Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Christopher L. Hayes

Book cover

I really enjoyed reading this book. Hayes is as engaging on the page as he is on screen, and he manages to write for a popular audience without Writing for a Popular Audience.

The way I would paraphrase the main argument of this book is as follows: equality of opportunity can’t be sustained without significant attention to equality of outcomes. Politicians and economists love to contrast the two, painting the former as desirable and the latter as undesirable, but without some enforcement of equality of outcomes, equality of opportunity becomes a joke. This goes directly to the self-reinforcing nature of advantage and privilege.

Another particular point that stuck with me. In the old days, people from the working class were more or less officially barred from joining the elite. Because there are smart and ambitious people in any class, this restriction resulted in the rise of prominent and powerful leaders who were forceful advocates for the working class. Now, the elite will open its arms to smart people from the working classes, but can essentially co-opt them, leaving fewer to argue for the common man (from the perspective of the common man). This is an interesting point because it’s clear that the “old days” system was bad, but in getting rid of it we did create a new problem that wasn’t necessarily easy to recognize.

Hayes also very convincingly illustrates the complete absence of what Walzer calls “compex inequality” (though I can’t remember whether Hayes used that term or not). If you are rich in money, you will be rich in political influence, and vice versa. Your positions along various inequality spectrums are almost perfectly correlated. I was very impressed at Hayes’ catalog of how basically all of the influential people in the Obama administration (the Obama administration!) are millionaires. This isn’t because Obama set out to choose millionaires; it’s basically just definitionally true.

This is all a lot to grapple with, and I think it’s to Hayes’ credit that he doesn’t have a neatly packaged answer to the problems associated with meritocracy. I think the book is worthy simply in pointing out the flaws in using this concept as a guiding principle, and in making a principled case for more equality of outcomes.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars