The Case Against Meritocracy

Ross Douthat:

But then the WASPs themselves decided to dissolve their own aristocracy, and transform their once-Protestant universities into a secular mass-opportunity system — a more democratic way of education, in which anyone with enough talent could climb the ladder, and personal achievement and technical expertise would be prized above all else.

This was meritocracy, the system that we now take for granted. And for several reasons it didn’t work as planned.

First, meritocracy segregates talent rather than dispersing it. By plucking the highest achievers from all over the country and encouraging them to cluster together in the same few cities, it robs localities of their potential leaders — so that instead of an Eastern establishment negotiating with overlapping groups of regional elites (or with working-class or ethnic leaders), you have a mass upper class segregated from demoralized peripheries.

Second, the meritocratic elite inevitably tends back toward aristocracy, because any definition of “merit” you choose will be easier for the children of these self-segregated meritocrats to achieve.