Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes, Crown Publications, 281 pages.
On Memorial Day, Christopher Hayes found himself in a world of hurt. The MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large announced on the air that he was uncomfortable describing fallen members of the military as "heroes," feeling that an overuse of the honor justified war. Conservatives immediately pounced, as did some military families who felt their loved ones were brave no matter the circumstances of their deaths. Playing his stylized role in the Kabuki dance of scandals, Hayes soon apologized.
Hayes' progressive credentials did not provide much cover for remarks that seemed to denigrate the military. Many saw him as the sort of glossy elitist who would diss our armed forces. Soldiers are heroes, and police officers are the bravest: These institutions of state control have become the focus of ritual obeisance. They serve symbolically as a working-class meritocracy, the most trusted of America's fraught institutions in a society that seems broken, beset by a crisis of authority.
But are soldiers heroes simply by dying in service, or must they meet their deaths through acts of bravery? Are those killed by friendly fire, a forgotten land mine, or a faulty helicopter heroes? Did they don that mantle upon enlistment?
This is the problem with a meritocracy in the modern age: Often one doesn't need to do much of anything to receive an exalted label. Talent blends into aristocracy, and publicity begets power. Does this system produce our success or undercut it?
In his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Hayes raises demanding questions about a nation that is both enamored with and troubled by its elites. As a tour guide to domains where elites dwell, Hayes is knowledgeable and smooth, backed by an energetic crew of seven researchers and fact checkers. Hayes may be less bipartisan than he asserts (he writes for The Nation, after all), but we should be grateful for his book's questions, if not all its answers.
Hayes is understandably ambivalent. As a television host, editor, and author, he is a member of the talented tribe. He describes his invitation to Davos, Switzerland, the highly elite annual World Economic Forum—an unattainable dream for many, even if he attended the conclave in steerage.
Ironically, the most effective argument that emerges from Twilight of the Elites runs against the grain of the book, which depends on the claim that a recognizable elite rules America, leading to inequality and institutional failure. But by revealing the numerous, cross-cutting elites, Hayes forces us to question the category itself. Is Hayes a member of that elite? Am I? Are you? It all depends.
The elite do not have membership cards or even well-recognized boundaries. There are some individuals we all recognize as belonging to a super-elite: the Al Gores, Jamie Dimons, and Oprah Winfreys of the world. But even at Davos there are circles within circles. Where does the outer ring blend into the hoi polloi? If we mistrust elites, whom do we mistrust? The uncertainty of elite membership challenges the facile Occupy Wall Street rhetoric that effectively, if dubiously, made one percenter an insult. The boundary isn't as obvious as that. Elitism is more of a hill than a ladder, one where people have differential access to levers of power and influence.
It is troubling when public status is based on factors other than ability. But is ability ever fully detached from status? In What Price Fame?, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that public stature develops from free choices. As a result, status can never be evaluated solely by the characteristics of the person judged, but only within a reputation market. While this principle is clearest with respect to the public's esteem of celebrities, universities and businesses typically rely on reputation in hiring, requiring letters of references or calling former employers. As with all markets, the outcome of a reputation market does, in principle, result from the choices of those doing the evaluation.
The creation of elites based on talent is also problematic, never entirely divorced from a status market. Libertarians recognize that life outcomes should not be uniform. Motivation and creativity count for something. But what if ability is inbred and not the outcome of effort?
Hayes recognizes both forms of evaluation, status and talent, but his concern is narrower. One might imagine that a meritocracy is desirable for society: rule by the best. Yet for Hayes the fundamental problem of a meritocracy (as for any system of status) is its effect on income distribution and social mobility. If we want a more equitable, just, and warm America, he argues, we have to moderate our wealth disparities; inequality of outcome, he says, leads to inequality of opportunity. Because the public recognizes this connection, Hayes argues, income inequality breeds political mistrust.
A raft of unarguable statistics shows that a few Americans are doing very well in contrast to their fellow citizens. The income gap between the uber-rich and the average worker has widened considerably in the last four decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. What Hayes terms the Era of Equality, from World War II through the 1970s, has ended.
Does inequality matter? A small sliver of Americans are gold-plated, but even welfare recipients have TV sets and cellphones. While deep poverty does exist in some corners of America, these cases are best solved through targeted intervention, rather than a massive redistribution project like the one favored by Hayes and other progressives.
Hayes argues that inequality feeds distrust, citing poll numbers indicating that Americans' opinions about their institutions have become increasingly negative since the Watergate era. He thinks the reason is clear: Institutions seem to benefit those in power, from the Supreme Court to Congress, from business to the mass media. We can see this disenchantment in the social movements that have arisen as a result of this mistrust. Hayes quotes a Tea Party activist as suggesting her movement is "an agent for angst"; the same is true of the Occupy movement.
To be sure, many institutions have recently faced scandals, just as they always have, from pious sex addicts to the Teapot Dome. But to what extent do these scandals have lasting and consequential effects? Less than might be imagined. When survey respondents say they distrust institutions, they may be giving what they take to be the expected answers, as opposed to expressing deep alienation. If we are told most Americans are mistrustful, we learn this is the normal attitude. It takes a brave citizen to express admiration for the U.S. Congress as an institution. People continue to obey institutional demands, such as paying taxes or other levies and voting rates have climbed since 1996, even while proclaimed cynicism abounds.
Public suspicion can even make institutions healthier by encouraging internal reforms aimed at combating this mistrust. Organizations from the Catholic Church to banks to legislatures have established ethics panels, which, while imperfect, are surely an improvement on the blindness of the past. While admiration of Congress has declined, blatant corruption (the hidden wads of cash of decades ago) is rare today.
Societies depend on those with talent and those with respect. The problem emerges when many of these elites are employed by the state (the Federal Reserve, the courts) or supported by state policies (business, social work, medicine). While this is not the case with entertainment, media, or religion, the elites that matter most are the ones we can't escape because they are backed by force. The problem deepens when the state increases its control of its citizens' choices, implicitly arguing that elites within a state system have more merit and more wisdom than their rivals outside it a belief seen, for example, in the president's claim that government support means more to business success that the talent of the entrepreneur. When some elites wish to control other elites for "public benefit," we should be as nervous as a mouse watching elephants waltz.
Any model that gives priority to coercive control by a few, however well-intentioned, depends on a self-congratulatory elite. This is a system that deserves to be in its twilight.