The Trouble with “Merit”

by Patrick J. Deneen on February 19, 2010 · 23 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place,Short

David Brooks has written a smart column in today’s New York Times.  While he has – like Thomas Friedman – generally been a cheerleader of “the new elite” that graduates from the top educational institutions in the U.S., unlike Friedman he has also been sufficiently discerning to note the downside of current meritocratic arrangements.  In today’s column he notes that as society has become more “meritocratic,” the main institutions of society have become less respected and trusted.  He distills several reasons for this seeming paradox, and – notably – they might be summarized as some of the main lines of critique of contemporary society found here so often on FPR.  Here I provide my own gloss with his explanation following.

1. Technique without “common sense,” and a corresponding tendency to treat things of the world in isolation, shorn of their interconnections.

“First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating.”

2.  “Strip-mining” of talent from places, leading to the geographic and lifestyle concentration of the “meritocrats” and the undermining of social cohesion and a sense of shared fate.

“Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too.”

3.  Meritocracy selects for and fosters competitive character, intensifying mistrust and stressing the imperative to “take care of number one.”

“Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved.”

4.  The inculcation of short-term thinking, and loss of generational perspective.

“Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking.

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs….  There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified.”

5. Meritocracy seeks to rationalize society, eviscerating traditions, myth and mystery (including religion) – which are necessary for the functioning of society.  Human society is less a machine than an organism.  Dissect a living organism, and it dies.

“Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it.”

_____________

Brooks concludes, predictably, that “this is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.”

Yet, having laid out a rather substantive list of problems that contribute to a modern “crisis of confidence,” I would think a New York Times columnist would have to do better than this conclusion.  Yes, the older aristocracy was less just; but the new meritocracy, if more “just,” is finally less humane.  So, we need to ask:  what is to be done?

Lurking behind each of these reasons for this contemporary crisis is the fact that meritocracy disconnects people from place, context, memory and obligation.  Were Brooks, or any of the modern meritocratic cheerleaders, to follow the logic of their complaints, they would need to acknowledge that our deepest problems lie in the studied inculcation of placelessness, deracination, atemporality and selfishness.  This deserves more than “oh well” and a shoulder-shrug.  It calls for a different way of being in the world.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jonathan February 19, 2010 at 7:39 am

It sounds like Mr. Brooks has been reading deeply into Christopher Lasch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

avatar Patrick J. Deneen February 19, 2010 at 8:33 am

Jonathan,
I suspect you’re probably picking up a heaveir Laschian emphasis from my gloss (in bold). I think Brooks could stand to benefit just such a deep reading of Lasch…

avatar Jonathan February 19, 2010 at 10:00 am

Perhaps so, Patrick, although this in particular – “You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town” – reminds me strongly of similar statements and implications in…Progress and Its Critics, I think (or maybe Revolt of the Elites).

I agree with you, though. Brooks, I think, would find Christopher Lasch very agreeable, and probably help to deepen his thoughts.

avatar Jonathan February 19, 2010 at 10:02 am

Ah hah!

It is Revolt of the Elites – I knew Google books was good for something: http://books.google.com/books?id=dZ9mv5uyVPEC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA33#v=onepage&q=lawyer&f=false

avatar Patrick J. Deneen February 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

Absolutely right. Interestingly, Brooks considers marriage between similarly-trained, -employed and -earning people to be an example of arrangements that are “more just.” I suppose we could say that current forms are “more just” for the individuals within those arrangements, but perhaps less for the society as a whole.

Further on this point, if the aim of the meritocracy was to obliterate the unjust and unearned inherited position of aristocracy’s remnant, then the current arrangement might be simply the creation of a permanent aristocracy in a different form. It will be the children of meritocratic couples who will inherit the earth, with occasional exceptions from the provinces (most of my classes now are populated with students from the two Coasts, and Georgetown is making a push to recruit international students who are almost always from foreign capital or main cities). It’s likely we have created a generational arrangement that is comparably unjust to aristocracy, but one that we call “democratic,” and hence that escapes critical assessment.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 19, 2010 at 10:51 am

Try as they might, the Sunbeams for A Technocratic Modernity cannot quite bring themselves to recognize the little dwarf running the Oz Projector when said dwarf spits in their faces. Perhaps it is because, as you assert, the Cheerleaders for our Vicarious Agora do not experience any spit in their eye and they consider the dwarf to be a giant. They are paid to do so and are scrupulous in meeting their obligation.

You will never hear Mr. Brooks get down to the brass tacks that hold the upholstery in place over the moth-eaten stuffing of our new-found “luxury” because he thinks the current complications are just that, “complications”, temporary deficiencies to be overcome by “skill” and “progress”. He is habituated to the ongoing spectacle, the artificial reality, the vicarious agora that uses him as the World’s Nicest Conservative. The grand stumble of large institutions and governments within a voracious paradigm of consumption and want doesn’t register on his radar. Like Friedman, he is prone to thinking that there is nothing that ails the Wog that cannot be solved by a new gadget and some hastily cobbled together notions of “democracy” made in our image. Voting Booths in Shopping Malls For All.

Furthermore, whether he knows it or not, the amiable Mr. Brooks is useful as one of the many shepherds of the flock for the vicarious agora….maintaining nervous concern about the current agitated scene so that the sheep will stick together and buy on impulse to salve the many inchoate wants of a people who are increasingly exhibiting more in the nature of a pathology than a culture.

There he is, on television, in print and on the radio, making the rounds like a village watchman, carrying the torch about in the dark and keeping an eye out for only the most obvious conclusions that can be drawn from what has to be one of the silliest, if deadly eras in human history.

“Meritocracy”? to paraphrase one of those Wogs speeding into our modern market collectivism utopia, “somebody should try it some time”. In a throwaway paradigm, skill becomes antiquated and one is satisfied by the merely facile. Its best not to delve too deeply or take too much time.

Easy Come, Easy Go.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen February 19, 2010 at 11:31 am

D.W.,
To summarize your eloquent statement – according to #1, the “meritocracy” is without true merit. It elevates the talents of the plunderer. We need an entirely different standard for evaluating excellence. “Meritocracy” is a misnomer from the word go; true merit would reward a very different type of human activity – namely, human excellence itself. That ideal does not need to be discovered anew – it was laid out with some detail by Aristotle, among others, long ago.

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Deneen,
Misnomers are the national past time in this Edifice of Ironical Delight. Perhaps we should simply change the motto to “Misnomers R Us”.

As hard as I might look, I caint seem to find P.T. Barnum’s handy crowd control sign directly unsuspecting crowds out into the alley when all they wanted to see is the stuffed bird collection:

“This way to the Egress”

avatar Jim Dooley February 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm

When I grow up I want to live in a Meritocracy. I will go Washington, D.C., where everybody gets what they deserve and deserve what they get. Because I know mine and mine know me, I will be raised up. I will signify. I will be a titan among the titans, a counselor to the great. We will know our friends, we will know who doesn’t matter, we will know who we grind to dust. We will think new thoughts about the uses of war and the perils of peace. I will write memos. My memos will fall like snowflakes on all the living and the dead. And when I am done, I will return to the world. I will celebrate myself among the young, the gifted and the talented. I will accept them as my own: Cardinals; Elis; Crimson. I will show them my ways. Oh Washington, my Washington. I am coming.

avatar HappyAcres February 19, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Broder’s column struck me as particularly unreal, even by NYT standards.

He spoke of “elites” and “leaders” as if he were serious; I was spitting coffee left & right.

avatar Albert February 19, 2010 at 2:31 pm

“Meritocracy” is a misnomer from the word go; true merit would reward a very different type of human activity – namely, human excellence itself. That ideal does not need to be discovered anew – it was laid out with some detail by Aristotle, among others, long ago.

This seems quite true; if only we weren’t too busy to learn.

avatar Howard Merrell February 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Patrick,
As some of your comments, and commenters, indicate, perhaps the title should be “The Trouble with That Kind of Merit.”
Living in a small mill-town where each year fewer of the “elites” that it takes to run an industry choose to live, I see the concepts in both Brooks’s article and your commentary played out. They drive in each day and give us the benefit of their brilliant minds. Most everything else they take elsewhere. I think these elites would readily admit that a greater investment of themselves in this community would certainly enrich our town. After all, they aren’t dumb. They decide not to live here, because they want to be somewhere where there is a mall, a symphony, and physical place like the cyber one I am visiting now. What they fail to realize is that their lives, and in particular those of their children are deprived by not getting to know, some of the deer-killing, biscuit-baking, pickup-fixing, wood-cutting denizens of our area.
Ours is a society about upward mobility, which is often more about the speed at which one is mobilating than the destination to which he is headed–often it ain’t up, certainly not in the ultimate sense.
There is a clearly missing element in Brooks’s piece, a lack that I implied above. He seems surprised that getting the smartest together has not produced a better result, as if an IQ/educational metric is the only one that mattered. In addition to the intelligence measurement there must be one of morality/ethics as well.
The reason that many of today’s brightest and best educated choose the short-term benefit for the few (mostly the one) over the long-term benefit for the many is not only because they don’t see what is best. Sometimes–I would say way more than many of us want to admit–it is because they don’t care. I remember somewhere in Vieth’s book, Postmodern Times, he quotes one of the few honest and intelligible Postmodern proponents (Was it Stanley Fish?), who said something like, “In any encounter someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. It is my job to see to it that I am the one who wins.” That focused-Darwinianism is the prime ethical compass of many of the so called elites or Merit-ites running our world today.
Could it be that the reason Bobby Silver-Spoon-from-Birth sometimes produces a better result than Sally Never-Been-A-Higher-ACT-Score is because Bobby, in spite all his other faults, is still plugged into a system that gives him some guidance beyond merely what is good for number-one? Granted that system may be functioning on moral-capital from the past that is almost spent, but it still provides some brake, some guidance. In addition to paying his tuition to Harvard, his family also hauled him to Sunday School.
A very smart, very good person is a great asset. If I have to choose, however, between a very smart, wicked person, and a not so swift evil person, I think I’ll take the latter. I don’t want a guy headed that direction to be able to do so effectively, especially if we are filling a position where the guy is going to take others along with him.
Too often our world only wants to know whether a potential leader can count quarters. We don’t care–or don’t think to ask whether he is the kind of person a six-year-old would trust to hold his quarter while he goes swimming.
A system that ignores the basic evil in men’s hearts, no matter how many brilliant scholars it produces is a broken system.

(Please note: No actual Treasury Secretaries were maligned in the production of this comment.)

avatar Jonathan February 19, 2010 at 4:34 pm

A state which idealizes technical knowledge over virtue will sooner or later be replete with brilliant evildoers.

avatar Matt Stokes February 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm

This is all very problematic for those of us who are caught up in the situation Brooks describes.

avatar Minnesota Dave February 22, 2010 at 10:44 pm

So what would you make of the recent conservative re-discovery of Ayn Rand and John Galt?

avatar Cranky Con February 23, 2010 at 7:36 am

From a very silly and very wise old book:

“Well, but he isn’t sent to school for that – at any rate, not for that mainly. I don’t care a straw for Greek particles, or the digamma; no more does his mother. What is he sent to school for? Well, partly because he wanted so to go. If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that’s all I want…”

–Tom Brown’s Schooldays

avatar JMorrow February 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Patrick,

I’m intrigued by the direction of your work in general and this post specifically. I was a Hoya graduate in the early ’00s so it would have indeed been interesting to take a class with you.

As someone who is largely a product of the system Brooks feels this critical affinity for, I agree with many of the shortcomings you cite here. What makes me see the picture slightly differently are my roots to the African American and now through my wife, immigrant American communities. There are many, as of yet unsung, connections between the valuable traditions you describe (human excellence, place, religion) together with a few others I would add (dignity,craft creativity) and the fine line ethnic minorities walk between embracing the larger currents of American culture, while tending to and improving upon their own distinctive streams of culture. But to carry the analogy alittle further, these currents and streams frequently overflow their natural banks.

Thus, each generation of ethnic minority or immigrant has to decide exactly how mobile they will be and how to properly identify or situate themselves. The minority experience in America affords many resources for our society as a whole to discern how to walk the way between individualism and community. There are skills in this area which have gone untaught in the meritocratic mess which is our higher education system. One could argue those skills have not always been well taught to minorities themselves. Often our own distinctiveness is not lent to serve the greater good or the life of the world. These are things which Lasch hints at in his chapters on the civil rights movement in the True and Only Heaven, but warrant much more exploration.

avatar Moonman February 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm

I left my small town to get a high-faluting college degree, and I never would have considered doing otherwise. I mostly wanted to be able to debate philosophy with someone, and for some reason no one was interested. But the world has changed a lot even in the twenty years since I left home. Now a person can debate people on FPR and other internet communities, and even smaller towns have Starbucks(which I hate, but other meritocrats seem to like it) and Barnes and Noble, and of course there’s always Amazon.com, where one can find any meritocratic lifestyle doodad known to man.

Which brings up an interesting point. Wouldn’t it be ironic if homogenous corporate “culture,” the very thing that so many localists deplore, is the very thing that reverses “brain drain” and saves rural America?

avatar D.W. Sabin February 23, 2010 at 9:33 pm

“corporate culture…saves rural America”.Interesting indeed. I suppose if one broadens one’s definition of “saving” to the taxidermic arts, then you might be right. Given half a chance, the Great Red Dot Special Priesthood will gut, flay and tan the hides of every consumer they can lay their cheerfully smiling black hearts upon. The vaunted Growth Economy brought to us by the Corporateers is benevolently looking to help the tender consumer with the lowest possible prices.They hire only the best MBA’s to write elaborate business plans that go to great lengths to find a nice sweet way to put the essence of the Growth Economy into stirring Corporatese: Finding New Victims.

Can’t put all the blame on these enterprising institutions though because over the last 50 years, John Q. Public has adopted a liking for being flayed and gutted as long as they get that consumer item of their nervous dreams.

avatar H Lee Poteet February 23, 2010 at 9:38 pm

An interesting read, especially from my own experience of coming out of a small town in the middle of the country, not quite making it through school because of family tragedies, but finding myself only too cozy among elites of wealth, talent and learning on both coasts. So where am I now? Back in the center of the country watching while the graduates of the Ivy League can’t seem to make the center hold.

When our national government is funding a modern day equivalent of the Union League, a thugocracy that believes that wealth belongs not to those who created it by virtue of brains and work, but to those too dumb to really think and too lazy to work, I would fear more for both the present and the future except for the quality of the intelligence and grit of those still out here in fly-over country. It is like one of my favorite teachers from Junior High said, “Don’t worry about we Indians; just remember that we acquired status and wealth from stealing ponys.”

avatar s masty February 26, 2010 at 5:28 am

hasn’t anyone read hume on causality?

another problem that has risen alongside meritocracy is that tomatoes do not taste as good as they did when i was a boy.

sheesh.

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