Defining “Merit”

Ross Douthat had a thought-provoking column in yesterday’s New York Times.

He traced the social change that has elevated “capable, hardworking, high IQ” people into positions of power and authority–the quintessentially American belief in rewarding talent rather than social class–and he notes that it is precisely these “high IQ” people, at least in the financial arena, who have taken us off the economic cliff. He attributes the problem to “pride”–the belief entertained by many successful “self-made” people that they are invincible, that the rules that apply to others don’t really apply to them.

Douthat says that the rest of us have responded to that arrogance by embracing ignorance. (Hint: this is probably not a good idea.) And he attributes the current Republican primary field to that rejection of meritorious arrogance. He says the field can be attributed to “a revolt against the ruling class that our meritocracy has forged, and a search for outsiders with thinner resumes but better instincts.”

As Douthout points out, it won’t do America any good to “replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent.”

It may be time to redefine “merit” to include self-awareness, and to recognize that “intelligence” is more than IQ points. A bit of humility is the beginning of wisdom–and what America desperately needs right now is less self-assurance and bluster, and a lot more wisdom.


  1. Not wrong on its face, but it sounds a little like Douthat is trying to disassociate conservatism from Wall Street.

  2. To know when you are wrong–and to admit it–apparently is not a normal characteristic of human beings. But to admit you are wrong is to allow a change of course–to try something that might turn out to be correct. Maybe that is one measure of wisdom. Arrogance is to assume you are always right. Ignorance is not know when you are wrong. When considering those who prefer to work in Wall Street and Washington, you cannot rule out greed and power.

  3. I agree with Doug – lots of those conservatives empowered the “High-IQ, low self-awareness” folks in their drive off the cliff. The don’t get to shrug the accountability for that.

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