...Hayes spoke for an hour with David Roberts and other Grist staffers about his analysis of the paralytic dysfunction of the American elite. He paints the 1% as an overcompensated tribe of hyper-competitors who jealously propagate their privileges yet cling to the delusion that they are self-made superpeople. “We are cursed,” he says, “with an overclass convinced that they are scrappy underdogs.”
Hayes’ arguments on the state of media were especially fascinating to me, and I’ll pick up their thread again soon in another post. But first, here are some excerpted and lightly edited highlights from Hayes’ talk.
On elites and meritocracy: The ethos of competition produces elites who feel persecuted — they are always looking up the ladder and never down, and all construct for themselves a story of their own overcoming, even when it’s manifestly ridiculous. Like Mitt Romney, who got up at a Republican presidential primary debate and said, “You know, I could have inherited the car company. But I struck out on my own — I went to Harvard Law, went to Harvard Business School.” This is genuinely felt — it’s not artifice.
Merit proves to be a difficult thing to define, so money becomes a very neat proxy for it. That’s a self-justifying way of seeing things — people make a lot of money, they must have merit, they must be smart and hard-working.
Now, meritocracy is a word coined by Michael Young, a leftist British social critic, who in 1958 wrote a book called Rise of the Meritocracy. It’s a satiric, dystopic vision of the future a la1984, or Brave New World. It’s a horrible future of government by the cleverest, and it ends up in this revolt from below. And Young was horrified to find the word was adopted as a positive thing. He wrote an op-ed to that effect in theGuardian in 2001.
In the U.S. context, meritocracy is in deep tension with our democratic and egalitarian commitment. Yet in America, the word is always a compliment. Bureaucracy is always negative. Meritocracy is positive. It’s in the first line of Goldman Sachs’ recruiting brochure: “Goldman Sachs is a meritocracy.” This model has a lot more costs than we recognize.
The argument my book makes is about the social model of the meritocracy, and that its ethos and principles and also the set of institutions that have been constructed to produce it — which is to say, an elite that is drawn from all of society but is funneled in this intense process down to the most talented and driven — is a system that’s breaking down. And that’s what’s producing a lot of the elite dysfunction, declining social mobility, rising inequality, and increasing social distance between the people who have power to make big decisions and the people whom those decisions affect.
Ultimately, we’ve reached this point in which meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction. In telling ourselves that we can neatly distinguish between equality of opportunity on the one hand and equality of outcome on the other, we’ve created a system with vast inequalities of outcomes. And those have then gone about reliably, relentlessly subverting the mechanisms of producing anything that looks like equality of opportunity...
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Chris Hayes