I can’t possibly do justice to Walter Russell Mead’s long, provocative meditation on the meaning of meritocracy, and the folly of meritocracy untempered by Christian humility. It begins with Mead’s thoughtful appreciation of the left-liberal intellectual Chris Hayes’s new book analyzing the meaning of meritocracy from the Left. Mead writes:
The new elites don’t feel guilty about their power; they didn’t inherit it. They earned it. They are smarter than everybody else and they deserve to rule — and in their own minds at least, they also deserve the perks that power brings. Money, fame, access: bring it on.
Wealth and entitlement corrupts the meritocratic elite. Members of this elite can no longer see society easily from the perspective of ordinary people and so their decisions increasingly reflect their own interests rather than those of the people they are supposed to represent. They lose the ability and perhaps also the will to be impartial arbiters between the masses and power; they identify with power and start to use their own influence to tilt the system farther and farther away from the populists and toward the old power centers.
That this is occurring in the absence of a strong Christian cultural context is hugely significant, contends Mead. Though atheists can, of course, be moral people, even more moral than Christians in individual cases, the absence of the fundamental Christian stance of moral equality and humility is going to cost us bigtime. Mead:
At the collective level, this explains why meritocracy cannot in itself be an answer to the political problems of the human race. There are no Platonic philosopher kings, no unmoved movers, who will judge all things and all men clear and true. And the problem isn’t simply our ignorance and partial knowledge; it’s the flaw in our natures that means that our intellects are often the least dependable when we need them most.
At the individual level, for the successful American who has gone through the right schools, won the merit badges and made it through to a position of power, influence and either affluence or great wealth, a lively sense of original sin helps protect you from the evils and temptations to which you exposed.
First, you must acknowledge and remember your own sin. Original sin is not just an abstraction; every human being has done sad and shameful things. We all have weak and shaky bits of our character. We all fall short of what we could have done and should have done; we have all wasted and misused the gifts intrusted to us. A serious Christian life keeps these truths before you as in daily prayer and meditation you weigh your thoughts and deeds by God’s standard and tremble at what you see.
Success makes you smug and self satisfied, and this makes you less fit for any useful purpose in the world. Christians today understand that the Pharisees as depicted in the New Testament do not reflect the insight and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition that developed from the Biblical era, but without projecting this picture onto our Jewish friends and associates, the picture of the Biblical Pharisee is one to keep before us always. Legends of righteousness in their own minds, revered by the ignorant multitude, teachers of the law who applied intellectual discipline to difficult social and moral questions: what is the Pharisee but the meritocrat of an earlier day?
Think of the one who stood in the synagogue to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) Is this not a picture of the smug meritocrat who drives a Prius, eats locally sourced organic foods, has impeccably progressive views, is effortlessly brilliant in the practice of a complex profession and for every occasion knows the right attitude to take and the right thing to say?
From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honors. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.
Read the whole thing. For we who live in the ruins of Christendom, absent Christ, it’s all will to power, and finding ways to rationalize it after the fact. I would add to Mead’s excellent analysis the truth that we on the Right face the same dynamic, in a right-wing iteration. We are tempted to believe that the rich, especially rich men and women from the business and financial worlds, must be worthy because look at all they’ve earned.