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The Limits of Merit
on April 27, 2012
In 1956, C Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite and described how political, corporate and military leaders in the US made policy with little reference to the concerns of everyday citizens. Christopher Hayes updates Mills thesis in Twilight of the Elites. Hayes argues that political changes in the Sixties replaced the old WASP establishment by creating a meritocracy which opened its doors to women and minorities. Unfortunately, 3 decades of accelerating income and asset inequality have "produced a deformed social order and a set of elites that cannot help but be dysfunctional and corrupt."
The reason behind this "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," dynamic, explains Hayes, is the Iron Law of Meritocracy (with a tip of the cap to Robert Michels). Meritocracy is designed to create inequality of outcome. Those who climb the ladder to levels based on their skills then rig the game by either pulling the ladder up after them or selectively lowering it to help their allies. Meritocracy, says Hayes, inevitably becomes oligarchy. In the United States, this has resulted since the mid-seventies in a growth in income inequality and a reduction in economic mobility. As meritocratic elites enjoy growing monetary rewards and political power, they are increasingly isolated from sanctions, competition and accountability.
This is the critical problem for Hayes. The natural inequality of outcome ordained by meritocracy widens the gap ("vertical social distance") between leaders and led. Increasingly out of touch with classes below them, elites lose knowledge and empathy. Hayes presents examples such as the reaction of Catholic bishops to reported abuses, the evacuation of New Orleans before Katrina and the length of existing American military engagements. He describes how the financial crisis developed beneath the notice of financial elites: "The increasing inequality, compartmentalization, and stratification of America in the post-meritocratic age served to seduce those at the top into an extremely dangerous, even pathological kind of complacency. The ship sprung a leak down in the lower decks (in the form of loose and predatory home loans), flooding the servant's quarters, and no one up top realized that it would bring down the whole thing."
Hayes argues that non leaders on both left and right share a "deep sense of alienation, anger and betrayal directed at elites who run the country." He points to a "national mood of exhaustion, frustration and betrayal" at the "near total failure of each pillar institution of our society." The solution, says Hayes, is to reduce inequality and, as a result, social distance of elites through higher and redistributive taxes. Over time, greater similarity in social conditions between leaders and non leaders will make the former both more responsive and more competent.
The majority of Americans, says Hayes, now feel they are ruled by a remote, elite class. However, while people on the right (Tea Party) and Left (Occupy Wall Street) are angry at these leaders, the two groups are deeply divided along partisan and ideological lines. The author suggests that another major crisis could shift coalitions to more of a class basis and that an increasingly dispossessed and newly radicalized upper middle class could lead this trans-ideological coalition.
This is a short book that makes a strong argument regarding the problems caused by the growing estrangement of elites in the United States. Hayes uniquely points out that meritocracy (previously thought to be unassailable) contains within it the seeds of oligarchy. His description of how growing inequality leads inevitably to remoteness in the ruling class seems to resonate with seemingly unresolvable existing public policy problems. He even takes a stab at showing how anger on the right and left devolves from the same conditions but is segmented into different and warring camps by elite ideology.
I give 4 stars to the book for its value in starting an important discussion. It is understandably light in proposing a solution. The author takes a stab at this but it is probably both ultimately unpredictable and above Hayes pay grade. I hesitate to penalize Hayes unduly for not knowing how to fix the world. Providing a new and unique look at the source of an important problem is in itself a lot to achieve in a few hundred pages. Maybe Tea Party activists and Occupy participants can put down their signs for a while and discuss their mutual angers and ideas using Hayes' paradigm. Any mutual solutions at which they may arrive would have the virtues of originating at the source and of possessing some political strength to press for resolution.