Monday, August 13, 2012

Twilight of the Meritocracy (II)

"I am always struck by people who think, well, (their success) must be because (they were) just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because (they) worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you - there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”

--Barack Obama

This election is raising national consciousness of our meritocratic elite. And that could be unhealthy for those at the top.

Most recently, we found the meritocracy’s family newspaper, the New York Times, discussing how over the decades since Washington’s meritocracy declared a war on poverty in 1964, a sharp increase of single parent families has made poverty ever more intractable. Whether or not the solution is, as conservatives believe, the moral one of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, top-down big government programs haven’t worked. Those in poverty rose from 36 million in 1964 to 46 million in last year’s report--the highest number ever. The poverty rate at 15.1% is at its highest since 1993.

Unemployment, at 5.2% in 1964, is now at 8.3%.

We also discussed how the meritocracy’s solidification of its high status is increasing anxiety within its own ranks. Some object to meritocracy’s relentless pressure on families in each generation to re-compete to retain high status; others are upset that a semi-permanent class of underachievers seems to be emerging within our democracy.

There is a basic contradiction between meritocracy and democracy. If the people do rule, they will not accept a permanent elite--those at the top must rule only temporarily, replaced by others through open competition. “Meritocratic” rule through big government Washington is now “four score” years old, and folks don’t like how money and tests are working to hold that rule within a privileged subset of Americans. President Obama is playing to popular resentment when he says (opening quotation) smart people at the top claiming to be hardworking aren’t so special.

David Brooks, a New York Times house conservative who believes in elite meritocratic rule, is disturbed by the challenges facing today’s meritocracy. In his “Why Our Elites Stink” column that reflects his ongoing attention to our elite, Brooks writes,
white Protestant men [used to] dominate[] the universities, the world of finance, the local country clubs and even high government service. Over the past half–century, a more diverse and meritocratic elite has replaced the Protestant Establishment. People are more likely to rise on the basis of grades, test scores, effort and performance. Yet, as this meritocratic elite has taken over institutions, trust in them has plummeted. . . the brainy elite is[n’t] doing a better job of running them than the old boys’ network.
[Liberal] Christopher Hayes of [Twilight of the Elites] believes that the problem is inherent in the nature of meritocracies. . . meritocratic elites may rise on the basis of grades, effort and merit, but, to preserve their status, they become corrupt. They create wildly unequal societies, and then they rig things so that few can climb the ladders behind them. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy.
corruption [at the top is] endemic . . . to the specific culture of our meritocracy. . . today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites. Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else.
Brooks adds that today’s elite, lacking any self-conscious leadership code talks the language of meritocracy (how to succeed) rather than the language of morality (how to be virtuous): “they are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.”

Brooks openly declares that “I want to keep the current social order, but I want to give it a different ethos.” The WASP elite he admires “had a stewardship mentality,” believing “they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They . . . believe[d] in restraint, reticence and service.”

Brooks would argue that every state structure has an elite at the top, that a meritocratic elite admitting members by examination from all classes represents a democracy’s best possible elite, and that that elite should be trained in the virtues of “restraint, reticence and service.”

I would respond that, as Christopher Hayes himself asserts, “meritocracy leads to oligarchy,” and that corruption at the top is “endemic.” Best to introduce the virtues of capitalism to our governing structure, massively decentralizing decisionmaking to the population as a whole, offering all of us as much choice as possible when it comes to education (beyond government schools), health (no national health system), and general government (diffuse power, no permanent bureaucracy, wide use of initiative, referendum, recall, and term limits).

One hopes America will move past meritocratic elite rule relatively painlessly.  Yet it’s human nature to press for the illusionary security the status quo offers. 

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