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What’s Wrong with Meritocracy?

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China Power

What’s Wrong with Meritocracy?

Whether it’s China or the US, today’s super rich need to be careful about being too self-congratulatory.

This nation uses a series of complex, almost arbitrary, tests to select its elite, who learn to excel in exams and at certain set up tasks, but who also lack imagination and self-reflection. They’re obsessed with constantly climbing, and are often so blinded by short-term goals that they can be indifferent to how the world might be crumbling around them.

The thing is, I could be describing either the Chinese or the American elite. 

The Economist magazine recently published a survey on the global elite that reads like David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, except without the wit, the intelligence, and the relevance. The report quite incredibly argues that the global elite is a meritocracy that ‘serves’ the people by creating new wealth, generating new ideas, and spearheading new causes—so we shouldn’t be too hard on them for monopolizing much of the world’s wealth and for nearly bankrupting the global economy.

The poster boys of the global elite—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs—are an impressive lot. But many others who have risen to the top have done so not on experience and real ability, but on connections, flashy resumes and a knack for taking tests. Securing entry into an elite college, many head to an elite law school, business school, or graduate school before entrenching themselves in Wall Street investment houses and law firms, Washington think tanks and government circles, global media outlets and Ivy League universities. 

David Brooks, in his Atlantic Monthly article The Organization Kid, writes that the United States’ future leaders ‘work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life’—which is, conveniently, how the current global elite seems to behave.     

A more trenchant criticism of today’s global elite comes from Nicholas Lemann, who in two Atlantic articles The Structure of Success in America and The Great Sorting, and later in his book The Big Test, charts the genesis of today’s American elite.

The story centres on two individuals: Harvard President James Conant, and Henry Chauncey, the founder of the Education Testing Service (ETS), which by creating the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the Law School Admissions Test, and a whole battery of admissions tests, is that essential gatekeeper to the elite. 

The two men who revolutionized US education couldn’t have been more different. Conant is described as a working class boy who worked his way into Harvard. When he assumed the presidency, he became determined to open up more opportunities for individuals like himself. So he enlisted the help of Henry Chauncey, an aristocrat (one of his ancestors was the second president of Harvard) who defined the Harvard ideal (he was a great football player). A mediocre test-taker himself, Chauncey believed that tests would filter into the US elite ‘a natural aristocracy,’ and this would be the basis for an orderly and meritocratic society.

What Conant and Chauncey ultimately created was the professional elite, who are today globalization’s shock troopers.  None of their efforts would have mattered if it weren’t for the fact in the mid-20th century, the United States was transforming into a mass capitalistic society, and therefore needed a sorting mechanism to select its leaders, managers, and organizers. And, in a democratic free market society, a multicultural meritocracy is much more palatable than an Episcopalian aristocracy. But, as Nicholas Lemann tells us, the two amount essentially to the same thing: a self-serving and self-perpetuating elite. 

As James Fallows once wrote—and it still applies today— the SAT and other ETS tests are biased towards those with a certain cultural knowledge and those who can afford an expensive education.  (Actually, no different from China’s national examination.) A poor public school boy will have the same chance of making it into the global elite as a working stiff of winning the lottery: just because Obama can become president, and just because someone will win the lottery every week, doesn’t mean the meritocracy and the lottery aren’t rigged games.         

There’s a major difference between the US aristocracy and the meritocracy though. Aristocrats like Henry Chauncey, bred at Saint Grottlesex boarding schools and the Ivy League, were conscious of their privilege and social responsibility, and focused on developing the character and leadership skills necessary for public service. Many of today’s meritocrats, in contrast, don’t believe it’s a rigged game in their favour, and commit themselves to winning it at all costs, which means stepping on everyone else. As a result, too many lack self-reflection or self-criticism skills, meaning even those who are grossly overpaid give themselves outrageous bonuses. 

President Obama will likely appoint to fix the current economic mess the same Ivy Leaguers who created the economic mess in the first place. Meanwhile, these same businessmen remain so sheltered that even when the whole world is looking at them with scorn, they pen surveys celebrating how they make the world better.

In the recent article The Rise of the Global Elite, Chrystia Freeland suggests that the global elite are behaving a bit too smugly for their own good, and are becoming disconnected from the world around them: 

‘The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn’t working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper bracket Bush tax cuts.’

But as long as the global elite is armed with and shielded by the belief that they are a genuine meritocracy they’d find it morally repulsive to make the necessary compromises. Whether American or Chinese, individuals who focus too much on ‘achievement,’ and who believe the illusion that they’ve achieved everything simply through their own honest hard work, often think very little of everyone else as a result.

That’s the ultimate irony of the otherwise admirable efforts of Conant and Chauncey to create a fairer world:  in giving opportunities for the bright and able (regardless of whether they are rich or poor), they’ve created a selfish and utilitarian elite from which no Conant or Chauncey will be likely to appear from in the future.