Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Meritocracy, Oligarchy, and Inequality

This discussion is based on the book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes.

Hayes refers to the work of Robert Michels who produced a book titled Political Parties early in the last century. Michels sampled many of the political movements that were current at that time and tried to determine if the parties of the left, ideologically committed to equality and democracy, were more or less oligarchic in their operation than the unabashed elitist and aristocratic parties of the right. He came to a most definite conclusion.

"Michels grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to actually bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable."

Michels’ reasoning was based on the need for any entity to organize itself in order to be effective. Organization requires delegation of responsibility to specific individuals. The vast majority of participants will have neither the time not the talents to contribute at a significant level, and will be forced to trust and depend on those to whom authority has been delegated.

"’Without wishing it,’ Michels says, there grows up a great ‘gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.’ The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. ‘Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control’."

Based on this interpretation of the very nature of organizations, Michels formulated what he referred to as "The Iron Law of Oligarchy:"

"It is organization that gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy."

Given Michels's view, it is inevitable that some form of an "aristocracy" will arise to control our institutions, be they in government, in business, or merely social in nature. Hayes describes our general situation as we entered the 1960s as one in which most of our institutions were controlled by a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment based mainly on birthright and inherited wealth. The tumultuous ‘60s would end up replacing that aristocracy with a system destined to be fairer.

"....the country was grossly unequal along lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and controlled by a relatively small, self-contained set of white Anglo-Saxon men. By waging a sustained assault on the establishment responsible for perpetuating the Vietnam War, patriarchy, and racial discrimination, the social movements of that era permanently transformed American society for the better."

The system that would be better is what Hayes refers to as meritocracy. He attributes the definition of that term to Michael Young who produced a book titled The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958. Young describes a Britain on the year 2034 that had been transformed into a state in which the talented and the intelligent are efficiently gathered up and given special treatment as they are destined to become the leaders of the nation. Of course, efficiency demands that the slow and the less talented not be accorded a wasteful amount of consideration.

Young apparently intended his work to be a satire on a society gone terribly wrong, but its humor and moral lesson were lost on most.

Hayes describes meritocracy as the system chosen to correct the inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation.....

"Here in the United States, ‘meritocracy’ was adopted as the perfect name for the American system of testing, schooling, and social differentiation that, in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, would produce a new, more diverse elite to replace the inbred Eastern WASP establishment."

The concept of an elite based on talent has been a constant theme throughout our country’s development. Hayes quotes Thomas Jefferson:

"I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents....May we not even say that the form of government is best which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into offices of the government?"

The concept of meritocracy finds favor with both liberals and conservatives.

"From the right it draws its embrace of inequality....and from the left it draws its cosmopolitan ethos, a disregard for inheritance and old established order, a commitment to diversity and openness and hostility to the faith, flag, family credo of traditional conservatism."

Hayes describes meritocracy as resting on two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference:

"....which holds that there is a vast differentiation among people in their ability, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks."

The second is the Principle of Mobility:

"....over time, there must be some continuous competitive selection process that insures that performance is rewarded and failure punished....People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures."

Hayes’s observation of meritocracy at work compelled him to derive "The Iron Law of Meritocracy" which states:

"....eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: ‘Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy’."

The type of society that inevitably emerges from a meritocracy is described as:

"It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated by and presided over by group of hypereducated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition, and accountability, a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers, and their progeny will stay there."

Hayes is, of course, describing our nation as he views it today.

Hayes provides some thought-provoking insights into the manner in which meritocracy helps breed inequality.

As for the traditional goals of the liberal left:

"Michael Young paints the meritocracy as an idea that originated on the left but came to devour it."

The left’s embrace of meritocracy has produced gains, but has failed in a fundamental way.

"The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress—gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside of meritocracy’s purview."

The institution of meritocracy effectively subverts the left’s attempts to generate a sense of common purpose based on economic status. Those among the disadvantaged who might have the talent and the ability to provide leadership within that class, are gathered up and taken away to be groomed as a potential member of the elite. The few who make it, serve as an example that instills a debilitating hope in those left behind.

"Like the lottery, the meritocracy allows everyone to imagine the possibility of deliverance, to readily conjure the image of a lavish and wildly successful future."

The concept of "The American Dream" remains alive in the minds of many, although its realization is becoming increasingly rare.

Hayes points to our society as an instantiation of Michels's "Iron Law of Oligarchy." The thesis of his book is that the beneficiaries of our meritocracy have become our oligarchs and they have failed us as leaders. He tells us that we suffer from a crisis in confidence based on our lack of trust in those who are running our institutions.

We will discuss Hayes’s discussion of the failure of our elites and his suggested solutions in a subsequent post.


  1. The resulting oligarchy is due to human nature not due to the principles of an actual meritocracy. A real meritocracy is not a probable outcome with out serious societal focus, energy, and quasi-unlimited resources. An actual meritocracy cannot limit the number of possible positions per capacity/demand and those decisions cannot be made in a closed circuit unless a guaranteed perfect impartial judge can be assured. Positions existing only as a reaffirmation of a supposed superiority cannot exist. Every individual must be afforded equal access to all possible facilities-advanced technology makes all possible traits exchangeable.

    So, just from those things I stated, you can see why it is difficult for an actual meritocracy to exist. It is disingenuous to frame it as something that has or could exist. For instance, the way the issue is framed in the article above implies that a meritocracy actually existed despite the fact that it never did.

  2. I, and I suspect Hayes, would agree with you that the inevitability of oligarchy arises from human nature, not from a meritocracy. We both would agree that we have never had an ideal meritocracy, but the mere act of trying to attain one has generated a self-sustaining elite. An elite class will, given human nature, assume the role of an oligarchy.


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