Rule by merit is, after all, no respecter of persons. It does not dispense free passes to the well-connected. It provides equal opportunity for natural ability to show itself, and sees to it that individual merit emerges from even the most unpromising conditions of birth to flourish fully and freely, realizing all its potential. It seeks to be a form of aristocracy, of rule by the best, but it accomplishes this by carefully observing the democratic canon that such advancement must be open to all. Indeed, because of its openness to new talent wherever it appears, a meritocracy could claim to be more fully the “rule of the best” than any hereditary aristocracy.
But as historian Joseph F. Kett has shown, in a fascinating and subtle study of merit’s travails through three centuries of American history, there are at least two strikingly different ways in which merit has been understood in that history. 4 The founding generation itself thought in terms of what Kett calls “essential merit,” by which he means merit that rests on specific and visible achievements by an individual that were thought, in turn, to reflect that individual’s estimable character, quite apart from his social “rank.” “Merit” was that quality in the person that propelled the achievements, his “essential character.” Those who did the achieving were known as “men of merit,” a term one frequently encountered in the period’s writings and speech, as in this 1778 Fourth of July oration by South Carolina politician David Ramsay, an ode to the new nation as a land of opportunity: “All offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition.” Ramsay also asserted that “the reins of state may be held by the son of the poorest men, if possessed of abilities equal to the important station.”5
That is a perfect expression of the ideal of “essential” merit. But over time, a different way of understanding merit began to emerge, an ideal Kett calls “institutional merit.” Rather than focusing on questions of character, this new form of merit concerned itself with the acquisition of specialized knowledge, the kind that is susceptible of being taught in schools, tested in written examinations, and certified by expert-staffed credentialing bodies. This new approach to the demonstration of merit manifested itself, Kett argues, in the proliferation of “precedent-laden legal briefs, peer-reviewed scientific articles, command of the principles of military organization learned in war colleges, and diplomas from [reputable] educational institutions.” 6 But the testability of this form of merit is the key. We see this usage of the term today in the very title of the National Merit Scholarship, one of the more prestigious awards open to high- school students, but one that is based entirely on getting a high score on a standardized multiple-choice aptitude test.
The National Merit Scholarship example reflects the fact that institutional merit involved the assessment of promise rather than actual deeds, the production of credentials rather than accomplishments, the measurement of aptitudes for achievement rather than achievements themselves. It lent itself to intensively quantitative and comparative evaluation, and as such became the guiding spirit behind the proliferation of educational testing, intelligence testing, and other forms of standardized and quantitative evaluation meant to sort out “objectively” the distinct, inherent, and potential capacities of otherwise unranked and undifferentiated individuals.
It is not hard to see the considerable difference between the essential and institutional conceptualizations of merit, particularly if these two understandings are thought of as non-intersecting ideal types. Of course, they do frequently intersect, and even coincide, so that there is no reason why a “man of merit” might not also be a man who had straight As, a high IQ, and perfect SATs and GMATs. But a frequent collocation is not the same as an identity, and it is equally true that the pursuit of measurable merit might well crowd out our appreciation of merit of the other, less measurable kind. We should not mistake the one for the other.
In any event, it is the ever-swelling tide of institutional merit that has lifted all boats and deposited them on the shores of what has come to be called “meritocracy.” The term itself is relatively new, dating back to British sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, but the practice it designates is very old, particularly in China, where it was enunciated as a principle by Confucius in the sixth century BCE and put into use in the Han dynasty four centuries later through the use of written examinations to evaluate and rank offcials in the imperial civil service. As the example of ancient imperial China implies, the use of testing and other “objective” criteria of institutional merit is frequently conjoined to the institutional needs and imperatives of bureaucratic organizations.
As Young perceived, tests and other quantitative measures are also particularly suited to the needs of modern society, in which the old ways of assigning place by ascription or inheritance or patronage will no longer do, and, instead, the Weberian principle of rationalization prevails. Rulers must have access to technical knowledge and technical skills if they are to govern on the side of improvement, since “the rate of social progress,” as Young wrote, depends “on the degree to which power is matched with intelligence.” 7 It was of the greatest importance to the well-being of society that the best and the brightest be ferreted out of the social mass, then credentialed and equipped for the exercise of power. Hence, in his “fable” of the near future a series of educational reforms in the late twentieth century establish “merit” as the principal means of social sorting, and the ultimate criterion for advancement into the courts of political authority. And “merit” above all else means possession of an IQ over 125. While Plato had dreamed of philosophers becoming kings, and kings becoming philosophers, the meritocratic scheme of things as Young envisioned it was seeking to make the dream a reality, of sorts, by engineering the means by which political and cultural power could be turned over to a cognitive elite.
But as Young realized would be the case, and as we are now seeing in our own time, to our puzzlement and dismay, the meritocratic ideal has proven highly problematic, not to mention controversial and even destructive, particularly in a society that has not abandoned its democratic principles and aspirations. In Young’s fable, the “losers” in the meritocratic race, for whom any excuse for their failures had been foreclosed by the impersonal and procedural “objectivity” by which they had been excluded from power, were nevertheless consumed with resentment and shame, and they eventually engineered a successful revolt which would claim the narrator’s life in the year 2034. They were referred to by Young as the “populists,” an odd alliance of lower-class men who had been relegated to menial work and higher-class women who had become imprisoned by the imperative of raising high-IQ children, two dissident groups that had in common a desire to free society from its dependence upon “a mathematical measure” of all things. In the end, they brought the meritocracy down. In Young’s telling, the meritocracy generated its own downfall, by generating the discontents that made its downfall inevitable.
It is hard to say whether something like this will happen in our own time, though the political turbulence affecting both political parties in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as the rising antagonism directed toward the uber-meritocratic post-national elites that run the institutions of the European Union, suggests that it very well could. Clearly, though, we have arrived at a point where it has become impossible to ignore the problematic character of our meritocracy and the possibility that it is in the long run incompatible with any meaningful sense of democracy. The nub of the problem was anticipated and summed up with great concision by Daniel Bell in a 1972 essay, “On Meritocracy and Equality”:
There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages that their children inevitably possess. Thus after one generation a meritocracy simply becomes an enclaved class.8
Bell also offered the observation that if a modern postindustrial meritocracy is at bottom a system of selection by intelligence, and if intelligence, as he contended, is largely based upon hereditary genetic differences, then a meritocratic system will be one that awards “privilege” based on “an arbitrary genetic lottery,” which is “the antithesis of social justice.” He might well have added that assortative mating practices, which tend to bring members of the cognitive elite together in marriage and family formation, will in the fullness of time only amplify the divide between their oᚈspring and the rest of the population.
In addition, the families in which such children are raised will likely impart to them the habits of reading, study, learning, and discussion, as well as a fairly uniform set of social skills and approved attitudes, tastes, and political views, thus bestowing upon them a cluster of genetic and environmental advantages that those without such advantages will find hard to comprehend, let alone duplicate. The highly educated marry the highly educated and the technically skilled wed the technically skilled, both groups pouring their resources into the education and formation of their own children. Thus does the meritocratic elite glide into being an “enclaved” elite, one that can claim with a straight face that it is still a genuinely meritocratic elite, even if the system of meritocratic selection is absurdly skewed in its favor and that of its oᚈspring. And so it will seem to its members, who, after all, have worked very hard to gain entrance into Yale or Harvard, and have not had their status handed to them on a silver platter. But it will not seem so to those for whom even the formulation of such impossibly remote goals would be inconceivable and, sadly, futile.
This growing tendency today toward harder and higher barriers between the new cognitive elite and the rest of humanity is a variation on the same theme Young sounded nearly sixty years ago, and it is reflected in a great deal of the most incisive and penetrating social commentary of our own time. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class, Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict: All of these recent books concern themselves with the ways in which the geographical and cultural clustering of the like-minded, and particularly the self-segregation and insulation of the best-off and most flourishing enclave elites from the diminishing prospects of much of middle-class and working-class American society, has gravely weakened our common life and roiled our politics. 9 To blame meritocracy itself for these large developments might seem excessive. But its critical role in implementing the measurements, assessments, aptitude testing, grading, and other metrics that have gone into our unprecedented way of sorting out and segmenting our population is beyond dispute. We have to face the uncomfortable fact that meritocracy, while democratic in its intentions, may have turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results.
And when one considers the steep decrease in opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation—those middle- and working-class Americans who must deal with the erosion of unskilled and semiskilled jobs for those who lack advanced education, the downward pressure on wages and employment caused by the steady export of jobs and steady import of immigrants competing for the diminishing number of low-skill jobs that remain, and the open condescension with which such people’s anxieties and fears are regarded by meritocratic elite culture—it is not surprising that a growing edge of bitterness and anger, even rage, has crept into what passes for our national discourse. As Murray has observed, “During the past half- century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class…. Real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s.” 10 Such a state of affairs cannot stand much longer without provoking a strong reaction, of the very sort we are seeing in both political parties, but especially the Republican Party, in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Making it all far worse is the fact that the meritocratic elite that has gotten those rewards of the last fifty years has long ago ceased to be truly meritocratic, certainly not in the original American sense of “essential merit.” As Bell predicted, this new elite has now evolved into a class apart. Yet those who dwell within the magic circle can continue to imagine that it was not their advantages, but their own meritorious effort, that placed them there. They are not entirely wrong to think so, but they may be more wrong than they know.
So what is to be done? First, it is important to make clear what we are talking about when we discuss meritocracy. If the term refers to an all-encompassing bureaucratic system of testing, measuring, training, sorting, and placement, by means of which “the best and the brightest” are found and credentialed and put in charge of things, then we need to consider whether such a meritocracy is not a betrayal of the open spirit of advancement by merit to which Thomas Jefferson and David Ramsay were referring at the time of the nation’s founding. But if by meritocracy we mean something much looser, something less systematic and less centrally administered, something less obsessed with the invention and earning of “credentials” and the measuring of “aptitudes,” something that instead seeks to preserve the idea that “all offices lie open” to those men and women of essential merit who are willing to seek them, and that will throw in their way as few artificial barriers as possible, then that is another matter. Such a re-imagining of meritocracy would, while respecting and encouraging cosmopolitan high achievement, also finds a place for the recognition of other kinds of merit, including the strictly local and rooted virtues of those who give deeply of themselves in acts of citizenship and service to their own communities rather than exist as meritorious monads who sweep the globe restlessly in search of fresh material assets to exploit.
Second, there is an entirely separate (but related) question: We have to ask whether the meritocratic systems we have actually put in place can live up to the claims they make for themselves. Meritocracy may be objectionable when it succeeds in creating a new master class, but it may be even more objectionable when it fails to do so, and produces only the empty and formalistic credentialing of a new pseudo-aristoi. For example, do the standardized examinations we administer to prospective air-traffic controllers, foreign-service officers, and many other public servants, including firefighters and police, really do any important sorting, or tell us anything important about those who are required to complete these tests?
More consequentially, consider the arena of education, particularly higher education. A thinker like Daniel Bell, who was in the end a fairly committed proponent of meritocracy, envisioned the university as the central institution of the postindustrial social and economic order, the engine producing the trained minds that in turn move a complex technological society inexorably forward. But is this an accurate characterization? Is the colossus of American higher education as it currently exists really such an effective and efficient sorting mechanism for the staging and administration of a society? Does it provide its products with the sorts of abilities and experiences employers need and are looking for? Or does it instead provide us with individuals who mainly know how to be successful at taking the all-powerful standardized tests and otherwise gaming systems of quantitative assessment? Does the quality of our current leadership elites, and the low level of trust placed in them by the American people, justify Bell’s confidence in the efficacy of higher education? Does the result justify the extravagant, even crippling expense of college and professional education, at a time of extremely scarce entry-level employment for recent graduates, a time when the aggregate student-loan debt in the United States has reached well over a trillion dollars, with (as of 2014) more than seven million debtors in default?
Our meritocratic ideal was not always so dysfunctional. There was a time well within the memory of many living Americans when one’s advancement in life was not so heavily determined by the credential of where, or even whether, one attended college. Among the greatest of America’s twentieth-century presidents—and one of the most literate and historically informed presidents since the time of the founders—was Harry S. Truman, who did not have a college education at all, but instead began his adult life working for the Santa Fe Railroad when he graduated from high school. By way of contrast, one of the more curious episodes in the early part of the 2016 presidential campaign was the controversy over whether Wisconsin governor Scott Walker should be considered unqualified for the presidency, notwithstanding his extensive experience in public life, because he had never finished college. A mere seventy years ago, the question would never have arisen. It is a question that would be asked only in a credentials-mad society.
That less organized and less centralized America of Truman’s younger days had many faults, and I do not want to romanticize them away. But the worst of its faults was its failure to extend equally to all Americans the opportunities that a Truman enjoyed. That is a fault that only serves to confirm the worthiness of the ideal itself, the ideal of merit earned by accomplishments made possible in an atmosphere of opportunity. For all its imperfections, a more loose-jointed and less credential-crazed America would be more open to sheer human possibility than the putatively meritocratic iron cage of standardized tests and glib interpersonal skills that we are now so proud of having constructed, and imagine to be so much fairer and so much less elitist than the environment it replaced.
We need to find ways to restore and preserve a less regimented, less class- and status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America, one more respectful of men and women of all stations and educational levels. We need an economy and legal structures that are as open as possible to enterprise and innovation. We need an educational system that is open to all, and geared not to the manufacturing of credentials (or artificial and dysfunctional rites of passage) but to the empowering of individuals. We need a society that concerns itself with the knowledge and skills a person can acquire, not where or how they were acquired. Why could we not restore the practice of bringing talented and ambitious young people into professions such as the law through apprenticeships, as was done in the era of the founders, instead of insisting that they expend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a law school credential that means less and less with each passing year, and only serves to delay their entrance into the work force and the productive life of the community? Why could we not do the same with engineers, accountants, teachers, health-care professionals, and the like? Would not such changes move us back in the direction of a restoration of essential merit?
So that these statements not take on an air of wistful abstraction, let me conclude with a flesh-and-blood example from the American past. Consider Abraham Lincoln, a common man born in a log cabin to humble circumstances, whose character and outlook were molded not by the advantages of birth or pedigree but by his own relentless striving toward self-betterment, and his labor to wring a better life out the hard opportunities presented to him. We see, and rightly so, a considerable portion of our national ethos bound up in his story. We see an image of meritocracy rightly understood.
Lincoln was not particularly proud of his humble origins, and did not like to go into detail about them. His early life, he once said, could be summarized in a single phrase: “the short and simple annals of the poor.” 11 Hence, our knowledge of his early life is scrappy. We know that he moved from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, a typical pioneer farm boy, burdened with the tasks of hauling water, chopping wood, plowing, harvesting. We know that he hated farm work so much that he would seize the opportunity to do almost anything else. We know that he had little educational opportunity yet was a voracious reader, with a great love of language and oratory.
When young Lincoln arrived in New Salem, Illinois, as, by his own description, “a piece of floating driftwood,” he was an uncredentialed nobody. 12 But he soon found employment as a clerk, insinuated himself into the life of the community, became well known and well regarded by all, was appointed postmaster, ran for and on the second try was elected to the Illinois General Assembly, borrowed money to buy a suit, then found himself thinking about a career in the law. And from then on, there was no holding him back.
You could say that this was a rather unpromisingly hand-to-mouth pattern of development. Or you could say that Lincoln benefited from the looseness and easygoing disorder of frontier society, with its fluidity and absence of confining rules and regulations, its steady succession of fresh challenges demanding a fresh response. He did not live in a world where all of life hinged on his parents getting him into the “right” kindergarten so that he would have a plausible path into the ruling class. He could come to a town like New Salem and, in a matter of weeks, persuade his neighbors that he was a plausible candidate for office. He did not have to be defined as his father’s son. He could begin over again, and again.
Not everything about this frontier world was good, and Lincoln especially regretted the absence of educational opportunities in his own life. But one cannot separate the resourcefulness of his character from the fact of his frontier origins. Nor can one separate those humble origins from his iconic and enduring meaning in American life. There was nothing ordinary about Lincoln. But his ascension to the presidency was a clear example of the common man’s potential in a land open to men of merit. As Lincoln said in announcing his candidacy for the General Assembly in 1832, he “was born, and [had] ever remained, in the most humble walks of life,” without “wealthy or popular relatives or friends to recommend me.” 13 But he had been given unprecedented opportunity to realize his potential by the right set of conditions.
We would do well to leave room for the Lincolns among us—especially if they are as raw and uncredentialed as the man who would become our sixteenth president was. Think of his great speech at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg in November 1863. As many know, there were two notable speeches that day. The first, and the longest and most learned and most florid, was given by the supremely well-pedigreed Edward Everett, former president of Harvard —and the first American to receive a German PhD. But it was the self-educated frontiersman president who gave the speech whose accents ring down through the ages. Perhaps there is a pattern here to learn from.
E N D N OT E S
- Plato, Republic, Book 3, 415a–417b.
- Jefferson to Adams, October 28, 1813, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, Lester Cappon (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:387–92.
- , Adams to Jefferson, November 15, 1813, 2:397–402.
- Joseph Kett, Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). Kett’s introduction of the two ways of understanding merit appears on pages 2–7.
- David Ramsay, An Oration on the Advantages of American Independence (1778). Quoted in Kett, Merit,
- Kett, Merit,
- Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), First published 1958.
- Daniel Bell, “On Meritocracy and Equality,” The Public Interest, 29 (Fall 1972), 42.
- Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (New York, NY: Crown Forum, 2013); Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015); Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2009); Angelo Codevilla, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do about It (New York, NY: Beaufort Books, 2010); Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conᙰict (Candor, NY: Telos Press, 2014).
- Charles Murray, “Trump’s America,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/donald-trumps-america-1455290458.
- Michael Burlingame, “Writing Lincoln’s Lives,” Journal Divided, October 2010, http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/journal/2010/10/14/writing-lincolns-lives/.
- Charles Segal, Conversations with Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002),
- William Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Chicago, IL: Belford-Clark, 1890), 1:79.