Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Thoughts on Meritocracy

by Jeff Polet

Thoughts on Meritocracy

For many Americans the rule by a “meritocracy” seems as self-evident as the truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Who, after all, is opposed to merit, to judging people by their merits, and to removing all barriers that allow people to assume their rightful positions of leadership.

The term, so far as I know, is of relatively recent vintage, although the concept is not. (For the record, the term itself is an odd hybrid of Latin and Greek roots.) Criticisms of the idea of a meritocracy and its potentially corrosive social effects can be found in the writings of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1958, Michael Dunlop Young published his satirical The Rise of the Meritocracy, wherein he repeated the claim that the central problem of a meritocracy is that people tend to believe that they have risen to the top on their own merits, while those who are left behind are, by extension, without merit. Social life would then become a competitive enterprise that featured battles for wealth, status, and power and — here’s the key thing — the victors would not only get to enjoy the spoils, but people at the bottom were seen to be there as a result of their lack of ability. In other words, as Burke and Tocqueville both saw, an emphasis on merit would deepen social divisions by erasing the sense that people on top have obligations to the people at the bottom. This loss of the old idea of noblesse oblige would mean, Tocqueville observed, that the new ruling class would have “all the vices and none of the virtues of the old aristocracy.”

I’ve spent enough time with people who are at the top to know that is far from being universally true, but it does seem to be a marked feature of at least parts of our leadership class who look down on their inferiors with a kind of sneering contempt. Granted, they’re not contemptuous of all struggling groups, and they might embrace one group as a way of forestalling ciriticism (think of those who forcefully advocated for Black Lives Matter while sneering at the J.D. Vance types), but in the main they both isolate themselves from the consequences of such selectivity (and are, indeed, shocked when they discover that pitchforks still exist) and justify it by asserting their moral superiority.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I re-read an essay Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that offered a qualified and controversial defense of the old WASP (white, anglo-saxon, protestant) idea.

But I think that same upper class was unwise to abandon an aristocratic self-conception in favor of a meritocratic one. On the evidence we have, the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition, and it forges an elite that has an aristocracy’s vices (privilege, insularity, arrogance) without the sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige that WASPs at their best displayed.

According to Douthat, the religious underpinnings of WASP culture domesticated the competitive enterprise, tamed the exercise of power, and directed their energies toward the public good. Part of the reason for its collapse was undoubtedly its racial and sexual biases, but Douthat also directs our attention toward WASPS operating as their own gravediggers.

But then the WASPs themselves decided to dissolve their own aristocracy, and transform their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system — a more democratic way of education, in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder, and personal achievement and technical expertise would be prized above all else.

Douthat argues that this transformed system didn’t work out the way the reformers hoped. I’d add that it seldom does. One problem with the meritocracy is that it leads to segregation on the basis of education and wealth. Very rarely do rich people and poor people interact with one another as they once did (especially since many rich people opt out of the system of public education altogether, an impulse that was fully revealed in the admissions crises of some years ago, the central point of which was that meritocrats would game the system to the advantage of their progeny especially if those kids were lacking in merit). Educated people tend to be drawn to vibrant, large cities, thus creating a brain drain in the “backward and benighted” places they left behind. Once in those cities, they tend to cluster in neighborhoods.

This means that the rich will not only hoard wealth, but more importantly they will hoard opportunity, in part by working the system of schools. This will often include vigorous defenses of the public school system while they send their own children to private schools with tuition costs over $50,000 a year. For 8 year-olds. Again, such hoarding is not universally the case, but it is mitigated only when those with means feel a deep sense of connection to their place, with its multiplicity of actors and interests. I take West Michigan to be a model of this kind of civic sensibility, but it’s not the only place where I’ve witnessed this.

The main problem with meritocracy is that it allows those who rise to the top to feel as if they have earned everything they have. This attenuates both a sense of gratitude and a sense of obligation toward those “beneath” them. Douthat puts it this way:

But even as it restratifies society, the meritocratic order also insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned. “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple,” Ann Richards famously quipped of George H.W. Bush; well, the typical meritocrat is born on third base, hustles home, and gets praised as if he just hit a grand slam.
This spirit discourages inherited responsibility and cultural stewardship; it brushes away the disciplines of duty; it makes the past seem irrelevant, because everyone is supposed to come from the same nowhere and rule based on technique alone.

One consequence of this will be an increased tendency to see all social problems as being soluble by technocratic-scientific means, rather than allowing the light of  experience to help guide us through the darkness. A more sinister consequence is the accompanying smugness, the arrogance of those who have risen through the sorting process and believe that such ascendancy confers on them special powers. This smugness of much of the ruling class is one of the most disturbing and important features of our day.

As power and wealth concentrate ever more into the hands of this ruling elite, the need for both justification (meritocracy) and misdirection (commitment to diversity) intensifies. The recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action both exposed and resulted in a crisis for those at the top. The language of diversity and inclusion was from the beginning intended to hide the uniformity and exclusivity of the ruling class. Universities, after all, pride themselves on how exclusive their admissions are. This is why battles over affirmative action always involve admissions into elite universities and are never about who works on construction sites or assembly lines. People farther down the social scale don’t talk as much about diversity because they live it; but the people at the top need such talk as a way of legitimating their stranglehold on power and preventing criticism by throwing crusts to the peasants. This is why the University of Michigan, precisely because of its excellence and reputation, employs 163(!) diversity officers. You don’t have to be a cynic to see that as a fig leaf. Schools not so high up the food chain will always copy the behavior of those at the top; first because they aspire to be there themselves, second because they believe it gives them credibility, and third because they lack the fortitude to suggest that maybe meritocratic advancement should not be the mission of an academic institution.

Those who run all these DEI operations would do well to remember that they never accomplish their stated goals. Indeed, studies have overwhelmingly indicated that not only are these initiatives as useless as they are expensive, they are often counter-productive. When faced with this evidence, schools will typically double-down, claiming that the failure results only from a lack of resources. In the meantime, as the article about the University of Michigan makes clear, the people who inhabit the institution feel more unhappy about their situation and experience more uncertainty about their status, especially if they are coached to see themselves as victims. All the talk about diversity and difference and authenticity masks the truth of our condition.

Our college campuses are the most racially and ethnically and sexually diverse institutions ever created, but are stultifying in their ideological and practical uniformity. You will not find there an emphasis on diversity of careers, or the importance of a variety of tasks without which society cannot function. Those so-called menial tasks that are performed on campuses are hidden from view, usually performed at night or in remote corners, and never recognized by an ungrateful group of faculty and students. Nor could they be, given our belief that such tasks are beneath some people. If students and faculty really want to experience diversity they should go work in a factory or on a farm.

A certain consequence of an emphasis on meritocracy is that it will breed both contempt and resentment. It rewards those who have been favored by nature and chance, and punishes those who haven’t, and this means, in a democratic society, that a certain amount of guilt is built into the condition of those who have risen to the top, and the expiation of said guilt becomes a social imperative, which is why they have such elaborate symbols and ceremonies surrounding the idea of diversity. Even while they confess their sins, they will never seek to undo the system itself from which they have benefitted. The failure of such rituals is precisely their point, both because it allows the priests to keep extracting their indulgences, and because repeating the rituals allows one to feel good about oneself without having to effect any actual changes. (When colleagues of mine would begin speeches with land acknowledgements, my response was “So give it back then. Otherwise your confessions are meaningless.” But confession without penance is the order of the day; we are back to adorning ourselves very publicly in sackcloth and ashes.) In this sense, we see how the meritocratic impulse fulfilled Burke’s and Tocqueville’s fears: that meritocratic competition results in a society where everyone feels anxious and confused and miserable.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the alternatives to meritocracy? How might its problems or excesses be corrected?
  2. Can we count on individuals dismantling a system from which they’ve benefitted?
  3. How might Matthew 6:1-4 guide us in rethinking the meritocracy? [“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”]
  4. How have colleges come to play such a central role in meritocratic sorting, and how much of our current controversies about our universities a result of this?

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