Hayes recapitulates Lasch

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, a new book by Chris Hayes, calls for massive reform and wealth redistribution to balance the scales in American politics. The sad thing is that the book appears to retell many of the arguments Christopher Lasch made in Revolt of the Elites, published in 1995.

At the start of the twentieth century the big political fear were the ‘masses.’ Jose Ortega y Gasset and Walter Lippman told us that the masses were too entitled or too stupid to be trusted with power; that they were losing faith in the democratic ideals of the Western world and turning toward the radical politics of communism. Only the elites could save us by protecting the noblest ideals of the West or managing mass communications.

Today the pattern has reversed and the elites have become the rulers of the world whlie rejecting the noble ideals of the past. The result in just another form of aristocracy, where success only depends upon merit and no other values restrain it.

An aristocracy of talent – superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege – turns out to be a contradiction in terms: The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues.

Hayes identifies two principles for meritocracy: a principle of difference and a principle of mobility. First we acknowledge that people have many different abilities which should match their tasks. Second, the delegation of tasks should not be fixed in place permanently; there must be the possibility of change and promotion. But this contradicts “The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.”

Aaron Swartz summarizes the ways that contemporary elites reinforce their power by using success in one area of life to build success in another, thus Bill O’Reilly starts as a television host, becomes a political commentator, and then writes a best-selling book.

The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it impossible for them to do their jobs justly—they just don’t get the necessary feedback. The only cure is to reduce economic inequality, a view that has surprisingly support among the population (clear majorities want to close the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, which is more than can be said for any other plan).

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.