an enormity). The mandarin is an amateur, to the professional; a statist, to the libertarian; an elitist, to the populist; and a heathen, to the religious believer. What possibly could be worse than a society run by such people?

The answer is a society without them.


Lind describes how the whithering of the professional senior civil servant has led to increasing political spoils appointments, to the detriment of the domestic bureaucracy. This stands in contrast to the intelligence and defense establishments which have largely evaded this trend.


America's unofficial mandarinate, the northeastern establishment, crumbled in the last quarter of the 20th century. The result is a social experiment in today's US as audacious, in its own way, as that of Soviet collectivism: an attempt to have a government without a governing elite. The US ship of state veers now in one direction, now the other. From a distance, one might conclude that the captain is a maniac. But a spyglass reveals that there is no captain or crew at all, only rival gangs of technocrats, ideologues, populists and zealots devoted to Jesus Christ or Adam Smith, each boarding the derelict vessel and capturing the wheel briefly before being tossed overboard.


While I think that the current administration, for all its faults, does lead with more cohesion than the derelict vessel metaphor suggests, I think that seeing the evolution of the US bureaucracy in the last 25 years as the result of a war among the forces of professionalism, positivism, populism, and religion has great explanatory power.

A well-trained, disciplined and professional civil service was the bulwark of the society that gave us the term 'mandarin' for over two thousand years. If we are to abandon having a meritocratic class as a cog in the mechanism of our society, we need to have its roles filled in some other way, or risk going the way of the Qing.

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