The article suggests that people are anxious because the meritocracy 1) works imperfectly (duh!), but 2) “people” (the educated national elite, that is) nevertheless believe in the system, so turn themselves into wreaks when they don’t perfectly succeed.
Kelly finds that the meritocracy’s less successful aren’t just the masses down below, but also insiders who simply don’t compete quite as well. She seems, in fact, to identify with anxious losers, wondering out loud if there really is any “meritocracy” at all:
Should we be thinking about ways to make America more of meritocracy in the hopes of quelling our stress? Says [Stephen] McNamee [of The Meritocracy Myth (2004)]: "A pure meritocracy is not possible and may not even be desirable." Far more important, he argues, is debunking the myth of meritocracy, harmful "because it provides an incomplete explanation for success and failure, often mistakenly exalting the rich and condemning the poor."
Indeed. As Alain de Botton noted in his engaging book Status Anxiety, there's a much darker side to the meritocracy story. "If the successful merited their success, it necessarily followed that the failures had to merit their failure," he writes. "Low status came to seem not merely regrettable but also deserved. ... To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame."We earlier digested a “Slate” article by liberal Jacob Weisberg conceding that when liberals act superior, they cut against the American ideal of social equality. Weisberg flatly identified America as “a meritocratic society,” and we appreciated his honesty at the time. After all, what else is our academically-credentialed elite but a “meritocracy”? Weisberg importantly noted what’s wrong with an elite based on academics—it brings “an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can't blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system.”
Weisberg seemed to relish the sting his words inflicted on losers; Kelly (along with those she quotes) is more worried about the pain losers suffer. Nevertheless, both view meritocracy’s downside as a lower class seemingly stuck where they belong.
Our own words anticipated the liberal angst found all over Kelly’s article about meritocracy’s permanent lower caste and what to do about it. We wrote:
Is there guilt about standing for the oppressed, but living as an elite atop an anti-democratic (it’s based on merit) pyramid? I suspect a great deal, and see it displayed in . . . efforts to reassure each other that the right people are running the show. I see it in deceptive efforts to keep victims tied to the liberal elite—branding the “tea party” racist, going after governors trying to enforce Federal law requiring deportation of lawbreakers, uniting women against the Catholic church and Catholic Rick Santorum, demanding higher taxes of the rich when such taxes cannot close the deficit, claiming efforts to save Medicare are attempts to destroy it instead.
The liberal focus has to stay on the conservative enemy. Otherwise, the meritocracy may be forced to address the disturbing question of how can a democracy where the people rule also be a hierarchy that permanently consigns a majority to society’s lower rungs, based upon inherited intelligence? “Care for victims” may not be enough. It may not work.