Twilight of the Elites

Christopher Hayes. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown Publishing Group, 2012).

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In this book, MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes ties the recent financial crisis to a larger crisis of authority. For Hayes, the financial meltdown is just the most recent example of “elite failure,” the “latest in an uninterrupted cascade of corruption and incompetence” that also includes Enron and other corporate scandals, the inept response to hurricane Katrina, baseball’s steroid scandal, and the coverup of sexual molestation by the Catholic Church. Even before the financial crash, surveys showed an erosion in trust in almost every social institution. And here the exceptions may be as troubling as the rule: What kind of democratic society has high confidence in its military but almost no confidence in its elected representatives?

Hayes distinguishes between “institutionalist” and “insurrectionist” responses to the crisis of authority. For institutionalists like David Brooks, popular distrust is itself the problem, since it can lead to a breakdown of social order. For insurrectionists like Hayes himself, the real problem is the elite behavior that has inspired the distrust. Loss of confidence in elites could be a step toward social reform, but for the most part that hasn’t happened yet, so we remain in limbo with poorly functioning institutions, largely run by “the same elites who screwed them up in the first place.”

What makes this book different from many discussions of elite failure is the depth and breadth of Hayes’s critique. He is not simply attacking particular groups of leaders for particular behavior; he is questioning the fundamental assumption on which leadership in America is largely based, which is the assumption of meritocracy. Emerson said, “The existence of an upper class is not injurious, as long as it is dependent on merit.” The idea that inequality based on merit is both morally justifiable and practically efficient is fundamental to the American belief system. One corollary is that giving people something they haven’t merited is immoral. Conservatives like meritocracy as a basis for authority and privilege, and liberals like it as a basis for openness and diversity. Talent rises to the top, and social factors like race, ethnicity, religion and gender need be no obstacle to the recognition of talent. Hayes cites the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as the “crowning achievement” of meritocracy, although ironically occurring “just at the moment that the system was imploding on itself.”

A belief in the importance of education goes hand-in-hand with a faith in meritocracy. In theory, good schools identify and develop talent from all corners of society, and then funnel it into positions of responsibility. Between 2000 and 2005, 40% of Princeton’s fully employed graduates took jobs on Wall Street. Hayes’s critique of the meritocratic system begins with education, specifically the elite elementary school he attended, Hunter Elementary School in Manhattan. It is a free public school accepting high achievers from all over the city on the basis of a single admissions examination administered to sixth-grade students. But as economic inequality has increased in New York, as elsewhere, Hunter’s enrollment has become increasingly wealthy and white, and minority admissions have slowed to a trickle (3% black and 1% Hispanic by 2009). This is partly because the successful applicants can afford special coaching to prepare for the test. It also reflects the general rule that income is a good predictor of test scores, since children of successful parents have opportunities that other children don’t have.

Advocates of meritocracy usually make a sharp distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes; meritocracy is supposed to provide the former but not the latter. Equality of opportunity provides the “level playing field” for competition, but the rewards go primarily to the winning competitors, as they should. Hayes questions whether opportunity and outcomes can be so neatly separated. He proposes the following “Iron Law of Meritocracy”:

Eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible….Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was inspired by the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” proposed by German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911. Michels was describing the process by which entrenched oligarchies emerge in any complex organization, as people who obtain important positions use them to maintain their power. Hayes also notes that Michael Young, the British writer who coined the term “meritocracy” in 1958, intended his book as a warning about what he perceived as a threat to democracy. He saw meritocracy as a system in which a small group of winners could run society to the detriment of the losers, as opposed to a system in which large groups like industrial workers could get ahead together.

In support of his contention that inequality of outcomes can undermine equality of opportunity, Hayes cites economic research showing that economic mobility has decreased as income inequality has increased. Contrary to what advocates of meritocracy might hope, the U.S. has more inequality and less mobility than most other industrial democracies. For Hayes, the issue is not just that this is unfair, but that it bears on the the crisis of authority, the perception that our elites just haven’t been doing a very good job lately. Extreme inequality creates a corrupted upper class that serves society poorly. I’ll explore this aspect of Hayes’s argument in my next post.


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