ROSS DOUTHAT ON OUR SORRY NEW ARISTOCRACY:
But then the WASPs themselves decided to dissolve their own aristocracy, and transform their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system — a more democratic way of education, in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder, and personal achievement and technical expertise would be prized above all else.
This was meritocracy, the system that we now take for granted. And for several reasons it didn’t work as planned.
First, meritocracy segregates talent rather than dispersing it. By plucking the highest achievers from all over the country and encouraging them to cluster together in the same few cities, it robs localities of their potential leaders — so that instead of an Eastern establishment negotiating with overlapping groups of regional elites (or with working-class or ethnic leaders), you have a mass upper class segregated from demoralized peripheries.
Second, the meritocratic elite inevitably tends back toward aristocracy, because any definition of “merit” you choose will be easier for the children of these self-segregated meritocrats to achieve.
But even as it restratifies society, the meritocratic order also insists that everything its high-achievers have is justly earned. “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple,” Ann Richards famously quipped of George H.W. Bush; well, the typical meritocrat is born on third base, hustles home, and gets praised as if he just hit a grand slam.
This spirit discourages inherited responsibility and cultural stewardship; it brushes away the disciplines of duty; it makes the past seem irrelevant, because everyone is supposed to come from the same nowhere and rule based on technique alone.
As a consequence, meritocrats are often educated to be bad leaders, and bad people, in a very specific way — a way of arrogant intelligence unmoored from historical experience, ambition untempered by self-sacrifice. The way of the “best and the brightest” at the dawn of the technocratic era and the “smartest guys in the room” decades later, the way of the arsonists of late-2000s Wall Street and the “move fast and break things” culture of Silicon Valley.
We have the worst political class in history, one full of contempt for the people and nation it rules.
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