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Christopher Hayes misdiagnoses American meritocracy. August 17, 2012

Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes (Crown, 304 pp., $26)

“America feels broken,” Christopher Hayes writes at the beginning of his new book, Twilight of the Elites. Such sweeping assertions are commonplace for Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes and editor-at-large of The Nation. We suffer, he believes, from a debilitating “crisis of authority” in which Americans no longer trust foundational institutions or, by extension, America itself. In Hayes’s view, this crisis results from elite malfeasance in multiple realms—from government and finance to the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball. American elites—part of a “small, powerful, and connected” group that shapes national events—have unmoored our society because, blinded by their own sense of greatness, they shun accountability in pursuit of shortsighted objectives. They have transformed our political battles into a conflict between “institutionalists,” who stand for strong authority, prudence, and preservation of the status quo, and “insurrectionists,” who believe that our institutions and elites are so irredeemable that they must be turned out. Hayes identifies himself with the second camp.

The root of the problem, as Hayes sees it, is America’s meritocratic ethos, which promotes people according to their talent and motivation, rather than lineage or ideology. For Hayes, a self-admitted beneficiary of this system, meritocracy has had disastrous consequences, producing an elite that becomes arrogant and insulated by its own success. He points to former Enron COO Jeff Skilling, who depicted his soon-to-be-doomed company as a “perfect meritocracy, where smart, gifted—and richly compensated—people would be pitted against one another in an endless battle for dominance.” For Hayes, Skilling illustrates the self-satisfaction that led meritocratic elites to act recklessly and ignore the consequences of foolhardy or immoral decisions. Hayes also contends that the open-endedness of meritocracy makes our elites anxious and insecure. They fear that there always exists “another height to which to ascend, more competitors to vanquish, more money to obtain.”

The faults that Hayes identifies are hardly unique to the American meritocratic elite, of course. Meritocracy does not, of itself, generate these vices: it merely paves the way for high achievers to enjoy them. We shouldn’t discount the meritocratic ideal simply because its beneficiaries exhibit the pathologies common to elites everywhere. Hayes seems convinced, however, that contemporary American elites are uniquely bad. His “Iron Law of Meritocracy” holds that our elites intentionally create structures to exclude outsiders. He neither proves his allegation nor demonstrates how, if it were true, this habit would distinguish the current American elite from the older one that employed quotas, among other tactics, to bar religious and ethnic minorities from their circles. All he can do is point to social and economic trends working against the success of society’s underprivileged—such as income inequality, social immobility, and mass incarceration of minorities. But he does not show, probably because he cannot, that meritocrats actively promote these trends to “create means of preserving and defending their privilege and find ways to pass it on across generations.”

Hayes also ignores at least one way in which our meritocratic elite actually is unique: its ever-changing makeup. Congressional Budget Office data show that the composition of top income brackets in the United States fluctuates greatly over time. Upstarts in business, finance, and technology regularly supplant once-dominant players. The Internet’s continuous stream of commentary makes today’s fashioners of elite opinion far less authoritative than their predecessors. Our meritocratic system is dynamic, rewarding success and punishing underperformers. This reality might even account for the anxieties that Hayes attributes to his 1 percent; but rather than view these insecurities as signs of a self-destructing class, as Hayes does, we might appreciate them as evidence that our system remains open to all.

Ultimately, Hayes’s critique differs little from long-standing arguments against entrenched power. He articulates a time-honored truth: large, centralized institutions—especially but not exclusively government ones—claim more knowledge and virtue than they can possibly possess and should be closely scrutinized. He cites baseball’s doping scandal and the subprime bubble to illustrate how elites circumvented meaningful checks on their power and lapsed into groupthink. He sees elite myopia in the inadequacy of governmental response to Hurricane Katrina, in the Catholic Church’s failure to protect young victims from clerical abuse, and in the blindness of financial experts to the looming economic crisis. Hayes suggests that these failures result from elites’ “social distance,” their isolation from the people affected by their decisions. This is hardly a novel argument.

But in light of his own anxieties about elite power, Hayes’s recommendations aren’t promising. Indeed, his only concrete suggestion is “higher taxes and more distribution”—which would, of course, be administered by the very elites whose power Hayes criticizes throughout the book. Doesn’t that contradict his own message about the limitations of centralized action and the inability of elites to achieve their lofty goals? Hayes also fails to think constructively about the role of civil society, the need for mediating institutions that are closer to social problems and can thus deal with them more effectively. Tellingly, one of the organizations that Hayes does admire is Occupy Wall Street, which pays lip service to the value of decentralized power but whose recommendations almost always involve centralized, top-down policies.

Hayes hopes that his audience will use Occupy’s methods to bring about a more egalitarian American order. But the movement’s failure to gain traction suggests that Hayes’s pleas will go unheeded. Americans tend to recognize that the failures of elites don’t invalidate the entire political system. In fact, the American republic incorporates this understanding by establishing meaningful checks against centralized power. Thus it is no contradiction that Americans challenge and defend their institutions with equal ferocity: they are simultaneously institutionalists and insurrectionists.

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