Hail the Meritocratic Elite

Vaccinations against COVID-19 for Californians between 50 and 64 begin April 1. We can’t wait! Seems like everyone we know has already gotten at least one jab.

We’ve been waiting our turn almost as long as I’ve been mulling two words that have lately become pejoratives: elitism and meritocracy. What’s so bad about these things? Name the activity, and some human beings are better at it than others — an elite. For most endeavors we don’t care. Does it matter who America’s best knitter is? It matters to me, because it happens to be The Fabulous Wife. But to almost everyone else, including most knitters, it’s not a concern. On the other hand, we idolize a few elites, such as NFL quarterbacks and flamboyant billionaires.

From an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense that we look up to athletic and wealthy elites, because in the earliest human societies (not that I was there; I’m going on what some evolutionary biologists have theorized) those with the most physical ability and resources were most likely to survive — and bring their kith and kin with them. This is how the authoritarian impulse became second nature and, as we’ve learned, remains prominent in the psyche of a significant minority.

Of late, elites have been redefined as smart and/or educated people, those who have adapted to the information economy and provide the technical, creative, and problem-solving expertise that sustains it. This thinly-masked anti-intellectualism has become the bond holding together the real elite — those we’ve taken to calling the one percent — and their frightened, angry, resentful subjects.

Once we get past that perversion of the term, it’s clear that elitism is inevitable — and not necessarily bad. Elites produce all manner of amenities, from the sinuous tunes you can’t get out of your head to vaccinations against pandemic viruses.

Meritocracy is a method for determining elites. It does so through competition: educational attainment, job performance, sales, elections, etc. The other common method for determining elites is inheritance, which is anti-competitive. Humankind’s experience with inherited elites has not been salutary; the American Revolution was fought in part to shuck off Europe’s stagnant system of inherited wealth and power. Today most people find meritocracy congenial, at least in principle: no matter where you start in life, if you’re talented, work hard, and play by the rules you should rise in your field and reap the rewards. It seems only fair.

The problem with meritocracy, at least in today’s America, is that it’s devolving into a form of inherited power. We’ve been striving toward equal opportunity for half a century, but we’re not there yet. The next potential Einstein may already have dropped out of high school, taking a menial job to support the family long before any exposure to physics. Meanwhile, meritocrats are increasingly self-replicating, using their comparative wealth to assure their kids make it into the meritocratic ranks even if those kids don’t belong there.

So as The Fabulous Wife and I begin searching the internet for vaccine appointments, we offer humble thanks to the meritocratic elite whose work will soon (we hope) free us to resume our lives without fear of getting close to others. Now if only the Ivy League would dispense with legacy admissions and Division I schools cut back on Olympic sports teams . . .

King George III of England, painted by the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay circa 1761–2.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.