A New York Times columnist started a big argument on meritocracy. Here’s a better way to debate the issue.

Dec 22 '18
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, right, watches Microsoft founder Bill Gates use an oversize paddle as they play doubles against table tennis prodigy Ariel Hsing in Omaha on May 6, 2012. (Nati Harnik/AP)

This week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took up a long-standing argument against meritocracy, blaming it for the rise of right-wing populism. He was reviving 20th-century sociologist Michael Young’s argument against a government populated by a select elite defined by their cognitive excellence and personal achievement. Any such class, Young argues, is bound to be arrogant and contemptuous of those below them. It will devise policy that at best ignores the interests of the masses and at worst actively undermines them.

Reaction to Douthat has been swift and predictable. In the comment section, several left-wing posts claim that Douthat misdiagnosed contemporary populism as a reaction to merit rather than the inequality of wealth. In this view, we suffer not from meritocracy but from oligarchy.

There’s another main argument as well. In a tweet, Steven Pinker asked whether, if Douthat opposes meritocracy, he would “fire his competent research assistant & hire a dull-witted one?” A different version of this argument might ask whether, when we need surgery, we will seek the most skilled surgeon to perform the operation.

But if Douthat went further back in history, he could convincingly respond to both the concerns of plutocracy and the Pinker defense of meritocracy.

Why Rousseau feared a meritocratic elite

Young wasn’t the first to worry about handing political power to a cognitive elite. So did 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who burst on the Parisian intellectual scene by declaring in his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” that the arts and sciences corrupt morals and society.

Rousseau’s reception in the 1750s was no gentler than Douthat’s on Tuesday. He was decried as a hypocrite and a barbarian who wished to burn down the libraries. As Rousseau slowly worked through these criticisms, he arrived at a few important realizations.

First, in response to the argument represented by Pinker, he concluded that the problem with what we now term “meritocracy” is not talent or the public use of talent. Rather, it is how society values talented people. Through his concept of amour-propre, which literally means self-love but is often translated as vanity, Rousseau argues that talent is problematic as the core of a person’s identity.

In other words, when talent is the measure of an excellent human, there is a good chance those who possess the most talent will become morally corrupt. People who define themselves as innately superior to others inevitably become arrogant and cruel. More so than the nobles, who owe their superiority to arbitrary bloodlines, talented people are convinced that they’re special — and hence more likely to dominate those residing below them in the hierarchy of social esteem.

Second, in response to the oligarchic critique, Rousseau realized that in a commercial economy that rewards people financially according to their productivity, it is difficult to disentangle talent and wealth. Talents boost productivity and make someone a more effective economic actor. Although there are notable exceptions, it is generally true that the most cognitively demanding professions are also among the most highly compensated. In our climate, many talented people not only feel entitled to amass as much wealth as possible, but also try to pay as little in taxes as well. Rather than support government services, such as education, they privately fund alternative systems that work for them but not the masses.

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To prevent this, Rousseau hoped to nip the Enlightenment tendency to overvalue talent in the bud by reviving the rural provinces’ cornerstones of identity: patriotism, religion and virtue. He laments in his “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts” that “people no longer ask about a man whether he has probity, but whether he has talents.” By shifting public identity’s emphasis from talent to patriotism and virtue, he hoped ordinary people would neither resent the talented nor feel ashamed if they lacked distinctive talent; their abilities or lack thereof would just be trivial facts, akin to blond hair or bushy eyebrows. This way, Rousseau believed, society could find a healthy place for the cognitively gifted that would not corrupt their personalities by encouraging them to look for public praise.

Like Pinker, Rousseau argues that it is better to be governed by brilliance than by idiocy. But he wanted the great artists and scientists to use their talents in government service, creating good public policy. That way, he felt, they could offer social value without drawing undue attention to themselves or reminding others of their mediocrity.

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Rousseau’s solution is unrealistic. He offers no serious proposals about to how to reverse the twinned 18th-century cultural trends: the rise of commerce and meritocracy. Why would intellectuals want to hide themselves away in government and work on public policy rather than become obscenely wealthy and celebrated as cultural icons akin to Homeric heroes? As Friedrich Nietzsche and many other 19th-century philosophers observed, religion and virtue could not stand up against the tide of science and economic self-interest.

Further, Rousseau’s faith in patriotism might be too optimistic. As we have seen over the past 150 years, patriotism can be corrupted into a nasty nationalism.

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Still, we can learn from Rousseau’s failure. More than either Douthat or Pinker, he saw why meritocracy can be so corrupting. He grasped that there is a world of difference between doing engineering work and being an engineer. He saw that the key issue is how to make good use of humanity’s various talents without creating a ruling class of the clever and the corrupt. Even if he does not offer a plausible road map, he clarifies that the solution will be found in defining public identities based on something other than talent.

Michael Locke McLendon is professor and chair of the department of political science at California State University at Los Angeles and author of “The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau’s ‘Amour-Propre ” (University of Pennsylvania Press, December 2018).