The New Ruling Class: the Hereditary Elite Formed by Meritocracy

The New Ruling Class: the Hereditary Elite Formed by Meritocracy, by Helen Andrews.

A problem with meritocracy is that some of  the qualities that allow people success in life are hereditary, the most controversial one being IQ. Universal education and a meritocratic system has led to a hereditary elite, where members of the elite marry each other, make good money, then buy great educations for their kids. This phenomenon has become quite marked among the better schools in the US — the Ivy league universities plus a handful of others. This is where the elite meet, marry, and find future jobs.

Many influential major organizations in the US  now basically only hire from these top universities, ignoring the bulk of state universities, and most all the members of these organizations went to such schools and only hire from such schools. The US is now increasingly run by graduates of these same few schools. The same happens in Australia to a lesser extent, but it is less obvious. It seems to the elite that this caste system is based on merit and is therefore the natural order of things. But is it the best way to run society? Best for whom?

Yale Univesity

Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University

Toby [Young] is the son of Michael Young, the British sociologist and Labour life peer whose 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy has been credited with coining the term. … If meritocracy creates a new caste system, “the answer is more meritocracy.” To restore equality of opportunity, he suggested subsidies for intelligence-maximizing embryo selection for poor parents “with below-average IQs.”

His outlandish resort to eugenics suggests that Toby Young found himself at a loss for solutions, as all modern critics of meritocracy seem to do. The problems they describe are fundamental, but none of their remedies are more than tweaks to make the system more efficient or less prejudicial to the poor.

[O]ur authors fail as critics of meritocracy because they cannot get their heads outside of it. They are incapable of imagining what it would be like not to believe in it. They assume the validity of the very thing they should be questioning.

But what would it be like not to take meritocracy for granted? The basic idea — that we should rank candidates for power according to some desirable quality, then pick the best of them — seems too obvious to have needed inventing, but invented it was, and (at least in the West) not so long ago. If we go back to the occasion of its first appearance in the English-speaking world [in 1854, as a way of selecting entrants into the then-incompetent British public service], we will find a group of men who opposed it, not just because they did not think it would work in practice, but because they disagreed with it in principle. …

When the idea of meritocratic exams for entry to the British bureaucracy was first proposed in 1854:

… it is remarkable how unanimously the educators favored the plan and how unanimously the mandarins opposed it. The report’s finely phrased ideas would collapse in practice, the latter warned. For instance, replacing promotion by seniority with more subjective “promotion according to merit” would give free rein to favoritism. In departments that had experimented with qualifying exams, supervisors found that the tests put money in the pockets of “crammers” but did little for productivity. To its opponents, the whole thing smelled like a schoolmasters’ scheme.

There was also worry about what throwing competition open to all comers would do to the service’s social tone. “The more the civil service is recruited from the lower classes, the less it will be sought after by the higher,” warned the MP Edward Romilly. This was not mere snobbery. If the government wanted civil servants who could stand up to MPs, financiers, and foreign statesmen, it had to recruit men of comparable social standing. …

Other objections approached closer to the principle. There were, first of all, questions of democratic accountability. Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances. They would not derive their power from the people even by so remote a means as a parliamentary patron. … the voters of England were used to treating office as among “the legitimate prizes of war” after elections, “not merely for its emoluments, but also for the sake of influencing administration.” It was almost a kind of direct democracy.

A greater concern was that meritocracy would produce an overweening centralized state.

The reforms were adopted by the British in 1870, and are arguably at the root of today’s problems with oversized and activist government:

There is no question that the size of government did explode. The staff of the civil service tripled in fifty years and then doubled in ten, hitting 281,000 on the eve of World War I. Obviously, this was mainly because the government had taken on so many more tasks — but one reason for that was that the public had come to trust that the government was full of people who knew what they were doing. Interference that would have never been tolerated in the bad old days of jobbery was now justified by the national government’s (largely meretricious) mystique as a repository of intelligence.

[I]intelligent people who are bored by their jobs will make their jobs interesting as far as possible — which, when civil servants do it, is not necessarily to the public good.

Meritocracy called into being an entirely new class, partly taken from the old gentry, partly from the new commercial class, and loyal to neither. Between 1870 and World War I, this new class took possession of all the former pillars of the old aristocracy’s power, not just the civil service but the army, the bar, local government, party associations, and the church.

Well that explains a lot about our current woes. So what are we to do?

Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. …

But the solutions on offer never rise to the scale of the problem. Authors attack the meritocratic machine with screwdrivers, not sledgehammers, and differ only in which valve they want to adjust. Some think the solution is to tip more disadvantaged kids over the lip of the intake funnel, which would probably make things worse. … has anyone asked working-class families if being sucked into a frantically achievement-obsessed rat race is a benefaction they are interested in? …

[U]nless families are abolished, successful parents will always pass on advantages to their children, which will compound with each generation. It does not matter how merit is defined; the dynamic of meritocracy remains the same, its operations inexorable.

The author offers a novel solution:

My solution is quite different. The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy — so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label.

By all means this caste should admit as many worthy newcomers as is compatible with their sense of continuity. New brains, like new money, have been necessary to every ruling class, meritocratic or not. If ethnic balance is important to meritocrats, they should engineer it into the system. If geographic diversity strikes them as important, they should ensure that it exists, ideally while keeping an eye on the danger of hoovering up all of the native talent from regional America.

But they must give up any illusion that such tinkering will make them representative of the country over which they preside. They are separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities. That is what makes them aristocratic.

A tough sell, I realize. Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy.

Ah, now we get to a serious flaw in the current arrangement, one that is distressingly obvious to one who has seen it close up:

Here [is] the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing: the notion that the people who make up our elite are especially smart. They are not — and I do not mean that in the feel-good democratic sense that we are all smart in our own ways, the homely-wise farmer no less than the scholar.

I mean that the majority of meritocrats are, on their own chosen scale of intelligence, pretty dumb. Grade inflation first hit the Ivies in the late 1960s for a reason. Yale professor David Gelernter has noticed it in his students: “They are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. It’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, conversable, interested, doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Looking back at the history of the twentieth century, just sees a fog.”

It was the meritocratic ideology that paved this road to ignorance. Being open to all comers, with intelligence the only criterion, meant that no particular body of knowledge could be made mandatory … , lest it arbitrarily exclude students conversant only with their own traditions. This has predictably yielded a generation of students who have no body of knowledge at all.

Unlike meritocracies, aristocracies can put actual content into their curricula — not just academically, but morally. Every aristocracy has an ethos, and a good ethos will balance out the moral faults to which that aristocracy is prone.

The task of reforming our present elite ought to be entrusted to someone with a feeling for what is good in it. For all its flaws, this elite does have many virtues. Their moral seriousness contrasts favorably with the frivolousness of certain earlier generations, and their sense of pragmatism, which can sometimes be reductive, can also be admirably brisk and hard-nosed. What is needed is someone who can summon a picture of the meritocratic elite’s best selves and call them to meet its example. But this process can begin only when this new ruling class finally owns up to the only name for what it already, undeniably is.

Apologies for such a long post, but it grapples quite directly with several of the biggest problems of our age. Almost no one questions the dominance of good test takers. Almost no one ponders how our bureaucracy became so large and activist, beyond noticing the obvious connection with taxes. And no one is thinking about how to make our permanent government of bureaucrats, academics and media accountable to the people whom they govern. Chucking them out after an election is a bit much, but it would probably be an improvement on the current mess!

By the way, the author (whom I do not know) and I both attended top US schools. I can vouch from first hand experience that the phenomenon is very real and obvious in the US, and presumably only slightly less so in Australia.