19 Mar 2019

Meritocracy and its Deficiencies


Yuval Levin, in NR, explains why the old WASP elite was really more meritorious than the modern Meritocracy.

For much of American history .. [t]he apex of American political, cultural, and economic power was largely the preserve of a fairly narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant near-aristocracy, centered in the Northeast and exercising power across generations. This was never an absolute barrier to others’ rising, of course, but it was a major obstacle.

The claim to power of this WASP elite, like that of most modern aristocracies, was a mix of heritage and rearing. They possessed their privileges by virtue of their birth, but they were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority. And they were—at least in principle though in many cases also in practice—expected to subject themselves to a code of behavior, a commitment to public service, a degree of personal reticence, a regard for the rules of fair play, and a sense of responsibility that was rooted in the implicit recognition that their power was an inherited privilege, not an earned achievement. …

This new aristocracy is in some important respects less reticent about its own legitimacy than the old. Because each of its members must work to prove his merit—to pass the key tests, and clear the key hurdles—today’s elite is more likely to believe it has earned its power, and possesses it by right more than privilege. Because our elite as a whole has inclined to this view, it tends to impose fewer restraints on its own uses of power, and generally doesn’t subscribe to the kind of code of conduct that sometimes characterized past aristocracies. Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as fulfilling an obligation to give back for an unearned privilege but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness and merit.

A meritocracy naturally assumes its authority is merited. But rather than prove its worth by its service to the larger society, the idea of merit at the core of our meritocracy is radically individualistic and dismally technocratic. The sort of elite that results implicitly substitutes a cold and sterile notion of intellect for a warm and spirited understanding of character as its measure of worth, and our society (including some elites themselves) increasingly cannot escape the intuition that this is an unjustifiable substitution. But rather than impose tests of character on itself, our elite inclines to respond to these concerns with increasingly intense displays of its ideal of social justice. It doubles down on the logic of meritocracy, adopts the language of privilege in its critiques of the larger society, and pushes for even more inclusive criteria of admission to elite institutions—all in an effort to make its claims to legitimate authority more persuasive.”


I was at Yale during two different eras.

In the short-haired, jacketed-and-tied all-male Yale of 1966, we hung our overcoats and left books and other personal property in the coatroom without a thought. No one would steal. There were silver water pitchers and sugar bowls engraved with the respective residential college arms in the dining halls.

In the long-haired, informal, coeducated and triumphantly meritocratic Yale of 1971, everyone left their coats and books on chairs in the Common Room within sight of the Dining Hall. If you left them unobserved, someone might walk off with them. The silver water pitchers and sugar bowls were all gone, stolen by the meritorious. I myself saw, on separate occasions, groups of undergraduates walking out of both the Skull & Bones tomb and the Berkeley College Common Room, carrying away expensive oriental rugs. The common rooms gradually emptied down to the very large leather couches, which were too big to fit in undergraduate rooms. Students had appropriated for personal use the common room lamps, chairs, and side tables.

And, personally, I don’t think the Meritocracy of that time has changed a lot over the years.


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