Everyone tends to make fun of the young conservatives who dress like dandies, drink port, go high church, and profess to be monarchists. Not me. First of all, in those rare souls who can pull it off, the effect is sublime. More importantly, even the most callow, self-parodic monarchist phase serves as an inoculation against thinking like this:
We on the Right have meritocracy as a cornerstone of our thinking. In a just society, we believe, a man should reap rewards according to his natural abilities and willingness to study hard, work hard, and sacrifice for his own advancement. I think most Americans believe that, but it’s more of an article of faith on the Right.
No, no, no, no, no. Meritocracy as we know it has only existed for about fifty years, which is definitely not enough time for it to have entered conservatism’s DNA. Perhaps Rod Dreher is conflating capitalism and meritocracy and assuming that conservatism’s faith in one must extend to the other. It’s an easy mistake to make at this particular moment in history. The Left has taken to arguing that the rewards of the market have zero relation to merit (“You didn’t build that”), which forces the Right to emphasize the fact that the two have at least something to do with each other. But at the end of the day, conservatism embraces capitalism for the same reason that Lord Salisbury said that British foreign policy should respect the right of conquest—not because it apportions rewards to the deserving, but because it’s just the simplest way to sort out who owns what. I have always found it odd that the same therapeutically minded liberals who put such stock in “closure” at the level of personal psychology fail to recognize the same principle in politics, where deciding a question with finality is often more important than deciding it rightly. At a certain point, people just need to move on.
Fifty years is enough time for meritocracy to have become irreversible, like the New Deal, but I don’t think it has. I mean, everybody seems to hate it. Soon people might stop trying to make the meritocracy work better and start thinking of ways to dismantle it.
So that’s what lame undergraduate monarchism is good for: At a time when most Americans are banging their heads against a wall, unable to fathom what it would be like to abandon the principle of meritocracy, it presents an alternative mental landscape in a way that is three-dimensionally vivid and, let’s be honest, quite appealing. What it can’t do, being so backward-looking, is offer intellectual arguments against meritocracy as it exists today. So here’s a few of those:
- Any time you tell someone about a problem, their first instinct is to think of their own past problems and what they did to solve them. Tell a man your grandmother just died, and he’ll start talking about how when his own grandmother died, throwing himself into his lepidoptery really helped take his mind off it. It’s bad enough when we do this to our friends, but it’s ten times worse in politics, where the people whose problems we’re trying to solve have backgrounds and priorities radically unlike our own. Meritocracy gives free reign to this terrible instinct for projection, instead of treating this form of vanity the way it should be treated, by having our leaders write out a hundred times on the blackboard statements like “As an educated person, I vastly, vastly overrate the importance of education in the lives of other people.”
- Politics works best when there are many different centers of power, but meritocracy concentrates power in a single ivied pipeline. This is obviously true geographically, with the brain drain out of fly-over country, but that’s not the only problem. You might suppose that young people with world-class potential would aspire to different colleges depending on whether their expertise is finance, short fiction, or figure skating. Today, all these different prodigies are being funneled to the same places. (In the bad old days, Yale was content to dominate Wall Street and the State Department.) The end result is that the country’s most respected economists have the same background and speak the same cultural language as its most respected journalists, diplomats, and poets. The top tier of any profession is inevitably going to be a bit insular and clubby, but various fields’ top minds shouldn’t all belong to the same insular club.
- By sending everyone to college, we’re creating an electorate full of people who are just smart enough to trust experts but not smart enough to know when experts are spouting total bull. I don’t want to romanticize the down-to-earth skepticism of the noble unlettered, but let’s be honest: A lot of PhD’s say very stupid things about their areas of expertise, but an average person needs a heck of a lot of education before he feels confident enough to call them out on it. If we’re not going to educate people to the point where they can call BS on well-credentialed idiocy, I’d rather have a voting majority of people who raise their eyebrows, spit on the ground, and say they never much went in for book-larnin’.
I’ve got more, but let’s leave it there and move on to solutions. How can we have a post-meritocratic America that isn’t wildly, medievally unjust? Well, here’s one way to think about it. Jeffrey Hart once summarized a stable democracy is one where the average man “simultaneously does not participate in politics and assumes that he could if he wanted to.” He is “the potentially active citizen.” This makes perfect sense. No one actually wants the average person to have much political power, since (a) the average person is dumb and (b) asking sane people to follow politics that closely is asking them to volunteer for torture, incredibly boring torture.
Apply this to social mobility, and you get a world of potentially active meritocrats. People would assume that if their kid turns out to be an honest-to-goodness genius, he or she can go to Harvard and eventually run the IMF or something, but non-genius high-schoolers would no longer believe that their future success depends on attending the highest-ranked college they can get into. The ladder of meritocracy would remain in the realm of potential most of the time, and more men and women of talent would graduate to positions of power by other ladders than meritocracy. If more people went to college closer to home, that would be a step in the right direction. If fewer people went to college at all, that would be better.