We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I would argue that this self-evident truth is actually only half true. Certainly, all men are entitled to equal human dignity and equal standing before the law, but it is also self-evidently untrue that all men are created equal in ability.
Two of the major features of modern American conservatism are an affinity for meritocracy and an antipathy toward the elite. Throughout most of human history these have been complementary attitudes, as elite status has been due more to hereditary privilege than to personal achievement or ability. American conservatism has a long history of positioning itself as the champion of the self-made man, and of wealth based on industriousness and productivity. This ideal is often contrasted against indolent manor-born elite whose social and economic status and right to rule are due not to ability or industry, but to the accident of birth. But what if this dichotomy ceased to hold true? How should conservatives feel about an entrenched elite which achieves its status based on merit?
Much is been made about Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart. Attention has tended to center on Murray’s identification of a new entrenched elite, increasingly hereditary, insular, and disconnected with the mainstream of American society. The fact of this increase in social stratification is important and certainly deserves the attention it has received. At the same time, an equally important issue raised by Murray’s work has been comparatively neglected: the fact that the rise of the new elite is the result of unprecedented levels of meritocracy in American society.
Very briefly, Murray’s explanation of the rise of elites rise is as follows:
In modern developed economies the economic value of human capital has risen to levels unprecedented in human civilization. Intelligence and education are the two greatest contributing factors to the development of human capital. Ever-increasing numbers of Americans are attending institutions of higher education and the American university system is highly effective in sorting for intelligence. Unlike a century ago, when social standing and/or affluence were the major predictive factors of admission to an elite university, admission to elite American educational institutions for the past two generations has been overwhelmingly a factor of intelligence and ability.
Intelligence is largely a factor of heredity. The child of two parents of above average intelligence is almost certain to be of above average intelligence himself, while the child of two imbeciles is overwhelmingly likely to continue the family tradition of imbecility. Throughout most of human history it was quite common for people of high intelligence to procreate with people of low intelligence, as people tend to pick their mate from among those with whom they interact and society was generally not segregated according to intelligence. The combined effect of mass participation in higher education and our system of higher education’s effectiveness at sorting for intelligence has profoundly altered the patterns of human interaction. Today, much more so than any time in the past, highly intelligent people of both sexes are attending elite universities and dominating the professions (finance, medicine, law, and academia) which both constitute the new elite and place a high value on intellectual ability. These people tend to find their mates among their highly intelligent new elite peers. Their offspring are overwhelmingly of high intelligence and, consequently, likely to join the ranks of the new elite themselves.
Thus, over the past several decades the American elite has become increasingly an elite not just in terms of social and economic standing but of intelligence and ability. This is not to say that there are no longer affluent dunces and impoverished geniuses (there certainly are), but it is an indisputable fact that economic status is unprecedentedly correlated with intellectual ability in postwar America. Nor is it to say that elite status is significantly less a factor of heredity than it has been in previous eras, but it is increasingly as much (if not more) a factor of inherited intellect as of inherited wealth.
So what is a conservative who has both an affinity for meritocracy and an antipathy toward elitism to make the new elite? It is common to hear conservatives extol the virtues of merit and ability and at the same time decry the fact that our society is governed by an Ivy League educated, insular elite, Rarely is it acknowledged that that elite obtained its status in large part due to its own merit.
It’s true that intelligence is not necessarily indicative of wisdom (Barack Obama is a good illustration of someone possessing the former trait, but not the latter), but increasingly it seems that a significant segment of the conservative base considers a degree from an elite university to be more a mark of Cain than a feather in one’s cap. I’m a huge fan of Scott Walker and I hope he runs for president, but that the fact that he’s a college dropout is considered by many conservatives to be one of his positive attributes seems to me to be a bit misguided.
I’d like to be clear that I’m not writing in defense of elitist snobbery. I’m not. I think the most pernicious aspect of the rise of the new meritocratic elite is that it has adopted the insularity and disdain for the common man which characterized aristocracies of the past. That said, I think the current strain of anti-elitism popular among the conservative base has gone a bit too far. Skepticism toward elite claims to a monopoly of knowledge or of entitlement to rule is a vital to the health of a republic, but that does not mean that we should make a virtue of mediocrity. I recently had a conversation with a conservative activist who was highly critical of Ted Cruz (yes Ted Cruz) on the grounds that he is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and was thus a member of the oppressive elite. In support of his claim that an Ivy League education should be a disqualification for a conservative leader he cited the famous line about preferring to be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston than by the faculty of Harvard. He declined to attribute the quote to its origin: William F. Buckley, Jr. (St. John’s, Beaumont; the Millbrook School; Yale, Class of 1950, and a member of Skull and Bones).
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