The Problem Isn’t the ‘Merit,’ It’s the ‘Ocracy’

Scholars Stage:

Two weeks or so ago Liam Bright posted the following tweet:

Liberal technocrats give us literally no reason at all to think their interests are aligned with the great majority of people, yet when they are attacked as a governing class they stress their credentials and competency. But it’d be worse if they’re doing bad stuff efficiently! [1]

In very few words Bright has summarized my problem with arguments in favor of meritocracy. Take, for example, a recent post by Nathaniel Givens in favor of “real meritocracy:

When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate.

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve.” It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League.

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests.