Is Meritocracy Just?

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In 1958, English sociologist Michael Young published a clever little book called The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, in which he imagined the long-term effect on society of according social goods on the basis of the principle of equality of opportunity as it was then understood. Young coined the term “meritocracy” to describe the system: Children would be administered IQ tests around age 11—the British Labour Government had recently passed a bill requiring just this—and on that basis would be sorted into appropriate schools. Then, on the basis of subsequent testing and performance, students would rise to the appropriate university, job, and position within their profession. The whole scheme is socialistic in one sense, as it is administered by the government, it employs nationalized industries, and it is driven by the need for national productivity, and of course in the English context its chief aim is dismantling inherited privilege, both in terms of title and of wealth. Although Young did not foresee such things as the sexual revolution (that is, its libertarianism; he was familiar with women’s increasing equality, of course), immigration from the Empire, and the election of Margaret Thatcher, he does think through the social dynamics by which the “public schools” would be dismantled as guardians of privilege: state schools, he hypothesizes, would skim off the most able, forcing Eton and the others to participate in “the career open to talents” or to yield their place of honor. Without spoiling the book for you, I can say that he imagines two things by 2033: (1) that society will be restratified, not on the basis of inheritance but of IQ, which his fictitious scientists show to be biologically hereditary; and (2) that there will be a rebellion of the lower classes, who, however, lack the intelligent leadership they once had, since all the best brains will have been co-opted by the system. He also supposes that clever rulers in the 2010s would be able to stave off rebellion by a statute equalizing everyone’s income but still rewarding the meritorious my means of all the amenities they need in order to optimize their productivity: ample vacation time, spacious living quarters and good meals, personal servants (what else could dull people do once effective machines had been invented?), travel, and so forth.

Now what struck me in rereading Young’s book recently was how similar the imagined society he satirically depicts is to our own, at least as it has been described by conservative libertarians such as Tyler Cowen and Charles Murray, not to mention by liberals infuriated by the ascendancy of “the one percent” and more generally by the issue of income inequality. (The latter have found a new hero in Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-first Century is the current rage on the Left.) Murray, in Coming Apart, tells of a vast class differential that has opened up in American society—for the sake of simplicity or to avoid charges that plagued his earlier work, he confines his evidence to white society—between (a) a new upper or upper-middle class elite, the top 20 percent of the population, whose wealth is based on “the increasing market value of brains,” whose ticket in is acceptance by the best colleges, who typically marry, when they (eventually) marry, another of their kind, and who live or want to live in the “superzips” around a few major cities; and (b) a new lower class, the bottom 30 percent, who live in what he calls “Fishtown,” who are no longer really a working class, only half of whom will ever form stable marriages, many of whom divorce, many of whom have kids outside marriage, many of whom are not in the labor force but on disability, more than half of whom do not attend church, and few of whom describe themselves as happy. Putting Young and Murray together, one sees a similar story of bifurcation, one under imagined socialism, one under a reawakened capitalism. And neither author sees this place as desirable. What’s going on? Are capitalism and socialism really just two different variants of the same social phenomenon?

BUREAUCRACY, MARKETS, MORALS, AND INEQUALITY

Young’s complaint—or rather, the cause of the revolt—is that merit has been too narrowly defined, as IQ. Curiously, though, in our society that hasn’t exactly been the case; in the universities, IQ or its proxy, the standardized test, has been joined in the admissions game by other characteristics and talents, some to be sure as a means of making up for social distortions of natural intelligence, some indicating other forms of merit, for example athletic or musical or social. Still, widening the definition of merit doesn’t seem to have altered the process much, perhaps because athletic and musical admissions have been limited to those who can also sustain the academic load, perhaps because some other dynamic is at work.

Part of that dynamic arises from the market, which has proven to be an even more effective sorting mechanism than Young’s imagined bureaucracy. Perhaps this resulted from the invention of computing, which has driven development in so many fields, because it not only requires brain-work but also enhances old-fashioned brain-work itself; computer work, in other words, sorts people by intelligence automatically, without need for assignment by government. Actually, there was a hidden market mechanism operating in Young’s account, for the meritocratic scheme was premised on the need for Great Britain to compete with other countries. Conversely, many of the companies in today’s world market who hire from elite schools are themselves bureaucracies and employ non-market measures of merit internally, so bureaucracies and markets are often mixed, not distinct, forms.

Young does not, as I mentioned, anticipate the sexual revolution, which characterizes the chaos in the lower classes that Murray notes. The breakdown of the family, once an upper-class phenomenon for those who could afford divorce and alimony and psychiatrists, is now chronic among people who can afford none of these, eviscerating the stability that allowed the working class of an earlier era in America to attain a modest measure of wealth (home and car ownership, perhaps also a retirement pension) and a large measure of dignity. Cause and effect are hard to sort out here—has the absence of well-paying jobs killed the family, or has the absence of stable family life sent jobs to a more reliable workforce overseas?—but it stands in contrast to the general stability of family formation today among the high bourgeoisie. Is moral order, however belittled or condemned by elites, actually a benefit they used to share with working classes? Like the family, religion has suffered among the less well-off, and again cause and effect are unclear: Do people abandon traditional morals because they lose belief, or do they fall away from organized religion because their lives have become a mess?

Murray does not object to inequality per se, but he is dismayed to find that modern society seems not only to raise some more than others, but also to lower some while doing it; above all, he worries that the absence of common values is undermining American democracy. Others do indeed object to inequality itself, or at least to the vast amount of wealth and income that accrues to successful entrepreneurs and to high-level managers in free markets. Critics today usually acknowledge that perfect equalization is implausible without excessive coercion, so they advocate high taxation of the extremely wealthy (“the one percent”) while preserving their own lifestyle among Murray’s top 20 percent. They advocate returning, in other words, to something like Young’s world, assuming themselves among the meritocracy that ought to be in charge.

CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY VERSUS MERITOCRACY

So then, is meritocracy just? I don’t mean, now, the rewarding of merit, for in myriad situations in civil society it is just to reward merit, although it is not always easy to determine what constitutes merit, much less to reliably measure it. I mean, rather, what Young’s coinage is meant to capture: rule by the meritorious. Not as just as democracy, I answer, or rather, not as just as constitutional democracy. The civic culture that supports the latter being in some disarray, as our political parties tend to idolize either the bureaucratic state or the market economy, let me make three points to explain my assertion.

First, meritocracy ignores the universal right to consent to government, the fundamental principle that underlies the sovereignty of the people and thus our constitutional democracy. Like Plato’s own satire, the Republic, where a class of philosophers does all the thinking for the city as a whole, meritocracy supposes that experts can make better decisions for most people than they can make for themselves and thus that a rational society ought to be governed by its most rational people. Democracy, by contrast, remembers that rationality inheres in every human being and supposes that the superior rationality of a few does not necessarily make them better judges of what is good for other individuals—and almost certainly does not make them care more about others’ interests than they do themselves. If the human good were a simple thing or a hierarchy of goods unambiguous, then the despotism of the wise might be tolerable, but in fact (a) there is a variety of goods that human beings rightly seek, (b) they are incommensurable with one another and so the choice of which to pursue and when cannot be settled by an algorithm, (c) many goods are so embedded in particular circumstances that they can only be known and pursued by individuals themselves, guided by their conscience, their friends, and their family, and moreover (d) making rational decisions is itself a good that is lost when others make decisions for you. We live together and so must make many choices in common; while there are times when it is rational to let another decide on one’s behalf, the need for common choice in a world of plural goods recommends a complex system of governing institutions anchored in an underlying right to consent. The few choices and fewer responsibilities left to individuals by a bureaucratic state, even a meritocratic one, do not constitute self-government, even if a plebiscite elects the bureaucracy’s titular head.

Second, our constitutional democracy protects the rights of property, which include not only a right to buy and sell and spend and earn, but a right to own and to care for the things one owns. Most accounts of meritocracy, whether bureaucratic or market-based, emphasize the flow of money, treating the economy as a whole that belongs to everyone and generates income to be distributed; but the end of acquisition is use, and not all use is consumption. Houses can be bought and sold, but in a decent society they become homes for families and sometimes for other communities of friends, and the life of families and friends cannot be described only in the terminology of merit and exchange. Property rights guarantee the autonomy—the self-governance—of these “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke called them, and they do the same for larger cultural institutions like universities, museums, and churches, as well as numerous other associations with a wide array of purposes or ends. The right to bequeath is among the rights of property, and is essential if cultural as well as physical treasures, large or small, are to be preserved. The scorn for inheritance in modern meritocracy reveals small-mindedness about the good, for in fact many of the institutions of greatest wealth devote substantial effort to sharing their treasure with the less fortunate who might benefit from the good they harbor. What evidence is there that state bureaucracies, however meritocratic, are better stewards of our cultural legacy than self-governing institutions that assume responsibility for the things they love?

Third, I want to draw attention to the idea of office as it appears in our Constitution. Although today we tend to associate the word “office” with a desk, cubicle, or work-station, the root meaning of the term is the Latin word for duty. Our constitutional officers assume duties and responsibilities when they assume office, and these are not simply limited and defined but also open to genuine action and consequential choice. The Constitution does not administer tests for merit in office—qualifications are generally quite minimal, age and citizenship, and in fact religious tests are prohibited—but it does summon the exercise of virtue and intelligence. Yes, its mechanisms include “auxiliary precautions,” in James Madison’s words, for when virtue is lacking—the separation of powers, for example, is designed so that “ambition [may] be made to counteract ambition” and keep it in check. Yes, since the chief offices are elective, a certain virtue and intelligence in the people is essential for success, and people are generally self-interested, as the Founders knew. Still, it seems to me that we as citizens (and some of us as political scientists) ought to devote more attention to virtue and intelligence in all their complexity, rather than to merit measured along a single dimension or calculated as a capacity to get rich. That we cynically dismiss discussion of virtue as naïve and treat intelligence as merely instrumental is itself a source of the troubles that partisans on both sides identify but seem reluctant or unable to address.

Professor James R. Stoner, Jr. is the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University and the 2013-15 Garwood Visiting Professor and Fellow at the James Madison Program. Stoner specializes in political theory, English common law, and American constitutionalism. He can be reached at jstoner@princeton.edu.

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