An Elite Like Any Other? Meritocracy in America

Twilight of the Elites:
America After Meritocracy

by Christopher Hayes
Crown, 2012, 304 pp.

The Left has spent the recent past forming new and rediscovering old arguments against inequality. The realization that the 1 percent’s dominance over the country is strengthening, instead of disappearing, in the wake of the financial crash has pushed writers and thinkers to rebuild their case against runaway inequality from the ground up.

Though these arguments often come from different places and seek to accomplish divergent things, together they create a sense of purpose and urgency, and a set of political objectives. Those who worry about massive economic inequality because it leads to the capture of political institutions don’t have much in common with those who see equality as a goal in itself, except, perhaps, the desire to bring about campaign finance reform. Economists digging into the relationship between inequality and financial crises aren’t necessarily contributing to the same project as liberals calling for equality of opportunity, yet both lead us toward economic redistribution for public good.

But there’s one major area that is usually missing in these discussions: a critique of the American tradition of meritocracy and of our current meritocratic elites and institutions. Understanding the institutions and norms that create our elites, and shape their functions in society, is as important as understanding how much of the economic pie they take home. In his new book, Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes has created such a framework, using the major scandals of the past decade as case studies for understanding how broken our institutions and the elites who inhabit them have become.

Hayes’s book makes for a great read. Most books on inequality are firehoses of charts and facts; Twilight uses a wide variety of academic and journalistic work, balancing a deep, systemic critique of society with detailed and empathetic reporting about those most affected by elite failure. The book builds its narrative with testimony, from those who survived the horrors of Hurricane Katrina to whistleblowers at Enron.

TWILIGHT THREADS a difficult needle: its arguments are democratic, yet ultimately defend the existence of elite institutions; it includes but also goes beyond reform. This is an important improvement on the three most common critiques of meritocracy, which incorporate some of these elements but not others. Hayes manages to balance the efforts of those who want to fix the meritocracy with those seeking to replace it.

The first and most common critique of the meritocracy comes from a place of nostalgia—like when David Brooks wonders where all the nice old (white, Protestant, male) elites who cared about the country and exercised their noblesse oblige with dignity went. Hayes takes it for granted that increasing access for all types of people to elite positions, though by no means a complete project, is a good, democratic thing and worth defending. Twilight is therefore not a manifesto for the second critique of meritocracy either, which calls for eliminating elite positions and replacing them with radical forms of democracy. Hayes contrasts “institutionalists”—who ultimately want to reform the elite to make them more democratic, responsive, and responsible—and “insurrectionists,” who want to tear down the system, and he ultimately identifies with the former.

The third typical criticism of the meritocratic system is the idea that the game is rigged, as in the common example of wealthier students paying to learn how to take tests that allow meritocratic advancement. Though an important part of the discussion, this focus on improving the meritocracy can lead people to think that making a better test—or, more broadly, expanding equality of opportunity—is enough to fix the problem. This doesn’t leave room for a more extensive discussion about the way elites function in society, even when they reach the top fairly.

Twilight avoids that trap by creating a framework for discussing meritocratic elite failure. This framework is best thought of as a map in two dimensions. The first is the horizontal relationship the meritocracy produces among the elite, and the second is the vertical distance the meritocracy puts between them and the rest of the population.

The meritocratic elite, according to Hayes’s reporting, take their ethos very seriously, but also have an edge of contempt. Because the ideology of the meritocracy reduces all success to narrow measures of intelligence, or of money (which to the elite looks like intelligence rewarded in the marketplace), those at the top become extremely anxious about even the minutest differences among themselves. And given how inequality skyrockets the further up you go in the top 1 percent, in a pattern the book cleverly refers to as “fractal inequality,” there is all the more room for elites to nervously compare themselves to their betters. The American meritocracy is among the richest in the world, yet its members are always worried they are falling behind. No elite can afford to stop pushing forward.

This isn’t unrelated to the various ways in which the system has been gamed. From test prep to performance-enhancing drugs to the manipulation of energy prices, elites can boost their performance in many small ways. Some of these are illegal or unethical, but once some people begin to cheat, a prisoner’s dilemma scenario develops, and everyone has to toss their ethics aside to remain in the game. These “open secrets,” as the book describes them, show the dark side of having a single metric for all success.

Hayes also discusses the relationship between the meritocratic elite and those that they have power over. Existing in a separate universe of high-end schools and office places, the elite’s interactions with everyone else in the world are limited. This significant social distance blunts any attempts at democratic accountability, including the accountability that comes through shared social and cultural norms. And the more the elite are isolated from the rest of the country, the more likely that their failures, when they inevitably occur, will be massive and spectacular.

This elite, detached from the greater society, become firmly entrenched through what Hayes calls the “iron law of meritocracy.” The meritocracy ultimately morphs into the kind of privileged oligarchy it was meant to bury. The system becomes rigged so people can’t fail out of it, allowing some to rise up for reasons having nothing to do with merit. The same characters from the past two decades reappear over and over again in elite positions; it’s one of the defining characteristics of our time.

The model presented by Hayes works very well as a framework for further discussion, and will hopefully endure as such. However, it isn’t always clear if the problem is elites coming out of meritocratic structures, or elites period. Was the torture-regime architect David Addington, brought up by Hayes as a product of the meritocracy, able to do what he did because people were intimidated by his intelligence? Or is it better to view him as a career civil servant using a time of crisis to manipulate a bureaucracy he knew inside-out? The police also have “open secrets” and problems that result from their socioeconomic distance from the people they mostly interact with, yet they are not a simple meritocratic institution by any means.

TWILIGHT NOTES that whenever political energy is aligned with the meritocratic project, that project succeeds, and whenever power is aligned against it, it fails. Political goals in conflict with meritocracy face an even starker challenge. Expanding formal opportunities for previously excluded groups has been a winner; expanding unionization or other forms of solidarity that press against “merit” as the sole decider of life’s outcomes have been losers.

But meritocracy goes beyond this in limiting the possibilities of politics. A friend of mine at an Ivy League university teaches business students about John Rawls in a class on politics and leadership. The students are with Rawls when it comes to equality of opportunity. And some of them, especially the liberal ones, are with him on the idea that one doesn’t simply deserve whatever the market determines. But when Rawls gets to the parts about how people don’t deserve their natural talents, and how society should have a veto over their claims to their intelligence, the wheels come off the bus. It is almost impossible to get elite students to understand that there could be other ways of thinking about society than as a hierarchy of talent, with rewards allotted as such. If the point of politics is merely to get the best people into the most important positions, then it is beyond its scope to help those at lower stations, let alone empower them. At most, this kind of thinking leads to a neoliberal politics of pity and charity—of means-tested welfare—and the hope that the children of meritocracy’s losers might get a different roll of the dice.

There are alternatives. A politics of broad empowerment in all spheres of life—economic, political, civil, and more—has deep roots in the United States. Twilight calls upon these arguments in its conclusion, making a case for greater equality. But it is difficult to understand how egalitarian politics can flourish under the current regime of merit. The meritocracy is scornful of efforts to achieve equality of outcomes instead of opportunities. This conflict is one reason a clear, post-Obama agenda for the liberal project is difficult to imagine.

But reformulating our social structures to empower people broadly, rather than to allow mobility for a chosen few, must be the next step beyond meritocratic liberalism. As Alex Gourevitch and Aziz Rana have argued, a politics of social mobility ultimately fails because it only has room for a certain amount of people to “escape relations of dependence and control” found in the market. The aim should be to move all people from dependence to independence, and to eliminate all forms of domination. The current form of meritocratic social mobility is a zero-sum game, built on exclusivity and hierarchy.

Furthermore, as Michael Walzer noted in Spheres of Justice, inequality becomes most pernicious when it threatens to collapse all forms of hierarchy into a single measure, be it money, intelligence, or “merit.” The best way to combat a tyranny of merit is to balance it with other forms of inequality, creating a “complex equality” where no one criterion dominates all others. The financial crisis could have been mitigated if authorities listened as much to community banks and activists as superstar financial elites; the former may have lacked the credentials of the latter, but they had superior knowledge of (and empathy toward) those most affected. Whenever one hears about how smart someone powerful is—so smart that they should be allowed to exert power beyond their purview, as when hedge fund managers advocate and even run privatized schools—we should recognize these “smarts” as a power to be checked using other forms of local, or even bureaucratic, knowledge.

This issue isn’t going away. The 1 percent regime is more resilient than anyone could have realized going into this decade of failure, and a new worldview will be necessary to check its power and bring about real freedom.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and blogs at Rortybomb.

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