Meritocracy and Mobility

A great benefit of vacations is time to read. I loaded up the Kindle app on my IPad, and I’ve been going through the digital version of what used to be a pile of books on my nightstand.

Yesterday, I finished Chris Hayes “Twilight of the Elites,” and unlike so many of the entirely predictable books reliably pumped out by pundits of the left and right, I found this to be a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the political and social failures that account for our sour American mood. Hayes connects the angst of the Tea Party to that of the Occupy Movement, and sees both as part of a more widespread distrust of our common institutions.

I should probably note that this emphasis on institutional failure was also at the center of my 2010 book, Distrust, American Style. Hayes focuses on many of the same scandals  that I included in that book; however, my purpose was to show the effects of institutional distrust on social capital—to explore institutional failure as a cause of increased distrust of our neighbors, especially those who may not look or talk or worship as we do.

Hayes’ purpose is to explore what those institutional failures tell us about the failure of America’s approach to meritocracy.

There are so many worthwhile and illuminating passages in the book that picking any one out seems arbitrary, but here’s an example. Hayes notes that any meritocratic system—any system that purports to reward excellent performance rather than social or economic status—depends upon the existence of genuine social mobility. That genius child of poor parents must have a real shot at getting the scholarship, or the job, or the loan to start his business—in other words, a meritocratic society must have mechanisms that facilitate the discovery and advancement of the people who possess merit.

As Hayes points out, however,

            This ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible….Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.

America used to be the land of social mobility; today, of the Western democratic nations only England has less social mobility than we do.

As Hayes says elsewhere, “A deep recognition of the slow death of the meritocratic dream underlies the decline in trust in public institutions and the crisis of authority in which we are now mired.”

Even if you aren’t on vacation, even if you are skeptical of his premises–you should read this book.