Surveying several recent news items, one could not be faulted for believing that the notion of merit has been significantly downgraded in American life.
United Airlines tweeted last week that it “plan(s) for 50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color.” While perhaps a worthy goal, left unmentioned are the relevance of gender or race to piloting a jet safely, and any support for the assertion that such groups previously had been excluded from consideration).
In higher education, two Ivy League academic institutions, Harvard and Yale, have been in the crosshairs of legal actions for disfavoring Asian Americans in college admissions, these applicants’ credentials notwithstanding (and this during a time when hate crimes against Americans of Asian heritage are on the rise). More broadly within higher education, this past year’s “test-optional” approach to admissions due to COVID-19 may be here to stay.
While few will give direct voice to the sentiment that “merit no longer matters,” our elites and institutions appear to have moved honest achievement well down the list of what is celebrated and are increasingly hostile to its promotion—a significant reversal of past practice.
The ideals of advancing one’s station through ability and hard work, and society rewarding legitimate achievement, have been on an upward trajectory since the advent of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which provided the brains and brawn for self-actualization and economic advancement, respectively. What caused our elites, who embraced merit after having signally failed to prevent its advance at the expense of entrenched privilege, to later turn against it with such force?
The Historic Rise of Merit
A look back at history is instructive. In Western Europe, the aristocracy and other beneficiaries of the medieval manorial system—what the French would have termed the first and second estates—largely resisted the growth of trade and commerce, which were then weakening the hold of the landed gentry over the peasantry.
This slow loss of control by the titled nobility accelerated with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which turbocharged commercial activity at scale, leading to a significant expansion of the merchant classes. This was also encouraged by centralized monarchies seeking to tax these newfound sources of wealth to fuel imperial ambitions. At the same time, Enlightenment thinking was enshrining reason, progress, and science, and seeking to harness such ideals in service of improving individual lives. As material progress ensued, the war of ideas was won—at least for a time.
Unable to stand athwart history and yell “stop!” the elites co-opted the rising merchant classes as well as the striving bourgeoisie, or middle classes. A symbiotic relationship emerged: “new money” sought the legitimacy of the long-established higher reaches of the social order, while the aristocracy sought to launder its inherited privilege in the reflected glory of both great fortunes created through commercial activity and the glories of other “winners” within an achievement-based social and economic system.
This alignment of the elites with vigorous, market- and merit-based forms of economic and social organization prevailed for more than two centuries before encountering any meaningful challenge, whether from mercantilist rearguard actions or nascent ideologies. This alignment has now eroded, having evolved from a distaste for commerce to an outright animus against merit. What changed?
The Marxist Marauding of Merit
In a word: Marxism. Marxist principles created a vessel with which to slur market-based capitalism and merit-based endeavor as merely steps along a predetermined path ultimately culminating in state ownership and control of the means of production, along with the subjugation of the individual to the collective.
While the failure of the Soviet experiment should have nullified the allure of Marxist theory, it has since metastasized—not only in the form of hybrid nation-state actors such as China, but via the tendrils of collectivism that have made their way into every aspect of modern life. Radical environmentalism, so-called “social justice” movements, and American progressivism—itself an odd name for a belief system set on turning back the clock to an era of unearned privilege—are but a few of the bastard offspring of Marxist dogma.
As the cultural currency of classical liberalism and Enlightenment principles has receded, elites have abandoned merit. Seeing the rising tide of merit now going out, they no longer fear waves of grubby and uncouth strivers—disagreeable, yes, but at least admiring of the elites’ status and rituals—but a pitchfork-wielding collectivist mob (even if that figurative mob primarily masses on Twitter). The elites of yore first attempted to face down the strivers before failing and ultimately co-opting them; why have they been so quick to embrace the anti-merit hordes?
Two reasons. First, our current elites, who constitute a rentier class frequently (and accurately—it’s one of the few things the progressives get right about American society) accused of “privilege,” have more in common with the collectivist vanguard than is usually understood. Again, the Soviet experience is instructive: a society in which what matters is position rather than ability will create common cause between those benefiting from incumbency and those who can command the street, and synthesize a new elite standing above the lumpenproletariat on whose behalf they are presumed to act.
The other reason is that the elites actually believe this stuff. The great and the good of contemporary American life are known neither for their courage, nor their critical thinking skills. The long march of the Left through our institutions—the academy, media and entertainment, non-profit enterprises, government at all levels, and, more recently, the military and corporate America—marinated multiple generations of our elite classes in ideas largely at odds with markets, republicanism, civic virtue, the primacy of the individual, and a Western canon promoting classically liberal values.
Progress or Return?
In a sense, we’ve returned to the beginning—with an entrenched aristocracy seeking to suppress merit and protect its own position. They are now allied with collectivists among the masses, and have formed a pincer movement against those who hold dear the old verities—individual responsibility, achievement through effort, a color-blind society, and the notion of fair play expressed in all its forms.
If you’re just a grubby striver, firm in your conviction that you deserve to succeed or fail based upon your own abilities and efforts, know well that elite institutions are now arrayed against you. To pretend otherwise—individually or collectively—is to ignore reality. Every day we are given a chance to vote—through our spending decisions, charitable contributions, organizational affiliations and time spent, and periodically at the ballot box—and it is more critical than ever to do so mindfully.