Last year, former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Princeton University. Before his Ivied audience, he took the opportunity to criticize a universal American fetish: meritocracy.
Bernanke cautioned against the ideal of individual heroic success as it now prevails among our educated business and government elites, a remarkable concession coming from the unelected head of the world’s most powerful financial institution. “A meritocracy,” he explained, “is a system in which people luckiest in their health and genetic endowment, in family support, encouragement and probably income, and in so many other ways difficult to enumerate, reap the largest rewards.” In other words, today’s meritocracy needs some old-fashioned noblesse oblige, a sentiment calculated to draw loud applause on commencement day in Princeton. “The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster,” he continued, “is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world and to share their luck with others.”
It is in many ways an admirable sentiment, but Bernanke has no concept of the roots of the word meritocracy. Indeed, nearly every American economic commentator now ritually invokes the term without the faintest understanding of its definition. Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” However, the term was created and promulgated in so much satirical venom as to render that meaning poisonous to the elites who enjoy its many storied perks.
Scores of thinkers have mounted assaults on the gleaming spires of meritocracy. Financial reporters discovered, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, that Silicon Valley, not Wall Street, best embodies the meritocratic spirit. Valley moguls accept the accolade but counter that American higher education has betrayed the cherished precepts of meritocratic achievement, such as when PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel asked why Harvard should not be franchised like McDonald’s. On the left, MSNBC host Christopher Hayes has glumly prophesied the twilight of our meritocracy. On the right, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, the genial pair of elite-educated conservative New York Times columnists, regularly inveigh against the meritocracy’s waning self-discipline and routine cultural trespasses.
Meritocracy, in other words, is everywhere and nowhere: You can catalog its migrations, institutional corruptions, conceptual flaws and moral failings, but as with the plot of Lost or the mystery of the Trinity, you’ll never touch the bottom of it.
The simple explanation is that the idea of meritocracy that critics have adopted is wrong—180-degrees, missing-the-point-by-several-miles wrong. It’s a basic failure of reading comprehension, akin to treating a movie synopsis as a recipe for dinner.
The literary emphasis is relevant, because the term meritocracy was coined by British sociologist-novelist Michael Young in his deftly satirical 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033. It was intended as a clear parody of the technocratic regime of intelligence testing in postwar Britain, but its eponymous concept has been so brutally misinterpreted by Bernanke and his ilk that its modern usage, over and against the author’s original intent, becomes hilarious and disturbing all at once.
Presented in the guise of a government report by an officious sociologist, The Rise of the Meritocracy describes a society bitterly divided between “hand workers” and elite “brain workers,” brimming with a social-scientific bureaucracy’s conviction that it is on the right side of history. Young’s blindingly obvious point is that a meritocratic order is anything but good and fair—for a meritocracy “to pass ethical muster,” as Bernanke has it, would be morally incoherent. Young’s meritocracy, in fact, is the height of social folly.
Young makes this lesson impossible to miss. The sociologist’s report is occasioned by a coming strike organized by a militant hand-worker coalition, and the causes of this unrest are everywhere: As our narrator explains, democracy as we know it is simply unsuited to rule by the new knowledge class. “Today we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than an aspiration,” he announces in one of the novel’s bursts of crackpot realism, “and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”
However, it becomes clear that meritocracy has rationalized class divisions. For hand workers, intelligence testing and career placement ensure their lot is wholly deserved. Lesser-born Britons of intellectual distinction are tested and promoted up the ranks, depriving the working class of its cleverest natural leaders. Those left behind are without any personal or political hope, which brings us to the roots of the novel’s social crisis: “Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior social status,” our narrator ponders, “not because they were denied opportunity, but because they are inferior?”
No wonder then that in this new age the servant classes demand a greater share of resources and social power. Childlike morons that they are, they must cling to the illusion of their social equality, just as the socialists of old did. And they make good on that faith: In the epilogue we learn that our earnest narrator is killed during an uprising of hand workers against the brain-worker elite.
Young’s message couldn’t have been more blatant if he had carved it on a sandwich board promoting a general strike outside Oxford: A meritocratic Britain would produce a postwar version of the same class divisions seen during the Industrial Revolution. The question then is how Young’s satiric prophecy—which portrays rule by a knowledge elite (the kind produced by, say, Princeton) as a brutal variation on old-line capitalism—could be so vastly misinterpreted among American pundits as a vision of equality.
Critics in the U.S., of course, are aware of how America’s own “knowledge elite” reinforces the class system’s social inequalities. At this current, savagely unequal juncture in our republic’s history, American social mobility lags well behind that of European social-welfare states: A Harvard–UC Berkeley study found that the chance a child may escape the poorest fifth of Americans and land among its richest had increased only 0.6 percent in 15 years. A child born in Denmark has twice the chance of an American. And social mobility is the great force intended to inoculate us against the Old World’s ugly traditions of class conflict.
The American meritocratic dream is powerful precisely because of what it allows our pundits to ignore. It is born of a dogmatic refusal to comprehend our own institutions of class privilege, such as Princeton and the Federal Reserve, as anything other than dispensers of gloriously equal opportunity. Precisely because meritocrats are possessed of superior character, these reformers reason, they must be susceptible to pundits conjuring the better angels of their nature.
The trick is simply to bring about a kind of moral revival in the vein that Bernanke preached to Princeton parents: to urge our meritocrats toward a heightened sense of their social obligations so that they may selflessly harness their advantages to mitigate society’s excesses of class privilege. But as Young explains in gruesome detail, true meritocrats would never indulge such fancies—noblesse oblige being, like democracy itself, another relic of the old industrial order and the sentimental dream of widely shared economic progress.
The moral of Young’s fable is unsparing: All that can be done with a meritocracy is to dismantle it. Until that realization sinks in on American shores, our social critics will be trapped, like the martyred narrator of Young’s novel, in a state of unwitting self-parody.