“What a World! What a World!”

The other day, I linked on Facebook to a piece by Steven Brill that takes elite lawyers of the baby-boom generation to task for ruining America. Commenters, predictably (and correctly) took Brill himself to task for tarring an entire generation with his broad brush. Brill certainly does that; the fine point about lawyers is generally lost in a piece aiming for maximum exposure. As one person, a college professor, wrote, “an awful lot of boomers remain progressive, remain environmentalist, don’t pursue excessive wealth, believe in a big social contract, and generally have been as pissed off as millennials at the suburbification of their peers.” He’s right; I try to be one of them. A lawyer (and someone I first met back when we were not much more than baby boomer babies), chimed in, “It seems to me that the author is really saying… that the Boomer Era graduates of Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Chicago & Stanford fashioned a legal and tax framework that created a new aristocracy of the economic elite.”

That came to mind as I read David Brooks’s headbanger in yesterday’s The New York Times. Lord knows, I’ve never been much of a fan of Brooks (for evidence, see my old pieces about him on Salon) but this time he has outdone himself. After excoriating the contemporary meritocracy led by the boomer elite that Brill writes about in his new book Tailspin, he concludes, “The meritocracy is here to stay, thank goodness.” He follows that with “we probably need a new ethos to reconfigure it—to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.”

What is it Miranda says in The Tempest? Oh, right:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

All they need is a Socrates to inspire and a Plato to teach and they’ll bring us to the promised land. Our leaders can be wondrous all, when the leaders are properly led!

Of course, Brooks isn’t talking about a natural meritocracy but a controlled and artificial one. Perhaps he would prefer one like the Chinese civil-service system of centuries ago. At the start of the column he reiterates one of his most long-standing self-delusions, that “We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent.”

After reading the first few paragraphs of the column, I grew confused. I couldn’t imagine him attacking the meritocracy, but that’s what he seemed to be starting to do. He writes:

A narrative is emerging. It is that the new meritocratic aristocracy has come to look like every other aristocracy. The members of the educated class use their intellectual, financial and social advantages to pass down privilege to their children, creating a hereditary elite that is ever more insulated from the rest of society.

He then claims that he has been arguing for “a meritocracy that is true to its values” for twenty years—not aware, I guess, that he is going to contradict the very idea of a real meritocracy later or that the very idea of “values” as a controlling factor for a meritocracy defeats its purpose, making conformity more important than merit.

Given the nature of human beings and of the societies that grow from that nature, there’s no possibility of a true human meritocracy. Nor, I would argue, should there be. Each person needs to be valued as much as any other.

But let’s get back to Brooks.

Instead of blaming the conception of meritocracy for the abject failure of this new American one he so loves, Brooks finds fault with the implementation, not the ideal. He blames (as I do) the cult of individualism, saying it leads to narcissism and little connection with others. He also blames a lack of moral system and little adherence to institutions, and fragmentation induced by diversity. Get rid of these problems, and we can have a meritocracy with “a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation.”

No. Solve those problems and you still have a system where people like Brooks believe they deserve more than others, that they should have bigger houses, better cars, better medical care, better protection and more honor than anyone else. And, no matter how you structure things, they will also want these things for their children, too, regardless of the merit of the next generation.

The problem doesn’t lie in shaping the meritocracy (which begs the question of who gets to do the shaping, anyhow) but in the idea of a meritocracy itself. No matter how you frame it, a meritocracy is going to be inherently anti-democratic and in favor of an elite even beyond the ‘meritocrats’ themselves. It is going to discriminate against anyone with a differing set of abilities from those already earning the rewards of merit—and that is going to be the large majority of us.

Ultimately, no meritocracy can exist without creating a gulf between the many and the few. We don’t need to keep those with particular talents down, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” but we do need to worry more about the state of the masses before concerning ourselves with the elite. Want people to be able to rise to their abilities? Make sure they have adequate health care and housing and food. Make sure educational opportunities are open to everyone. Forget about the ‘needs’ of a meritocracy and start tending to the needs of people.

Ideally, forget about David Brooks and Steven Brill and Richard Florida and Charles Murray.

Forget about them? Personally, I’m awaiting the arrival of a child (not a hero, not another to establish nothing more than a new meritocracy) with a bucket of water to splash and melt the wicked witches, their self-flattering ideas, and their meritocracy of flying monkeys.

Then, maybe, freedom can ring.