The problem with meritocracy

July 10, 2012
Meritocracy, along with lavish self-regard, engenders a brutal insecurity
Meritocracy, along with lavish self-regard, engenders a brutal insecurity

I was born into the upper middle class, and here I remain. Had I been born in a council estate, I’m pretty sure I’d still be living in a council estate. When we object to meritocracy it is generally because we think it a noble ideal our society has not yet achieved. Considering George W. Bush became President, George Osborne is Chancellor and Will Smith’s son is a movie star, we still seem far from a true meritocracy. But try telling that to our Rolex-wearing friends driving their big black SUVs. Their conviction that they have earned everything they have through their own hard work and pluck and talent, that luck and birth played no role in their success, shapes society’s views toward growing inequality. I must confess my irritation at the winners’ braying pride make my own objections to meritocracy more aesthetic than political or moral.

Chris Hayes, in his new book Twilight of the Elites, makes a deeper point, that meritocracy is not just hypocritical, it is also incompetent. Hayes blames meritocracy for the Iraq war, the financial crisis, even the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball. “As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse calibre of elites.” How can that be? How can the ideal of promoting the best and the brightest lead to disaster? Mostly, Hayes tells us, because meritocracy creates elites that are utterly self-serving.

Meritocrats accept inequality as proper. As long as opportunities are equal, outcomes need not be. Of course this ignores that opportunities are not equal but it also legitimises the increasing bifurcation of our society. Since the elite no longer live with the masses, work with them, socialise with them the concerns of ordinary citizens don’t register. Most of the men who took us to war in Iraq did not have children in the military. Few of the bankers that bundled subprime mortgages knew anyone with No Income, No Job or Assets. This ignorance of everyday reality leads to grievous error.

How is that different from other epochs? The Duke of Wellington and Louis XIV certainly lived lives apart from the masses. Cecil Rhodes and Talleyrand looked out for their own interests above all else. The difference is that the ethos of an aristocratic society—that is, the kind of society that Britain had until the early 19th century emphasises duty and noblesse oblige. Whether they lived up to it or not, aristocrats recognised their responsibilities to the larger society. Perhaps even more important, an aristocratic elite was confident of its place.

Meritocracy, along with lavish self-regard, engenders a brutal insecurity. The fractal nature of our inequality—in which the top 10 per cent envy the top 1 per cent, the top 1 per cent envy the top .01 per cent, and the Forbes 400 envy Warren Buffet—means that no one feels satisfied or safe. No matter how well they are doing at the moment, they fear they could with one mistake plunge from their precarious summit. This “destructive and combustible combination of egomania and entitlement on the one hand and insecurity on the other” means that our elites focus on their own position to the exclusion of any other consideration. Bankers don’t care if they blow up their firm, as long as they get their bonus. Pundits don’t care if the policies they advocate might harm the nation, as long as they get on TV. Careerism becomes the only imperative. In such a situation, no wonder our public life is a shambles.

What is to be done? Hayes, as you might expect, doesn’t advocate a return to a caste system where everyone knows his or her place. Instead he focuses on reducing inequality. If the divide between the elites and the masses shrinks, he believes the elites won’t be so cut off from the people they rule. If falling from the top 1 per cent to the top 10 per cent was not such a drop, we could focus more on doing good rather than doing well.

The method for reducing inequality, he claims, is one for which we know the solution: progressive taxation. “Data from the OECD shows one consistent, general principle: The higher the taxes in a given country, the less inequality… the more taxation the more redistribution; the more redistribution, the more equality.” Britain’s own history bears this out. The highest growth rates both here and in the US were when the top marginal tax rates were over 70 per cent and that era was also one where our societies were becoming more equitable. Economic historians call that post war period “the golden age.” Hayes seems more optimistic than me that we can get back to it. I don’t think our meritocratic elites are ready to allow any such diminution of their perquisites. They know they have earned it and they will fight not to give it back.