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Tyranny of Merit | The American Conservative

September 10, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

via Tyranny of Merit | The American Conservative.

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