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The Coming War on ‘Cognitive Meritocracy’

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During the last year, a few very smart thinkers have published books that are critical of the starring role played by meritocracy in our social and economic order. Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, David Goodhart’s Head Hand Heart, and Fredrik DeBoer’s The Cult of Smart each inveigh against the way that our society allocates money and status according to the canons of what these writers identify as “cognitive meritocracy.” They argue that as our economy becomes more and more mobile, dematerialized, and automated, people with a high IQ and a pronounced ability to manipulate language, numbers, and abstractions will have enormous and unjust advantages over their fellow citizens. The economic and social gap between the cognitive elites and everyone else will get wider and wider as an ever-increasing portion of the wealth and status up for grabs in society accrues to the intelligentsia.

This argument is usually made in order to lay the groundwork for a policy of sweeping economic redistribution from those whose intellectual dexterity the 21st-century economy rewards to those whose manual or practical labor it increasingly doesn’t. No doubt a few adolescent Randians will look at this whole project as an attempt to rob the deserving rich of their due and perversely reward the sloth of the undeserving poor, but the problem that these writers have put their finger on is undoubtedly real, even if their statist prescriptions are destined to founder on the rocks of governmental incompetence. Prominent thinkers on the right have also noted the potential of cognitive meritocracy to rend the fabric of our social order and our common life. A few years ago, Ross Douthat noted that the defining fictional saga of the rising generation is, in fact, a story of cognitive meritocracy — one that has had a dubious spill-over effect into the real world. 

Whether you come at this issue from the right or the left, it’s bound to be one of the defining debates of this century as the human race steps out of the industrial age and into whatever comes next. We’re all going to have to devote some serious time and thought to the question of what we intend to do.  

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