Mau-mauing the Meritocracy

 Not being the sort of person who is tuned into such matters, I suppose that the first I heard about meritocracy being controversial was Dr. (DPhil, Oxford) Connolley's review of Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit.  I tend to view his evaluations with skepticism, especially when he cites Hayek, but at least he is more entertaining than his guru.  He didn't like the book, and really, it is hard to dislike merit, though maybe not so much if it is purely priced in market value.

I didn't think much about the subject until I noticed The Atlantic running a bunch of stories on the subject.  One of them was by Daniel Markovits, a Yale Law professor, who, among other things seems to have picked up a couple of degrees from Oxford, and is author of The Meritocracy Trap which anticipated Sandel by a year or two.  I haven't read his book either, but I did read his article in The Atlantic: 

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition 

Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable. Maybe there’s a way out.  


He argues, I think, that the competition to be and exploit human capital has become so pitted that it is destructive of  both winners and losers, and destructive of the larger society. One result is diminished social mobility.  Populist anger is focused on the meritocrats and their elite institutions, feeding the likes of Donald ("I love the uneducated") Trump. One quote: "Rich parents in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco now commonly apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews—all designed to evaluate 4-year-olds. Applying to elite middle and high schools repeats the ordeal."

This clearly has become a big theme in The Atlantic, a magazine aimed at, and presumably read, by the meritocrats.  Caitlin Flanagan writes about the nations elite private (primary and secondary) schools, bloated by enormous and tax free endowments, opulent campuses, and the entitled children of ferociously competitive children - she cites the example of a parent who summoned her to an angry harangue 15 minutes after she awarded her son an A- on a poem - and this before cell phones existed.  Such schools are the primary feeders for the elite universities which are arbiters of entry to the M.

At least half a dozen other articles on related themes populate recent issues.

An underlying argument is that America's version of untrammeled capitalism is creating a bitterly divided and unstable society.  Having recently survived an attempted coup that planned to kill the Vice-President and several members of Congress, we can hardly afford to ignore such warnings.

What can be done?  I say, less Hayek and more Popper.  Biden, I think and hope, is on the right track.



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