David Brooks has a thought-provoking column today on how meritocracy creates geography-based aristocracies (and, therefore, inequalities) that government action can scarcely ameliorate. Excerpt:

Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. When they get there they often find a culture shock.

They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of social equality and now find themselves in a culture that emphasizes the relentless quest for distinction — to be more accomplished, more enlightened and more cutting edge. They may have been raised in a culture that emphasizes roots, but they go into a culture that emphasizes mobility — a multicultural cosmopolitanism that encourages you to go anywhere on your quest for self-fulfillment. They may have been raised among people who enter the rooms of the mighty with the nerves of a stranger, but they are now around people who enter the highest places with the confident sense they belong.

But the system works. In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs they learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There’s no economic reason to return home, and maybe it’s not even socially possible anymore.

The highly educated cluster around a few small nodes. Decade after decade, smart and educated people flock away from Merced, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., Flint, Mich., and Vineland, N.J. In those places, less than 15 percent of the residents have college degrees. They flock to Washington, Boston, San Jose, Raleigh-Durham and San Francisco. In those places, nearly 50 percent of the residents have college degrees.

As Enrico Moretti writes in “The New Geography of Jobs,” the magnet places have positive ecologies that multiply innovation, creativity and wealth. The abandoned places have negative ecologies and fall further behind.

Brooks says that the idea of redistributing the wealth won’t really address this dynamic. I can’t see that he’s wrong. It’s the culture of a place that draws certain people to it. I was talking with a New York friend last night who had a similar relationship with his sister that I had with my own: he moved away from the family home, she stayed, and she wasn’t happy with him about that. He said he pointed out that he believed he had a calling to do a particular kind of work, and that kind of work could not be pursued if he remained in their area. Given how good my friend is at what he does, and how much success he’s had, this is obviously true.

Yet it is probably true that 60, 70 years ago, my friend would not have had to leave his home to do what he does, or at least wouldn’t have had to go so far away. Me too, and I’m very aware that my move back to my hometown is only possible because the Internet has made it possible for me to do my job from there. The more interesting question to me is what is it about a place that makes smart, talented people want to live there?

I’m pretty sure I have a good handle on the answer to that question, but the more difficult question, the question few smart, talented people ask or are prompted by our culture to ask, is: Should I want these things above anything else? 

The death of my sister Ruthie forced the question on Julie and me, and we answered it by moving to St. Francisville. We are very happy with our move, even though we don’t have most of the things that made daily life pleasant in a consumerist sense. But we had things going for us that made this decision a lot easier: I’m from a beautiful part of the country, I have a good family back home, and good friends, and I could do a job I love while living there. If I had been from another town, even in my same part of the country, it would have been a lot harder to have returned. So this choice is complicated by our individual circumstances.

Still, Brooks is onto something. People today feel liberated from any obligation to place, and all that entails (family networks, especially). Rising to the potential of one’s merits is not only one thing they think about when deciding on a place to live; it’s the only thing. As with our discussion of Downton Abbey, aristocracy, and the meritocracy that displaced it, the justice of the case for meritocracy may make it superior to what it replaced, and in any case we should be pleased that people are not limited by circumstances of their birth from being able to realize the fullest expression of their talents. Yet we must face the fact that meritocracy creates its own aristocracy, and that those who are not in the meritocratically privileged classes will suffer from it.

In ages past, the smart kid from a small town may have returned to his hometown and opened a business, or a law or medical practice, and so on. He would have put his talents to use building up his community, not as an act of charity, but because it wouldn’t have occurred to him to do anything but that — or if it had, there were powerful cultural forces pushing against it. This was my father’s story. He’s the classic case of a smart, talented young person who subjected his own ambition to the limits of place and family. Now, at the end of his life, he’s not sure he did the right thing. Today, when I talk to talented young people in Louisiana — and this is the way I and many of my friends at LSU talked in the 1980s — all they want to do is get out of Louisiana. I understand that, because I was that on steroids. Then things changed, and I saw the value of what I left behind. You know that story.

The point here, though, is that nobody these days feels an obligation to anything larger than their own ambition and desire — and that has real-world consequences for places you can find on the map. We are all implicated in this. If you are living in one of these towns, and you are raising your kids with the expectation that they will leave, and should want to leave for the sake of their career, you’re implicated in it too.

A friend told me recently that the problem with TAC conservatives and Front Porch Republic conservatives is that we’re all very good on analysis, but poor on solutions. If that’s true, then this is a perfect example of it. I don’t know how to turn this around, except for converting people’s hearts in the same way mine was converted. Maybe that’s a kind of solution, I dunno.

[Say, folks, I'll be traveling back to Louisiana today, so only able to approve comments sporadically. Please be patient.]