post by Bill Gardner
I have just finished Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. It's great. The only possible disappointment is the title: Be aware that it is not a paranormal romance about aristocrat vampires. Here is a summary of the argument, from an excellent review by Aaron Swartz at Crooked Timber:
Hayes pins the blame on an unlikely suspect: meritocracy. We thought we would just simply pick out the best and raise them to the top, but once they got there they inevitably used their privilege to entrench themselves and their kids (inequality is, Hayes says, “autocatalytic”). Opening up the elite to more efficient competition didn’t make things more fair, it just legitimated a more intense scramble. The result was an arms race among the elite, pushing all of them to embrace the most unscrupulous forms of cheating and fraud to secure their coveted positions... This creates a unitary elite, detached from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you can never clearly best them.
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.
Whether elites were somehow better before meritocracy doesn't matter: This book gets at what is wrong with the elites that we have now.
So what do we do about it? Hayes argues for increased equality of outcomes, for example through redistributive taxation. I'm for it.
It is important, however, to make sure that Hayes's proposed reformation is read in the way that I think he intends it. He writes that
The first step is persuading the public -- including the elites themselves -- that the ideology of meritocratic achievement stands in the way of social progress. The first commandment of the post-1970s meritocracy can be summed up as follows:
"Thou shall proclaim equality of opportunity to all, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation but worry not about equality of outcomes."
- Continue to fight for equality of opportunity.
- Resume fighting for greater equality of outcomes. There was nothing about the meritocratic ideal that required us to ignore gross inequality of outcomes.
Point 1 is perhaps under-emphasized by Hayes, but it remains extraordinarily important, for the following reasons:
- The US has nothing like a "level playing field." Inequality is baked in at birth, and not just because the poor may somehow have worse genes. Making professional schools open to both genders and all races is just the beginning.
- As Hayes notes, inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcomes are causally interdependent, and you cannot make things equal for children without making things more equal for their parents.
- Part of making outcomes more equal is achieving greater equality in the human capital held by Americans. Tax redistribution alone would be inefficient and politically unacceptable.
Hayes praises the Brazilian Bolsa Familia program, but frames it as an example of successful redistributive taxation. It is that, but the more important thing was that it directed the redistributed resources to the improvement of the health and education of poor young children.