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Several years ago–I don’t really remember when–a short article ran in the National Review magazine that argued that an old-fashioned aristocracy by birth was much better than an aristocracy by merit, because the aristocrats of the first always felt as if they didn’t quite deserve what they had, while the aristocrats of the second always felt as if they’d earned their position and were objectively better than everybody else, and therefore had the right to run everybody else’s lives.

I probably should have taken more than a single sentence to outline that premise.


For those of you who don’t know–National Review is not just a conservative magazine, but the grand daddy of all American conservative magazines.  It was founded in the Fifties by William F. Buckley, Jr, as his first shot in his war to make Conservatism once again a considerable force in American politics. 

Obviously, he won.

The other thing about NR, though is that it is definitely in the “elitist” strain of conservatism.  It promoted higher standards for education, high culture over popular culture, decorum and following the rules over rioting in the streets against the war in Vietnam.

At any rate, when I first read this article I did a lot of eye rolling.  If there has been one thing about the changes in American culture over the past century that I have definitely always been in favor of, it has been the relentless movement from inherited status to status based on “merit.”

I’ve got the scare quotes over merit for two reasons. The first is that Thomas Sowell is right.  We do not have a system based on merit.  We have a system based on performance. 

It’s an important distinction that we ought to pay more attention to.  It’s the reason why I do not support “equal pay for ‘comparable’ work.”  Equal pay for equal work, yes, but the other thing assumes that there is some mysterious intrinsic quality that we can discern from the outside (“merit”) and then forcably apply to everybody and everything. 

Usually, of course, feminists who want the world to move to a “comparable worth” standard want to install those standards they think everybody else OUGHT to value–usually those standards they meet easily (women get far more college degrees than men, but significantly more often in “soft” fields than “hard” ones) but that are not rewarded highly in the real world.

In a world where “merit” decided who got rewarded and  how much, almost any fiction would make more money than those endless Twilight novels.  In a world where performance decides, more people are willing to spend $7.99 on a Twilight novel than are willing to spend it on something by Cynthia Ozick, and that takes care of that.

I’m not trying to be deliberately snarky here.  I’m just trying to point out that we don’t really have a firm idea of what we mean by “merit,” while we do have a very firm idea of what we mean by performance. 

One of the more interesting things about rereading Too Big To Fail, the nonfiction book about the 2008 financial crash I’ve touted here before, is the recognition of just how many of these guys started out in no better than the middle class.  One of the big guns at Treasury had a father who worked servicing jukeboxes.  At least two of the big names at Goldman Sachs grew up on farms in the midwest–and family farms, not agribusiness ones. 

Virtually all of these people got where they were going because they were able to deliver exceptional performance–to get the firm to a certain earnings level, to handle crises when they happened, to do what needed to be done to keep the clients happy and the firms healthy.

To the extent that there were objective measures of what constituted success–to the extent that there are such measures in the real world–I don’t think we have much of a problem calling what we’re doing a “meritocracy.”

Where the problem comes in is in those areas where the definition of “success” is largely arbitrary.

Eck.  Maybe that’s not the way I should put it.

Defining “success” as “getting a college degree” is certainly to give that definition an objective criteria by which it can be judged, but that criteria has very little to do with anything solid in the real world.

For one thing, there are all kinds of colleges and all kind of degrees, and they are not all equal.  For another, the college degree per se doesn’t connect to anything solid except in some very particular instances–and then it’s not the degree that matters, but the content of it.

Getting a medical degree certainly correlates to some very solid things, but that’s because what we want is not the degree, but the specific knowledge the degree symbolizes.

We have, however, erected a huge edifice of degrees whose entire purpose is to indicate that the holders of them are “smart.” 

I’m looking, now, not at the low end of the educational totem pole, but at the high one.  What graduation from an Ivy League/Seven Sisters/Little Three/Public Ivy/Top Twenty school does for its graduates is to stamp them as “smart,” with the unstated implication that the graduates of lesser places, or the people who have not graduated at all, are…stupid.

Or at least stupider.

And it is this, I think, this assumption that some people are being official labeled “smart” and others “not” that causes all the trouble, from all the quarters from which it comes.

On the part of the people who do not so qualify, there is natural resentment on a number of counts.  Not least of these is the implication that some people are simply born better than others. 

“Smart” is not the same thing as having done well at school.  Having done well at school is a matter of performance, and even people not born into the very top percentale of the IQ chart can do better than those who were, by working harder. 

“Smart” is something you’re born with, or not.  And to brand some people officially “smart” is to return to the idea of a natural aristocracy.

What’s more, if you look at the behavior of the people who DO qualify by this criteria–okay, by a minority of them, but a significant minority–what you see is the kind of thing that is most clearly explained by a sense of their own natural aristocracy.

They do not only think that their fellow citizens are wrong in what they think or want or do, they think their fellow citizens are incapable of being right if left to their own devices.

Their fellow citizens are not “smart.”  They know that because their fellow  citizens did not go to a Top Twenty school.   People who are not smart cannot think well.  Therefore, it’s not only justifiable, but imperative, that smart people think for them.

We need, I think, to begin to insist on the distinction–this is not a meritocracy, but a performance-ocracy.

Okay, that was a terrible word coinage.  Egregious.

But I think we need to divest the entire country of the idea that we are operating on something called a “meritocracy,” where some people possess inborn, inherent superiority over everybody else, and being rewarded for it by both money and power.

Performance is a much better standard, for more reasons than I can count.

It is inherently democratic, where the “merit” idea is not.

It is much more in tune with the reality of the world.  In the real world, beauty is as beauty does–and so is smart.

And it will be less likely to give people the idea that they’ve got a right to tell the rest of us what to do.

It’s actually cold here.

And I’ve got work to do.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Smart'

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  1. Jane wrote:
    “Their fellow citizens are not “smart.” They know that because their fellow citizens did not go to a Top Twenty school.”

    Let’s talk about the intrinsic contradictions in that concept. The Top Twenty are on top for…quality of education? Well, maybe. But I suspect a dedicated student at a second tier school could get a equal or better education as such with some effort.

    So the Top part is based mostly on exclusivity. Limited resources and limited admission. Do the people who find that Top Twenty designation a reason for feeling superior realize that if everyone had access to the same quality of education, or the same institutions, they wouldn’t be special anymore? They’d be average too.

    Fortune plays a huge role in who is admitted to such institutions. They all have an enormous surplus of applicants, and those rejected are generally as good/smart/quality as the winners of the admission lottery.

    For a lot of the “feeling superior” result, I blame the schools themselves. They sell that feeling as part of the benefits for attending their institution. After all, if you could get an education that was functionally equal at Podunk U for $20,000 less per year, what would be the point of attending Big U?

    I have to say I am heartily sick of people thinking they know better than everyone else and angling to gain the power to enforce their opinions as law. Common wisdom generally isn’t, either common or wisdom. :/


    17 Jun 11 at 12:32 pm

  2. ‘In a world where “merit” decided who got rewarded and how much, almost any fiction would make more money than those endless Twilight novels.’

    I’m sorry, it’s been a long, frustrating week, and I am NOT doing “objective literary merit” again. But the whole push for it it in cases like this comes from people who think they, or someone like them, will get to decide “merit.” If I got to decide artistic merit and suitable financial compensation, a number of Booker, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners would be panhandling on street corners–and they’d have competition from some famous directors and prestigious artists.

    As for the rest, the “first tier” schools have been preaching this for a long time. There is nothing in the attitude you describe alien to Thomas Arnold or Woodrow Wilson. The problem comes when the graduates and professors gain the political power to turn their folk beliefs and superstitions into law.

    “…were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine…”
    There’s a reason a certain type of liberal hates that book like poison. Because if people have rights in that sense, they can’t be treated like children, and worse yet they can ignore the Great, Wise and Good.

    Beat up a certain species of graduate student or professor and throw him into prison, and you’ll probably get away with it. Give him a stipend and a title and he’ll lick your boots. Ignore him, and he’ll never forget or forgive.

    People like that should never hold political power. Right now, they’re pretty much our entire political class.


    17 Jun 11 at 5:37 pm

  3. Robert,

    I agree with the sentiment “were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine” but don’t recognize the source.

    I would suggest that there is no way to teach wisdom. The advantage of performance is that you can give people jobs and permote on how well they do. And hope they gain wisdom with experience.


    18 Jun 11 at 1:16 am

  4. THE TWO TOWERS–Theoden telling off Saruman.

    Note that in the book and NOT the movie, Saruman and the Mouth of Sauron sound exactly like the present ruling class, mealy-mouthed and chock-full of euphemism. The honest people–even honest villains–don’t speak that way in Tolkien.

    They don’t in real life, either.


    18 Jun 11 at 6:33 am

  5. “The Lord of the Rings” is one of my favorite books. I must have reread The Two towers about 5 times and I still don’t recall the passage.

    Speaking of books, I’m reading “Too Big to Fail” on my Kindle. Its reminding me of why I went into science and not business. I have no trouble remembering equations but I’m completely lost with Smith was CEO of bank A, Jones was CEO of Bank B, Brown was CEO of Bank C, and Jones and Brown once worked for Smith at Bank D. People confuse me!


    18 Jun 11 at 2:51 pm

  6. TWO TOWERS Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman.” Saruman, having failed at sedition and conquest, tries his hand at diplomacy, offering “peace” in the very voice of the State Department. (Note in particular Saruman’s use of the passive voice. “Injuries have been done to me.” “Men have fallen in battle.” But Isengard and Rohan will go forward together in the future.)

    Theoden is pure Churchill: “We will have peace when you and all your works have perished…You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts…Even if your war on me was just–as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine…what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there?…When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows I will have peace with you and Orthanc.”

    Theoden is described as being harsh as an old raven next to the music of Saruman’s voice. I read Book Three of LOTR over and over.


    18 Jun 11 at 3:58 pm

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