Meritocracy’s Demise

Americans are losing their confidence in our institutions. Why? Christopher Hayes (Twilight of the Elites) doesn’t think we can blame the media, the Balkanization of information sources, or ingratitude from the public. The answer is simple:

“We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and the depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of a broad and devastating crisis of authority.”

We go to the mechanic because he has expertise we lack. “In public life, our pillar institutions and the elites who run them play the mechanic’s role. They are charged with the task of diagnosing and fixing problems in governance, the market, and society. And what we want from authorities, whether they are mechanics, money managers, or senators, is that they be competent—smart, informed, able—and that they not use their authority to pursue a hidden agenda or personal gain.”

They aren’t anymore, and Hayes thinks that the failure of our elites is the thread that joins together the various movements and crises of our day:

“Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions, and execute self-governance. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and MoveOn, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work. All the smart people f***ed up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.”

This is, he argues, the collapse of the meritocracy, the American commitment to the elevation of meritocratic elites to replace the failing WASP establishment: “The meritocracy offered liberation from the unjust hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but swapped in their place a new hierarchy based on the notion that people are deeply unequal in ability and drive. It offers a model of society that confers vastly unequal compensation and resources on the bright and the slow, the industrious and the slothful. At its most extreme, this ethos celebrates an ‘aristocracy of talent,’ a vision of who should rule that is in deep tension with our democratic commitments. ‘Meritocracy,’ as Christopher Lasch once observed, ‘is a parody of democracy.’”

In short, “we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be a member in good standing of that select few.”

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