Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Christopher Hayes is a commentator on MSNBC. He is articulate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking; I enjoy listening to him. Thus, when it was announced on TV that he had written a book, I sought it out. It did not “grab” me as I had expected it to, but it is worth reading.

The basic premise is that when the U.S. was established, it was in response to the aristocracy ruling Europe at the time. Rulers came to power based not on their own credentials but as a result of their birth family. In the U.S. a democracy was established seeking to redress the wrongs resulting from aristocracy. The result was what has come to be labelled a “meritocracy”. In a meritocracy, people are put into positions of power and responsibility based on their merits. The most qualified, best equipped people are the ones chosen to rule. Supposedly!

Meritocracy seems to work best at the beginning. But once people are in positions of power the human tendency is to attempt to solidify that position. The people in power generally seek to strengthen their hold on power, and begin to make decisions which will determine who will succeed them. Over time, meritocracy becomes once again a system of rule by the elites.

Hayes goes to some lengths outlining how this happened at his high school. He attended one of the top high schools in the nation, located in New York City. To get in, students must attain certain grades on exams. What has happened over the years is that an industry has grown up which prepares students for these exams. These preparatory programs cost huge dollars, and so the student population over time becomes very elite. Sure, anyone can apply to take the exams, but those with the best (and usually the most expensive) training are the ones who score the highest, and are enrolled. What began as an equality of opportunity, where bright kids from public schools across all socio-economic sectors could get in, ended up being quite the reverse.

Hayes uses this school as an example of what is happening, and what has happened, in the U.S. And that very system has a built-in failure. The elites now in power in the U.S. due to their wealth and family connections are bound to fall. The system itself cannot continue the way it is; it will implode. “The Iron Law of Meritocracy means that over time, the inequality that such a system celebrates and prizes will lead to its dissolution.” (p 222)

What America needs to do, says Hayes, is spend much more effort working to achieve true equality. “Equality of opportunity [which is hugely championed in the U.S.] and equality of outcome are not the same thing.” (p 222) “Clearly I’m not saying we should do whatever it takes to ensure a perfect equality of outcomes.” (p 223) But much, much more needs to be done to move toward more equality of outcomes. And, says Hayes, creating a more equitable society is an achievable goal. It has been done in some places, notably in Latin America since the 1990s.

Working toward income equality is one place to begin to seek solutions. “But with the exception of England, every other industrialized democracy has higher levels of income equality than the United States.” (p 224) The way to achieve better income equality is through taxation. Anyone paying attention to the politics of our neighbour to the south knows how difficult the issue of taxation is. The Republican Party’s desire to decrease taxes for the very rich is absolutely the wrong way to go if the country wants to be a more equitable one. “In other words, the tax system, the most straightforward means of restraining inequality, has been subverted, so as to become a tool for maintaining and expanding it.” (p 226)

The above is just a small example of many good things Christopher Hayes has to say about American politics and society. It is worth the read, even if it isn’t particularly “grabbing”.