The Decline of Middle America and the Problem of Meritocracy by Jeremy Beer


The seemingly unassailable ideal of “equality of opportunity” demanded by the meritocratic regime has drawn scorn from thinkers such as those I have quoted in part because they have understood that in order for talent to triumph, it must be mobile. This, as we have seen, is precisely the aim of a meritocracy. It seeks to remove the barriers posed by tradition or culture — that is, barriers posed by institutions, texts, myths, habits, social forms, sensibilities, affections, characteristic practices, and the like — to the mobility of the intelligent. Thus, the more perfect the meritocracy, which we typically equate with justice itself, the more mobility — both geographic and social — is required, until talent is able to flow freely to where it can command the highest price. A perfect market for talent is the dream and goal of meritocracy: nothing must stand in the way of the rise of talent to primacy. Progress, understood both as the never-ending process of self-liberation and self-fulfillment, and as the indefinite expansion of our consumer economy, depends upon such mobility.

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The fact that our meritocracy rewards most those at home in the world of “abstractions and images” has further isolated our new elites from the rest of society by their insulation from manual labor. “The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life,” and indeed, only under such circumstances could such academic theories as “the social construction of reality” gain any purchase on the mind, concludes Lasch.

Another serious disadvantage to rule by the “best and brightest” is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has “little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” It “thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”

In sum, social mobility, far from being the sine qua non of democracy, actually “helps to solidify [elites'] influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit.”