I review books on the United States for Foreign Affairs; that means every couple of months a huge box of books arrives at the stately Mead manor and I go through piles of books trying to decide which ones to read for review. It’s a lot of work for not much product; the “capsule” reviews are about 200 words each. That’s much the same length as the book reports I used to write for Mrs. West back in the third grade; if I’d known how important this literary form was going to be to my future career, I might have tried harder back then.
There are times when this seems like an intolerable burden; between blogging, teaching, keeping up with the news and reading books for review, I don’t have as much time for free reading as I’d like. There are all kinds of books on 17th century French and Spanish history piling up on my iPad these days — full of insights and juicy ideas that would deepen my understanding of early modern history and generally refresh my soul, but I don’t know when I’ll get to them. (And that’s saying nothing about the literary and genre fiction I’d like to read this summer. More Hilary Mantel, more Neal Stephenson, and more Allen Furst, please.)
One of the books I’ve been reading for review is Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. I’ll save the review for Foreign Affairs, but for Via Meadia readers, this is an interesting book because it represents an effort by a talented and thoughtful left thinker to grapple with the nature of contemporary American populism. Hayes (who I’ve never met, but would like to) is an interesting guy and his perspective a few steps to the left of the center-left technocratic consensus of the mainstream media allows him to make some interesting observations about where things stand in the United States today.
I get the impression he’s still in the group that thinks we could preserve the blue social model if we just willed hard enough; that was my view for maybe 15 or even 20 years after I first started writing about the unraveling of post-war American liberalism and what I now call the blue social model back in the 1980s. The old system worked so well for so many people that it seemed to a great many people who cared about progress and democracy that we just needed to keep tweaking this model to approach an almost ideal society through a smooth and gradual process of incremental social change.
The failure of that social democratic future to materialize, and the set of changes which have made capitalist society much more competitive and riskier pose a huge set of challenges that the left is still trying to master. Intellectually it is looking for a theory and programatically it is looking for a workable political program. So far in my view there is no real sign of progress on this front; rather than trying to resuscitate a political vision whose economic, historic and moral foundations are irretrievably lost, the left (like everybody else) has to come to take on a much more difficult task. We all need to understand how the new global information economy works, and think our way through to some kind of understanding of what kind of free, just and sustainable social organization can be raised on these still-emerging and still poorly understood foundations. That has to happen, in my view, before either the left or the right can offer meaningful political ideas about how the new society and new world should be governed.
But I’m getting away from Twilight of the Elites. What Hayes does here that is so useful and valuable is that he brings some good old fashioned left skepticism to the Mcnamara-Obama vision of a technocratic, meritocratic society run by the “best and the brightest.” What we loosely call American liberalism today is made up of several quite distinct strands; two of the most important are social populism and technocratic progressivism.
The social populism side of the left comes out of the agrarian and labor protests of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was a mix of traditional American individualism and populism with a sense that the “little people” had to band together to bring down the big beasts of the capitalist jungle: the Carnegies, the Morgans, the Rockefellers and so on. The monopolists and the big capitalists were such a danger to the freedom, dignity and economic well being of ordinary Americans that the little guys were going to have to band together and act through politics before the trusts and the corporate elites crushed the life out of the American dream.
The technocratic progressives were a very different group of people, culturally and socially. They were (and are) upper middle class and upper class reformers: good government types. They saw their role as to curb the excesses of both the big beasts in the capitalist jungle and the unwashed masses of the populist movements. People like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who hated each other on a personal level but whose social visions had much in common) thought that most of society’s problems were technical rather than ideological. Good administration and effective, non-political management by well educated technocrats could solve society’s most important social and economic problems by finding a middle way between the angry left and the greedy kingpins of capitalism.
There was always a tension here. The technocrats sold themselves to the populists as the means through which the populist dreams could be achieved, but the society the technocrats wanted — and want — was very different from the one populists thought they were building. For the populists, equality was the point. They wanted an America in which ordinary people ran their own lives in their own way — as much as this was possible in a modern industrial society with all its complex dependencies.
But the technocrats were — and are — committed to the concept of rule by the best and the brightest. This is not a temporary stage on the road to a higher and ultimately more equal stage of society to gentry liberals. It is a natural division of power and responsibility based on innate differences in human beings. Gentry liberals believe that people who score high on SATs, do well in college, and get through the PhD process are, well, smarter than people who don’t do those things and that society will be better off if the dumb people get out of the way and let the smart ones make the important decisions. (And the unimportant ones too — like how big a Slurpee should be.)
This is, sort of, what Thomas Jefferson meant by a natural aristocracy. The meritocratic social ideal is that there should be an open competition to determine who is best. There should be good schools that ensure that the children of non-elite families get real educational opportunity. Alumni privilege and other extraneous factors should not affect admissions decisions at the best schools. From this process will emerge the cadre of talented, public spirited and able leaders who, to put it in the blunt, nasty way that liberal technocrats think is horribly tactless but actually true, can best make the decisions that the average person is too stupid to understand.
The “open meritocracy” paradigm is very powerful in America today and, to some degree, we couldn’t live without it. William F. Buckley (and I) might rather be governed by names selected at random from the phone book than by the Harvard faculty, but nobody wants their airplane piloted or their kidney operation performed on that basis.
But, and this is what Hayes is pointing out, there are a couple of problems with meritocracy in practice. The first is, evidently, that it doesn’t always work as advertised. The “best and the brightest” organized the financial market reforms of the Clinton years that led to the Bush bubbles and the Obama doldrums, and neither the wars in Vietnam by the Kennedy era Great Meritocrats nor the Bush and Obama era wars were triumphs of social engineering.
The second problem is that in the end, meritocracy doesn’t promote democracy. The meritocrats may have won their positions through an open competition and their kids (with some advantages to be sure) are still going to have to struggle to make it into top colleges and so on, but once they win — they’re an elite. And their perceptions about how hard they competed and how fair the competition was makes them more smug and more entitled than the old elites ever were.
The new elites don’t feel guilty about their power; they didn’t inherit it. They earned it. They are smarter than everybody else and they deserve to rule — and in their own minds at least, they also deserve the perks that power brings. Money, fame, access: bring it on.
Wealth and entitlement corrupts the meritocratic elite. Members of this elite can no longer see society easily from the perspective of ordinary people and so their decisions increasingly reflect their own interests rather than those of the people they are supposed to represent. They lose the ability and perhaps also the will to be impartial arbiters between the masses and power; they identify with power and start to use their own influence to tilt the system farther and farther away from the populists and toward the old power centers.
I’m not of course doing justice to Hayes’ book here; if I could it would have been a blog post not a book. But this critique of the meritocratic ideal from the left speaks also to the populism of the right; indeed, while Hayes loathes what he understands of the ideology and political program of the Tea Party as much as any left intellectual in America, he has far more emotional sympathy for its hatred of the überclass than many writers on his side of the spectrum.
There’s much to be said about this subject, and regular readers of these essays will see many ways in which Hayes and I worry about some of the same things, if often from a different point of view. But rather than get into all that today, there’s another point I’d like to make. This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.
Now before all the atheists out there ignite a new flame war in the comments pages, let me make some points. I’m not about to argue that all religious people are nicer or better than all atheists. And there are many atheists who avoid some or all of the pitfalls I’m about to explore. I am not writing this as a criticism of particular individuals; there are lots of atheistic meritocrats in America today who I consider friends and for whose achievements and character I have both admiration and respect. And before the foreign readers go incandescent in gibbering rage, let me also point out that I’m talking much more about atheism in an American context than in a European one. The dynamic Whiggish optimism that is such a deep element of American culture needs the kind of balance that, classically, comes from a theologically grounded sense both of Original Sin and of God’s transcendence of all human history and thought.
But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role.
The first problem is arrogance. A practicing and committed as opposed to a theoretical or a birth Christian (and I talk about Christians rather than Jews, Muslims or Hindus or other people because this is what I know best, not because I’m trying to say that only Christians derive these kinds of benefits from their faith) who succeeds in a meritocratic structure has all kinds of inner convictions and reflections that can keep his or her arrogance within limits. This doesn’t always work; the case of Woodrow Wilson is one that we should all study.
For a Christian, the belief in the equal value of all people in God’s eyes is a bedrock belief. Every human being is created directly by God; every human soul is beloved by God. Human beings are not all alike, and we have different gifts and different abilities. But each of us was created to be exactly who and what we are by the Author of the Universe, and we believe that God loves and values the child with Downs’ syndrome as much as he loves and values the Nobel-prize winning economist.
That’s right. God thinks Trig Palin is just as marvelous and wonderful and adorable as Paul Krugman. The homeless old guy with the shakes down by the subway is as important to God’s vision for the world as the Rhodes Scholar passing him by.
For the Christian, what matters about you isn’t, in the last analysis, your gifts or your talents. God uses our gifts, but he doesn’t need them. He can raise up a million children smarter than you and faster than you and more ambitious than you, should he so choose. He’s made you an intellect, an artist, an entrepreneur because his love wants you to join him in co-creating the world, not because the world wouldn’t be rich and beautiful (and efficiently governed) without you.
More, God’s knowledge, his “talents” are so much infinitely greater than your own that the intellectual distance between a Newton and a retarded child is, quite seriously, insignificant in his eyes. St. Thomas Aquinas, a great Catholic philosopher and theologian, widely considered to be one of the greatest intellects who ever lived, said that in the light of God’s presence, everything he had ever written was like so much straw. And that’s about right: God doesn’t think any of us are particularly smart, though he does, I suspect, sometimes think we’re cute when we start spouting off.
The kind of arrogance, vanity and inflamed self-esteem that flatters the imagination and corrupts the spirit of the successful meritocrat needs to be checked and humbled. Being constantly reminded on the one hand of the infinite gap between ones own limited talents and vision and the perspective of Almighty God, and on the other of the radical equality with which God judges and loves the human race is a healthy counterweight to the flattery of the world and the smugness that comes with success.
But there’s more. Serious Christians have to struggle continually against the temptation to view “merit” uncritically. To begin with, any gifts that you have are just that — gifts. Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose.
And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special and to allow you to swank around in the White House or at Davos. He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to. At the end of the day, they aren’t going to be judged on how much they deferred to you, respected you, and handed over to you all those rewards you felt you deserved. God isn’t particularly interested in what the Paul Krugmans of this world think though he wants us all to do our best to get things right; he’s interested in how much Paul Krugman and the rest of us loved and sought to serve one another.
You are going to be judged on how much you did for the “ordinary folks.” Were those Downs’ syndrome kids any better off because of the way you used your mathematical and reasoning gifts? Were the poor better fed and better housed because of the use you made of the talents God trusted to your care? Did you use your power and the freedom that came with it to help others live freer and more dignified lives, or did you parade your superiority around like a pompous and egotistical ass, oppressing and alienating the world when you should have been enlightening it?
And the serious Christian meritocrat is going to spend a lifetime being haunted by the warnings of Jesus. God actually judges the gifted and the successful by a tougher standard than he uses with the “ordinary” and the poor. The popular pundit on the television talk show needs to go home and tremble on his knees when he or she reflects on the judgment that is in store. The corporate CEO needs to lie awake at night wondering whether his business dealings have been fair; God will demand an accounting for the wages he offered to his janitors and his employees overseas. As you sit at the five star restaurant with the celebrity chef, enjoying a convivial dinner with congenial, intelligent people, you need to be haunted by the specter of the homeless outside on the street; God not only cares as much about what they eat as he cares about your dinner — he is going to ask you one fine day just what you did to make sure they were served.
Are you speaking the conventional wisdom to applause and esteem? Then know that God warns you of the judgment to come: the dreadful words of the Gospel of Luke (chapter 6, verses 24-26) must always echo in your ears:
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full ! for ye shall hunger . Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep . Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
Finally, the Christian meritocrat must live in the light of the doctrine of Original Sin. Often seen as some dark, dismal dogma of the bigoted and the misanthropic, this idea may be the single most necessary piece of mental equipment a successful person needs to lead a genuinely constructive life in America today.
Original Sin is the idea that human beings, despite all their talents and capacities, are deeply and hopelessly flawed. Like water flows downhill, we are constantly turning toward our own selfish goals. We are vain, jealous, petty, self-seeking. Our judgement twists away from what’s right to what benefits us and our side. We can’t keep our fingers off the scales.
It’s not just our moral choices that go awry. Our thinking isn’t straight. What we think is logic is often self interest. When our interests and our passions are engaged, we lose all mental clarity just when we need it most.
At the collective level, this explains why meritocracy cannot in itself be an answer to the political problems of the human race. There are no Platonic philosopher kings, no unmoved movers, who will judge all things and all men clear and true. And the problem isn’t simply our ignorance and partial knowledge; it’s the flaw in our natures that means that our intellects are often the least dependable when we need them most.
At the individual level, for the successful American who has gone through the right schools, won the merit badges and made it through to a position of power, influence and either affluence or great wealth, a lively sense of original sin helps protect you from the evils and temptations to which you exposed.
First, you must acknowledge and remember your own sin. Original sin is not just an abstraction; every human being has done sad and shameful things. We all have weak and shaky bits of our character. We all fall short of what we could have done and should have done; we have all wasted and misused the gifts intrusted to us. A serious Christian life keeps these truths before you as in daily prayer and meditation you weigh your thoughts and deeds by God’s standard and tremble at what you see.
Success makes you smug and self satisfied, and this makes you less fit for any useful purpose in the world. Christians today understand that the Pharisees as depicted in the New Testament do not reflect the insight and wisdom of the Jewish religious tradition that developed from the Biblical era, but without projecting this picture onto our Jewish friends and associates, the picture of the Biblical Pharisee is one to keep before us always. Legends of righteousness in their own minds, revered by the ignorant multitude, teachers of the law who applied intellectual discipline to difficult social and moral questions: what is the Pharisee but the meritocrat of an earlier day?
Think of the one who stood in the synagogue to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) Is this not a picture of the smug meritocrat who drives a Prius, eats locally sourced organic foods, has impeccably progressive views, is effortlessly brilliant in the practice of a complex profession and for every occasion knows the right attitude to take and the right thing to say?
From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honors. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.
The old gospel song “Denomination Blues” says it best, perhaps: “You can go to your college, you can go to your school/But if you ain’t got Jesus you’re an educated fool.”
There are crackpots and know nothings who sing that song meaning that nobody should go to school and college. “Jesus” is all you need. And there are those who think that the right school and the right college will teach you all you need to know. But there are a great many people running around today who studied for years in top colleges and top schools without ever learning what it’s all about. In many cases, nobody ever even offered to teach them.
In any case, a serious Christian commitment serves as a moral and psychological anchor for members of an elite. Your life circumstances may be different from those of hoi polloi, you may have power and freedom that most people don’t, but if you are a serious Christian wrestling daily with your inadequacies before God and your need for God’s grace, you are living an inner life that is very similar to the lives of millions of your fellow citizens. The spiritual life is the ultimate democracy: every human being approaches God on the same terms. A Nobel economic laureate or a Fortune 500 CEO who spends time on his or her knees in honest prayer and honest spiritual struggle every day is keeping it green; for those few minutes that person isn’t a successful meritocrat whose meteoric career streaks across the sky.
Chris Hayes is not wrong that American meritocracy as it exists today is both a symptom and a cause of a society losing its footing and in danger of a real fall. And I do not say that a “Christian” or theistic meritocracy would work where a secular one must fail. (We had a Christian meritocracy in Puritan New England. The best, brightest and godliest hanged Quakers and witches.) And I repeat what I wrote earlier, to avoid misunderstanding: Christianity is not the only religious or other source of the kind of moral insight and spiritual depth that can mitigate the problems of a meritocratic society. It is the one I understand best and the one that, historically, has played the most important role in American life. I leave to others the task of describing other resources and traditions by which other Americans whose talents have brought them into important and powerful positions in our society can be guided and checked.
But with those appropriate reservations appropriately taken, I do say that the fading of serious Christian commitment in the sleek and successful ranks of America’s meritocracy plays a significant and damaging role in our national life. The renewal of Christian commitment among a significant sector of America’s elite is, I think, a necessary condition of continued American progress and success. If we get this, we will still need social reforms and social change — much of it, I suspect, not what Hayes wants, but that is another story. But if we don’t get that kind of renewal and commitment, no program of reform, however wisely engineered, can keep our liberty, our prosperity and our democracy safe, much less transform them into something richer, deeper, greater and more widely and fairly shared than anything we have yet seen.
Photo courtesy shutterstock.