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What's Wrong With Meritocracy

The subject of meritocracy is one that has flitted around in the back of my mind for at least a dozen years, ever since a series of conversations with an acquaintance during my undergraduate years. He was studying international business and finance, and frequently expressed his bafflement that I would choose philosophy over the programme he had chosen, this bafflement receiving concrete form in the questions he posed to me - of why, if I had the ability to study philosophy, and could with equal ease, therefore, study what he studied, I would elect to study philosophy and forswear all of the lucrative opportunities that awaited the ambitious would-be master of the economic universe.

[Update: We've closed comments on this one, before things degenerate further -- Ed.]


There is never a good answer to such questions, unless by 'good' one means an answer which deflects the question and results in a change of subject. If one answers to the effect that such business is not one's thing, the questioner will conclude either that such choices were rooted in some sentiment over which one had no control - one couldn't help not caring for international finance - and thus that one is deserving of some pity, or will inquire further, increasing the probability that one will have to disclose an ambivalent opinion about the questioner's career ambitions. It's a lose-lose proposition. Or simply a losing proposition, if one elects, in defiance of all propriety, to express reservations about a given career trajectory.

Despite all of these meritocratic thoughts flitting about in the back of my mind, I never turned to the subject of giving form to my inchoate sense that something was amiss with the meritocracy. Luckily, then, that I needn't trouble myself, for a confessed member of that meritocracy, Ross Douthat, has expressed the problem succinctly, and perhaps with greater authority than any outsider could have commanded. Commenting on an intra-Atlantic exchange spurred by an essay in the current issue which attempts to exculpate the financial meritocrats who engineered the disaster, Douthat observes that shifting responsibility to society in the aggregate won't suffice. We are all responsible, and some, in virtue of their power, are more responsible than others. And the failings of the masters of the universe get to the heart of what is wrong with our meritocracy:


I don't often plug my first book, Privilege, but I think it's worth mentioning here because when you read about how the American leadership class acquitted itself at Citibank, or on Wall Street in general, I think you can see the dark side of meritocracy at work - the same dark side that shadows an instititution like Harvard, where a job in investment banking became, for a time, the summum bonum of meritocratic life. The mistakes that our elites made, and that led us to this pass, have their roots in flaws common to all elites, in all times and places - hubris, arrogance, insulation from the costs of their decisions, and so forth. But they also have their roots in flaws that I think are somewhat more particular to this elite, and this time and place. Flaws like an overweening faith in technology's capacity to master contingency, a widespread assumption that the future doesn't have much to learn from the past, and above all a peculiar combination of smartest-guys-in-the-room entitlement (don't worry, we deserve to be moving millions of dollars around on the basis of totally speculative models, because we got really high SAT scores) and ferocious, grasping competitiveness (because making ten million dollars isn't enough if somebody else from your Ivy League class is making more!). It's a combination, at its worst, that marries the kind of vaulting, religion-of-success ambitions (and attendant status anxieties) that you'd expect from a self-made man to the obnoxious entitlement you'd expect from a to-the-manor-born elite - without the sense of proportion and limits, of the possibility of tragedy and the inevitability of human fallibility, that a real self-made man would presumably gain from starting life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (as opposed to the upper-middle class, where most meritocrats starts) ... and without, as well, the sense of history, duty, self-restraint, noblesse oblige and so forth that the old aristocrats were supposed to aspire to.

Bereft of a sense of tragedy and their own finitude, and possessed of no intuition that they ought to impose upon themselves the discipline of self-limitation, both for the good of our common society and for the good of their souls, and eschewing obligations to their 'inferiors', most of our meritocrats embody the vices of the nouveau riches and the ancien regime without any of the counterbalancing virtues. They have been the worst of both worlds, sort of like liberaltarians celebrating the most loathsome excesses of the culture while hymning the most calamitous excesses of creative destruction.

All elites, Douthat observes, have their flaws, and can hasten a people to the abyss. We should not, however, indulge the predilection for abstraction as a means of avoiding the flaws of our elites, if only because they wield so much power. Well, that, and the fact that they are us, and we them.

Comments (48)

Douthat is talking about an aristocracy, not a meritocracy. For a true meritocracy would never approve of a regime that rewards both merit and failure. Perhaps Douthat's confusions are the result of his poor education at Harvard.

Perhaps meritocracy is an illusion, then, and aristocracy is all that remains, though the days are long past when aristocrats who brought failure and obloquy upon themselves and their people would, ahem, honour the public forms and take their punishments, if ever they were.

If, then, it is an aristocracy, it is not so much one of birth as of test scores and attendance at the right institutions; if one's scores are sufficiently high, and one has the right credentials, one may behave as one to the manor born. Meritocracy is, perhaps, merely the noble lie we tell ourselves, so that we can continue to pretend that we have no aristocracy, and so forth.

[Maybe it's time for someone to be redacted, because I do not intend my posts as an opportunity to be insulted.]

"Bereft of a sense of tragedy and their own finitude, and possessed of no intuition that they ought to impose upon themselves the discipline of self-limitation, both for the good of our common society and for the good of their souls, and eschewing obligations to their 'inferiors', most of our meritocrats embody the vices of the nouveau riches and the ancien regime without any of the counterbalancing virtues."

The above quote is interesting in many different ways. First of all, I tend to agree with both Maximos and Douthat that we shouldn't just wring our hands and say of the current financial problems, "we are all to blame". I do think some elites are more culpable than others -- I would simply shift the focus of our attention from Wall Street to Congress and Fannie and Freddie. Wall Street was responding to the screwed up incentives put in place by generally well-meaning people who were convinced that the financial system just had to provide more loans to minorities and/or low-income folks whether or not those folks had a reasonable chance of repaying these mortgages when the housing market tanked. Again, I direct W4 readers to Sailer's blog which has had some excellent stories over the past couple of weeks about how the Community Re-investment Act worked over the years and the role played by Rangle, Frank, the Clinton Administration, etc. in making sure Fannie and Freddie turned on the money spigots.

That's why the above quote is so interesting -- Maximos contends that our current elites are guilty of "eschewing obligations to their 'inferiors'". But it seems to me that much of our current mess is a result of just the opposite -- any bank that dared to question whether or not there were families who could really afford that $300K house in the inner-city were chastized and strong-armed to either make the loan or fund groups that would. As usual, liberals were armed with all the best intentions yet people like Barney Frank or Charlie Rangle dare to argue now that what we need is more government oversight and, of course, money to fix the problems they cooked up all these years.

Look, as Lydia said in the previous thread, when sleazy people like Bernie Madoff are caught red-handed conducting themselves as criminals, we should in fact treat them as such and be thankful that justice will be done. There is indeed an important distinction to be made between Madoff and someone like Robert Rubin, who I'm sure is the kind of guy Maximos is thinking about when he writes these posts. But I would argue that for every Bernie Madoff there are countless Wall Street "movers and shakers" who have acted and continue to act as we would want them to act (i.e. taking other people's money and investing that money in assets and businesses that they think will be successful). The question should always be asking is do our institutions have the proper incentives in place to reward success and punish failure. When giant Government Sponsored Enterprises warp these incentives, we should not be surprised at the results.

I just don't understand why Maximos wants to condemn our (generally) well-functioning meritocracy and those on Wall Street who acted in good faith to bring their investors good returns. American Conservatives should be focusing on ways in which the federal government can disentangle itself from high-finance, not get more involved:

http://frum.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MWVhNzRhZTZlYjJmMjBjZDNmYWFkNDE0Zjk0NTRiMzQ=

[It's a cheap tu quoque coupled with an implicit admonition for me to know my place, and an artless way of ducking the question of how the powerful actually conduct themselves in America.]

Steve Sailer's contributions to a history of the financial crisis have been salutary, but they are far from exhaustive, and I've little patience left with the notion that, but for meddlesome bureaucrats mandating loans to poor African-American and Hispanic households, the great derivative orgy would be continuing, all of the participants unsated. While I do not concur in his judgment that the GSEs bear no responsibility, the meme of Freddie and Fannie has been thoroughly debunked by Barry Ritholtz. The Street is capable of generating perverse incentives quite without the input of government regulators.

That being the case, the meritocracy is not-well functioning, and has not always acted in good faith.

Wall Street was responding to the screwed up incentives put in place

Please Jeff, don't try to shift the blame. C.D.O.'s and the derivatives market were a voluntary creation of Wall Street. Freddie and Fannie are one aspect, the structured finance calamity, another. They are related in this; each operated free of regulation and common sense. Personal accountability in this this epic disaster has been remarkably scarce as it is, no tampering with the record should be allowed. The tunnel between Wall Street and Treasury is one that neither is anxious to close.

Jeff,
It's lame and cowardly defense that suppresses another's words, and then puts a false twist on them for public consumption.

I think that there is always an aristocracy in every society, and that attempting to claim that there is not one in ours or should not be one is just rank liberalism, for which I have nothing but contempt. I also disagree with the silly notion of "equality before the law" construed as meaning something like the notion that an aristocrat ought to face the same punishments for the same crime as a commoner. Absolutely not. An aristocrat who commits a crime should face more severe punishment than a commoner. With his greater power and visibility comes greater responsibility.

If ditching equality before the law always meant merely noblesse oblige, it mightn't have consequences that were _too_ bad. But it never would in practice mean that. Even in the days when there was such a thing as noblesse oblige, the lord could beat the serf half to death and face nothing, but if the serf struck the lord even once, he stood to have his hand chopped off. I prefer equality before the law, all things considered.

I think it is something of a false dichotomy. We can observe that equality before the law construed in a certain way is unjust and counter to nature without endorsing some specific historical state of affairs.

I agree with Zippy. My complaints about our meritocracy, establishments, and elites are not complaints against these things as such - which would be preciously pointless - but against the character of the particular aristocracy we do in fact possess - or rather, that possesses us.

For the record, Dr. B, I consider it lame and cowardly to pose insults in lieu of actual argumentation and to then expect the insulted party to entertain the suggestion that he has abused his inconsequential station in life by maligning the great and the good.

I think that there is always an aristocracy in every society, and that attempting to claim that there is not one in ours or should not be one is just rank liberalism, for which I have nothing but contempt. I also disagree with the silly notion of "equality before the law" construed as meaning something like the notion that an aristocrat ought to face the same punishments for the same crime as a commoner. Absolutely not. An aristocrat who commits a crime should face more severe punishment than a commoner. With his greater power and visibility comes greater responsibility.

It would certainly be nice if it worked this way, but we have a system where punishment for the aristocrats and government agents depends on a gamble that their actions hurt the right people, in the right ways, were shocking enough in the right ways, and got the attention of the right people. This rarely is the case, and is why more often than not, in modern America, it's only the common, private citizen who truly is punished for anything.

The average American prosecutor is a sociopath who prays on the disconnected and who is too cowardly to go after his betters.

My comment was meant to bring up only the empirical facts of human nature and of what we ought, based on experience, to expect actually to happen if equality before the law were abandoned. I'm not saying that anybody is endorsing anything. I'm saying that I myself think equality before the law is a very wise and prudent idea.

I agree with Zippy. My complaints about our meritocracy, establishments, and elites are not complaints against these things as such - which would be preciously pointless - but against the character of the particular aristocracy we do in fact possess - or rather, that possesses us.

The very fact that we live in a society where the biggest losers receive huge sums of money to land on their feet should suffice to prove that America is not, in any meaningful sense, a meritocracy. We could debate until the universe collapses from entropy, and still not agree on precisely what it is, but a meritocracy is out of the question. It simply does not have any of the tell tale signs of a meritocracy when it comes to punishing the failed by allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions.

I should note that my employment of the term "meritocracy" is intended both in a reportorial sense - this is what other commentators describe the American system as being - and an ironic sense. Of course we don't have a literal meritocracy, and, if we were to take the agitprop of the meritocracy literally, the result would be monstrous: "I have a measured IQ higher than yours, superlative test scores, and the 'right' credentials, and therefore deserve to lord it over you."

Well there certainly is a bit of a tussle for -cracy here at 4W.

"Intellectuals of all political persuasions are subject to the eternal temptation to believe that their ideas are more powerful than reality. This is one of the great causes of human misery, writes Mike Gray." (from stkarnack.com)

As I said earlier, Jeff, before you deleted my comment, suggesting that you apply your means of analysis to your own doings is not at all an insult, despite your censorship and public misconstrual.

That is a fabulous quote, KW.

Lydia, I'm merely suggesting that we give up what is false and harmful in our particular cultural understanding of equality before the law. It isn't valid to appeal to other particular historical circumstances and say in effect 'they were worse, therefore we are justified in clinging to our errors'.

Dr. B, it seems highly dubious, given the context, that you were attempting to dispense spiritual counsel; rather, it seems more like an attempt to score a political and sociological point at my expense. If you'd like to do a little "beam-n-mote" shuck-and-jive routine, please, just do it. I'm not much taken by passive-aggressive tactics.

The American aristocracy deserves every bit of opprobrium that has been cast in its direction; the headlines afford a surfeit of evidence to this effect. I've not been abusive in the least by pointing to Douthat pointing to their failings and corruptions.

Good work, Max: Misread, mischaracterize, misapply, and censor.

Now try this: Apply your own principles of leftist social analysis and its semi-Marxist rubric to yourself and your own activities to see what results.

Oh, please. Apply the presupposition of your "analysis" - that all criticisms of the establishment are, at best, leftist and semi-Marxist, and thus inadmissible, the "great and the good" being honest, impeccable folks misled by people who "think like Maximos does" - to yourself and wallow in the atmosphere of smug self-satisfaction.

Try another round of kindergarten name-calling - "Ooohhh, he sounds like a Marxist because he thinks there are problems with the Wall Street elite! Scary!" - and I'll be right there to redact it.

Is Douthat a commie, too?

Let me put my own specific point this way:

There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy, unless we include capacity to align one's own interests with that of the aristocracy as a measure of merit. And there is no such thing as a pure aristocracy, unless we include an individual's merits as actually exercised in context as a part of his congenital inheritance. In summary, there is no such thing as an aristocracy-sans-merit nor is there any such thing as a meritocracy-sans-aristocrats.

Furthermore, since there is no such thing as either of those things, we should not speak and act as if (1) there were such a thing, or (2) there ought to be such a thing as some kind of ideal. The former is merely a form of lie, and the latter is, well, ideological, in the harmful sense.

Max:
"Oh, please. Apply the presupposition of your "analysis" - that all criticisms of the establishment are, at best, leftist and semi-Marxist, and thus inadmissible, the "great and the good" being honest, impeccable folks misled by people who "think like Maximos does" - to yourself and wallow in the atmosphere of smug self-satisfaction.

Try another round of kindergarten name-calling - "Ooohhh, he sounds like a Marxist because he thinks there are problems with the Wall Street elite! Scary!" - and I'll be right there to redact it.

Is Douthat a commie, too?"


[There was a seven-point list here, consisting of things that Dr. B. has done by insinuation, but not explicitly, giving him the wiggle room to continue a pointless round of baiting, as well as an admonition to engage in the sort of cheap self-deconstructive exercises in introspection a pomo faculty adviser once forced upon me. Dr. B. wants to paint the line of critique in this post, and the Douthat post it cites, as semi-Marxist, but denies doing so (there's that wiggle room again!), and wants me to engage in that self-deconstructive exercise so that he can point and say that I've just demonstrated that I'm not worth listening to, and not even so that we can have fun with the logical puzzle. He is also euphemizing taunting and baiting as some form of intellectual seriousness, because this is easier and more satisfying than demonstrating that, say, the Wall Street crowd at issue here are being unjustly maligned. He also had a problem with my wife's ethnic group a while back, and obviously has a problem with yours truly, and what I cannot figure out is why, if what I write is so meretricious, he continues to read it.]

I also see something of a mix of a meritocracy and an aristocracy in the U.S. One unfortunate consequence of this mixture (which I think probably inevitable and even desirable in our society) comes from certain people "switching" from meritocracy to aristocracy for selfish gain while hiding behind the former, which sadly results in the worst of both systems coming out at precisely the worst times in the unjust concentration of benefits and the socialization of the demerits.

Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the bailouts, which at the very minimum seem to me to be a concentration of benefits for the current generation in power and the socialization of the costs for future generations, plus whatever intra-generational injustices are being committed.

And in my poorly written comment above, the "inevitable and desirable" thing refers not to the unfortunate consequence of the mixture between meritocracy and aristocracy, but to the mixture itself.

Pardon.

There was a seven-point list here, consisting of things that Dr. B. has done by insinuation

I guess we'll just have to take your word for it.

He is also euphemizing taunting and baiting as some form of intellectual seriousness...

I guess we'll, etc...

Yes, you will, because I don't offer the comments section of my threads to those who attempt to dignify as intellectual engagement taunts to the effect of, "Everything you say of X is true of you, and I'm gonna harangue you until you admit it." For such things are puerile, and I have better things to do with my time.

I guess we'll just have to take your word for it.

In all fairness to Maximos, Zippy had done the very same thing (actually, a more careful evaluation would attest that Zippy had committed an even more flagrant act by subjecting the individual to outright ridicule -- even if deservedly as was the case then) with some interlocutor by the name of George R. in a thread not too long ago.

I don't see how one might protest censure such as this while altogether ignoring the very same (if not, worse) in the previous case.

Case-by-case basis, Aristocles. I advise Michael Bauman to keep a copy of all his comments in this thread from here on out, if he hasn't already begun to do so. Then, if need be, they can be posted elsewhere, or questions about their appropriateness can be discussed elsewhere with the data on-hand.

YOUR MERITOCRACY AT WORK;
*In December 2000 enact legislation creating the Credit Default Swaps market.

*Do so without debate in either the House or the Senate. In fact do not hold any hearings or committe votes. Merely pass the Commodity Futures Modernization Act as part of an omnibus budget bill.

*Make sure the swaps market of close to 50 trillion dollars is totally unregulated.

*Reap the whirlwind 8 years later.

*Defend the efficacy of the markets and the caliber of our elites and quietly hope you still have your job, home and 401k after is all said and done.

Above all, refuse to read the historical record;

The Bet That Blew Up Wall Street

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_Futures_Modernization_Act_of_2000

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/c/credit_default_swaps/index.html

Quiet, Kevin! You don't want to be suspected of channeling Marx, do you? Apply your critique to yourself and forget about the men behind the curtain!

Lydia,

Certainly, I leave these matters under the purview of you and yours, as such things are rightly under your and your co-contributors' jurisdiction.

I'll decline to say anything further as far as an official (i.e., de jure) moderation of the comments go other than to say quite simply that, from a de facto evaluation of the facts, the censure committed herein by Maximos to that of Zippy only differs in that (it seems to me) Zippy had committed (comparatively speaking, of course) an act even greater of the two (although, I admit, as in the case here, that it was his right to do so under his, as well as yours and your co-contributors', authority):


[Look at me, I'm George R., and I'm stupid enough to try to put words in Zippy's mouth. No really, I'm that much of a fool.] Posted by George R. | August 19, 2008 4:51 PM

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/08/not_bad_but_tragic.html#comment-29216
http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/08/not_bad_but_tragic.html#comment-29274

Maximos, funny how one's stands on war, open borders, abortion and our elites can lead to this nifty bumper-sticker; "unpatriotic, racist, misogynistic Marxist religious nut". I'm hoping to have one made up for Christmas. I'll mail you one.

Abortion?

Not in my experience. Not here. Not even (from what I've seen) among those "neo-cons." And certainly not from Michael Bauman. No, it's other stuff. Perhaps what someone recently referred to in an e-mail to me as "the Chomsky stuff."

"The Chomsky stuff"? Some people are really taking leave.

"Quiet, Kevin! You don't want to be suspected of channeling Marx, do you?"

Seriously. You can't criticize certain aspects of corporate capitalism without being called a Marxist, just like you can't critique certain aspects of current American foreign policy without being called a "blame America firster."

On another site I was recently accused of parroting Howard Zinn. Not only have I never read Zinn, but the folks I was favorably referring to were Paul Gottfried, Andrew Bacevich, and some of the ISI guys. If they're crypto-Marxists I'm the uncrowned King of Norway.

Sorry Lydia, the pejoratives come from so many directions I get confused;
"hmmm, was I called a homophobe at NYU or online" or, "was I called unpatriotic by the overfed fool on the train or by the former draft-dodger hosting the Commentary lecture".

It all becomes a blur and didn't mean to be sweeping in my comments.

Rob G, can you imagine walking around in Bacevich's shoes. He served. He lost a son in Iraq. Now he gets labeled as a softie by guys who skipped the Vietnam War for the Yale Political Union's weekly bong parties. It has to be surreal.

Kevin,

Bacevich didn't just serve - he had a stellar career as an Army officer, up to being commander of the 11th ACR, just about the most prestigous assignment a tanker like Bacevich could ask for prior to becoming a general. Which he was well on his way to becoming, until the tragic accident in Doha that blew up the motor pool and his career. I was in the 11th ACR when he was the RCO, and the idea that anyone thinks him a softie is laughable. He held an annual competition all officers in the Regiment had to compete in called "Gunga Din" - basically a sort of triathlon, and the object was to better him ("You're a better man than I..."). Most officers failed to best COL B, including the young lieutenants.

Ideology poisons everything.

I think it is deeply troubling that Jeff is inserting comments in other people's comboxes without making it clear that he is the one writing. And in some cases he has in fact deleted all the comments and replaced them with his own comments in brackets without indicating them as such.

On occasion I have deleted comments and have shut down the combox under my entries. But it was for pretty good reasons: profanity, slander, tomfoolerly, etc. This is different. Jeff seems incapable of tolerating dissent from his absolute axioms.

Seriously. You can't criticize certain aspects of corporate capitalism without being called a Marxist, just like you can't critique certain aspects of current American foreign policy without being called a "blame America firster."

Mark Shea has occasionally written of those who undertake heroic labours to avoid concluding and conceding that Israel has at times acted contrary to the demands of justice that they apparently believe in the immaculate conception of the State of Israel. I believe in neither the immaculate conception of corporate capitalism or managerial democracy, nor that of American foreign policy. Sometimes it appears - notice the construction emphasizing perception - as though large swathes of conservatism are in fact reactive, rather than positive in their affirmations, existing in mortal dread lest even one small concession of the truth of an allegedly "leftist" argument unleash the floods of doubt and uncertainty. It's really too much to endure, with both managerial democracy and corporate capitalism, in its financial incarnation, having more or less delegitimated themselves this autumn.

Well, Maximos, so there isn't any ambiguity: The e-mailer to whom I was referring who used the Chomsky phrase is no commentator on this thread, and I don't think you have any idea who it could have been. So please don't attribute that to Dr. Bauman.

No, Frank, I'm unwilling to tolerate mockery on the level of primary-schoolers shouting, "I know you are, but what am I", which is all Dr. B's attempts to tar me with my, and Douthat's, words against Wall Street meritocrats amounts to in the end: "You say they are X, but so are you, if only you'd think like me." His was not an argument, but an attempt to personalize a disagreement. I think that Dr. B's repeatedly exhibited hostility is deeply disquieting, if this really is a time for chin-stroking.

Lydia, since when is the construction "some people" an attribution of responsibility to Dr. B? It hadn't occurred to me to do so, because I have no reason to do so; beyond that, I simply do not care, as anyone who would confuse the thoughts expressed in the body of the post with Chomsky has issues I'm not interested in exploring.

Jeff:

You certainly have a right to respond to criticisms of your point of view. But deleting comments and inserting yours (without attributing them to yourself) misleads readers, who are, it seems to me, entitled to some sort of coherent presentation of disputed questions. If you think that the posted comments are beyond civil discourse, then remove them in their entirety. But clipping, pasting, inserting, and deleting is not resisting a perceived injustice. It's bringing a new one into being.

Frank

...entitled to some sort of coherent presentation of disputed questions....

This begs the question of whether there was a disputed question. As Dr. B. attempted to shift what discussion there was to my person, my character not being a legitimate subject for disputation here, there was no longer a disputed question arising from his remarks.

It's bringing a new one into being.

Perhaps, in which case it may well become my future policy to simply delete offending comments, instead of redacting them. But I'm not obligated to allow insulting matter to stand, and to dignify it by responding to it as though it contained serious propositions.