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The Sting of Meritocracy

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The college-admissions scandal revealed last week is both a scathing rebuke of our elite culture and (or rather, therefore) an endless font of delectable schadenfreude. Hollywood celebrities carted off to jail for using their wealth to help their kids cheat their way into college—surely that was the missing ingredient in the populist feast that is this moment in American life.

Lots of ink has been spilled about the meaning of the scandal, and I agree with most of what I’ve read about it. But I still think we might be missing one key point. The fact that the fraud and misbehavior here involved college admissions might be misleading us a little about just what is scandalous about the scandal, and about what it might tell us about the public’s attitude toward the meritocracy. Simply put, I don’t think this scandal is really about how people get into elite colleges; it’s about how elites behave in our society.

There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to think about why elites tend to aggravate the broader public in democratic societies: We might call them the sin of exclusivity, and the sin of unaccountability. The first is a function of the fact that it is very hard to enter the elite strata of our society (and any society), and the second is a function of the fact that the people who occupy those elite strata think they can do whatever they want without regard to the consequences for others. Our elites tend to obsess about the first a lot more, but it is the second that really drives populist resentment. And in our time, we have been trying to address the first in ways that have only worsened the second.

No society can avoid having elites. It’s almost a tautology: Whatever the rules of the game for ascension to wealth, influence, and power, some people will rise and some will not, and those who do rise are society’s elite because they have risen. But elite power in a democratic society unavoidably invites a certain kind of resentment and skepticism. A privileged class in a society that defines its ideal of itself as the absence of privilege and classes will always struggle to establish its legitimacy.

To deal with this, a democratic elite can make claims to legitimacy in two ways, which generally must be combined: by making sure opportunities are available for people to rise into the elite and by making sure that elite power and privilege are used with restraint and for the greater good to some meaningful degree.

For much of American history, the first of these requisites for elite legitimacy—access to opportunities to enter the upper reaches of our society—was the more obviously lacking. The apex of American political, cultural, and economic power was largely the preserve of a fairly narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant near-aristocracy, centered in the Northeast and exercising........

© National Review