Tuesday, February 4, 2014

If Not Meritocracy, What?

Lately I've been reading some conservative essays on the problems with meritocracy. Jeremy Beer, for example, blames meritocracy for the death of small towns, and therefore for the decline of small town values; for the collapse of family life among the poor; and for the arrogance and entitlement of elites, whose belief that they earned every penny by their own great merit leads them increasingly toward libertarianism. Rod Dreher bemoans the worship of intellect and drive among elites both left and right and wonders why we can't have an "aristocracy of virtue." Ross Douthat accuses the American elite -- especially liberals, but not only liberals -- of not seeing how their insistence on personal freedom has made life much worse for those at the bottom.

All of these "crunchy cons" draw inspiration from poet/novelist/activist Wendell Berry. Berry is an environmentalist and anti-war crusader, but he is also conservative in the truest sense of the word, a man devoted to conserving small-town life, old-fashioned farming, and a slow, careful approach to any sort of change. Berry loathes the busy life of ambitious city people struggling their way to the top, which he thinks is death to the “living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls.” He also hates the message we give to young people, that they can achieve anything if only they work hard enough and travel far enough:
Young people are told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.
The fear that meritocracy leads mainly to disappointment is an old one; Jeremy Beer cites several examples going back to the eighteenth century. If you are told often enough that your future is entirely in your own hands, and that people rise or fall entirely by their own merits, then failure to achieve great things becomes a black cloud you cannot escape. If the world is fair, and you are not at the top, then you are clearly not one of the top people. And if you do succeed, then you obviously are a supremely excellent person who gets no more than you deserve, and taking some of your money to help the stupid slackers at the bottom is just highway robbery.

Driving across America, Jeremy Beer passed through wrecked towns and decided that our meritocratic education system was a big part of the problem:
Indeed, with regard to higher education, we might think of meritocracy as the equivalent of the practice of strip-mining. For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.
This image of towns strip-mined of young talent strikes me deeply. All my readers know that I also wonder about the effects of meritocracy, some of which seem to me quite bad. But what is the alternative? Wendell Berry writes lyrically about peasant agriculture, but that is hardly a realistic vision for a world of seven billion people. Douthat and Dreher think we need more religion, and have sought answers in conservative Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; Dreher also left the coastal city where he became a successful journalist and moved back to St. Francisville, Louisiana where he grew up. Jeremy Beer is equally focused on localism; he wants us all to stay where we grew up, or move back there if we left, and then for our children to "be educated and formed in such a manner" that leaving home "is comparatively unattractive and unusual."

To that I say that if I had somehow been bullied into staying in Rolla, Missouri, where I went to high school, my life would have been a bitter, blasted ruin. The only goal I could imagine in those days was to get far away. It may well be that our mobility, our rootlessness, our constant striving for success, our black brooding over our failures, are somehow at the root of our problems finding meaning, purpose and happiness in life. But any change we might make toward limiting human freedom would ruin somebody's life, and that is a high price to pay for a theory of virtue.

Dreher and Douthat both want our culture -- whatever that is, and wherever it might be found -- to work harder at teaching virtue and convincing poor people that the way to live well is to work hard, get married, obey the law and generally follow the middle-class script. After all, that is what successful middle class people do. I find all of this absurd; these people know nothing about history. The aristocratic, localized systems of the Old World had many virtues, but they survived only by violent oppression, and even then only because of extremely slow social and economic change. The industrial revolution blasted all those systems out of existence. In some places this happened peacefully; in others the old elite tried to resist (Russia, China, the Confederacy) and got shot for their trouble. Cultural disapproval not backed up by savage repression is just not very effective. Americans today are simply not willing to treat a woman who gives birth out of wedlock with Victorian savagery, nor to shun a whole family because of one black sheep. We won't run offenders against our morals out of town on a rail -- which is not a metaphor but an actual way of punishing social deviants much practiced in the sort of tight-knit communities these men claim to love. A little paternalistic nudging won't change how Americans act.

I also don't understand what we are supposed to do to keep small towns economically viable -- or old industrial cities, for that matter. People leave home because they can't find work. How are we going to force global businesses to keep their factories and offices open in the places we want to preserve? That would require a system of business regulation so draconian and all-encompassing that even I find the thought intolerable, and I don't know what self-proclaimed conservatives think could be done. As for an alternative to meritocracy, what would that be? Random hiring? How would we go about bringing back aristocracy even if we wanted to?

Going backwards is not the answer. We are stuck with the world we have -- a global economy, a meritocratic system, vast personal freedom. If we are to have meaningful lives, we are must find them within the world as it is. Nostalgia for small-town life won't save us. After all, a big part of what Berry and his admirers like about that past world is the acceptance of limits. They want people to stay within the confines of the world they were born in rather than fleeing it for somewhere else or making poorly thought-out attempts to change everything. If we are going to be happy in our world, we have to take the same approach: accept its limits, find our place within it, adapt our lives to its rhythms. Like Taoist sages, we must flow like water over the rocks of our own troubled times.

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