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…