America’s New Mandarins, by Megan McArdle in 2013.
The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society—as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.
Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this … especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is … a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?
The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they’re also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon is actually real, it’s arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system.
That system produced many benefits, but some of those benefits were also costs. A single elite taking a single exam means a single way of thinking:
The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values.
All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.
The big problem with exam-based meritocracy:
The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. …
But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school — places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things. …
The current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses–ones outside glamour industries like tech or design.
The opinion makers in society are increasingly narrow and clueless:
The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn’t become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living.
Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.
I’m hinting at the final problem, which is that this ostensibly meritocratic system increasingly selects from those with enough wealth and connections to first, understand the system, and second, prepare the right credentials to enter it—as I believe it also did in Imperial China.
Born to rule, the new aristocracy:
And like all elites, they believe that they not only rule because they can, but because they should. Even many quite left-wing folks do not fundamentally question the idea that the world should be run by highly verbal people who test well and turn their work in on time. They may think that machine operators should have more power and money in the workplace, and salesmen and accountants should have less. But if they think there’s anything wrong with the balance of power in the system we all live under, it is that clever mandarins do not have enough power to bend that system to their will. For the good of everyone else, of course. Not that they spend much time with everyone else, but they have excellent imaginations.
Let the deplorables eat cake.