The Decline of Middle America and the Problem of Meritocracy

by Jeremy Beer on May 5, 2009 · 72 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Region & Place

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.

{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar James Vayne May 5, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Even in the trendy, West Coast college town where I grew up and still live, almost none of my friends from the Honors/AP high school overacheiver set remained in the area. Granted, they’ve been replaced by many others, who come to town for college and end up staying, but, judging from my high school reunion, most of those who end up just staying put where they grew up are the same as those who stay in the rural towns.

I have been fortunate enough to have lived most of my life within the boundaries of my parish and thus to be married in the same church where I recieved all my sacraments as a child, and I hope, someday, to have my funeral here as well. Still, my family’s roots aren’t here, and even our (that is, my parents’) stability of 30-odd years makes us old-timers. In such a rootless place, it is hard for the desire to set down roots to be much more than an abstract ideological pose. The test will come when the economic winds blow my work down the road or overseas.

Alasdair MacIntyre famously left us looking for another Benedict. Perhaps such a one will need to take a page from the first Benedict, who condemned the wandering “Gyrovagues” and required his monks take a vow of stability.

avatar Jason Peters May 6, 2009 at 8:35 am

Better bibulous than bilious.

Front Porcher Beer did a fine job keeping it interesting and, later, keeping up. Student response with respect to JB’s predecessors was unanimous: he has more hair than Kauffman and is taller than Deneen.

avatar Seth May 6, 2009 at 9:49 am

Thanks for a great article. I’d love to see someone explore these ideas in the field of law and government. There’s an interesting divide among practicing lawyers between those (fewer and fewer) who practice basic, rough-and-ready, trial law and those who specialize in some arcane, highly-regulated field of practice. For generations small towns (particularly in the South where I’m from) had the former kind of lawyers and I think that having hometown folks arguing and making the law caused the common law to make its way into local tradition in the way you identify. But who’s going to internalize the Internal Revenue Code?

avatar Will May 6, 2009 at 10:03 am

Having come from Chicago and going to school out East, myself and the vast majority of my high school friends plan to return. We miss the Midwest and the coast ain’t for us.

avatar Weasly Pilgrim May 6, 2009 at 11:48 am

Ouch. Ever since college, and even before, I have navigated the meritocracy with relative ease. It’s funny, in a way, just how easy it has been to ride the wave from one place to another. I have told other people, not facetiously, that I really don’t fear losing my job because I can just get another one somewhere else if necessary. I may not be able to waltz in and just demand a job, but my chances of success are pretty high, because I have made it. I’m in on the meritocracy in my field.

Now over the past number of years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that arrangement. The last several job changes I have made have not required a move, and so I was able to actually settle down in an area and become attached to it. Also, as I grow older, latent longings for my ancestral home in eastern PA have started to assert themselves. I have always hated the idea of moving, mainly due to the inconvenience of it all, or so I thought. I am coming to realize that my distaste for moving really arises from my distaste at yet again pulling up stakes and ripping out the roots that I had begun to sink in the place I found myself.

If you keep transplanting a plant over and over, you are liable to kill it. It causes tremendous stress each time you yank it out, however gently, and put it in a new place. Likewise, I think the mobility demanded by the meritocratic regime has caused tremendous stress to me and has awoken an intense longing for the place I really call home. It is interesting how this all comes to a head in my life as FPR starts putting out all these excellent essays to explain what it is that has been happening to me over the past several years. And here I thought it was just a midlife crisis…

avatar BK May 6, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful piece of work. It reminded me of a biblical passage I recently read. From the Book of Sirach, Ch. 38:29-34

So with the potter sitting at his labor, revolving the wheel with his feet. He is always concerned for his products, and turns them out in quantity.
With his hands he molds the clay, and with his feet softens it. His care is for proper coloring, and he keeps watch on the fire of his kiln.
All these men are skilled with their hands, each one an expert at his own task;
Without them no city could be lived in, and wherever they stay, they need not hunger.
They do not occupy the judge’s bench, nor are they prominent in the assembly; They set forth no decisions or judgments, nor are they found among the rulers;
Yet they maintain God’s ancient handiwork, and their concern is for exercise of their skill.

For me, the penultimate passage is key: “they do not occupy the judge’s bench.” In a meritocracy, fed on dreams of advancement to positions “prominent in the assembly,” a youth with ambition and a modicum of talent may pass through the progressively finer screens of college, graduate school, clerkships/fellowships, professional practice etc. to rise to prominence — most likely outside the community in which they were raised, because it is unlikely that the screens are all located within that community. And as such heat sinks of talent accumulate people, more and more individuals will fail to pass increasingly finer-meshed screens, leading to a growing sense of disenchantment with themselves. Outside a meritocracy, that same youth may inherit their parent’s business, or become a mechanic, contractor, or teacher — probably in their hometown or close to it, remaining out of the spotlight but “maintain[ing] God’s ancient handiwork” of civilization (which is simply local community writ large). Intriguingly, in that way, they may actually maximize the utility of their human capital(to use such economic term) by staying put.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 6, 2009 at 2:04 pm

This essay bugs the hell out of me and thats a good thing. Enforced localism? Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose? Once the locality is a consigned prison, paradise dulls. Do we really have a meritocracy? By the looks of our past president, I’d say not but by the looks of the current one, perhaps. This meritocracy of ours has a glibometer though and it’s currently pegged.

As someone who grew up a half-breed outsider amongst the Mormon, I am not so quick to support a curtailment of mobility. Actually, I’d like to see a different kind of mobility…like say deport the Mormons back to Illinois or maybe even the Burnt Over District where they came from. Then again…the distinctiveness of Utah would suffer and because it’s so damned spectacular and reasonably watered ,it would likely be overrun by the cultural mange of Everyplace USA. I like and respect the Mormons more now when I don’t have to stay with them…as in Stegners quote: “If I’m ever in a disaster, I hope its within a days drive of Utah” I think the Mormon relief got to New Orleans way before the witless Feds, they were some of the first out of state relief to arrive on the scene and their response after the Teton Dam break was a thing of beauty. But man, did I get tired of being close but no cigar and looked upon as less-fortunate quarry.

Maybe what we have is a consumer meritocracy and in order to gather the fruits of the consumer cornucopia, you have to go where the market is most rewarding….and that is a very circumscribed construct of “merit”.

Before I’d impugn the meritocracy, I’d try to dissect what form and constituent parts the meritocracy was composed of and work on casting off those parts whose “merit” was perverse.

Granted, there is way too much “self-esteem” folderol and group huggery-buggery and a lot of this boosterism seems to me to be tied to a consumerist definition of merit as opposed to a real spiritual and intellectual form of “merit. If you reflect the physicality, commercial wealth, mobility and glamour of the popular culture…that near completely artificial thing we believe is real…then you have “merit”. This aint merit..it’s a kind of fertilized conventionality.

There is a whiff of Marxism here…to each according to his abilities and each according to his needs and let us find resigned pleasure in negation. Myself, I prefer the old adage of “the harder I work, the luckier I get” .

That said, I can relate to your melancholy over flyover land and this flyover land is getting bigger …in a decrepit reverse sprawl all the time. Meanwhile, Denver looks like Atlanta looks like Dallas looks like Chicago looks like Los Angeles.

I’m not sure if its the Meritocracy that is making us look like a ridiculous farce as it is this completely moneycentric and possession-based version of a meritocracy where the person who has the shiniest teeth, best small-talk, biggest hooters, nicest car and most numerous rooflines wins. This aint a meritocracy, it’s a consumerist treadmill fraught with daily dis-sastisfaction and a fundamental notion that nothing is ever enough. One must hire and pay a “Life-Coach” to find self-respect and “realize your locked-up potential”.

If what we have is a meritocracy, its a meritocracy with short-cuts granted to a select few who wouldn’t know merit if it was blowing smoke up their quivering arse.

avatar Ben P May 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm

A thought provoking and well written piece. If I follow the logic correctly, meritacracy is bad because:
1. It has psychologically negative effects on all but the “winners” who merit the top prizes of society via their talent and will (“…reduces happiness”)
2. It is unfair to perpetuate illusions of possibility to the masses (see French Revolution) because all or most cannot be winners (“…inspires false hopes … leads to resentment”
3. It promotes mobility and placelessness (“…anti-communal, anti-familial”
4. It “de-demacratizes” intelligence by stripping away tacit knowledge of meaningful skills (e.g., the right way to farm a particular patch of land)
5. It removes sense of responsibility to the past by focusing on the results of one’s own effort alone

I tend to believe half of the diagnosis and most of the explicitly proposed cure. However, if the implied cure for the half of the diagnosis dealing with resentment and loss of happiness is to replace possibility and opportunity with limitations derived from birth or rank then count me out, since the illness will likely be preferable to the cure. Even if such a thing were practically possible, such talk turns off (as it likely should) most people who could otherwise be convinced regarding the downside to mobility and placelessness. Said differently, even if such a point of view is accurate on balance (which is debatable) it is completely unattractive to the otherwise convincable on this important issue.

avatar Bill Butler May 6, 2009 at 2:56 pm

What our “meritocracy” produces is an ignoble “aristocracy” of sore “winners” and self-righteous snobs — an “aristocracy” lacking in honor or chivalry, noblesse oblige or social grace.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 6, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I’m sure this essay will raise hackles in some quarters. ;)

Small towns everywhere have been harmed by the consolidation of school districts and the exodus of their “cream of the crop” youth. The desire by the young to live in a more exciting place than their home and to grab the fruits of “change” has been going on since the first villages and towns were formed. It’s not unusual for many to return as they age or tire of the “rat race.”

Meritocracy isn’t the problem. What we are witnessing is a perfect storm of collective greed by our legislative bodies, our presidents and the banking system. All three gain more by concentration of power. A liberal meritocracy has greased the wheels of this machine; but it’s been progressing since the dawn of time. Add the seduction of cheap energy and the trend takes off!

What we, as a people, need to decide is how far we want the machine to go…and put the brakes on it.

A city in my area has launched a successful campaign to encourage people to return to the area:

http://www.syracuse.com/comehome/mission/

The smaller towns benefit because of the lower real estate prices outside of the city. This hasn’t ended the problem for the area; but it has helped. Unfortunately, it hasn’t put a dent in the unemployment of most of the inner city. These people are, for the most part, unable or unwilling to apply themselves to higher education. Could many of them perform “repetitive labor” in a factory job? Yes! However, those types of jobs have been off-shored.

I don’t think that guards at the border of each county will solve the problem. Nor would I care to live a place that had such a program. (Spending my early childhood along the border of the Iron Curtain has shown me the lengths that people will go to escape such an environment.)

avatar Al May 6, 2009 at 4:42 pm

I’m with Ben P. here. I agree that meritocracy as a part of the complex of modernity leads to many social ills and encourages the destruction of local communities. But in your thought, there is an implicit modern assumption of equality that is at odds with your explicit, realist recognition of inequality among men. Take this quote here:

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.”

Honestly, I woke up this morning, recognized that there are, in fact, people out there with more talent and skill and intelligence than I have or will ever have, and I didn’t resent them for their rewards nor was I confused. In Moser’s world, where the grace of God that grants humility to men doesn’t exist, it is apparently preferable to flatter oneself with lies concerning one’s abilities and place in the world.

So what’s going on here?

I think, though I could be wrong, that at work is an implicit modern belief that the equal dignity or value of men requires equivalence in reward/recognition. This modern myth of equality (one of them) is the root concept justifying contemporary forms of envy and resentment and it is antithetical to love. So what if people, all made in the image of God, have been given different, unequal gifts by God? Is this really a “punishment,” such that further merit-based recognitions constitute further “punishment”? Or are they opportunities for love that are only possible among people with differing abilities who fully recognize the differences, accept the concomitant responsibilities, and act out their obedience in works of charity?

Is it really true that the only option, in the face of real difference, is to repudiate it as an affront to the equal dignity of man that necessarily foments envy and resentment? Does a society really need a culture that downplays and masks individual differences of ability and protects men from having to be humble (or from questioning the belief that ‘resentment is justified because it is unjust if everyone doesn’t have the same rewards/recognition’?

Or should our culture teach us to recognize diversity (including of ability, honor, etc.) as a part of God’s intentions for this world, as a distinct reality necessitating love in the body of Christ, and that I should be content with the lesser gifts God has given to me and seek to use them to love others as appropriate to the measure I have been given without arrogantly demanding honor or justifying resentment to myself by falsely claiming I should have more recognition as a matter of justice?

I think it’s true that meritocracy has had pernicious effects on smaller communities and larger societies in the encouragement of mobility. I don’t think any part of a solution ought to include masking or softening differences of ability. Instead, recognizing and honoring those differences as God-given gifts for a particular community of place would seem to be the best way to go.

avatar Kevin J Jones May 6, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I was struck by the description of the meritocratic demand for “tangible evidence” of one’s merit. Sometimes this evidence turns quantitative, giving a facade of scientific reckoning to the comparisons of paychecks.

Other times, this tangible result is held forth as a carrot. So many frustrated teachers try to bait their uninterested students into study by promising great monetary and worldly rewards.

Thus careerism is paired with consumerism.

As a lifelong suburbanite of Denver, I had never thought of her as a “superstar city.” Yet there is so much noticeable difference between my professionally mobile friends in downtown and my native-born friends. The former have few connections with the old or the young.

This self-segregation is suggested in other writings saying that mobile professionals tend to settle in their own neighborhoods. There they develop a curious taste for ethnic or religious diversity but seemingly are unconcerned about whether they lack a diversity of class or talent.

avatar polistra May 6, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Definitely a thought-starting topic.

After some thinking, I believe meritocracy is a small part of the current problem. Brain drain has always been there, and midwestern towns have always lost a certain type of kid to New York or Hollywood.

In previous times, losing those people didn’t matter much because a whole set of skills and talents that wouldn’t succeed in the Big Apple were needed and rewarded in the small town.

What has changed is that the anchors of small towns, the pins that held them on the map, have been ripped out. Most of the ripping results from Federal policies since 1960.

Picking 1940 as a baseline, what were the pins that held a town in place and kept its people from flying off? In no particular order:
The railroad depot, the church, the family, the school, civic organizations and lodges, exclusively local businesses like quarries or mines, and the local newspaper and radio station.

Federal policy intentionally weakened the railroads to the advantage of trucking. This yanked out the fixed centerpoint for business and travel, which was the sole raison d’etre for many small towns.

Leftist penetration of mainline churches weakened their appeal while Federal policy disconnected churches from education. Non-local televangelists picked up the passion that was no longer welcome in the First Presbyterian.

No-fault divorce laws, feminism, and feral capitalism conspired to ruin the family. When it was no longer possible for an ordinary man to support a wife and kids, neither sex had any particular reason to stay married, thus no reason to stay in town.

Consolidation removed some schools; Federal special ed and non-discrimination mandates now require each school district to have a large bureaucracy and a team of lawyers.

Non-discrimination laws, social security and welfare entitlements removed the concrete purposes of civic organizations and lodges, which formerly maintained some forms of medical insurance and old-age homes. Only the social aspect remains, which isn’t enough to keep people linked in mutual responsibility.

Federal environmental laws make it very hard to run resource-extraction businesses like logging and mining. Only the biggest ones can afford the army of lawyers to fight off the Sierra Club.

In 1940, local newspapers and radio stations provided an outlet for local talent, which was read and enjoyed by local people. If you were a good writer, a good singer, a better-than-average pianist, you could exercise your gifts for pay without having to face the withering competition of New York or Hollywood.

And more generally, as others have said, unfettered globalization and monopolies make life difficult for every productive business. Even if your product is good enough for the local pond, you are forced to compete with slave labor in China and Burma. Nobody except the big-pond slavemasters can succeed for long in these conditions.

avatar Typical Whitey May 6, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Jeremy – you hit the proverbial nail on the head. Great piece.
One thing I experienced as a parent was watching this dreaded “outcome based education” creep into our public schools in the 1990′s. It was/is a plague for all students. We could not allow failure nor excellence to be experienced by young skulls full of mush. What a shame. The price is being paid now. Same can be said of affirmative action.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 7, 2009 at 9:07 am

Mr. Beer, I neglected to thank you in my original post for your insightful essay. Thank you :)

I have enjoyed reading the thoughtful replies and analyzes of the problem of the depopulation and the degradation of “flyover” country.

If the price of fuel keeps climbing, railroads might make somewhat of a comeback. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the small towns of America to be reconnected via rail. Most of the right-of-ways have the track torn up and the land sold off. The majority of people would prefer not to look at rail yards, or have the flow of traffic interrupted by a long freight train. The light-rail services of Europe are excellent; but as noted in Mr. Fox’s article, “How Germany Made Us “Conservative,” much of Europe is not blighted by suburban sprawl.

As a person who values traditions, small towns and rural locations and wilderness; I hope that a solution will be forthcoming. :)

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 7, 2009 at 9:19 am

I think “inequality” in the given context, “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,” needs considerable definition. Pre-renaissance inequality was indisputably greater than any inequality we experience today. Equally indisputable is the degree of mobility afforded almost all beings of those times – essentially none.

How does being local escape becoming insular? I think that an important question that those bent on returning us to an earlier mode of living must address.

Jake

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 7, 2009 at 9:31 am

Polistra;

Feminism ruined the family? Are you saying that respect for women as legal equals in all aspects of life has led to the ruin of family? Because if you are, then your words imply that only thru subjugation of women can the traditional family be maintained.

It goes without saying (tho I am saying) that any tradition that requires the subjugation of another is a tradition best forgotten.

More to the point, families fully incorporating feminism can work quite well. It simply takes substantial work by both partners.

But then good marriages always take substantial work by both partners.

Jake

avatar Dan May 7, 2009 at 10:37 am

“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.”

Why stop at tax credits? Why not offer generous full time salaries and benefits to those who stay local? This would free them up to use their creative energies and give them capital to improve their communities. Why just prevent property tax hikes when you could also lower mortgage rates, principle, or rent for those who stay longer?

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 7, 2009 at 10:49 am

Dan, there is precious little distinction between your proposal and some of the more extreme versions of European socialism. Except maybe you went a little further down the path.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

Jake

avatar Dan May 7, 2009 at 11:04 am

Jake,

I agree completely. In fact it’s an idea taken from the late Andre Gorz who was a big pusher of the concept of a Guaranteed Basic Income. Why take half-measures like tax credits and moratoriums on property tax hikes? Has the child tax credit increased the birthrate or is it still declining? What evidence is there at all that such a scheme to curb mobility would be any more effective?

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Jake and Dan,

If we’re going to go the way of socialism; the Guaranteed Basic Income for ALL citizens is probably the fairest way to go…
However, be careful what you wish for…

A government that is large enough to meet all of your basic needs will (as history has shown) be more than willing to take away your true rights as a citizen; and maybe even as a human being. The Dutch have come to realize that their very existence as a nation and people is at stake.

I ran across this rather disturbing video:
http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2009/05/destruction-of-dutch-culture.html#readfurther

avatar Dan May 7, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Esmeralda,

If we go by the 2009 budget if we were to eliminate social security, medicare, medicaid, unemployment and welfare (About 53.5 % of the budget) every man, woman, and child in the United States would receive about $10,333.33. A family of four would receive about $3,500 dollars a month before work. This is before any other cuts and without any tax increases.

Our government is already that large, I just want people to do the spending.

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 7, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Dan, the 2009 budget has $1.636 trillion set aside for mandatory expenditures – SocSec, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. The US population is approximately 306 million people. That calculates to $5346 per man, woman and child in the US. For the whole year. That means a family of 4 could receive approximately $21,400, much less than $3500 a month. More to the point, those on social security, medicare etc already receive that money. So if you were to average it out across all people, inevitably those receiving that benefit would now receive less benefit. I don’t know any wealthy people who depend upon social security. Add in medicare, or at least add in the cost of the care currently met by medicare, and suddenly $21k looks like it just wouldn’t cut it. Now if you can work, an extra $21k would be nice, wouldn’t it? But if you can’t work – $21k isn’t even poverty level. Moreover, since the median family income in the US is in the $50k to $60k range, and the average tax rate for all families is about 12% (and much less for the median family) that means that the tax and fica burden on those families is something less than $10k – considerably less than the $23k you propose we could get. We really couldn’t give back any more than was paid out – that’s only fair. If we did, all it would be is a transfer from the very wealthy to the rest of us, and I kind of thought the whole point in objecting to taxes was to stop the transfer of money. If we followed your plan, the difference would be that the transfer would accrue to YOUR advantage (assuming you are not amongst the very wealthy).

Your point seems to be that if we ignore the fact that older and/or incapacitated citizens need assistance, then we could all pay less in taxes. Certainly that is true. It seems like all those people could just go off and die so that it won’t cost us so much. All of us left behind would be much happier, right?

Jake

avatar kb May 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Jake, you ask if polistra is “saying that respect for women as legal equals in all aspects of life has led to the ruin of family?”

I ask you, are you saying feminism has been merely about “respect for women as legal equals”? Would that were all it encompassed, I would agree with you. Sadly, that’s just not the case.

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 7, 2009 at 3:22 pm

kb, that is what i am saying, that feminism is about equality under the law. What else is it, in your view?

avatar Dan May 7, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Jake,

Thanks for the correction! The dangers of doing math in ones noggin when dealing with trillions are tricky. Most of the theorists working with this idea of basic income are European and it probably works out much better with their level of taxation.

That being said these are the sorts of dollar amounts that would have to be involved to reverse the path of migration back to fly over country.

Another, more financially releasable proposition might be a negative income tax (which would also address the issues of the elderly and those unable to work).

Reversing this trend is going to require substantially more than some tweaking of tax incentives. It’s going to require either:

a) A fundamental restructuring of the economy.

b) A revamping of the way we think about entitlements and a commitment to wealth redistribution to individuals and families and not bureaucracy.

c) A back to the land movement willing to severely compromise lifestyle on ideological grounds.

I don’t think any of these things are probable (Or even desirable) but they would be what is necessary to deal with the problem outlined in the article.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 7, 2009 at 7:55 pm

I too would like the people to have the money rather than the government. The question is: What gets cut?

Jake,
You made important points about the elderly and the incapacitated. Add to that the total expenditures of the Iraq War (estimated to be about $3 Trillion…much of it for the care of maimed or PTSD veterans)and the numbers are much higher. (Note: This does not include the casualties from Afghanistan)

Dan,
Your assumptions regarding what is required to reverse the current trends and your analysis (“not probable”) appear to be valid. Our “defense” budget is way over the top, for a republic. I believe that the country has become an empire (starting at the time of the Spanish-American War) rather than a republic. Furthermore those within the “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex have acquired so much power that it will be very hard to dismantle the beast.

The video: http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2009/05/destruction-of-dutch-culture.html#readfurther is a case for curtailing government in any way possible.

If anyone doubts the idea that our government is any different from the Dutch government; ask yourself:

(1) Why doesn’t the US control it’s borders?

(2) Why does the ‘political “Left” insist on a “mosaic” of multiculturalism rather than a “melting pot” of assimilation?

I’m not against ethnic, racial or religious “flavor.” However, when immigrants refuse to learn the language of a country (in this case English). Or, They reject the ideal of the separation of church and state there is a problem.It seems to be rather foolish to continue on the same path if the cohesion of a country/society is to be maintained. Citizens must have some common ground to respect the values of a society.

avatar pb May 7, 2009 at 9:22 pm

tradition that requires the subjugation of another is a tradition best forgotten.

Subjugation? Define subjugation.

What’s the basic unit of society? The family? Or the individual?

avatar Jake - but not the one May 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Subjugation – according to MW –
sub·ju·gate
1 : to bring under control and governance as a subject : conquer
2 : to make submissive : subdue

I don’t know what the basic unit of a society might be – but I am quite sure that a well functioning marriage and family does not require subjugation. Far better that 2 come together as equals.

I think the basic unit of human interaction is the individual. I am an admitted advocate for free will, even if no proof of free will is possible, and some research and thinking suggests there is no such thing.

I kind of think that existence of free will is the best argument for something greater than the universe we see. If the world is purely deterministic (and we know it isn’t) then free will is not actually possible without some outside influence. If the probability based rules of the atomic and subatomic universe allow for non-deterministic outcomes, that still doesn’t argue for free will. It’s kind of a problem. :)

Jake

avatar pb May 7, 2009 at 10:29 pm

It will be interesting to see how FPR deals with liberalism, if at all.

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 8, 2009 at 7:52 am

I agree, pb. It will be interesting.

I’ve been reading here for a while, basically since Larison first mentioned FPR. I’ve written many comments, only to deep 6 them. Conversation, not polemics, is my aim.

Jake

avatar Abby May 8, 2009 at 11:35 am

Wonderful article; it brought to light some thoughts I’ve had for a long time, but hadn’t fully realized. It’s hard to find articles like this, that respect the reader and fully explore every aspect of the topic.

On the one hand, I agree with almost everything said.

On the other hand, I personally have no desire to move back to the small town where I grew up. I felt creatively stifled there, and my move to the city brought a lot of positive changes in my life. I think that for a minority of people (me among them), the meritocracy mentality provides a much-needed escape hatch. I might have moved away from town regardless of all the merit-based incentives, but if I’d been culturally pressured to stay, I’m sure I would have–and then I’d be profoundly unhappy.

However, I see the brain drain of Middle America, and I agree that the social separation between big cities and small towns is growing too fast, and having very negative results for America. I agree that it causes stress for most people, whether they be a blue-collar worker or high tech exec. Most people want to set down roots, to be part of a local community and participate in local traditions. I’m no exception to that rule.

There’s one solution that wasn’t mentioned in this article: Telecommuting.

I hope that in the future, the very mobile values encouraged by meritocracy will allow the brain drain to reverse and become more localized again. Talented people move to big cities because they want a special college or job, and friends among peers, not because they love traffic and over-priced apartments. They’re lured to cities. A lot of talented people, once they’ve secured a career and a spouse/family, then move to the suburbs and set roots down in local neighborhoods.

If the incentives to move could be decentralized, I believe that at least 70% of talented people would move away from the city as soon as possible. The high tech industry is filled with jobs that can be performed at home. The office and classroom are not as necessary as they once were. As telecommunications improve, I think more companies may choose to have a spread-out work force instead of a centralized one. But that is a slow societal change, and may take decades.

avatar Sean S. May 8, 2009 at 1:27 pm

How can we discuss meritocracy without talking about the man who coined the term, Michael Young, whose book of the same highlighted a dystopian future where the lower classes over-throw the elite in a vaguely socialist revolution?

But the meritocracy’s allure is so potent mostly because it up-ended the arguably more absurd system of social artistocracy, “good breeding”, and other similar blue-blood claptraps. I cringe when I read people talking about “social grace” and “noblesse oblige” a kind of system of pity that I don’t think anyone wants to go back to.

At the same time the current system is mind-numblingly opaque, and is often rigged in favor of the wealthy, who have the means to pay for tutoring, expensive private schools, or any number of other things that enrich a kids life. They also have the social connections to get internships, entry-level jobs, and access to capital. The “meritocracy” of today is merely a slightly rejigged version of the past system of monied interests, except with a vague imprimatur of “fact”, and the slim potential of someone to break through. The reality is most people will die in the class they were born, and theres little, if anything, they can do about it.

“If we go by the 2009 budget if we were to eliminate social security, medicare, medicaid, unemployment and welfare (About 53.5 % of the budget) every man, woman, and child in the United States would receive about $10,333.33.”

But that would be half of the poverty-line, which rests somewhere in 20,000. And its doubtful that with that 10K they could afford medical care (insurance plus the co-insurance rates) and save for retirement on their own after all their other expenses are taking out(Medicaid serves, after all, people under the poverty line, roughly). The reality is that the current system is a large transfer of wealth from others to the working poor; its essentially the tax we pay to keep society from unraveling.

avatar Zac May 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Fancy finding someone from Milford on this site! I grew up in Goshen. I used to ride my bicycle to Milford twice a week during my summers in high school.

I just started frequenting this site. Only had time to browse this, but liked what I read of it. Thanks!

avatar Chad May 11, 2009 at 10:43 pm

IDK…….This feels like pat buchanan went granola or something.

Citing the O.C. as the definitive example of school class structure while bemoaning that there are no “poor” kids in the school shows that either the author has no children, or has never been to a redistricting meeting or school re-assignment committee. And this is essentially what the author wants for the nation?

avatar ender01 May 13, 2009 at 1:25 am

This article and this topic strikes a particular chord with me. I am 25, was raised in a small WI town and after college, spent several years living in working in DC. I am now in law school, and find myself spending quite a bit of time wondering about where my wife and I should settle when I begin my career. I loved my small town, but when I return I often feel nothing but sadness. The parks seem a bit run down, the down-town, fading even further. Old businesses on main street have been replaced by pawn shops and when I look around at the people it is hard to imagine living there for the rest of my life. Because I often find myself thinking not just about my career, or my wife’s happiness, but about the future of the area. If small-town America is dying, and fly-over country is shrinking, why shouldn’t young, highly-educated professionals live anywhere but the “super star” cities? It seems absent ecological or military disaster, the Acela corridor of Boston-DC will become as important to the country in the next century as it was once during the founding of the republic.

I love the idea of being a small-town professional; it is why I left DC and went to law school. But at what cost? What does the future hold for flyover country, and small town America specifically? Putting down roots in such an area, well, sometimes it seems to me as about as futile as rearranging deck chairs on the titanic…

avatar kurt9 May 13, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I think this article, both pro and anti meritocracy is so far out in left field that it is not even wrong. First of all, what Richard Florida calls the talented classes are simply the over-educated fitting into the bureaucracies and the symbol-manipulation careers that do not actually create anything. Much of this is the fall of left-wing economic policies over the decades that result in ever-increasing amounts of regulation that favor big business at the expense of the individual as small business. It is a known fact that people who work for themselves or small businesses tend to “stay put” more than those who work for big business. It is the demands of big business that require one to constantly move about as you climb the career ladder.

The best and only way any concept of localism can ever by promoted is by reducing regulation and taxation as to allow a more small to medium sized company based economy to flourish. This will occur naturally in a true free market economy because big business (as with all large scale institutions) tend to be bureaucracies and, therefor, less capable of innovation and dynamism than individuals and small companies. Small companies make a better fit for small towns anyways. Big companies in small towns tend to create the “company town” effect, which is the worst possible social environment conceived by man.

The other reason for promoting a lone individual/small business based economy is because the coming technology revolution in DIY biology and nanotechnology will greatly empower individuals and small groups relative to that of large institutions. both private and public. This is the single most positive trend we will experience in the coming decades.

I think small towns can successfully compete for competent individuals if they offer an attractive place to live and a decent social culture. The Pacific NorthWest and Mountain states are full of thriving small towns that compete successfully for the competent.

Places like Bend Oregon, Eureka California, and Walla Walla Washington, have no problem attracting competence. These are all places with less than 50,000 people. Hood River (in the Columbia gorge) has less than 15,000 people, yet is one of the hottest places to live in the U.S. for outdoor sports oriented talented people. Did I forget to tell you that Bozeman, Montana is home to over 15 optics/photonics technology manufacturers?

All of the above mentioned places have start-up business activity as well. There is something to be said for having a 5 minute commute to work and being 10-15 minutes from good hiking, skiing, and kite surfing. There have been articles in Wired magazine about self-employed technical professionals moving to small towns because, quite frankly, the quality of life is better in many respects than in the big cities.

avatar Pasher May 13, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Dan/Jake

The poverty line according to the US Department of Health & Human Services is $10,400 per yr for an individual + $3600 per yr for each additional person. That means a family of 4 is AT the poverty line at around $21,200. That means converting Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid to a straight cash payment is possible, but only if you leave out health care..

The premium for private health insurance for a family is around $12,000 per year when you combine the employee and employer contributions. If you throw in deductibles and copays it goes up to $15,000 per year for a family. Much of this cost is due to the growing inefficiency of our health system though (premiums have nearly doubled within the decade w/o noticeable improvement for the avg person)

I think a guaranteed minimum income would be an extraordinary idea along with some form of subsidized Universal Health Insurance such as the proposed Wyden-Bennett Plan.

avatar kurt9 May 13, 2009 at 3:16 pm

There’s one solution that wasn’t mentioned in this article: Telecommuting.

I hope that in the future, the very mobile values encouraged by meritocracy will allow the brain drain to reverse and become more localized again. Talented people move to big cities because they want a special college or job, and friends among peers, not because they love traffic and over-priced apartments. They’re lured to cities. A lot of talented people, once they’ve secured a career and a spouse/family, then move to the suburbs and set roots down in local neighborhoods.

If the incentives to move could be decentralized, I believe that at least 70% of talented people would move away from the city as soon as possible. The high tech industry is filled with jobs that can be performed at home. The office and classroom are not as necessary as they once were. As telecommunications improve, I think more companies may choose to have a spread-out work force instead of a centralized one. But that is a slow societal change, and may take decades.

No shit!

avatar kurt9 May 13, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Perhaps its not a problem of meritocracy, but a problem of mediocrity.

The very idea of somehow “limiting” the goals and accomplishments (both financial and non-financial) of intelligent and capable is so frigging alien to me that I find it difficult that anyone would seriously consider such a thing.

If the differential in human capabilities is such a big deal, perhaps the bio-engineering/eugenic approach advocated by the likes of Murray should be seriously considered. Instead of trying to drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator, we should try to bring everyone up.

avatar Dan Conine May 13, 2009 at 9:10 pm

When I started reading your article, I thought “Man, what a Wendell Berry rip-off!”. Then I read further and sort of saw where you were going with it.
Whether we pick a name (meritocracy) or not doesn’t matter. The problem is one of belief and religious influences. Humans have been taught for the most part to believe that answers and life come from “on high” and that all effort should be expended to go on the ‘increase’ to become more and higher and for our children to move on to ‘better places’. Forgotten is the fact that all life comes from the soil, and tending the soil is the highest we can achieve as living beings. I forgot where or the exact quote, but it goes something like, “When the farmer is respected equally with the priest, there will be no more strife in the world.”
Regardless of our belief system (capitalism, meritocracy, democracy, communism, deism), everything comes from the bottom up, not the top-down, and when we fully accept and maintain the bottom, we won’t need so much of the top.

avatar Dan Conine May 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Addendum: The harder it is to reach the top (omnipotence, heaven, Carnegie Hall), the taller the peak, and the more humanity is forced into a narrow spike of behavior to support that tower of Babel. The first step is to stop building towers to things that can never be reached and to stop listening to those who promise things they cannot prove.

avatar Dan Conine May 14, 2009 at 8:45 am

Reading more of the comments, I realize very few see the possibility for the FairTax(www.fairtax.org). If we got rid of the pro-spend pro-debt income tax and replaced it with a sales tax (WITH A PREBATE FOR POVERTY LEVEL SPENDING), then the actual externalized costs of oil wars and poor health care would be right at the point of purchase, where most people have been coerced to give up some future life (work) in exchange for instant gratification of desires created by the media and its advertising.
The FairTax plan calls for around 23%, I think. I suggest it be doubled because the proposal is designed to be revenue neutral as a switch from income tax and the government is currently running a deficit.

The beauty of my plan is that the FAILURE mode is the success mode: if the tax is too high, people revert to not buying things they don’t need and producing things they need locally, while putting megacorp polluters and cars out of business.
Win-win for our grandchildren, while eliminating the need for crazy proposals like the carbon cap and trade, social security taxes, and all of the lies that go along with hidden taxes (corporations don’t pay income taxes: customers do).

avatar Pentimento May 14, 2009 at 11:46 am

It would be difficult indeed to dismantle our cultural ideology of meritocracy, since, insofar as it’s a product of the egalitarianism espoused by the philosophical forerunners of the American and French Revolutions, has always been a part of Amerian culture. America was populated and enriched by immigrants from antimeritocratic countries who could never hope to move out of their prescribed class and place in society, partially so that these immigrants might have that chance. Antimeritocracy is antidemocracy, essentially, and I don’t know how meritocracy has gotten associated with the left — at least not the political left as we understand it today — when the biggest experiment in antimeritocracy was the Cultural Revolution in 1960s-1970s Communist China, which probably set Chinese research, farming, and technology back by 100 years.

It’s true, the American school system is largely meritocratic. Perhaps a Western European model is preferable, in which children are tracked in the lower grades toward a college or vocational curriculum, with no chance of moving from one to another. I suppose we’d think of that as state interference. And we should acknowledge the fact that many parents homeschool because they believe that their children’s merits, i.e. talents, are not being fully developed in established school systems, which would make homeschooling, at least for some, meritocratic in itself.

avatar Thomas G. May 15, 2009 at 7:50 am

Wonderful essay Mr. Beer, and terrific discussion in the comments. However, regarding the strip-mining of talented youth from the small towns, and rural areas to feed the global meritocracy I can’t help but ask, what options do these kids really have?

I grew up in Bill Kaufmann’s idyllic Batavia (literaly, I did) and experienced the long slow economic decline of the 70′s and 80′s as manufacturing fled upstate NY for warmer-cheaper locales. I graduated at the top of my HS class, and went off to college (we had no college of our own, but a 2 year community college)to obtain a degree that would help me find employment. (Sorry folks, but I was the first person in the family to obtain a college degree. Much as I would have liked to have had the luxury of studying philosophy, I needed to find a job). After gaining a BS in Mechanical Engineering, I searched far and wide for employment and could not find it in Western N.Y. I did not want to leave, but the only job offers I could find led me elsewhere.

As much as I would love to see kids stay, or return home to the Batavia’s of the world, there are economic reasons why they don’t. Batavia today is bereft of good paying blue collar, or white collar jobs. Aside from healthcare, education, and other service related professions, the town has become a bedroom community for commuters who work in Buffalo or Rochester. Like it or not, until there are employment opportunities in Batavia, kids will continue to leave just as water will continue to flow downhill.

avatar kurt9 May 15, 2009 at 2:26 pm

The article is really about the “brain drain” from flyover country to the coastal regions. As I mentioned before, I think this problem is self-correcting.

The talented flowed into Florida’s “means cities” because they largely went into the fluff industries of the bubble (investment banking, management consuting, dot coms, etc.). Now that the bubble is over, the fluff will go away and the talent will go elsewhere. One of the things you will note is that Florida’s “means cities” tend to have high taxation and considerable regulation. No one is about to build a new semiconductor fab in the Bay Area any more. Much of the manufacturing (especially small companies that are the real source of job creation) are fleeing high cost, high tax places like California for “flyover” places like Utah, Nevada, Montana, and the like. I really think we will see an economic resurgence of “flyover” country.

Another thing I noticed about my hometown is that people who left it 20 years ago to pursue careers and what not often come back to either buy or start businesses that they would not be able to do had they not left in the first place. Thus, their leaving (and then returning) has allowed them to create more economic value for the place than they would have had they never left. This effect is also not mentioned in the article.

If this is not sufficient to solve the problem, there are many things “flyover” country could do to attract talent. They could beef up the local schools and universities. They could get the universities to establish branch campuses (WSU has done this in Washington state) and/or offer coursework through the internet. They can offer inducements and tax breaks for businesses and investment to flow into the region. They could even establish a venture capital fund to attract entrepreneurs to these areas. There are many things states and local areas can do to attract capable people.

The point is that this article fails to discuss any of these things. Its just a whiny tome criticizing the capable from seeking opportunity in general. This is really quite pathetic. Capable people seeking opportunity is as much a fact of life as the sun rising and falling each day. If you want the capable to come and stay in these places, you’ve got to make it attractive for them. If you’re not willing to do that, complaining about the problem is as pathological as it is pointless.

avatar tehag August 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Burke, Berry, et. al. are correct in that meritocracy somewhat robs the individual of blaming fate for life’s misfortunes. It’s similar to the plight of the individual under karmic justice: the ills that befall you in this life are punishment for your behavior is past lives.

Perhaps in some future essay you’d like to address the flip side of a ‘meritocracy:’ that ‘merit’ becomes confused with ‘of our social class’ and ‘sharing our opinions;’ two things that are unrelated to merit, but stand in for them in the minds of the meritocrats.

tehag

avatar Matt Joyce February 5, 2010 at 10:11 am

Not going to lie, this has to be one of the most frightening pieces of literature I’ve ever read. It chills my blood to think that someone could have arrived at this conclusion. As a person who has spent his life “living as a tourist”, I have no attachment to any single city or town. I’ve lived in many, across continents. And that lack of attachment to local community has freed me to engage a broader community. My social network spans the globe ( and that’s just my closest friends ). I as a person am enabled by modern technologies ( internet, broadband wireless, increased capacity for communicating ideas and thoughts ). This allows me to join a community of people who share my interests and goals… and because of this, great innovation and progress for everyone the world over can be made.

I am sad to hear your lovely town is dying, but you know what… there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a natural and organic thing. Civilizations crumble, towns die, people die. But new things replace them. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s simply the next iteration of what it is to be human. We aren’t any less ethical or bound to our own communities. It’s just our communities are no longer bound by regionalism. It’s no longer 1776, and the simple fact is, I can play video games with friends in texas chicago california and toronto all at the same time while laughing into a headset and cracking jokes. Then I can share some pictures from a party I attended with my local friends with some of my friends in helsinki, hamburg, or japan. This is what the world is today, and with the advent of increased capacity for augmented reality we can further remove the constraints of distance.

It’s in this assault on regionalism that we can find the opportunity to rid ourselves of conflict and inequality. But, we’re going to go through some growing pains, and some of what you love is going to disappear so that new things can rise in their place.

The concept of “Democratizing Intelligence” is both incredibly stupid, and incredibly evil. You are treading into the domain of quite literally thought control. You are talking about relying on the rule of the mob in areas of complexity, as well as chaining down real people and making them slaves. I understand you want to save your home, but enslaving your “smart” young people is not an answer. It’s diabolical. And the United States is a meritocracy. It has been since day one. It’s actually kind of the whole point of it. I’d drop the whole if you don’t like it leave thing, but really… you can’t overwrite that part of the constitution. It’s the very foundation of the nation. If you don’t like it, your only choice is to leave. But really, I think you just need to accept that times change. Some day you will be dead, as will your argument. Some day I will be dead, as will my argument. New arguments will take their place and people will progress in the same brilliant organic fashion they have since the dawn of time… so long as no one sets anyone back with the outbreak of armed conflict.

Truthfully, I’m still freaked out by how utterly insidious this piece is. I’ll be freaked out all day. Thanks for that.

avatar Apreche February 5, 2010 at 10:39 am

You’re thinking about this problem from a zoomed out perspective, I think if you examine many individual cases of people who are mobile, you will see it is quite better this way. I know the plural of anecdote is not data, but allow me to share my personal anecdote as it is so similar to the anecdotes of my friends and acquaintances.

I grew up in a suburb. I am a geek/nerd. I did very well in school. I studied computers at a private university, and graduated. meritocratically speaking, that puts me pretty high up.

After college I got a job in New York City. Why? Because there was nowhere else to get a job. I could have moved even further away, to California, but New York was the closest place to find any work. I could not live in a rural area unless I found a telecommuting job, but even then the rural areas have poor Internet service. I could not live in the suburb in which I was raised, because the price of real estate was far too high.

I ended up moving to a town far north of NYC, and commuted via railroad over an hour each way. I stayed there for years only recently moving to NYC proper. The reason is that life there did not suit me. Stores were not open late. There were few people I could associate with. There just wasn’t anything to do.

I think what you are ignoring here is that it is not intelligence that causes people to move, but culture. I am a computer person. I was born in a town with few other computer people. If my life were to be constrained by geography, that would be a very unhappy life indeed. Stuck with people I have nothing in common with simply because of the geographical accident of my birth.

It has nothing to do with economics or intelligence. It has to do with community. Community and culture used to be overwhelmingly determined by geography. Nowadays, that is not the case. Because of the Internet, I share more culture with some nerds in Norway or Japan than with my next door neighbor. My entire childhood I was stuck in a suburb, forced to associate only with those who were also there. Upon discovering people I have more in common with, how can I not move to a city and be with them, if given the choice?

I think if anything what we need is more mobility, for everybody, regardless of economics. If you want to increase happiness, let’s get all the people who are trapped by geography and move them to where they want to be, near people who share their culture. A much greater source of unhappiness is people constrained and forced to live amongst those who they have nothing in common other than physical location.

avatar Mr. Scott February 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm

And when technology makes transportation near instantaneous…?

avatar Tim February 6, 2010 at 11:54 am

This really was an excellent article (and I’m an example of what’s discussed – left Ohio with my education now living in San Francisco).

The only part that bothered me is the tiptoe’ing with the term “Democratizing Intelligence”.

Its not democratizing at all – its “Socializing Intelligence”.

Force (or induce) smart/skilled people to stay in their town, not realize their own full personal potential, for the good of the town.

avatar Paulo M February 8, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Great read.

For some time now, I’ve been wrestling with this idea of why there are have’s and have not’s – and whether I am of above average intelligence, or below – despite my academic achievements at school. Or whether, in fact, I’m trying too hard. Very troubling. And while some of the quotations in the essay, such as those of Wilhelm Röpke and Wendell Berry sort of address or comfort some of these long standing issues – fears – I wonder if I should have even read this.

Anyway, I think this is an interesting study, not just for Middle America, but countries all over the planet that haven’t been able to effectly deal with what is generally referred to as brain drain. And, soon, the same flow from those “superstar cities” to places like China and India.

avatar Joan February 10, 2010 at 6:28 am

I kept waiting for you to reference John Taylor Gatto’s work. His radical history of education begins in a 19th century of wild economic instability in which a group of wealthy Americans looked at the recurring phenomenon of some genius out in the hinderland (he specifically names Thomas Edison as the model but there were plenty of others) coming up with some new invention that would out-compete and ruin established successes like themselves. For their own protection they set out to use the public schools to redirect American ambitions, to get young people focused on getting a good job rather than going into business for themselves. Once the entrepeneurial impulse was contained to the degree that most new inventions come from inside the research departments of large organizations, those organizations were free to grow bigger and bigger, to the point where they could indulge in capitalistic predation against independent business everywhere, replacing small and locally-owned firms with franchises, pulling all the jobs above first-level supervisor into their headquarters. (And the difference between capitalism and a true free market economy is most visible in this practice, the operation of a franchise at below cost until it bankrupts its competition, after which it can raise prices at will.) The brain drain is really a jobs drain. Living in a small town is something I can do now that I’m retired. When I had a living to earn, it was the city or nothing.

avatar Nausea Remedies November 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for information, I’ll always keep updated here!

avatar beer club of the month cheap December 15, 2011 at 11:54 pm

There is so much economic unrest in the world today between this generation and the former. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just sit together and work out our differences over a nice, frothy mug of beer? Beer reflects a timeless spirit that heals weary hearts with nostalgia and comfort.

avatar John B February 3, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Small town, stable America is a myth. The interesting thing about how little Americans moved last year, the statistics Jeremy cited, was that this was the least mobile Americans have ever been in their history. Think about it: coming from overseas, taming the frontier, migrating to the cities; when were Americans ever a stable people? They never have been. In my own area, the Chesapeake tidewater, a whole raft of thriving towns in 1770 were gone by 1830, and some counties lost half their population between 1790 and 1890.

My second comment would be that people move mainly for economic reasons. People are leaving small towns because they can’t get decent jobs, as Jeremy says of his own small town. When the work dries up, what are people supposed to do? Stay put and wrangle some sort of disability check, or move? Mobility is a consequence of rapid economic change, which is related to technological change. Unless we can think of a way to stop the economy from changing, people will have to keep moving.

avatar Abelard Lindsey February 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

The way to get intelligent people to stay “home” more is to make “home” more attractive for this people to stay. If people migrate to places like silicon valley, its because of the opportunities that such places offer over staying at home. You want them to stay home, you have to figure out ways to create those opportunities to their hometowns. It is silly and pointless to complain about intelligent people leaving these kinds of places when you make no effort to make such places more attractive to them.

Leave a Comment

{ 15 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: