Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Meritocracy And Its Discontents

A Distant Elite

How Meritocracy Went Wrong

Wilfred M. McClay

Illustration by Katie Edwards; Ikon Images/Getty Images.

It is the ever-swelling tide of institutional merit that has lifted all boats and deposited them on the shores of what has come to be called “meritocracy.”

From the very beginnings of American history, the concept of merit has enjoyed a certain pride of place. It found a welcoming home in a new republican nation that, from its inception, had sought to proscribe the titles of nobility and other hereditary distinctions of social and political rank, as well as practices such as primogeniture and entail that had long been characteristic of European aristocratic society. But even the most equality-affirming republic would need to generate a pool of talented and effective leaders, a leadership class recruited and empowered for public service. How to find appropriate means by which the members of such a class could be identified, trained, and elevated to that station? Who should lead, and how should the leaders be chosen?

In a republican America, these questions could no longer be answered by reliance upon bloodlines or skillful machinations. The answers would have to be grounded in the concept of merit. Those with demonstrable experience, those seen to possess the skills, knowledge, character, wisdom, and civic virtue requisite for membership in a “natural aristocracy,” would therefore be those most deserving of high standing and high responsibilities. But how were those individuals to be found and nurtured? If they were no longer thought to be available to be plucked from certain family trees, were they instead to be found randomly distributed among the members of a given society, like the souls of gold and silver drawn from the earth (or so the “noble lie” would have it) in Plato’s imaginary republic?11xPlato, Republic, Book 3, 415a–417b. Would their education, like the education of the Platonic guardians, be the key to developing their natural excellences and harnessing those talents to the furtherance of the public weal?

Thomas Jefferson thought so, and in his magnificent lifelong correspondence with John Adams, both he and his intellectual sparring partner traded friendly blows over these very questions. Despite their common commitment to anti-hereditarian republicanism, Jefferson and Adams arrived at different conclusions about the prospects of a natural aristocracy, that is, of rule by the meritorious. They agreed that a naturally superior few would necessarily play a central role in the politics of any society. But for Jefferson it was not aristocracy per se, but the rule of “pseudo-aristoi” in hereditary or otherwise faulty regimes that was the source of the problem.22xJefferson to Adams, October 28, 1813, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester Cappon (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:387–92. He thought it of central importance to separate out the “natural aristoi” of society, and to educate and cultivate them for leadership and public service. Adams, on the other hand, regarded the emergence of an aristocracy as something both inevitable and inherently dangerous. He feared the influence of any such aristoi, and sought to restrain their influence by means of the classical constitutional model, as articulated by Polybius, of a “mixed government,” in which aristocracy’s distinctive political voice would be recognized as such and then confined to a senate-like body.33xIbid., Adams to Jefferson, November 15, 1813, 2:397–402. 

Adams lost that debate. Jefferson’s more optimistic voice has proven the louder and more influential in subsequent history (though, as we shall see, not necessarily the wiser or more prophetic). Any explicit recognition of an aristocracy as such would never have passed muster in post-revolutionary American constitution-making. But an aristocracy based solely on merit would appear, at first glance, to follow broadly Jeffersonian lines, a melding of the otherwise conflicting values of equality and excellence, of democracy and aristocracy, a melding thoroughly congenial to American sensibilities.

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