The Trouble with “Merit”

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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