In what starts out as an American Interest book review of Christopher Hayes‘ “Twilight of the Elites,” Walter Russell Mead makes some fascinating points about the downside of meritocracy. If Hayes makes a secular liberal argument in bringing “skepticism to the McNamara-Obama vision of a technocratic, meritocratic society run by the ‘best and the brightest’,” Mead also makes a compelling case for why meritocracy presents unique challenges for people of faith.
In short, unlike feudal societies where it was natural for one to believe his lot in life was predestined by the Almighty, meritocratic societies give the winners the illusion that they — and they alone — earned their success. A little of this is perhaps good. But it can also lead to arrogance. As Mead notes,
Your ability to score 800 on the math section of the SAT is something for which you can personally take no credit whatever. It’s like a pretty face or perfect pitch: it’s very nice to have, but it’s God’s sovereign choice, not your sublime inner nature, that is responsible for this. And of course, he doesn’t give his gifts without a purpose. And guess what: the reason God made you smart wasn’t to make you rich and to make you special and to allow you to swank around in the White House or at Davos. He made you smart so that you could serve — and the people he wants you to serve are exactly all those people you feel so arrogantly superior to.
In short, Mead argues that our meritocratic society makes it harder for us to remember that everything comes from God — makes it harder for us to remain humble. This, perhaps answers some important questions: Why are many who live in nations with less economic (and religious) freedom more devout and dedicated? Why does Christianity seem to be more energetic in developing parts of the world? Why are so many successful Americans so unhappy and unfulfilled?
People who work hard to get ahead tend to think they deserve all the credit (The opposite phenomenon exists among the “gauche caviar” trust fund kids who didn’t earn their wealth, and turn to socialism.) This, I think, also helps explain the noblesse oblige phenomenon, whereby aristocrats are sometimes kinder and more understanding of the poor than are middle-class folks who were once poor (but worked their way up.)
Meritocracy, I believe, is incredibly important — and a vital reason for our nation’s success. Rewarding effort and success tends to breed more effort and success. And, though not perfect, meritocracy is a hell of a lot fairer — and more productive — than rewarding birthright. But in this flawed world, nothing is perfect. And it is interesting to note that there are valid criticisms to be made of it from both the left and the right.