What’s Wrong with Our Meritocracy?

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In the search for substance in the sea of edifying platitudes in commencement addresses, I came upon Ben Bernanke’s thoughtful list of ten suggestions or observations on life after graduation he gave at Princeton’s tradition-laden Baccalaureate. It’s the rare graduation address that’s clearly worthy of commentary, analysis that inevitably generates some criticism. Here is one of Bernanke’s fine set of observations:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say. 

We do, in fact, more than ever live in a meritocracy based upon productivity.  We also live in a time when “mental labor”–industrious technical cleverness–is increasingly the source of productivity.  Admissions to Princeton is more meritocratic–based on intellectual accomplishment–than it was only  several decades ago.  So increasingly our highest-ranked colleges and universities educate our “cognitive elite.”  The upside of our movement toward meritocracy is that we increasingly judge people as individuals–not as members of classes or races or genders or religions or sexual orientations.  Sure, we have some affirmative action, but no system is perfect.  Our meritocracy, as Bernanke says, is “fairer and more efficient than some alternatives.”  He might have said that according to the standards of justice oriented around individual rights and efficiency understood as maximizing productivity, we really have trouble of thinking of a better alternative.  Nobody wants to go back to hereditary aristocracy or some more informal “good old boy” privileging of the past, even if the meritocratic result is that men are getting more than a little scarce in our colleges and universities.  And, truth to tell, despite all the prattle about diversity coming from administrators, affirmative action seems increasingly out of place in a world increasingly dominated by the rigors of the global competitive marketplace.

Money-Making and Virtue 

What’s wrong with a meritocracy based on productivity is that its standards–cleverness and hard work in pursuit of money and power–aren’t really tied to social or relational virtue.  I deserve what I have, the thought is.  And so my productive or bourgeois virtue can be in the self-indulgent service of my bohemian lifestyle.  I reject the paternalism that suggests that I owe anything to others.   Well, maybe I owe a little money through taxes or charitable giving, but I certainly don’t owe any of my time.  Our cognitive elitists these days are attracted to “nudge” economics.  What we want to do is incentivize those less skilled in calculating probabilities to act more intelligently.  We want to keep them from smoking and drinking huge sodas, and generally acting in ways that make their lives unsafe and unproductive.  The subtext of nudging, of course, isn’t genuinely paternalistic or animated by concern for souls.  But it’s to motivate bodies in such a way as they don’t become burdensome or me or an unnecessary waste of my money and time.

The thought that I deserve what I have, of course, depends, as Bernanke goes on, in self-indulgent minimizing the rule of luck in one’s own success.  I’m lucky to have such an high I.Q., I’m lucky to have parents who raised me–and maybe especially educated me–to develop my natural potential, I’m lucky to live a high-tech time when it’s so easy for me to deploy my brainpower to generate power and wealth,  I’m lucky to be healthy (and to live in a country with the best medical care in the world for those who can afford it), I’m lucky to live in a country that secures peace and freedom through good government. 

The use of the word “luck” here is annoying and imprecise, and it comes from liberal philosophers such as John Rawls.  But Bernanke, unlike so many Princeton professors and students, is no Rawlsian.  He doesn’t say that it’s the job of government–in justice–to keep the lucky from benefiting what they don’t really deserve.  He never says it’s the job of government to spread the wealth around to the unlucky, and so allegedly equally deserving.  Rawls, of course, way overplays the luck card.  It’s easy to respond that my capabilities and my parents are my own, and property and family can’t be regarded as political resources to be deployed according to some envious and unrealistically abstract egalitarian theory.  And ascribing success to luck always has its limits, especially in a meritocracy based on productivity.  My success still depends on my work, on mixing my labor with–and so transforming–the resources at my disposal.

The Role of Luck

Bernanke, in fact, meant the word “luck” to be provisional.  He closes this fine paragraph with a quote from the New Testament about “being entrusted” with what you’ve been “given.”  All that you have, in fact, is a gift, a gift from a personal, loving Creator to be used as a “responsible” person.  It’s possible, in a way, to be grateful for luck.  But that’s not gratitude to any person in particular.  Your gratitude to your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your country are all incomplete; none of them is responsible for everything about who you are and what you’re able to do.  But, according to the Bible (both Testaments, as Bernanke wittily suggests), your being itself is a personal gift.  Everyone aware that he or she has been given that gift has the demanding moral task of assuming responsibility for its use on behalf of others.  God does, in fact, “grade on a curve.”  And that should be both good and troubling news to Princeton grads, who, up until now, have been graded so easily–or only for their cleverness.

It would be easy to criticize Bernanke for not having done better in making clear what it means to assume responsibility.  But who wants to quibble over the details of such a good start?  The aristocrats of old–the hereditary aristocrats (and Princeton grads once understood themselves to have the privileges that came with class)–knew that their “luck” or what they had been given was to be “classy.”  They were to assume not only techno-entrepreneurial but moral and political leadership over their communities and country.  Their virtue wasn’t mainly about the cleverness required to be productive.  So Princeton grades in the past may well have been productive, but they may also have been, on balance, better men.

So as Bernanke goes on to say in the next suggestion, what’s really wrong with our meritocracy is its impoverished conception of what is admirable, of what life is for.  And he points in the direction of what the Good Book says as a suggestion for the reinvigoration of moral education as an indispensable component of higher education.  Our “cognitive elite” has to become much more responsible before it can be a ruling class that deserves what it has been given. Perhaps Princeton professors need to spend a lot more attention on educating its students to be good parents, children, friends, citizens, and leaders.   Certainly Princeton grads need to be both more classy or morally exemplary and less condescending, attending to the loving virtue of charity and the honorable virtues of generosity and “courage in the face of adversity,” virtues, at this point, we’re more likely to find among those who have been given less than they have.


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