More than at any point in our history, the smartest people generally go to high school and certainly to college with one another, move en masse to “creative cities” after college, marry their fellow high achievers and then raise their kids in the cocoons of what Murray calls the SuperZips. The problem with this system isn’t that the meritocrats look down on working-class culture (though “Coming Apart” does get in plenty of digs at elite snobbery). Rather, it’s that the meritocrats don’t participate in working class culture, and that “assortative mating” and geographic clustering have deprived lower-income communities of the social capital (and with it, strong civic institutions, political influence, and so on) that the smart and diligent possess. In this sense, Murray’s analysis follows the late, great Christopher Lasch in arguing that meritocracy works almost too well: Plucking the best and brightest from every walk of life and then encouraging them to live in community almost exclusively with one another means that the rest of the country is deprived of people who otherwise would have been local leaders, local entrepreneurs, the hubs of local social networks, etc.
This explains why Murray’s general case for civic renewal at the end of “Coming Apart” includes a specific appeal to the new upper class, urging them to consider buying homes and joining local associations and raising their high-achieving children closer to the author’s blue collar “Fishtown,” and outside the cocoon of the SuperZIPS.
Douthat goes on to say that this solution is unrealistic because people won’t respond to exhortations like that against interest – but there’s another problem with the idea. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which these days is considered a “SuperZIP.” But it wasn’t always like that. What changed the neighborhood, bit by bit, was the combination of professional-class couples moving in, taking advantage of relatively low housing prices and willing to brave higher crime, inadequate services and housing stock in need of serious repair – and the efforts of community leaders with a deep attachment to place who were determined to do for themselves what the city was unwilling or (more often) unable to do.
The process sounds to me an awful lot like what Charles Murray recommends as the solution to the sorting problem created by meritocracy: take personal risks to get closer to working-class people, don’t hide out in your own gated communities.
And in Brooklyn, the word for that process is “gentrification.” And I’m all for it! It’s been great for Park Slope! But I can’t see how it’s a solution to the problems Murray is talking about.
On this, Douthat and I agree. We agree on a lot, actually. But not on one crucial, central thing.
As I said in my original post, I’m sympathetic to arguments against the ideology of meritocracy. But those arguments, it seems to me, take broadly speaking three forms.
First, you could argue that we don’t really have a meritocracy; rather, we have an elite that, like all elites, seeks self-perpetuation. The meritocratic innovations of earlier generations – like the creation of the SAT – really did open up the elite to a new class of people, but that’s all in the past, and now the elite is more concerned with making sure its kids stay in the ruling class than in making sure that children of the non-elite get a fair shot at moving up. I agree with this argument to a certain degree, particularly if you focus on the very negative impact of the worst schools on the prospects of the “best and brightest” among the poor.
Second, you could argue that sorting by IQ isn’t a great way to select a governing elite – that the very experience of early selection has a negative impact on character, and that the sharp narrowing of our rising elite’s life experience materially harms their ability to do their job well, which is to say: to govern our democracy. I agree with this argument as well – and the best evidence is the astonishing takeover of our elite universities by the financial services industry.
These are both arguments about how meritocracy doesn’t work perfectly in practice on its own terms, and I think they are important arguments to make. We want the doors to the elite to remain open to true merit, from whatever source; we want our elites to understand the country as a whole, and feel a responsibility to it commensurate with their power to shape it’s destiny, and not just feel that since they have great “merit” they deserve great reward.
But they are not arguments against the principle of meritocracy as such.
A third argument would be that meritocracy as such, however well it works at selecting the “best and brightest” for leadership, is only a partial approach to governing society; that in fact, meritocracy isn’t a parody of democracy, but a new – and, I would argue, better – form of aristocracy. (The word, “meritocracy” originates, after all, in a 1958 satire of Britain’s prospective new aristocracy based on test scores, and its literal meaning is identical to the meaning of “aristocracy” – to whit, “rule by the best.”) And for the health of a republic, this new aristocratic principle needs to be balanced by the democratic principle.
I would agree with this third argument as well – and this is the argument that I tried to make at the end of my last post on this subject.
Douthat and I will agree, I think, on many of the policy changes that could help improve the lives of working-class Americans. We both want to shift from payroll to consumption taxes. He favors wage subsidies; I favor a rise in the minimum wage; we both want to bring up wages at the bottom as a policy priority. I think we both favor scaling back or ending the mortgage interest deduction, to end the government subsidy of super-ZIP-dom. I think both left- and right-wing ideas for providing more financial support to families are worth exploring. And so forth.
Where we disagree, I think, is over the kind of politics necessary to achieve these goals – over whether, in a nutshell, right-wing populism is part of the solution or a big part of the problem. He thinks it’s part of the solution. I think it’s part of the problem, because right-wing populism is organized around the principle that class is a distraction, a way of dividing the nation, whereas class is precisely the issue.
As a matter of personal constitution, I’m an anti-populist. I don’t like right-wing populism and I don’t like left-wing populism. But “populism” is what the democratic principle looks like in action – a politics that organizes the people themselves, speaks with the voice of their hearts and looks out for their interests. I can see far enough beyond my own personal prejudices to discern that this principle is weak in America today, and a big reason is that the “party of the people” is resolutely committed to meritocracy (and its corollary, client-service liberalism) while the “grand old party,” historically the party of the elite (and don’t kid yourself, it still is, in economic terms) has parted ways with its one-time pragmatic/reformist wing (and we can debate who left whom all you like; the answer doesn’t matter for my purposes) in favor of full-throated right-wing populism.
It feels very strange to be arguing for the reemergence of a left-wing populist politics, because when and if such a politics emerges I’ll be arguing against it. But I’m increasingly convinced that it’s the essential missing element in dealing with the problems Charles Murray, Ross Douthat, David Frum and I are all concerned about.