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Monday, June 25, 2012

Chris Hayes' Brilliant Iron Law of Meritocracy

by David Atkins

I've been reading Chris Hayes' superb and revelatory book Twilight of the Elites over the weekend. Delving into political non-fiction often arms me with facts I wasn't aware of, but rarely am I presented with new ideas I hadn't considered or grappled with before in some way.

Hayes' book does just that, asking profound questions about the very nature of society we are trying to build, and the arguments we are using to get there. One of Hayes' central arguments lies in the weakness of meritocracy as a principle for societal organization, riffing on Michels' classic "Iron Law of Oligarchy." He puts it thus (Chapter II, pp. 56-7):

In order to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous competitive selection process that ensures that performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot be simply made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures...

At the broader social level it means we expect a high degree of social mobility. We hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hardworking are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I'll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: "Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy."
This may not sound terribly profound at first. Elites game the system for their own benefit. We know this.

But to point out that the success of elites in this regard is an inevitable consequence of a meritocratic society is to call into question the very foundation of the rhetoric and ideology of most of the left-leaning spectrum, from progressive to neoliberal. It shakes to the core much of the entire liberal program. As Hayes says on pages 47-8:

Ultimately the meritocratic creed finds purchase on both the left and right because it draws from each. From the right it draws its embrace of inequality...and from the left it draws its cosmopolitan ethos, a disregard for inheritance and old estbalished order, a commitment to diversity and openness and hostility to the faith, flag family credo of traditional conservatism. It is "liberal" in the classical sense.

The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress--gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination--are the battles it has fought or is fighting in in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats--collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality--are those that fall outside the meritocracy's purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.
Through Hayes' lens, liberalism for much of the last half century has been about opening the meritocracy up to all segments of the population without discrimination based on intrinsic ephemera such as race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. This has meant a full embrace of the same pseudo-meritocratic impulse that has led to the renaissance of Objectivism on the right and the dominance of neoliberalism on the left.

If Hayes is right, what has been missing from much of leftist discourse isn't just economic inequality or the struggles of working families. What's missing is discussion of luck.

After all, what could be more iconoclastic to the edifice of the neoliberal and conservative systems? Declaring the Masters of the Universe incompetent is a given. Calling them evil is commonplace and mostly worth a chuckle. Using words such as heartless, bumbling, uncaring, greedy, inept, callous, and self-serving barely makes a dent.

But to call Lloyd Blankfein "lucky", or to say that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were simply "fortunate"--that's something altogether different. That's revolutionary. It cuts against the dominant discourse of the institutional left and right to reorient the entire social contract. It challenges not only the ethic of equality of opportunity, but also the legitimacy of much of the inequality of outcomes.

Hard work is still a key to success, of course. But what has been lost in modern culture is that many fail to achieve traditional measures of success despite high intelligence and hard work, while many "succeed" despite constant failure. Social connections are a huge factor. Most of our governing elites come from Ivy League universities, despite the fact that a huge number of very bright and highly competent people never attended an Ivy League institution. And then there's just being in the right place at the right time: how many Internet millionaires would have succeeded just as well had they been born in a pre-Internet world? How successful would Michael Jordan have been, had he been born in a country where soccer was the dominant sport?

Hard work is one factor in success, but it pales in comparison to good connections, family privilege, and dumb luck.

That idea is extremely threatening to the meritocratic status quo. And that itself is a sign that Hayes is on the right track.