Opinion: The case against meritocracy

This week I briefly trended on Twitter — a bracing experience for any columnist because it means you’ve done your job of provocation a little bit too well.

In my particular case the provocation was a column about the phenomenon of George H.W. Bush nostalgia, which I suggested reflected a general nostalgia for some of the aristocratic virtues of the old WASP establishment and a disappointment with the meritocracy that has risen in its place.

This argument was read by certain readers as a paean to white privilege, even a brief for white supremacy. In these misreadings, there was an assumption that to praise, in any way, the elite that predated the modern meritocracy is to reject racial diversity, minority and female advancement, in favor of permanent white rule.

That’s not my view.

I think it was a good and necessary thing that the American upper class diversified and that more African-Americans and Jews and Catholics (like myself) and women now share privileges and powers once reserved for Protestant white men.

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.

Here it’s important to stress that a WASP was not just any white Protestant of the pre-1960s past. The term properly refers to a specific kind of American elite, mostly from the Northeast, concentrated in a few cities (Boston, Philadelphia, New York, plus some Midwestern and Californian outposts), generally associated with the Republican Party (with occasional defectors like FDR), who dominated a particular set of fields (academia, finance, foreign policy) and shared the code of service and piety and manners that defined the elder Bush’s career.

The older American system was both hierarchical and permeable, with room for actual merit even without a meritocratic organizing theory.

Those advancing groups included non-Anglo-Saxons, and eventually non-Protestants and non-whites.

Their example suggested that an aristocratic spirit was transferable to a more diverse elite, that there could be Catholic and African-American and Jewish aristocrats who could adopt the WASP establishment’s upper-class virtues without the ethnic and religious chauvinism.

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.

This was meritocracy, the system that we now take for granted. And for several reasons it didn’t work as planned.

First, meritocracy segregates talent rather than dispersing it. By plucking the highest achievers from all over the country and encouraging them to cluster together in the same few cities, it robs localities of their potential leaders.

Second, the meritocratic elite inevitably tends back toward aristocracy because any definition of “merit” you choose will be easier for the children of these self-segregated meritocrats to achieve.

As a consequence, meritocrats are often educated to be bad leaders, and bad people, in a very specific way — a way of arrogant intelligence unmoored from historical experience, ambition untempered by self-sacrifice. The way of the “best and the brightest” at the dawn of the technocratic era and the “smartest guys in the room” decades later, the way of the arsonists of late-2000s Wall Street and the “move fast and break things” culture of Silicon Valley.

But I do want to raise the possibility that an aristocracy that knows itself to be one might be more clearsighted and effective than an aristocracy that doesn’t, and that the WASPs had at least one clear advantage over their presently-floundering successors: They knew who and what they were.