The subject of meritocracy is one that has flitted around in the back of my mind for at least a dozen years, ever since a series of conversations with an acquaintance during my undergraduate years. He was studying international business and finance, and frequently expressed his bafflement that I would choose philosophy over the programme he had chosen, this bafflement receiving concrete form in the questions he posed to me - of why, if I had the ability to study philosophy, and could with equal ease, therefore, study what he studied, I would elect to study philosophy and forswear all of the lucrative opportunities that awaited the ambitious would-be master of the economic universe.
[Update: We've closed comments on this one, before things degenerate further -- Ed.]
There is never a good answer to such questions, unless by 'good' one means an answer which deflects the question and results in a change of subject. If one answers to the effect that such business is not one's thing, the questioner will conclude either that such choices were rooted in some sentiment over which one had no control - one couldn't help not caring for international finance - and thus that one is deserving of some pity, or will inquire further, increasing the probability that one will have to disclose an ambivalent opinion about the questioner's career ambitions. It's a lose-lose proposition. Or simply a losing proposition, if one elects, in defiance of all propriety, to express reservations about a given career trajectory.
Despite all of these meritocratic thoughts flitting about in the back of my mind, I never turned to the subject of giving form to my inchoate sense that something was amiss with the meritocracy. Luckily, then, that I needn't trouble myself, for a confessed member of that meritocracy, Ross Douthat, has expressed the problem succinctly, and perhaps with greater authority than any outsider could have commanded. Commenting on an intra-Atlantic exchange spurred by an essay in the current issue which attempts to exculpate the financial meritocrats who engineered the disaster, Douthat observes that shifting responsibility to society in the aggregate won't suffice. We are all responsible, and some, in virtue of their power, are more responsible than others. And the failings of the masters of the universe get to the heart of what is wrong with our meritocracy:
I don't often plug my first book, Privilege, but I think it's worth mentioning here because when you read about how the American leadership class acquitted itself at Citibank, or on Wall Street in general, I think you can see the dark side of meritocracy at work - the same dark side that shadows an instititution like Harvard, where a job in investment banking became, for a time, the summum bonum of meritocratic life. The mistakes that our elites made, and that led us to this pass, have their roots in flaws common to all elites, in all times and places - hubris, arrogance, insulation from the costs of their decisions, and so forth. But they also have their roots in flaws that I think are somewhat more particular to this elite, and this time and place. Flaws like an overweening faith in technology's capacity to master contingency, a widespread assumption that the future doesn't have much to learn from the past, and above all a peculiar combination of smartest-guys-in-the-room entitlement (don't worry, we deserve to be moving millions of dollars around on the basis of totally speculative models, because we got really high SAT scores) and ferocious, grasping competitiveness (because making ten million dollars isn't enough if somebody else from your Ivy League class is making more!). It's a combination, at its worst, that marries the kind of vaulting, religion-of-success ambitions (and attendant status anxieties) that you'd expect from a self-made man to the obnoxious entitlement you'd expect from a to-the-manor-born elite - without the sense of proportion and limits, of the possibility of tragedy and the inevitability of human fallibility, that a real self-made man would presumably gain from starting life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder (as opposed to the upper-middle class, where most meritocrats starts) ... and without, as well, the sense of history, duty, self-restraint, noblesse oblige and so forth that the old aristocrats were supposed to aspire to.
Bereft of a sense of tragedy and their own finitude, and possessed of no intuition that they ought to impose upon themselves the discipline of self-limitation, both for the good of our common society and for the good of their souls, and eschewing obligations to their 'inferiors', most of our meritocrats embody the vices of the nouveau riches and the ancien regime without any of the counterbalancing virtues. They have been the worst of both worlds, sort of like liberaltarians celebrating the most loathsome excesses of the culture while hymning the most calamitous excesses of creative destruction.
All elites, Douthat observes, have their flaws, and can hasten a people to the abyss. We should not, however, indulge the predilection for abstraction as a means of avoiding the flaws of our elites, if only because they wield so much power. Well, that, and the fact that they are us, and we them.