‘Bye, Meritocracy! O’Connor’s Opinion

The meritocracy has been around for nearly 60 years now, but the moral claims that were made for it at the beginning have all but vanished. That is the news contained in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action in the Michigan Law School case: The meritocracy’s days may actually be numbered.

For the first time in the history of the meritocracy, the government has embraced an alternative value, and a superior value, to the measurement of IQ (which is what SAT’s do) as the basis for judging young people. Diversity in leadership is so important, the court said, that it is worth discriminating against the brainy in order to achieve it.

The last time the court upheld affirmative-action policies, 25 years ago in the Bakke case, affirmative action was offered as a kind of narrow exception to general standards, a way of making up for past discrimination against blacks. This time, Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion dispensed with civil-rights talk. Her language had a more general, positive and populist lilt.

“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” she wrote. “All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions” that create those pathways.

While it is true that Justice O’Connor made a point of refusing to abandon standardized tests and grade-point averages, she upheld the idea of a “holistic” assessment of an individual’s talents, an assessment in which “many other diversity factors besides race” are taken into account.

That’s where this opinion is so refreshing. It throws opens the back door on the meritocracy and suggests that a lot of other values that the intelligent have diminished-from religious study, to experience as a laborer, to athleticism, to a rural background-may one day have a place in assigning room in the hatchery.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote sharply on Slate that the Supreme Court would make schools into petting zoos. That’s funny, but it’s a rather empty argument, suggesting that intellectual elitists really have little to justify their own supremacy beyond the undisputed fact that they are an elite.

There was a time when that elite could make a substantive claim to position. As Nicholas Lemann showed in his startling history of the meritocracy, The Big Test (1999), the SAT gained its place as a gateway to status through the efforts of high-minded men who believed that science had at last enabled the nation to choose a natural aristocracy of the public-spirited. Instead of the wealthy and patrician, the country would now be able to select a natural aristocracy of leaders who were “deserving, selfless, valuable, and dedicated to the public good.”

The system was adopted with virtually no public debate, Mr. Lemann writes, pushed by a private company, the Educational Testing Service, that had a strong commercial interest in the enterprise, and by schools that jumped at the opportunity to make themselves more important.

Today, the old ideal of this elite as deserving, selfless, valuable and dedicated to the public good is simply laughable. The intelligent are just as greedy as anyone else. A group of medical colleges that filed a brief with the Supreme Court pointed out that minority doctors were more likely than whites to serve in underprivileged communities.

About the only claim that the elite can stake for themselves is that they are valuable. But you don’t have to go to divinity school to wonder whether valuable means deserving.

“Would you design the American meritocracy as it now exists?” Mr. Lemann asks. “You would only if you believed that IQ test scores and, more broadly, academic performance are the same thing as merit …. Merit is various, not unidimensional.” IQ tests don’t select for originality, toughness, humor, empathy or wisdom.

Right-as the New Agey O’Connor says, they’re not holistic, they’re not open.

Then there’s the culture of the meritocracy. The sharpest attack on the world the meritocrats have made was published last year by Toby Young in his media memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People . The son of Michael Young, who invented the term “meritocracy” in his 1958 best-seller The Rise of the Meritocracy , Toby Young came over from England to New York in the 90′s and got a job at Vanity Fair .

He came to see the meritocrats as a “self-perpetuating upper middle class” ruling class that had invested its rise with an air of social justice, thereby legitimizing “abhorrent levels of inequality” and toxic snobbery.

“The casual, unthinking cruelty with which successful New Yorkers treat cab drivers and waiters, not to mention their personal assistants, was something I witnessed every day,” Mr. Young wrote.

Lacking adult SAT’s, meritocrats have to find other ways of sorting one another out. The methods are often less than inspired. The only personal assistants Mr. Young saw promoted during three years at Vanity Fair were Patricia Herrera and Evgenia Peretz, the daughters of Carolina Herrera, the designer, and Marty Peretz, the publisher.

I made a related point in this space a couple of years back: that in the upper reaches of achievement culture, the real division is between fuck-ups and suck-ups. Hypocrisies of this sort made Mr. Young nostalgic for English caste, where there is no claim to fairness, but whose members are more content and self-effacing. Of course, Americans would never accept such a system, and shouldn’t. We sanctify opportunity, and the meritocracy has spread opportunity across two generations, though the winners now seem determined to pass on their victories to their children.

This is probably the most dispiriting thing about the meritocratic leadership: Its membership has become so predictable. They live in a few coastal cultural capitals, in a stuffy echo chamber of privilege.

Meritocrats make fun of George W. Bush because he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. But are the meritocrats really any better? Only a handful of people, they say, even deserve to be on the field.

At least the old elite had an ethos of noblesse oblige, an acknowledgment of the fact that the system was unfair. The meritocrats’ ethos is to worship success and disdain failure, and meantime the gap between the rich and the poor gets wider and wider.

Anyone who lives outside the “trifecta” of Washington, New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Young observes, is thought to belong to some inferior species. The conservative David Brooks made the same point on television, in attacking the O’Connor decision. Put aside blacks and whites for a moment, he said, and look at the divide between the reds and blues of the last election. What about that diversity? he said.

Well, exactly, The red-blue map shows one fault line in the meritocracy with geographical precision-blue winners concentrated around sophisticated cities, red losers in provincial areas. But I believe Mr. Brooks too can find comfort in the Arizonan Supreme Court justice’s call for openness. Reds might now argue for having their own “critical mass” in the pathways to leadership. How many students at Harvard Law School believe in the Second Amendment?

The road map away from the meritocracy is likely to be supplied by lower-status groups.

The biggest influence on the court’s decision seems to have been a brief filed by military officers arguing that diversity was a matter of national security. Back in the 1960′s, when the officer corps was all white, there was rebellion, riot and murder among the troops, the brief said, and the officer corps didn’t understand why at first. Don’t reverse that trend, the retired officers told the court.

Even Antonin Scalia seemed to abandon his usual sarcasm on this point. During the oral arguments in the case, he agreed that there should be a “reasonable number” of black officers. What is reasonable? What is critical mass? Justice O’Connor and four other judges then gave these ideas a moral underpinning.

There are other democratic examples beside the military. As I write this article, in a guest house in the South Pacific, a new group of Peace Corps volunteers has arrived to begin two years of service. Over 40 years, the Peace Corps has learned to pick good volunteers, and I can see the winning qualities in these young people. They’re humble, energetic, open and unpretentious. Some seem able to live in the moment, and almost all of them are smart, too. How did the meritocracy get it so wrong?