We are supposedly living in an age of merit, where the best rise to the top through a selective process that rewards valuable traits. This so-called meritocracy is often used to explain away our growing economic inequality. Those who make it, you see, just have the right stuff. This idea of merit was largely invented and is fostered by elite institutions, which pride themselves on selecting for what they call merit. Perhaps it’s a relic of Calvinist predestination, in which a member of the “elect” is destined to be graced by God.
While it’s true that having talent, determination and grit still matters a great deal, we ought to take a closer look at the meritocratic process and what traits it professes to value. Additionally, the traits it fosters and its results are important indicators of what these people and institutions call “merit.”
So, what do we find? A notion of merit that has no room for the traditional virtues yet encourages what used to be known as sin. We find a glorification of pride, greed, lust and gluttony, among others.
Using the seven deadly sins as a standard, let’s examine our “meritocracy” and how it measures up:
Promiscuity, licentiousness and all manner of sexual practices are cherished and valued in our elite institutions of higher learning. Not only are they protected, but often celebrated by students and schools alike. Extramarital sex is seen as a “right,” while traditional marriage is frowned upon and ridiculed.
Gluttony is not strictly about overeating; it also applies to those who do not eat simply, who seek out strange foods, and who have elaborate rituals around eating. The urban trends of shopping at Whole Foods, eating out at chic restaurants frequently, and seeking out trendy foods fits right into the category of gluttony. Obsessive preoccupation with health food is another example, as is binging and purging. Eating disorders are, for the most part, examples of gluttony, and are common among the people of merit.
This one goes without saying. An important reason people strive to become members of the meritocratic elite is to make more money. They dream of fancy homes in upscale neighborhoods, isolated from the great unwashed. They want to take trips to Paris and Rome, own the newest, trendiest gadgets and wear the finest clothes.
Most people who make it into meritocratic institutions are not layabouts, but they do often fail to put any significant work into developing their spiritual/humanitarian side. Instead of striving to become better people, they focus on networking with the powerful, and thereby betray a general lack of sincerity in their contrived humanitarianism. An example of this is the filler “humanitarian” work they do only to pad out their applications and resumés rather than for any real concern for people in need. On the academic side, they have begun to cheat with alarming frequency, which demonstrates a form of laziness.
The rage many of our elites feel toward the common American people is all too obvious. Their searing contempt for what they call “ignorant” people, particularly the more humble, religious sort, can manifest itself in almost demonic denunciations and displays of ethnic and religious hatred. This is especially true of feminists, who have an inordinate fondness for hate porn, particularly when directed against those they perceive as part of the “patriarchy.”
Envy is often what is behind the desire to join the meritocracy in the first place. For many students and finished elites alike, the institutions themselves provide the tools and opportunities to seize that which they covet, and to profit from the losses of others.
Pride is the foremost of sins, and it is also the defining characteristic of the new elite. They take enormous pride in being elevated above their fellow countrymen, and wallow in this pride to no end. The American meritocracy is, above all, a collection of the very proud, secure in their superiority.
Of course, we can point out sin in all sorts of groups of people, but my little exercise here was intended to get people to think about what it means when we throw terms like “merit” around. There’s no doubt that people who make it to the top usually possess admirable qualities and talents, but when these are put to use in rotten ways, what they call merit is actually meretricious.
I could find it in myself to excuse some of the excesses of the elite if they compensated for them with good works, but because they have rejected what most of us see as virtuous, it’s difficult to find much redeeming about them at this point.