misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Merits, representatives, and access

Probably dozens of you noticed Charles Murray‘s recent Washington Post essay days before I did. I came across it yesterday, looking over my husband’s shoulder as he chuckled at one of the (no doubt legion) bemused/snarky response weblog posts, one that block-quotes the several paragraphs listing examples of cultural touchstones that “members of the New Elite” are not familiar with (starting 3/4 of the way through Murray’s essay) and turns them into a “quiz” that readers can use to “rate” their own eliteness. So far, I have only read that response and Murray’s own essay; I will probably try to read up a bit on other responses once I have my own thoughts in a bit of order.

If I were Murray, I would be seriously upset—livid, to be specific—with myself and my editor for dropping those paragraphs into the essay, where they all but beg to be seized upon by hundreds of clever Netizen writers, dressed up (and talked up) as if they were the whole point, and swiftly shredded, item by item.

Because, you see (or, at least, as I see it), the examples paraded rather colorfully about are quite tangential to the fairly subtle, multi-faceted, and very much discussion-worthy issue Murray states: How does/can/should a governmental system strive for balanced representation, given that achieving balance along any one continuum means foregoing all consideration of one or more other salient measures?

Americans generally have liked to think of our culture as individualistic, and of our individuals as less bound by their personal, family, and local history than in earlier Western cultures (let alone non-Western). Nonetheless, for centuries the American elite was, as in Britain, France, Germany &c., by and large defined by blood and money, and the powerful were drawn almost entirely from the elite, although with ambition and ability one could push impressively far. Some of that has changed. But is an elite defined primarily by ambition and ability more diverse than its predecessors? In terms of the modes of thinking it naturally employs, the constituencies it can identify (with) and represent, and its abilities for intellectual cross-fertilization, perhaps not.

What type of segregation is imposed rather than alleviated by meritocracy? If admission to Harvard were merely a matter one’s parents’ connections, with one’s own accomplishments, hopes and plans incidental, one might very well encounter among one’s classmates more diversity of hopes and plans. (Of course, it does not follow from this that one necessarily would appreciate or even notice that available diversity.)

But to break the hold of a meritocratic elite, what could a culture or government do? Lottery admission to top schools, on the primary, secondary, or post-secondary level, wouldn’t do it, because even once in, a young person would have to succeed on his or her own merits. One neat idea got some new publicity in a Time opinion piece from Joe Klein earlier this fall: choose representatives quasi-randomly, but push them to inform themselves on the issues before them by reading and interacting with expert opinions. Turns out that, given power, the “average” person often will embrace responsibility.