Far from exposing meritocracy as a lie, last month’s college admissions scandal revealed just how meritocratic our society has become—how it distributes power on the basis of talent, how it assesses talent on the basis of tests, and how it constructs tests that are very, very hard to game. The power is why rich people bribe their way into Yale; the hard-to-gameness is why bribery is expensive.
So expensive, in fact, that the bigwigs charged in admissions-gate are actually the exceptions that prove the rule: By and large our elite consists of talented self-starters whose credentials reflect grit and IQ more than birth or blood—who don’t need bribes, thank you very much. They thus tend to see themselves as having earned their status, and everyone else as having earned theirs. “You’re here because you’re competent, smart, hardworking,” the meritocracy insists, “not because you hit the jackpot.”
Except most of them did hit the jackpot, insofar as competence, drive, and IQ all depend on factors largely beyond our control—the genetic-environmental matrix through which talent is formed. And that gap, between self-conception and real life, causes two problems.
First, meritocrats often lack what we might call a leadership temperament. Because their status depends on aptitude—nothing more, nothing less—they tend to spurn patriotism and piety and noblesse oblige, virtues our republic desperately needs. The result, Yuval Levin notes, is that “even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service,” they do not “see it as fulfilling an obligation. . . .but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness”—moralizing unmoored from morality.
Second, because smart people tend to have smart babies, who grow up around smart peers, meritocracy ends up being hereditary despite its democratic pretenses, based around raw intelligence as opposed to some genuinely endogenous trait. You could address both problems by paring back merit-based admissions to focus instead on elite-crafting—on picking the best leaders rather than the best students, on making sure your class cares about and represents the people it will one day rule. Several schemes might work here, from increased demographic quotas to full-fledged lottocracy.
But each entails a trade-off between stewardship and fairness, for although talent is largely unchosen, there’s still something perverse about a brilliant physics whizz or chess champ or debater being turned away from his dream school because he’s not lucky, or because he is Asian, especially when some Ivy League students can’t even write coherent English. It’s doubtful many people would accept this trade; more to the point, it’s doubtful that they should.
The question, then, is whether you can have meritocratic admissions without a meritocratic self-conception. And the answer depends on how, exactly, that conception came about.
In one telling (the one presupposed above), meritocratic criteria bred meritocratic culture by selecting for and valuing intelligence, causing elites to see themselves more as victors of a competition than stewards of a republic—more Horatio Alger than Horace Mann. It also reorganized social life along cognitive lines, which had the paradoxical effect of entrenching inequality rather than challenging it.
But another story (the one I find most plausible) goes like this: Meritocratic culture—its arrogance, its excess, its egoism—arose out of a peculiar set of historical conditions having very little to do with meritocratic criteria. Rather it was the ’60s lurch toward individualism, away from piety and tradition, that made personal achievement so central to elite credentialing. At the same time, it undermined what had long sustained America’s class compact: a chastening form of social awareness, of seeing your place in (and duty to) society.
On this view, merit-based admissions are a symptom, not a cause, of elite decadence, in which case getting rid of them won’t do much to remoralize our upper class. It’s possible, of course, that culture and criteria inevitably co-occur, that you can’t fill the Ivies with brilliant overachievers and expect them to exhibit patriotism or civic-mindedness. But that account seems too neat for it to be the whole story—not when meritocracy emerged during a period of social upheaval, not when self-love and secularism left such indelible stains on American life.
So: How do we wash them out?
You could argue revised admissions criteria would help by disrupting meritocracy’s cultural logic, signaling to elites that they haven’t earned their status after all. But those revisions wouldn’t occur unless our elite already believed talent was contingent, heteronomous, unchosen, at which point it would no longer think of itself in meritocratic terms. The solution assumes away the problem.
What’s needed is a project of moral reform that challenges bourgeois selfishness without attacking meritocracy per se—that vilifies greed instead of grit, individualism instead of intelligence. Easier said than done, I know, and arguably impossible absent some sort of communitarian revival.
But a communitarian revival seems less far-fetched—and less offensive—than trading fair play for just rule. So if we want to Make Aristocracy Great Again, we’d better hope “moral meritocrat” is not an oxymoron.