Small problem with Joseph Epstein’s complaint about meritocracy: where is it?

Every once in a while, a white male who has made his living as a “responsible conservative” or a conservative parading as a centrist produces an article bemoaning the fact that we are now ruled by a meritocracy. Through the years, George Will, Irving Kristol and William Buckley Jr. can count themselves among the many so-called public intellectuals who have bemoaned the coming of the meritocracy.

The latest is Joseph Epstein, a long-time conflater of civic virtues with the rights of the privileged, in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Late, Great American WASP.” Like most of predecessors, Epstein contrasts the current meritocracy with the former system in which the most powerful people were likely to be male, Protestant, of British descent, from wealthy and well-established families with many connections to business opportunities and attended an Ivy League school. Epstein defines WASP as the ruling class that dominated politics, economics (by which I think he means business) and education until it was gradually replaced by a meritocracy starting after World War II. By putting a right-wing slant on carefully-selected anecdotes, Epstein hopes to prove that when WASPs ruled we muddled through pretty well and that now that we have a meritocracy, as witnessed by the Clinton and Obama presidencies, we are pretty much going to hell in a hand basket.

The problem is that we do not have a real meritocracy, and certainly not in politics, business or education. Epstein can’t make his argument without this assumption, which is patently false.

In the days of WASP ascendancy, the most powerful people in most fields did go to an Ivy League or Ivy-type schools, and that’s still the case. If you don’t believe me, pick any field outside sports, even entertainment, and start investigating the backgrounds of the most powerful people in it. In all cases you’ll find an inordinate percentage and often a majority came from wealthy families or went to a top echelon school, be it Harvard, Yale, Duke or Stanford.

In the old days, mostly rich and well-connected kids—kids from the ruling elite—got to go to these handful of schools, and that’s still the case. As many researchers have noted, legacies get bigger breaks in admissions decisions at Ivy League schools than do athletes and minorities. That’s what got our second president Bush into Yale (and his opponent in the 2000 election, Al Gore, too), a fact that Epstein ignores in substantiating his side argument that Bush II turned himself into a non-WASP.

There is a very good reason that so many kids who get into the top schools are wealthy: they have all the advantages. The latest research shows that kids from the poorest of backgrounds lose from 10-13 IQ points because they have to dedicate too much of their brains to thinking about their next meal. That point spread spans the difference between being a smart kid and a genius. The wealthy have an edge over the middle classes because they can afford to spend more in the ever-escalating race to prepare children: The more money the family makes, the more likely the child will get special classes, travel abroad, summer camps with intellectual enrichment, SAT tutors, SAT prep courses, educational consultants, subject tutors. The wealthy parents are more likely to make large contributions to the university.

Take a look at the statistics: the U.S. currently has less mobility between the classes and less upward mobility than at any time in more than a century. The social mobility in today’s United States is lower than that of any other westernized industrial or post-industrial nation. Poor people move up to the middle or upper classes less frequently here than in any of the nations that had royalty and a rigid class system for centuries.

Parts of our American society do operate as a meritocracy. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all prove that the brightest and most talented do achieve positions of power. Harvard, Yale and Stanford do accept the “best and the brightest” alongside the merely good who come from money. But that was always the case when the WASP’s ruled as well. Even in the days of European royalty, even in the bad old slave days of ancient Rome, if you had a near photographic memory, could compute large sums instantaneously or displayed perfect musical pitch, the rich folk were going to find you and make sure you could help them run their society. That hasn’t changed one bit. But despite what you may have heard from your parents or may think about your own children, those extremely talented people are so rare as to be statistically irrelevant when discussing whether or not we have a meritocracy.

What has changed is that it’s not just the white males anymore in the positions of power. An increasingly ethnically and racially diverse ruling elite has emerged, but it is an elite based more on money and connections than on true merit.

Epstein’s argument fails both in its logic and in its details. He calls Laura Bush a “middle class librarian.” It’s true that Laura’s profession was/is librarian, but I would not call her background middle class by any means: Her father was a home builder and successful real estate developer, two professions that lead to both wealth and power in the local economy. In his latest book, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, William Domhoff documents the enormous political influence that real estate interests have had on local and regional politics. By the way, Laura’s maiden name was Welch and her mom’s was Hawkins. She was raised as Methodist. Sounds like an upper class (for Midlands, Texas society) WASP to me.

Later in the article, Epstein claims that the two strongest presidents since 1950 are Truman, who never attended college, and Reagan, who went to the antithesis of Ivy—a small Christian college. Epstein states Truman and Reagan’s greatness matter-of-factly as if it’s common knowledge and readily accepted by most people. In the case of Reagan, believing that he was a great or a detestably awful president is a litmus test for political views: right-wingers and right-wingers-in-centrist-clothing rate him highly; progressives rate him as one of our worst presidents. Now most people do rate Truman highly, but I personally consider him the worst president in American history by virtue of his having approved dropping two atom bombs on civilian targets. The larger point is that Epstein pretends that his own opinion is evidence that the meritocracy doesn’t work as well as the old WASPocracy did.

Articulate and well-bred conservatives railing against the so-called meritocracy reflect the broader anti-intellectualism that the ruling elite imposes on American society via the mass media. But whereas the reason for the anti-intellectual message in movies and ads remains hidden, it stands out crystal clear in arguments such as Epstein’s: It’s about power. In a true meritocracy, the most talented are in charge in whatever the field, not the rich and connected. In even the least complex of agrarian societies, talent manifests itself as knowledge and the ability to accumulate and use knowledge. Conservatives represent traditional society in which the wealthy rule. They fear a society in which the most capable for each job gets that job as opposed to keeping themselves and their offspring in the best and best-paying positions. So when the wealthy aren’t busy buying up the best and the brightest to do their bidding and justify their hold on power, they try to disparage intellectual activity.

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