The Decline of Middle America and the Problem of Meritocracy


Milford, Indiana

I delivered a version of the following text as a lecture at Augustana College last Tuesday, April 28 (all errors of fact and interpretation should be ascribed to my bibulous host, Jason Peters):

My wife and I moved back to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, last year. This meant that we twice had the occasion to drive across country, once more or less on a straight line from northern Indiana to Phoenix; and once in a leisurely northerly loop that took us not too far north of here, over to the Badlands and Black Hills, down through Denver, on a diagonal to Flagstaff, and thence south to the Valley of the Sun.

Those drives produced an overwhelming impression: fly-over country is not doing so well as it once was. Not by a long shot. The term “rural slum” often involuntarily leapt to my mind as we passed through hamlet after village and small town after small city. The built environment was typically shoddy and ugly — and often unrelieved by revived downtowns or charming college areas or historically preserved neighborhoods or tourist centers, unlike what is increasingly the case in our coastal areas. Even before the current recession, there was plenty of storefront and commercial building space available in our nation’s midsection. In Middle American county after county it can seem as if there is not one healthy-visaged, non-obese adult or child within a fifty-mile radius. The art of agriculture is too obviously in decline to require comment.

Old news, I know. But bear with me, as I think this is worth reflecting on. Take my own hometown of Milford, Indiana, for instance, which serves as an unremarkable example of the trends I am describing here. When I was born in 1972, the town of Milford featured a hardware store, two groceries, a pharmacy, an elementary and junior high school, two or three banks, four filling stations, several tiny restaurants, a few bars, a grain elevator, several lively annual parades, even a golf course. This was not the apex of its history-the high school had been consolidated out of existence a decade earlier and a number of other businesses already had been lost. But overall it was still considered a nice town. It had a large local employer (a maker of agricultural silos and bins and feed troughs) and several blocks of well-maintained Victorian homes at its heart.

Today? Well the story is remarkable for just how ordinary it is. The junior high was consolidated away, just as the high school had been. A Japanese-based multinational bought the large local employer and reduced its operations. A Super Wal-Mart came in ten miles south of town, and that meant the closing of the last grocery store as well as the hardware store. The local pharmacy became part of a chain. A freaking Subway replaced the splendidly monikered Farmer’s Cafe, the last decent home-cooking restaurant for miles, a fact that meant that local farmers now had to suffer the indignity of meeting at the Stop ‘n Go minimart for their early-morning coffee klatches. The grain elevator closed as agribusiness operators swallowed up the surrounding small farms and built their own huge storage and processing facilities. The golf course went to seed. The Victorians began to peel and crumble. Though it pains me to say it, Milford, Indiana, is no longer a particularly nice town.

Some of the reasons for this I have already implied — the loss of industrial jobs due to globalization, the growth of agribusiness, school consolidation, the centralization of retail operations into discount big-box stores. But is that an exhaustive list? And why have these factors seemingly had a disproportionate effect on Middle American towns such as my Milford? Why have other places — especially those situated nearer the boundaries of our nation — either better resisted or more successfully adapted to these outside trends and forces?

To adequately answer that question, I think, we need to recognize that there is another factor at work here, one that is related in many ways to the factors I just noted but only rarely mentioned in these kinds of discussions. And that is that fly-over country, by and large, has been hemorrhaging intellectual capital for decades. The most talented young men and women, the most able, the most intelligent and creative, have been leaving to go off to college — or have been lured off to college — only to return in ever-diminishing numbers.

Richard Florida has hopefully labeled this trend “the rise of the creative class.” Florida reports that over the last thirty-odd years we have witnessed an ever-increasing concentration of college graduates around “superstar cities” or “means metros”-San Francisco, Washington, Denver, New York, Seattle, and the like. Thus, while 20 percent of the adult population holds an advanced degree in cities like San Fran and DC, the numbers are 5 percent in Cleveland and 4 percent in Detroit. Florida’s maps show in graphic imagery the hiving of college grads around certain metropolitan areas, a hiving that has emerged most clearly since 1970. Save for a few isolated exceptions, those hives are not located in Middle America, including our many mid-sized middle American cities.

Florida describes this trend as “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated, and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places,” primarily because of the high cost of living that results from the Migration of the Talented. The reasons behind this phenomenon, he says, are economic; if you’re very smart, educated, and talented, it pays to live near others like you. “The most talented and ambitious people need to live in a means metro in order to realize their full economic value,” he writes. Florida foresees a future in which the most talented and creative live among themselves in select city cores, and in which they are “catered to by an underclass of service workers living in far-off suburbs.” “Accommodating” this new geographically based cognitive sorting, he maintains, “will be one of the great political and cultural challenges of the next generation.”

Susan McWilliams has pointed out how this geographic sorting takes place at a micro level, as well, with adjacent suburbs increasingly divided cleanly among income and class lines. This fact is reflected in our popular culture. In the teen-oriented movies of the 1980s, like Pretty in Pink or Breakfast Club, much of the action tended to revolve around the intensely felt differences between the rich kid and the poor kid-but at least these kids knew each other, and even went to the same high school. However, by the early 2000s, shows like The OC were, McWilliams writes, “premised on the notion that poor kids and rich kids do not grow up in the same place.”  Much of the show’s drama “trades on the assumption that even a slight variation in geography — town, region, area code — is coeval with a great variation in socioeconomic class.”

All of this — the firsthand evidence of Middle American decline that so many of us have witnessed, the cognitive ability stratification by geography reported by Florida, the economic parochialism that McWilliams sees revealed in our popular culture — all of it is, at least in part, the fruit of meritocracy. Meritocracy, in the definition I am using here, is an ideology that maintains that one’s place in society should be determined solely by one’s “merit” — by which is meant the tangible evidence of one’s talents, capabilities, intelligence, and, of course, will. This is an essential feature of any just society, meritocrats claim. Thus, by the same token, anything that gets in the way of the individual’s maximizing the social and economic rewards that could accrue because of his individual skills and talents — his merit — is unjust. We are not merely talking about legal barriers here, either (though the cannier ideologues of meritocracy restrict their rhetoric to this aspect of their project). Far from it. We are talking about social and cultural barriers, familial bonds and obligations, local affections, religious doctrines. Even an individual’s own internally held beliefs and principles are often looked at as abnormal, and perhaps pathological, if they keep him or her from “realizing his potential.”

Meritocracy, on this conception, is not only inextricable from the globalization and centralization trends mentioned above but offers an ideological narrative that gives those trends meaning and justification — if it couldn’t in fact be said to structure those trends.

But can anyone actually be a critic of something so just, and so quintessentially American, as meritocracy seems to be? Why, yes, actually. Let’s review the rarely heard — and doubtless unpopular — case against meritocracy.

* * * * *

Warnings and prophesies against the follies of meritocracy have been voiced since the eighteenth century. Consider Justus Moser’s “No Promotion According to Merit,” published in 1770. Moser, a high government official in Westphalia, was writing in response to reformers’ efforts to create a civil service in which positions would be open to all according to merit, not birth or rank. Moser claims that the only honorable thing to do in the face of a system that distributes offices and honors solely on the basis of merit is to withdraw yourself from consideration, since if you were rewarded, your less honored friends would be humiliated, while if you were passed over, you would be so ashamed and disgraced that it would be utterly destroying.

As long as humans have their “present nature and passions,” says Moser, a system of doling out awards and honors according to merit alone can only produce confusion and resentment. As things stand now, on the other hand, “people can think to their comfort: fortune and not merit has elevated these. . . . But if everything went according to merit, this so necessary comfort would completely disappear, and the cobbler [who] can flatter himself that he would be doing something entirely different from mending the Lady Mayor’s slippers if merit were respected in this world could not possibly be happy.”

Similar warnings were issued by others. In England and America, the case against meritocracy descends clearly from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Burke begins with the assumption, as do all critics of meritocracy, that there really are natural, meaningful, and generally ineradicable human differences. In ignoring these, Burke warned, the French revolutionaries were propagating a “monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and imbitter that real inequality, which it never can remove; and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in a humble state, as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.”

Burke’s assumption about individual differences has, at least in my opinion, been thoroughly confirmed by the psychological research of the last half century. We’ll come back to this, but it certainly seems true that there is “real inequality” among men that can “never” be erased; and that to contend that it can be erased is to inspire false hopes, which when dashed will no doubt lead to bitterness and resentment. For Burke, the old class structure humbled some and exalted others, but by making deliberately obscure the mechanism by which this separation occurred, it allowed the man of low social status to blame his estate not on himself, but on the randomness of birth, and it removed a major source of pride for the man of high social status.

A century and a half later, the Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke insisted on the same point. It “deserves to be stressed,” he wrote, that if everyone is supposed to have

the same chances of advancement, those left behind will lose the face-saving and acceptable excuse of social injustice and lowly birth. The weakness of mind or character of the overwhelming majority of average or below-average people will be harshly revealed as the reason for failure, and it would be a poor observer of the human soul who thought that this revelation would not prove poisonous. No more murderous attack on the sum total of human happiness can be imagined than this kind of equality of opportunity, for, given the aristocratic distribution of the higher gifts of mind and character among a few only, such equality will benefit a small minority and make the majority all the unhappier.

Now, Röpke was no Spencerian social Darwinist who delighted in the social survival of the fittest. As a decentralist and ardent supporter of small-scale and peasant agriculture, Röpke holds much in common with Wendell Berry. But on individual differences and their primary source-nature-Röpke was what I would call a realist.

The same is true, I think, of Berry. In Life Is a Miracle, he assails the meritocratic lie propagated by our schools. In words reminiscent of Burke’s and Röpke’s, he writes:

Young people are told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.

In his essay on Peruvian farming included in The Gift of Good Land, Berry approaches the problem from an opposite direction. Having observed for several days the methods used by highland farmers to wrest an existence from a comparatively difficult and unforgiving land, he is struck by the way in which their traditional culture helps to overcome and soften natural variation in human abilities. He mentions “the difficulty of finding about methods and reasons from these farmers,” which they seemed strangely unable to articulate.

They do as they have done, as their ancestors did before them. The methods and reasons are assuredly complex — this is an agriculture of extraordinary craftsmanship and ecological intelligence — but they were worked out over a long time, long ago; learned so well, one might say, that they are forgotten. It seems to me that this is probably the only kind of culture that works: thought sufficiently complex, but submerged or embodied in traditional acts. It is at least as unconscious as it is conscious — and so is available to all levels of intelligence. Two people, one highly intelligent, the other unintelligent, will work fields on the same slope, and both will farm well, keeping the ways that keep the land. You can look at a whole mountainside covered with these little farms and not see anything egregiously wasteful or stupid. Not so with us. With us, it grows harder and harder even for intelligent people to behave intelligently, and the unintelligent are condemned to a stupidity probably unknown in traditional cultures.

This is interesting. Berry is saying that a primary function of a healthy culture is to make important knowledge widely available by “submerging” and “embodying” it in “traditional acts.” In this way, a healthy culture democratizes intelligence. Conversely, the absence of such cultural functioning injures most those with the fewest intellectual resources, condemning them to survive more or less on their own.

The seemingly unassailable ideal of “equality of opportunity” demanded by the meritocratic regime has drawn scorn from thinkers such as those I have quoted in part because they have understood that in order for talent to triumph, it must be mobile. This, as we have seen, is precisely the aim of a meritocracy. It seeks to remove the barriers posed by tradition or culture — that is, barriers posed by institutions, texts, myths, habits, social forms, sensibilities, affections, characteristic practices, and the like — to the mobility of the intelligent. Thus, the more perfect the meritocracy, which we typically equate with justice itself, the more mobility — both geographic and social — is required, until talent is able to flow freely to where it can command the highest price. A perfect market for talent is the dream and goal of meritocracy: nothing must stand in the way of the rise of talent to primacy. Progress, understood both as the never-ending process of self-liberation and self-fulfillment, and as the indefinite expansion of our consumer economy, depends upon such mobility.

The historiography offered by Friedrich Hayek in his classic The Road to Serfdom exemplifies the rosy meritocratic view of the unleashing of talent, or as Hayek terms it, “human ingenuity.” “Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed,” claims Hayek, “man became rapidly able to satisfy ever widening ranges of desire. . . . [B]y the beginning of the twentieth century the workingman in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years before had seemed scarcely possible.”

But it is precisely from the perspective of the “workingman” that this lyrical, Whiggish view of progress has been challenged. Christopher Lasch’s indictment of meritocracy, best articulated in his final work, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), is especially insightful.

One consequence of meritocracy, Lasch argues, is that the elites in such a system become “dangerously isolated” from their neighbors. Because meritocracy requires that populations-and especially elites-be exceptionally mobile, loyalty to community, region, and nation become severely attenuated.

It is no surprise, then, that what Lasch calls the “new aristocracy of brains,” more mobile than ever and indeed committed to a “migratory way of life” as “the price of getting ahead,” has little use for Middle America, which they imagine to be “technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.” America’s meritocratic elites, Lasch claims, “are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world-not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

The fact that our meritocracy rewards most those at home in the world of “abstractions and images” has further isolated our new elites from the rest of society by their insulation from manual labor. “The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life,” and indeed, only under such circumstances could such academic theories as “the social construction of reality” gain any purchase on the mind, concludes Lasch.

Another serious disadvantage to rule by the “best and brightest” is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has “little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” It “thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”

In sum, social mobility, far from being the sine qua non of democracy, actually “helps to solidify [elites’] influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit.”

Once again, Wendell Berry agrees. He notes that in order for social mobility to be marketed as essential to personal “liberation,” it must deny the existence of “authentic differences and distinctions” among people. If such were recognized, the implication would be that upward mobility served fundamentally as a way of justifying an exploitative, “original-discovery” mentality that served the needs of industrial economies but not those of actual communities. Berry arraigns the dynamism of our meritocracy as fundamentally opposed to the “living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls.” Indeed, with regard to higher education, we might think of meritocracy as the equivalent of the practice of strip-mining. For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.

Now, there are several alternatives to this argument. One is to argue that the critics of meritocracy — including Berry — are wrong in their accounting for individual human differences. Nature, or so goes this criticism, doesn’t matter nearly as much as they say — in fact, very little — and it can be overcome through further and more drastic environmental modifications.

Maybe. The weight of the evidence is, on my reading and that of many sober, serious scholars of all political inclinations, very much against the conclusion that our biological make-ups matter very little in accounting for individual “outcome” differences. But grant that the influence of nature, or genes, has been overstated.  It still does not follow that there is any perfect environment that if offered to all humans would completely obscure their innate differences (although, of course, sufficiently bad environments can do this). I do not even think that most of those who take issue with the basic reading of the research know that they are arguing this. But they are, and it is highly implausible.

In other words, in an irony not often enough noted, modernity, whose distinctive political philosophies have stressed equality, has led to greater inequality than ever, precisely because it has equalized opportunity — that is, because it has unleashed talent either to sink or swim — more than had ever previously been done. To put it yet another way, modernity has created many more opportunities for the expression of inequality than ever. And it has made inherent inequality more important than ever in determining social and economic distinctions.

For my part, I prefer to accept the critics’ assertion that the meritocratic ideal is itself mistaken. Mistaken because it leads to social resentment. Mistaken because it has disturbingly anti-democratic consequences. Mistaken because it further rewards those already favored by nature and further punishes those who have been relatively disfavored. Mistaken because it is deeply anti-communal and anti-familial. And mistaken, perhaps most fundamentally, because it is premised on the lie that we are our own, the lie that we all can make and remake ourselves into whatever we want to be, and the lie that our achievements and failings could ever be fully “merited,” rather than, as a Christian might say it, the gifts of grace or the unfortunate consequences of the Fall.

Most proponents of meritocracy actually know all of this, at some level. That is why some of them — Charles Murray, for instance — support genetic engineering and other eugenic “solutions” to the problem of individual differences; it is why others with more leftish sympathies support severely curtailing liberties through a large centralized bureaucratic apparatus that attempts to mitigate somewhat the inevitable inequalities produced by meritocratic freedom. But neither of these options is particularly attractive to anyone who believes that culture, as Patrick Deneen has argued, is inescapably local. It is for this reason, I think, that T. S. Eliot once wrote, “On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born.”

Now, when they hear this assertion, I have noticed, some people are disgusted: the suggestion that most of us ought to more or less stay put offends our meritocratic conception of freedom, which we have been taught is inextricably tied to unfettered mobility. But localists like Deneen or Eliot or Berry are not talking about forging fetters from without, as if the state ought to set up checkpoints at every county line, ensuring that the locals can’t leave Mayberry. Instead, they are making the point that as culture inheres in, and is transmitted via, particular devotions, loves, relationships, and knowledge, a high degree of continuity is absolutely essential for its transmission-which is why the totalitarian tyrants of modern history have put such a premium on uprooting and detaching entire peoples from their homes and roots. Eliot is not so much calling for people simply to choose to stay home — although that may not be such a bad idea — but that we be educated and formed in such a manner that to do otherwise is comparatively unattractive and unusual. In fact, this is the natural posture of human beings, against which the teachings of our prestigious cultural institutions are wielded as weapons.

* * * * *

Meritocracy is neither a force nor a fact of nature. Therefore, if we wish, we needn’t merely resign ourselves to “accommodating” it, as Richard Florida suggests. Meritocracy is a project that is supported and advanced in numerous ways by powerful institutions and by deeply embedded practices and beliefs in contemporary American culture. Compulsory schooling, for instance, is justified by the meritocratic ideal. The right of individuals to maximize their talents and thus the consequent social rewards is held to be more important than the right of families and/or communities to decide how they wish to raise and educate their children. Were it not for the deeply anti-meritocratic Amish, even the most benign homeschooling would probably today be illegal across the land.

Then there is a vast interconnected network of public and private scholarships, grants, loans, and subsidies, not to mention ranking and testing systems, designed to identify and support the smartest and most able young men and women in reaching the highest positions possible in our meritocracy. Fine and good, except that it is all done without regard for the consequences for the communities and regions from which they spring. Indeed, those who are selected from the ghettos and hinterlands are typically taught only one major in college, says Wendell Berry: the discipline of upward mobility. They are encouraged to question and reject the values and loyalties and histories of their home places for the more enlightened substitutes offered by the global meritocracy.

We arrived to that point of the talk where you are beginning to ask, “Well, what would you have us do?” and the speaker provides responses that are laughably inadequate to the mammoth problem he has described. I will follow in that tradition.

First, we need to regard dispersion as a problem. We are far from such an ideal. Here is an editorial from the Warsaw Times-Union — the local paper in my Indiana home region — mentioning that only 11.9 percent of the American public moved in 2008-the lowest percentage in sixty years. Does the editorialist praise this shift or even neutrally comment on its consequences? No, he reports that many economists regard this comparative “rootedness” as antithetical to economic growth and hopes that soon Americans will be freed from the mobility constriction imposed upon them by the recession. Perfectly representative, unfortunately, of mainstream Middle American thinking about the matter.

This is, quite simply, thoughtless. And I know of no other remedy for thoughtlessness than thoughtfulness. We need to encourage people, especially young people, to think about location (“location vs. vocation” would be a nice catchphrase to popularize), and to burden the question of location — of place — with the weight of ethical importance, rather than treating it as yet one more consumer decision to be made and thus submitting it only to the usual financial criteria. This approach, I submit, is better than meekly acceding to Richard Florida’s way of thinking-that we “need” to maximize our economic value, which is an obvious falsehood.

Homecoming needs to be put on the plate as a serious option-as does homestaying. Let’s use every tool we’ve got. The churches need to be involved and to be better models here. And we should work toward the ending of the thousand-and-one federal and state subsidies that encourage leaving but not returning. We could offer very serious tax credits for caring for aging parents and grandparents. We should not allow people to be property-tax-hiked out of their homes (the one thing that California has gotten right). In fact, the longer you live in a place the lower your tax burden should be. Discourage mobility!-a good ironic bumper sticker for someone to create. Maybe for bicycles.

Eating local, buying local, thinking local all are now in-usually among people who are in no sense “locals.” Being local is the next and most crucial and hardest step. That’s not yet cool. It’s hardly thinkable as anything but synonymous with failure. And that’s the problem.

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