This week, I’ve been reading Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes. He asserts that meritocracy–the belief that the best and brightest among us deserve outsized rewards, because they’ve earned them–is the root of our problems, and that a program of government equalization is necessary to restore balance.
I read on, even though I didn’t agree with his premise. I believe in the concept of the meritocracy: I like to believe that I’ve gotten where I am in the world through my wits and my skills. My mother always used to say, “You’re only as good as the good you do.” And I believed her. But Hayes is right: something has gone seriously wrong. Our best and our brightest seem to be the root of our problems. Instead of actually improving things, they bring chaos and dysfunction.
A local news item provided an insight. A group of students at Stuyvesant High School (where I went years ago) were found to be cheating on their state Regents exams by photographing the test papers with their phones, and sharing the tests (which are supposed to be kept secret) and the answers.
It isn’t that merit, and meritocracy, are bad. It’s that merit has become debased. Fake merit has overtaken and displaced real merit.
Real merit is hard. When I was in Stuyvesant, the Regents exams were understood to be a challenge to us as individuals. We studied; we followed the rules (most of us, anyway); we earned our scores. More generally, achievement in the real world is hard. The laws of physics are ruthless. The court of physics admits no pre-trial motions and no continuances. Verdicts are instantaneous and final. And if you don’t like the result, the only alternative is to try, try again. And in every field of productive endeavor, it’s true. Engineering is hard, but so are railroading, running a factory, baseball, ballet and rock music.
But fake merit is easy. Sharing pictures of the test papers is easier than actually studying math and physics and chemistry and French. (And after all, the idea of taking an exam as an individual is kind of archaic: doesn’t everybody understand that collectively we all know more than any of us knows as an individual?) Investment is hard; running a Ponzi scheme is easy. Making real music is hard; making noise, then hiring a press agent to make people believe that it’s music, is easy.
Through fake merit, it’s easier to claim greater achievements than if you actually went and did the work. And people will hold you in higher esteem, as if your fake achievements were real… at least until the roof falls in.
It isn’t the meritocracy that has let us down, it’s the concept of merit itself.