Social Institutions

Overcoming Merit

The illiberal agenda behind the "overclass" hype

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Jews get into Ivy League schools. So do women. So do Southerners from public high schools and second-generation Italian Americans educated by nuns.

They get jobs as doctors and lawyers, professors and journalists, engineers and business executives at the top places, not just second-tier ghettos. Some strike it rich in software or designer food.

They marry each other. When they have kids, they send them to the best schools they can find.

This horrifying scenario—a combination of equal opportunity, lessening ethnic prejudice, and financial rewards for learning—is America's latest social problem.

You can read about it in Newsweek's July 31 cover story, "The Overclass." Or, for a less celebrity-studded treatment, you can check out Mickey Kaus's The End of Equality (1992), Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven (1991) and The Revolt of the Elites (1995), Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994), or Michael Lind's The Next American Nation (1995). I'm probably missing a few, but you get the idea: Everybody who's anybody is worried that nerds are making money.

These critics never say they're talking about nerds. If, like Lind, you want to denounce "oligarchy," you can't admit that you're really complaining that the smart kids who got beat up in middle school became successful adults: They went to colleges that valued their brains, found and married like-minded lovers, earn good salaries at satisfying jobs, and don't feel guilty about their lives. That's the basic complaint, however.

Writes Kaus: "It's one thing to have an unequal distribution of income. It's another to have that same distribution of income rigorously based on schooling and skills. In the latter situation, those with more money will be able to claim not just that they have more money, but that they have something else, knowledge, that makes them more valuable. The pay-for-skills trend lends all income differences, small and large, a nasty meritocratic bite."

This lament is weird and probably unprecedented. Usually intellectuals rail against markets for not valuing intellect–for not valuing them. The new complaint is that markets value brains too much. Hence Kaus's "nasty meritocratic bite."

Indeed, the anti-meritocracy protest has an odd self-referential quality. Why, oh why, you can almost hear the critics asking, must New Republic senior editors (a.k.a. Lind and Kaus) make so much money, know so many movers and shakers, eat out so often? Why must Newsweek writers be so intimately familiar with arugula and cappuccino?

If a bunch of Beltway writers decided to purge themselves of snobbery and start watching Fox, shopping at Wal-Mart, and eating Stouffer's macaroni and cheese instead of pesto, the world might indeed be better off. Certainly, self-styled populist Christopher Lasch could have used more exposure to the virtues of shopping malls—a peculiar locus of evil for a man who thought himself in touch with America. And, who knows, meeting people who never went to Harvard and never heard of The Washington Monthly might teach some social critics that snobbery is found in all classes, that a lot of people look down on them: In the words of a working-class Hoboken Reporter reader, "Seeing these weird people with sneakers and dresses every morning dashing for a crosstown bus just turns my stomach."

But the crusade against knowledge workers is not about reversing snobbery, least of all among the Washington wonkocracy. It's about thwarting the ambitions of talented people—and treating those people as tools for social engineers, not human beings with their own purposes. It's a particularly unattractive, illiberal manifestation of egalitarianism-at-all-costs.

For starters, the crusaders don't much care for learning, a traditional liberal virtue, since it's the source of inequality. Even the deadpan Herrnstein and Murray seem disappointed that so many smart kids are going to Harvard instead of staying on the farm or attending the local teachers college. Newsweek quotes disapprovingly a Los Angeles mother who worries that public schools will hold back her kids' education because of students who "don't have the same values in their home. If I'm working hard to push my child I want to make sure the other parents are, too." Only an evil elitist, insinuates the article, would want her children in a school that values academic excellence.

And, at its nasty little heart, the crusade against "the overclass" is also an attack on uppity women. Over the past generation, every elite university has gone co-ed, and, except for MIT and Caltech, they no longer have wildly lopsided enrollments. The workplace has changed, too. By 1993, women held 42 percent of executive, administrative, and managerial jobs, up from 32 percent in 1983.

Looking out at that world, a lot of male social critics have decided that there are just too many educated women; that we make way too much money; and that, worst of all, we steal all the professional men from less-educated, lower-paid women—women who hold the jobs we'd have (until we got married) if evil meritocrats hadn't let us into the professions. Professional men are marrying women of their own income class, an "ominous trend," says Kaus: "Male lawyers and executives used to marry their secretaries. Doctors used to marry nurses." When you combine two professional salaries you get a much higher household income, and therefore more inequality, than in the good old days when working wives made a pittance.

The math is inarguable. Herrnstein and Murray recite similar figures. Lind adds the gripe that women and men no longer have separate spheres, that professional husbands and wives socialize as couples, that they're "joined like Siamese twins" and "feel mutually enslaved." Since he contradictorily condemns their marriages as "business alliance[s] between two emotionally independent professionals," one suspects that his real complaint is that he can't escape women, either in the workplace or at dinner parties. (A more charitable explanation is that he just doesn't like his friends' wives.)

But neither Lind, nor Herrnstein and Murray, nor Kaus will take their argument to its logical conclusion: that married women have no business in the professional world. Lasch was less squeamish. The late social critic saw in feminism no more than financial support for yuppie greed: "Female careerism provides the indispensable basis of their prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life."

The anti-meritocracy crusade leads inevitably toward one particular policy prescription: universal conscription, a draft to the nth degree. If you can't keep ambitious, talented men and women out of good schools and good jobs, you can at least derail their careers and remind them that the government owns their lives. You can expropriate the years they'd spend in the library or the lab, at the gym or the school newspaper. You can make them tote a gun or clean bedpans instead of staying up late arguing politics or fooling with computers.

The point isn't to fill jobs that need doing; it's to confiscate human capital, and the precious years young people have to build it. "For social egalitarians, national service is valuable precisely because it would force Americans to pause in their disparate career trajectories and immerse themselves in a common, public enterprise," writes Kaus.

They may disagree on many issues, but on this every anti-meritocracy polemicist (except libertarian-leaning Charles Murray) concurs: America made a terrible mistake in 1973 when we ended the draft, when we told young people that their lives were their own. Lind calls the all-volunteer military "feudal," while Kaus waxes nostalgic for a draft because it "attempts to treat all citizens, rich and poor, with equal dignity." Or equal contempt. Equality, not dignity, is the point.

Elites are nothing new. The one that has this crop of social critics so agitated is simply much larger, much more open, and much more diverse than the old ones. Sure, as Murray and Herrnstein warn, "When people live in encapsulated worlds, it becomes difficult for them…to grasp the realities of worlds with which they have little experience but over which they also have great influence." And, sure, public debate might be improved if The New Republic occasionally hired someone who went to a state university or whose parents worked in textile mills. (I can supply references.)

But keeping smart kids out of prestigious schools and prestigious jobs–or stealing part of their lives for "national service"–won't solve the problem. Murray and Herrnstein's worry about encapsulated worlds is as true of the worlds of Harvard graduate Mickey Kaus and Harvard dropout Bill Gates as it is of The New Republic's offices and the local Jiffy Lube. We can only know so much about other people's lives. That fact is an argument not against meritocracy but against social engineering–against the arrogant impulse to meddle that animates the attack on the "overclass."