03 December 2021

Lasch—Crises of Competence

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

Dewey's exchange with Lippman raises the disturbing question of whether democracy implies high standards of personal conduct. Unlike many contemporary liberals, Dewey clearly thought it did. ... Like other progressive thinkers...Dewey was bent on refuting critics of democracy who claimed that it fostered mediocrity, self-indulgence, an excess love of comfort, sloppy workmanship, and a timid conformity to prevailing opinion. The idea that democracy is incompatible with excellence, that high standards are inherently elitist (or, as we would say today, sexist, racist, and so on) has always been the best argument against it. Unfortunately many democrats secretly (or not so secretly) share this belief and are therefore unable to answer it. Instead they fall back on the claim that democratic men and women make up in tolerance what they lack in the way of character.

The latest variation on this familiar theme, its reductio ad absurdum, is that a respect for cultural diversity forbids us to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression. This is so clearly a recipe for universal incompetence (or at least for a disastrous split between the competent classes and the incompetent) that it is rapidly losing whatever credibility it may have had when our society (because of its abundance of land and other natural resources, combined with its chronic shortage of labor) offered a more generous margin for incompetence. The mounting evidence of widespread inefficiency and corruption, [etc., etc....a very long list of contemporary ills]...—these developments, the ominous import of which can no longer be ignored or concealed, have reopened the historic debate about democracy. ... Formally democratic institutions do not guarantee a workable social order... As conditions in American cities begin to approach those of the Third World, democracy will have to prove itself all over again.

Liberals have always taken the position that democracy can dispense with civic virtue. According to this way of thinking, it is liberal institutions, not the character of citizens, that make democracy work. Democracy is a legal system that makes it possible for people to live with their differences. The impending crisis of competence and civic trust, however, casts a heavy pall of doubt over the agreeable assumption that institutions, as opposed to character, provide all the virtue democracy needs. The crisis of competence suggests the need for a revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.


For all its intrinsic attractions, democracy is not an end in itself. It has to be judged by its success in producing superior goods, superior works of art and learning, a superior type of character.
(pp. 84-86)

The call for models of heroism "common to all" seems to threaten the pluralism of ethical commitments that democracy is obliged to protect. In the absence of common standards, however, tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of a connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. ... The questions that allegedly divide us beyond hope of compromise turn out to be lifestyle questions, in the jargon of the day. ... In this context, the question that really matters—How should I live?—also becomes a matter of taste... But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood, requires us to speak of impersonal virtues... If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a "plurality of ethical commitments" means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one's right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on each other, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

So, regarding
mak[ing] no demands on anyone
along with
acknowledg[ing] no one's right to make any demands on ourselves

chicken or egg?

Asking for a friend

(perhaps a friend who lives in a certain Upper Midwestern semi-metropolis where

tolerance becomes indifference


who attended a certain a boho finishing school where a

workable social order

was not



... Without these ["minimal standards of workmanship, literacy, and general competence"], we have no basis on which either to demand respect or to grant it. Common standards are absolutely indispensable to a democratic society. Societies organized around a hierarchy of privilege can afford multiple standards, but a democracy cannot. Double-standards mean second-class citizenship.
(pp. 87-88)

When the authors of The Good Society say that "democracy means paying attention," they seek to recall us to a sense of the common good and to combat the selfish individualism that blinds us to the needs of others. But it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. In the name of sympathetic understanding, we tolerate second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of personal conduct. ... Democracy in our time is more likely die of indifference than of intolerance.
(p. 107)

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