How Meritocracy Went Wrong

Jefferson-1791Wilfred M. McClay at The Hedgehog Review:

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?1 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?

more here.