The blogger called Miss Self-Important has said in response to this post of mine that my hostility to meritocracy, far from being radical, is now the consensus view, especially among meritocrats themselves. This is wonderful if true. She also says that critics of meritocracy who themselves have ample meritocratic credentials (which is most if not all of them) have a tendency to regard themselves as rare exceptions—to say, as she puts it, “I have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud.” This is not wonderful, but in my case, it is not true.
Her exact words (remember that I held up eccentric undergraduate monarchists as model opponents of meritocracy):
Everyone is already against the meritocracy, and the monarchists just allege a different evil consequence. Undergraduate monarchism is another species of looking around at your peers and concluding that their deranged, possibly Adderall-fueled productivity has caused them to grow into twisted things, all lacking some aspect of character that would conduce to your preferred image of human wholeness—compassion or (ugh) “real passion,” self-direction, depth of inquiry, correct use of otium (the latter being the monarchist contribution).
But all of these ways of thinking about what’s wrong imply that, whatever it is, it’s them and not you. Everyone else has been deformed by the competitive machine that miraculously left you untouched. Meritocracy’s bunk, sure, but you basically deserve to be where you are because you get what it’s really about (insert here: passion, self-direction, deep inquiry, otium, whatever your priority), while everyone else is just in it for the money/status/girls. So you have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud.
Before I get to disagreeing, let me relate an anecdote. I was having drinks with a friend who is something of an expert in the history of Yale. I tried to argue that the Ivy League should concentrate more on the transmission of upper-class values, and by way of making my point I described a tragedy I had seen play out many times. The poor Midwestern and Southern kids who came to Yale precisely to be inducted into the ways of pink-pants-wearing, fancy-cocktail-party-going, and fashionable-charity-choosing found that there was no longer a critical mass of students who could impart such knowledge. They wanted to learn how to behave in an upper-class fashion convincingly and conscientiously more than they wanted to gain access to the upper class (though they wanted that too). Alas, the Yale experience could only offer them the access. My friend asked if I was one of these people.
“No, a lot of them were the guys who wore suits, drank port, and joined the Tory Party. I ran in a slightly different circle of young conservatives. But I still think that Yale should have given those guys what they wanted.”
“And what did you want from Yale?”
“A Socratic grove of inquiring minds and intellectual stimulation.”
“And do you think Yale should have also given you what you wanted?”
“No, because what I wanted was unreasonable.”
Yale and Harvard are capitals of elite culture, not intellectual ferment, because that’s what they’ve always been. Yale could make a fervent passion for ideas the sole criterion for admission, and ambitious careerists would only find a way to fake it. (I wrote those sentences four years ago for my first anti-meritocracy article, which Rita cited. It’s still true.) That is what I meant when I said that what I wanted from Yale is unreasonable.
Contrary to what Miss Self-Important says, I don’t believe that I deserved to go to Yale whereas the Adderall-popping bots did not. As things are right now, saying that someone deserves to go to Yale is synonymous with saying they deserve a one-way ticket to the corridors of power. I don’t deserve that, and neither did anyone I met in my four years there. But it is a deeply held principle of mine that the people who run the country shouldn’t believe that they deserve to run the country.* In that sense, nobody deserves what Yale currently offers. That’s my point. Any meritocracy will inevitably instill in the elite it produces a feeling that they deserve the power they have been granted. Therefore, no meritocracy of any description will ever meet my standard for a satisfactory system.
If you ask me what I think should replace the current system, the answer is that I don’t know. The fatalist in me says: Wait until the current meritocratic elite congeals into a proper oligarchy. (If Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites is right, we don’t have long to wait.) Then, make that oligarchy feel really, really guilty—teach them other virtues too, but the overwhelming sense of guilt is very important. Ivy League schools would be excellent instruments for this. As I said at the end of that earlier post, I’m all for allowing the occasional exception to bring some fresh blood into the mix—the genuinely genius-grade and, realistically speaking, also the pathologically ambitious. But too many would be counterproductive. Remember: If you want people to be inducted into an elite in a way that will satisfy the newcomers’ legitimate desire for acceptance and a sense of accomplishment, as well as the country’s legitimate desire for linking admission to the elite with acceptance of a healthy set of ethical norms, then you need an established elite for them to be inducted into, which requires a certain amount of stability. And don’t feel too sorry for the slightly-less-than-genius folks who get excluded—they’ll set up their own alternative centers of power, which will create a kind of diversity that will make the whole country better off. Sometimes big fish do better by starting out in small ponds.
* I often find myself thinking that no one actually deserves power, and the respect due to authority never (or practically never) has had anything to do with desert. Legitimacy is just another word for magic! But that is another post.