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Tyranny of Merit

The failures of America's new ruling class
Illustration by Michael Hogue

“Elite” wasn’t always a dirty word. Before the 19th century, the term described someone chosen for office. Because this typically occurred in the church, the word possessed distinctly ecclesiastical connotations. The pre-Victorians transformed a word imputing religious status to individual persons into a collective noun with class implications. By the 1830s,  “elite” referred to the highest ranks of the nobility.

Those meanings are no longer primary. As invoked by followers of the Tea Party movement, for example, “elite” means essentially a snob. Not, however, a snob of the old, aristocratic breed. In this context, “elite” means men and women who think degrees from famous universities mean they know better than their fellow citizens.

Elites like these don’t just look down on regular folks from provincial perches in Boston or Palo Alto. According to stump speeches, blogs, and TV commentators, they’ve been getting their way on Wall Street and in Washington for years, with disastrous results for the country.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes is no conservative. But he agrees that America is governed by a ruling class that has proved unworthy of its power. According to Hayes, the failures of the last decade created a deep crisis of authority. We counted on elites to do the right thing on our behalf. The Iraq War, steroid scandal in baseball, abuse cover-up in the Catholic Church, incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, and, above all, financial crisis showed that they didn’t know enough or care enough to do so.

Twilight of the Elites advances two explanations for these failures. The first emphasizes elite ignorance. People with a great deal of money or power aren’t like the rest of us. Their schedules, pastimes, and even transportation are different to those of ordinary people. This isn’t always because their tastes are distinctive, at least initially. It’s often a job requirement.

In addition to their unusual lifestyles, elite types don’t spend much time with averages Joes. At work, they’re surrounded by subordinates. At home, they live in literally or metaphorically gated communities and socialize with people similar to themselves. Again, there’s nothing sinister about this. Because of their distance from the rest of the population, however, members of the elite often have little idea what’s going on in less rarefied settings.

One consequence, Hayes argues, is that elites have trouble making good decisions. Ignorant of the challenges that the poor and middle-class face and separated from the consequences of their actions, elites are susceptible to making policies that seem reasonable, but which on-the-ground experience would expose as ineffectual. Take the evacuation of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. It didn’t succeed because many New Orleanians had nowhere to go, no money to get there, and no cars in which to escape—facts the mayor and governor should have known.

The distance of elites can also have moral consequences. When policies fail, isolated elites are more likely to blame their subjects than themselves. Politicians blamed poor New Orleanians for being too lazy to evacuate. Similarly, the sellers of toxic securities blamed their customers for being too stupid to appreciate the risks that they were accepting. In an especially revolting example, members of the national-security establishment blamed Iraqis for failing to appreciate invasion and occupation. For elites like these, it’s always someone else’s fault.

All elites risk falling out of touch, and always have. As Hayes notes, the Declaration of Independence argues that effective authority must be accountable authority. The other aspect of Hayes’s theory of elite failure is more contemporary, though. The problem of ignorance, he argues, is exacerbated by the principle of selection used by our most influential institutions. According to Hayes, modern American elites are distinctive because they acquire status by means of ostensibly objective criteria. As a result, they think they deserve their wealth and power.

The ideal of meritocracy has deep roots in this country. Jefferson dreamed of a “natural aristocracy.” But the modern meritocracy dates only to the 1930s, when Harvard President James Bryant Conant directed his admissions staff to find a measure of ability to supplement the old boys’ network. They settled on the exam we know as the SAT.

In the decades following World War II, standardized testing replaced the gentleman’s agreements that had governed the Ivy League. First Harvard, then Yale and the rest filled with the sons and eventually daughters of Jews, blue-collar workers, and other groups whose numbers had previously been limited.

After graduation, these newly pedigreed men and women flocked to New York and Washington. There, they took jobs once filled by products of New England boarding schools. One example is Lloyd Blankfein, the Bronx-born son of a Jewish postal clerk, who followed Harvard College and Harvard Law School with a job at a white-shoe law firm, which he left to join Goldman Sachs.

Hayes applauds the replacement of the WASP ascendancy with a more diverse cohort. The core of his book, however, argues that the principle on which they rose inevitably undermines itself.

The argument begins with the observation that meritocracy does not oppose unequal social and economic outcomes. Rather, it tries to justify inequality by offering greater rewards to the talented and hardworking.

The problem is that the effort presumes that everyone has the same chance to compete under the same rules. That may be true at the outset. But equality of opportunity tends to be subverted by the inequality of outcome that meritocracy legitimizes. In short, according to Hayes, “those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: ‘whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.’”

With a nod to the early 20th-century German sociologist Robert Michels, Hayes calls this paradox the “Iron Law of Meritocracy.”

In the most personal section of the book, he describes the way the Iron Law of Meritocracy operates at his alma mater, Hunter College High School in New York City. Admission to Hunter is based on the results of a single test offered to 6th graders who did well on statewide tests in 5th grade. Because there are no preferences for legacies, donors, members of minority groups, or athletes, admission to Hunter seems like a pure application of the meritocratic principle.

It doesn’t work that way. Although its student body once reflected the racial and economic proportions of the city, Hunter has grown increasingly wealthy and white. Why? In Hayes’s view, rich parents have discovered strategies to game the system. By buying cognitive enhancements like foreign travel, music lessons, tutoring in difficult subjects, and outright test prep, these parents give their kids a substantial leg up.

These children are better prepared than rivals from poor or negligent families. But it’s hard to conclude that they’ve earned their advantage. They’re clearly bright and hardworking. Yet they’ve also been fortunate to have parents who know what it takes to climb the ladder and can pay for those advantages. The ideal of meritocracy obscures the accidents of birth. From Hunter to Harvard to Goldman Sachs, the meritocrats proceed through life convinced that they owe their rise exclusively to their own efforts.

This sense of entitlement is one reason meritocratic elites are particularly susceptible to pathologies of distance. They don’t only have distinctive lifestyles. They’re convinced that they really deserve their privileges.

Of course, most elites have fancied themselves a superior breed. The way meritocracy obscures the role of chance, however, encourages the modern elite to think of themselves as unusually deserving individuals rather than members of a ruling class with responsibilities to the rest of society.

Finally, Hayes argues, the selection of the elite for academic accomplishment leads to a cult of intelligence that discounts the practical wisdom necessary for good decision-making. Remember Enron? They were the smartest guys in the room.

Hayes oversells his argument as a unified explanation of the “fail decade.” Although it elucidates some aspects of the Iraq War, Katrina debacle, and financial crisis, these disasters had other causes. Nevertheless, the Iron Law of Meritocracy shows why our elites take the form they do and how they fell so out touch with reality. In Hayes’s account, the modern elite is caught in a feedback loop that makes it less and less open and more and more isolated from the rest of the country.

What’s to be done? One answer is to rescue meritocracy by providing the poor and middle class with the resources to compete. A popular strategy focuses on education reform. If schools were better, the argument goes, poor kids could compete on an equal footing for entry into the elite. The attempt to rescue meritocracy by fixing education has become a bipartisan consensus, reflected in Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top.”

Hayes rejects this option. The defect of meritocracy, in his view, is not the inequality of opportunity that it conceals, but the inequality of outcome that it celebrates. In other words, the problem is not that the son of a postal clerk has less chance to become a Wall Street titan than he used to. It’s that the rewards of a career on Wall Street have become so disproportionate to the rewards of the traditional professions, let alone those available to a humble civil servant.

Hayes’s prescription, then, is simple: we should raise taxes on the rich and increase redistributive payments to the poor and middle class.

Raising taxes is surprisingly popular, at least in principle. According to one poll Hayes cites, 81 percent of Americans favor a surtax on incomes over $1 million a year. Nevertheless, these seem unlikely to be enacted. Among other reasons, the legislators who would have to approve them are either drawn from or depend on the same class that the taxes target.

Yet Hayes is optimistic about the prospects for egalitarian reform. He places his hopes on a radicalized upper-middle class. As recently as a decade ago, people with graduate degrees and six-figure incomes could think of themselves as prospective members of the elite. While the income and influence of the very rich has zoomed ahead, however, the stagnation of the economy has left the moderately well-off at risk of proletarianization.

Despite their ideological differences, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street draw support from this class. It’s just that the Tea Party appeals to the parents, while Occupy mobilizes the kids.

Could a radicalized upper-middle class turn from the bulwark of meritocracy into its opponent? That seems unlikely for three reasons.

First, the polls Hayes mentions do not document popular support for redistribution. They indicate that Americans want to tax the rich to cover the deficit. Americans like their current entitlements and want to keep them. But there’s no evidence that they endorse the egalitarian agenda Hayes has in mind.

Second, there’s a tension between this agenda and the social liberalism to which Hayes is committed. Social scientists have found that we’re willing to share resources with others like ourselves. We’re reluctant, however, to make sacrifices for people we consider different or objectionable.

In a section on the “two eras of equality,” Hayes urges us to adopt the solidaristic norms that characterize relatively homogeneous societies, including the United States circa 1960. At the same time, he praises the diversity and freedom of contemporary America. These things don’t go together, in practice if not in principle.

The tax regime of 50 years ago was legitimatized by a broad consensus about the proper uses of shared prosperity. The more libertarian views dominant today are also relatively consistent across economic and social realms. Hayes thinks that we can combine the economic virtues of the former era with the social virtues of latter. That’s wishful thinking.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Hayes is not a conservative. That’s no defect in itself. But this book would have been improved, in the end, by engaging with the conservative tradition.

The central insight of this tradition is that there is no society without a governing class. Whether they’re selected by birth, intelligence, or some other factor, some people inevitably exercise power over others. Hayes mounts a powerful critique of the meritocratic elite that has overseen one of the most disastrous periods of recent history. He lapses into utopianism, however, when he suggests that we can do without elites altogether. Like the poor, elites will always be with us. As the word’s original meaning suggests, the question is how they ought to be chosen.

Samuel Goldman is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University and a contributor to TAC’s State of the Union blog.