I’ve been wanting to comment and summarize Dr. Walter Russell Mead’s recent essay in the American Interest blog “Is Meritocracy a Sham” (and what does God have to do with it?), but just haven’t found the time. Lo and behold, Ann Wilson has done it for me over at First Things, so here’s her review:
Writing on his blog earlier this month, Walter Russell Mead warns against the hubris of a secular ruling class, using as his starting point Christopher Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. He touches on Hayes’s critiques of meritocracy — the system becomes hostile to democracy, and the best and brightest don’t always govern well — before reflecting on the problems particular to an atheistic meritocracy in the U.S.:
The dynamic Whiggish optimism that is such a deep element of American culture needs the kind of balance that, classically, comes from a theologically grounded sense both of Original Sin and of God’s transcendence of all human history and thought.
… The kind of arrogance, vanity and inflamed self-esteem that flatters the imagination and corrupts the spirit of the successful meritocrat needs to be checked and humbled. Being constantly reminded on the one hand of the infinite gap between one’s own limited talents and vision and the perspective of Almighty God, and on the other of the radical equality with which God judges and loves the human race is a healthy counterweight to the flattery of the world and the smugness that comes with success.
Though he focuses on the atheistic members of the ruling class, he doesn’t spare the religious minority among them. He reminds Christians, who should “spend a lifetime being haunted by the warnings of Jesus,” of the judgment to come:
God actually judges the gifted and the successful by a tougher standard than he uses with the “ordinary” and the poor. The popular pundit on the television talk show needs to go home and tremble on his knees when he or she reflects on the judgment that is in store. The corporate CEO needs to lie awake at night wondering whether his business dealings have been fair; God will demand an accounting for the wages he offered to his janitors and his employees overseas. As you sit at the five star restaurant with the celebrity chef, enjoying a convivial dinner with congenial, intelligent people, you need to be haunted by the specter of the homeless outside on the street; God not only cares as much about what they eat as he cares about your dinner — he is going to ask you one fine day just what you did to make sure they were served.
He later analyzes original sin’s impact on our thoughts and actions:
Like water flows downhill, we are constantly turning toward our own selfish goals. We are vain, jealous, petty, self-seeking. Our judgment twists away from what’s right to what benefits us and our side. We can’t keep our fingers off the scales.
It’s not just our moral choices that go awry. Our thinking isn’t straight. What we think is logic is often self interest. When our interests and our passions are engaged, we lose all mental clarity just when we need it most.
At the collective level, this explains why meritocracy cannot in itself be an answer to the political problems of the human race.
All in all, a balanced analysis of the pitfalls of the meritocracy, and given the recent increase in the number of Americans with no religious identity, a timely reminder of how faith can benefit individuals and society. Read the rest of Mead’s essay here.