Posts Tagged ‘Twilight of the Elites’

The illusions of meritocracy

July 30, 2012

Christopher Hayes in his widely-discussed new book, TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: America After Meritocracy, tries to connect three important things—increasing concentration of American wealth and power, diminishing opportunity for average Americans to rise into the elite, and the manifest and growing irresponsibility of people in elite positions.

What ties these three things together, Hayes wrote, is the notion of meritocracy—that people get into elite positions solely because of their superior ability and effort, and they therefore owe nothing to anyone else.

The problem, as I see it, is not with the concept of rewarding merit.  Thomas Jefferson believed that the hereditary aristocracy of his time should be replaced by a “natural aristocracy” based on individual ability.  His idea of the natural aristocracy was that it is good for society as a whole if important positions are held by people best qualified to hold them.  Officerships in the British Army in the 18th century could be purchased by wealthy aristocrats; Jefferson’s idea was that you will have a better army if promotion is based on meritorious service.

What we have now is the idea that society should sort people into winners and losers, that both winners and losers by definition deserve what they get, and that the only consideration is that the contest be fair.  You can’t have a good society on that basis.

An army couldn’t function if the officers believed that they were winners, the enlisted ranks were losers and nobody owed anything to anyone else.  Officers are paid more because they exercise more responsibility, not because the enlisted ranks deserve to be punished for lacking the ability to become officers.

Of course the military is not and should not be a model for a free-enterprise economy, but the principle still holds true that competition should serve the good of the whole.  In a well-functioning free enterprise system, entrepreneurs compete to determine which can best serve the needs and wants of the public, and the one who does best reaps the greatest reward.  The trouble with the winners-and-losers model is that merit is measured solely by who accumulates the most money—whether the means are beneficial to society, irrelevant to society or harmful.  The evil of the Hunger Games was not so much that the competition was unfair (although it was); it was that young people had to be subjected to this competition in the first place.

Hayes pointed out that people in elite positions, no matter how many advantages they have, manage to convince themselves that they did it all by themselves.  Gov. Ann Richardson of Texas said of the first President Bush that he was born on third base, and thought he had hit a triple.  Christopher Hayes thinks that is true of the elite generally.  His book describes ways in which members of the economic and social elite tilt the system in their favor and that of their children.  College admissions based on educational testing was supposed to provide a level playing field, but now there are many consultants who, for a fee, can teach you how to score higher on a test than your knowledge warrants.  The playing field becomes increasingly tilted, but the winners retain their sense of entitlement.

Inequality in the United States has become what Hayes called “fractal.”  Americans in the upper 10 percent income bracket get about half the national income, but the top 1 percent get half of everything the top 10 percent get; the top 1/10th of 1 percent get half of everything the top 1 percent get; and so on with the top 1/100th of 1 percent, which is a few hundred people.  This makes income inequality is an issue for almost everybody, no matter what bracket they’re in.  Hayes is encouraged by this.  I’m not so sure myself.  I think it is perfectly possible to resent those above you on the income scale while fearing those below you.

We Americans historically have believed that inequality is all right so long as there is a rough equality of opportunity.  The problem with this, as Hayes pointed out, is that great inequality in wealth and income generates inequality of opportunity.  We Americans think we have more opportunity to rise than Europeans with their welfare states, but statistics indicate that it is harder for us to rise out of the social class in which we’re born than it is for them.

Hayes thinks income inequality would be less if taxes were higher (total U.S. taxes from all sources are about 26 percent of GDP, he reported, down from about 30 percent in 2000) and if there were more public services, such as libraries and parks, that are open to all on a equal basis.

Twilight of the Elites has a chapter to what Hayes calls the “social distance” between the elites.  Jacob Riis, writing at the turn of the previous century, remarked that “half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.”  Right now the upper 1 percent are so insulated they have no idea how 90 percent of the fellow Americans live.  As a minor example, I read how Senator Richard Russell, a powerful leader in the 1950s and 1960s, loved baseball and would go to games and sit in the bleachers; nowadays somebody in his position would watch from a skybox provided by some lobbyist.   Military service once brought men from all classes of society together.  Now the upper crust shun military service.

I think that’s why the police can be so savage in clamping down on Occupy Wall Street and other protest groups.  The upper crust hate and fear having their space invaded by the rabble.  Hayes thinks things might be different if “social distance” were less.

The root of the problem, as I see it, is a moral and philosophical one—the false idea that whatever provides the highest financial return is best for society, and therefore the impersonal workings of the free market can be a substitute for individual ethics.  The case for a competitive free market is that it is more efficient and less oppressive than central economic planning.  It can never be a substitute for standards of ethics and professionalism.  Today the most trusted institution in American society is the armed forces.  The professionalism and code of honor of the military meritocracy is not measured by mere money.

If any form of society that is likely to exist, some people are going to have more wealth and power than other people.  That would be true even if there were less inequality than there is now.  The problem is when there is a lack of accountability—when members of the elite do not feel accountable to any internal or external standard for the way in which they exercise their power, and we the people do have have or use the means to hold them accountable.

Click on Why Elites Fail for an excerpt from Christopher Hayes’ book, which gives the essence of his argument in his own words.

Click on The Age of Illusion: an Interview with Chris Hayes for an interview of Hayes for Jacobin magazine.

Click on The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America for a critical review of the book by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Click on Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our Nation’s Anxiety Epidemic for an excellent article by Maura Kelly in The Atlantic about the harmfulness of believing that life is fair and that what you get is what you deserve.