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Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy

Matt Wasserman Sep 25

Twilight of the Elites
By Christopher Hayes
Crown Publishers, 2012

The word “meritocracy” was originally intended as a satirical term. The British sociologist Michael Young coined it in 1958 to describe a dystopian future society where social position was strictly determined by intelligence. On this side of the pond, however, we aspire to Young’s dystopia. The notion that wealth and power are doled out based on hard work and aptitude more than luck or inheritance is one of the central myths that justifies skyrocketing inequality. Given the mantra of equality of opportunity, to even talk of inequality of outcomes is to engage in a politics of envy or class warfare.

In Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes explores the brave new world of our meritocratic elites. One of the book’s central themes is the corruption of meritocratic selection mechanisms by elites seeking to pass on their status to their progeny. The mechanisms are myriad, from better schools and after-school tutoring to old-fashioned personal connections and donations. In Hayes’ paraphrase of Robert Michels, a German sociologist who wrote about the tendency of complex organizations to turn into oligarchies despite the intentions of their members, “he who says meritocracy says oligarchy.” The relatively few members of the elite with rags-to-riches stories serve in part to convince those born on third base of how impressive it is that they made it to home plate.

A second theme is the myriad failures of elites over the past decade — most notably the financial crisis — and their collective refusal to take accountability for their actions. Hayes argues this behavior has given rise to a decade-long “crisis of authority” that is at the root of much of the outrage of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. While his periodization is questionable — there has been talk of a “crisis of authority” since Watergate, if not the Enlightenment — it is striking that instead of financial executives donning prison jumpsuits or surrendering their stock options, they’re continuing to collect multi-million dollar salaries.

Hayes cites Karen Ho’s fascinating ethnography of investment bankers, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, to argue that those in the financial sector have internalized the notion that their outsize paychecks are just compensation for their oversized brains. In short, according to Hayes, not only has meritocracy been corrupted by elites, it is also corrupting of elites. The embarrassment of knowing that their wealth was owed to an accident of birth historically shamed aristocrats into a sense of owing something to the rest of society, but meritocrats feel no such obligation.

While Hayes’ linkage between a meritocratic ethos and elite failure is perhaps a promising narrative for political mobilization across the ideological spectrum, the connections he makes are intellectually sloppy. As a rule, elites attempt to defend their privileges and pass them on to their children. Hayes fails to convincingly argue that there is something distinctive about the meritocratic ethos that underlies the failures of judgment and refusal to take responsibility of American elites. The problem is perhaps not so much with meritocracy as with the social distance and inequality that is a key characteristic of all oligarchies.

Hayes correctly insists that the only way we can have greater equality of opportunity is if we have greater equality of outcomes. Nonetheless, he retains a far too rosy view of the democratic possibilities of meritocracy. In the chapter he devotes to his alma mater, Hunter College High School, he suggests that when he attended the school in the late 1990s, it was nearly the ideal of meritocracy. Hayes paints a picture of a simpler time, when it was still unheard of for prospective students’ parents to hire tutors and enroll their children in expensive test prep classes. But even before Kaplan or Princeton Review existed, the financial, intellectual and cultural capital of parents still played a major role in whether their children succeeded in gaining entrance to selective public schools. Affluent parents tend to engage in a “concerted cultivation” mode of child-rearing, bringing all their resources to bear in order to ensure the success of their offspring. Private tutoring accentuates inequalities, but it is hardly the sole vector by which inequality is reproduced.

We have indeed been failed by really existing meritocracy, but Hayes is naïve to think that the solution is to work for a more genuinely meritocratic society. It is time instead to abandon the notion of meritocracy as a legitimating myth for inequality. In the absence of substantive equality, equality of opportunity can only be a mirage.