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Social justice
21 September 2012

Heresy of the week: Meritocracy doesn’t work anymore

Meritocracy. That’s something we can all agree on, isn’t it? Conservatives, liberals, social democrats – all united in the conviction that those who achieve positions of seniority should do so through sheer hard work and talent.

Except that there’s a problem. This is the way that Samuel Goldman of the American Conservative puts it in his review of Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes:

  • “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.”

This is, of course, much more than an American problem. The elites are failing across the western world. But unlike, say, the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, where failures of governance can be readily attributed to corruption, nepotism and tyranny, we in Europe and America, lack an obvious explanation as to why our own top people – whether in the private or public sectors – have taken so many disastrous decisions since the end of the Cold War.

Given that America is no longer controlled by the exclusive “WASP ascendancy” of the past, why does its contemporary, meritocratic ruling class seem so divorced from the interests of ordinary Americans?

According to Goldman, Christopher Hayes’ explanation is that the principle of meritocracy “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…
  • “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.”

In other words, the political, financial and cultural elites behave in the way they do because, more than anyone else, they live by that central tenet of our times: “because I’m worth it.”

To restore the promise of meritocracy many people believe the answer is educational reform – to give the children of the working and middle classes a chance to compete with the intensively nurtured heirs of the elite. Hayes points out the flaw in this approach:

  • “The defect of meritocracy, in his view, is not the inequality of opportunity that it conceals, but the inequality of outcome that it celebrates.”

Thus the main issue is not whether the disproportionately rewarded banker is the son of a postman or of another banker, it is the disproportionate reward. But having correctly diagnosed the problem, Hayes proposes the wrong solution:

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

Oh dear. Can he not see that the blunt instrument of taxation makes no distinction between the top people who make bad decisions and those who make good decisions?

Reckless financiers or incompetent public sector managers won’t be any less reckless or incompetent because their income tax has gone up. Rather the problem is one of power and, in particular, the cosy arrangements that ensure that the elites receive all of the rewards merited by their success, but few of the penalties merited by their failure.


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