Sunday, October 4, 2015

Christopher Lasch on the Woes of Meritocracy

Intrigued by something I read about Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) in a post on America's current malaise, I started looking into him and his ideas. My public library has none of his books, so I ordered used paperback copies of three of them: The Culture of Narcissism (1979), The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (1991), and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994). I hope eventually to write an essay about his ideas and what they can or cannot contribute to our ongoing national conversation, but there is a lot to digest so that will be a while.

I just finished The Revolt of the Elites, the first to arrive, and the thing that struck me most about it was Lasch's assault on meritocracy. This is an important political point right now, because the economic program of the Republican party boils down to saying that inequality is ok, as long as it is not hereditary. If the route to riches is really open to everyone, regardless of class, race, and sex, then we should celebrate the hard-working people who make it to the top. Jeb Bush calls this the "Right to Rise" and has made it one of his main campaign themes.

Christopher Lasch dismissed all such talk. He hated the worship of "success" that has long been a major strain of American economic thought. As far as he was concerned, "Economic inequality is intrinsically undesirable, even when confined to its proper sphere." Lasch was a history professor with a Columbia Ph.D., and he knew a lot about American intellectual history. He studied especially the long line of American thinkers who attacked great wealth as "morally repugnant and incompatible with democratic ideals."
In the first half of the nineteenth century most people who gave any thought to the matter assumed that democracy had to rest on a broad distribution of property. They understood that extremes of wealth and poverty would be fatal to the democratic experiment. . . . Democratic habits, they thought – self-reliance, responsibility, initiative – were best acquired in the exercise of a trade or the management of a small holding of property. A “competence,” as they called it, referred both to property itself and to the intelligence and enterprise required by its management. It stood to reason, therefore, that democracy worked best when property was distributed as widely as possible among the citizens.
Lasch is thinking both of Jeffersonian Democrats and midwestern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln who pushed for the Homestead Act. To such people, the very existence of wealthy capitalists and impoverished workers was a great danger to the Republic, and everything possible had to be done to prevent the country from evolving in that direction. Of course the country did industrialize, and an emphasis on the right to rise was one of the results:
Historically the concept of social mobility was clearly articulated only when people could no longer deny the existence of a degraded class of wage earners tied to that condition for life – only when the possibility of a classless society, in other words, was decisively abandoned. 
Lasch held to what he considered the true American position, that inequality is bad no matter where the rich come from. Indeed, he thought, a meritocracy is in some ways worse than an aristocracy:
The notion that egalitarian purposes could be served by the “restoration” of upward mobility betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding. High rates of mobility are by no means inconsistent with a system of stratification that concentrates power and privilege in a ruling elite. Indeed, the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy as a function of merit rather than birth.
As many others have noted, an elite composed of people who have risen by their own efforts may have less interest in helping the poor; I worked my way up, they reason, so why can't you?
An aristocracy of talent – superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege – turns out to be a contradiction in terms: the talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. Their snobbery lacks any acknowledgment of reciprocal obligations between the favored few and the multitude. 
Furthermore, meritocracy "drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership." This particular point has gotten a lot of attention in two contexts. Many people have noted that when successful blacks began to move out of traditionally all-black neighborhoods they left behind pockets of poverty and pathology. Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry has made the same complaint about small towns, which have been "strip mined" of talent by the pull of big cities.

I was fascinated to learn that the debate we are having now about whether investment in education can reduce inequality and promote social mobility is an old one, going back to the nineteenth century. Lasch thought this was beside the point. People who think education should equip all student to get rich
ignore the real objections to meritocracy and content themselves with dubious argument to the effect that education does not live up to its promise of fostering social mobility. If it did, they seem to imply, no one would presumably have any reason to complain.
To Lasch, inequality in itself is both a moral disaster and a dire threat to democracy: "When money talks, everyone else is condemned to listen."

As I have written before, I am not sure what the alternative to meritocracy would be. But I think it is good to be reminded that all talk of a right to rise is a distraction from the real issue: what sort of society do we want? Most Americans say they want a middle class society, not one divided between rich and poor. Social mobility is in this context irrelevant; it is the class structure of society that matters, not how it got this way. I believe that the experiment in a rawer style of capitalism we have tried over the past 35 years has shown that this approach leads inexorably to ever greater class divisions. Trying to fiddle with the educational system so that we end up with an elite having the proper number of blacks, Hispanics and women will not get us to the world that I and most other Americans want. For that, we need a radically different economic approach.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Another major failing of the "Right To Rise" is that the people who champion focus solely on the fact that it is possible to go from rags to riches, with a complete disregard for the matters of how likely that is, and what goes into achieving such a climb.

The first issue is probability. Even if you are the most hardworking, most meritocratically "deserving" person possible, achieving meteoric "success" is still going to be overwhelmingly dependant on being very, very lucky.

Part of the problem is basic math. Huge amounts of people want to achieve "success", but our society simply can't support more than a tiny fraction of those numbers as elites. And while the argument goes that these limited "slots" breed competition which weeds out the least deserving, the simple fact is that out of, say, dozens of equally deserving individuals, perhaps one will find success. The others don't fail because of any particular lack of merit - they fail because of a lack of luck in drawing lots.

The second issue is a flawed measuring of "merit". Our society and economy elevates people to elite position based far less on their personal qualities and far more on their ability to generate money for those who elevate them.

For example, no one would ever argue that Justin Beiber is the model of an upstanding individual with great personal merit - he was just a kid with a decent singing voice and appearance whom some clever businessmen realized they could condition and groom to be incredible profitable for them. His only real merit was that he was marketable. But in our society, that's all you need to become rich and famous. So long as your can help make a fortune for someone who is already in a position of power, you can receive your own lesser fortune in return for lining their pockets.

Simply put, our "meritocracy" values the wrong merits. No one has ever got ahead in our society by being kind, humble, generous, wise, patient, understanding, magnanimous, clever, diplomatic, and also utterly unmarketable.

But plenty of awful people, with absolutely monstrous personalities, philosophies, and personal failings, have been elevated to stations of extreme wealth, power, and prestige simply because they were able to game the system - often through ruthlessly exploiting others.

I do find i agree with your point about meritocracy being in some ways worse than aristocracy, in the specific context of the elite being held to higher standards of behavior. There is no expectation of civic duty, of a responsbility to promote the wellbeing of those less fortunate than themselves. Heck, the rich and powerful in our country are not even held responsible for their own actions, being able to throw money at essentially any problem at all, even legal and criminal abuses, until the problem just goes away.

Some might argue this is just one of the tribulations of living in a capitalistic society - that money is king, and everything musy eventually revolve around it. And yet I can't help but think of the Venetians, who were a people entirely devoted to mercantilism, trade, and wealth, but they still managed to place strict limitations and demanding responsibilities on their leaders and elite members of society.

The office of the Doge of Venice was a position of incredible grandeur, comfort, and importance, and yet it came with grave duties and tight restrictions on the powers of the holder. The Venetian navy was the lifeblood of the republic, and being an Admiral was one of the highest honors possible to hold - and yet perhaps because of the importannce of naval success at every turn, negligence and failure were deemed grounds for immediate execution of an admiral. Venetian law was sometimes draconian and unforgiving, but it was at least fairly applied to everyone, regardless of wealth or station.