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 power across generations. This was never an absolute barrier to others’ rising, of course, but it was a major obstacle.
The claim to power of this WASP elite, like that of most modern aristocracies, was a mix of heritage and rearing. They possessed their privileges by virtue of their birth, but they were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority. And they were—at least in principle though in many cases also in practice—expected to subject themselves to a code of behavior, a commitment to public service, a degree of personal reticence, a regard for the rules of fair play, and a sense of responsibility that was rooted in the implicit recognition that their power was an inherited privilege, not an earned achievement.
Obviously even the limited moral code of this noblesse oblige never functioned in accordance with its idealized form in practice. The WASPs, like any elite, were frequently arrogant, entitled, and guilty of abuses of power. But they did internalize and institutionalize their code of behavior in ways that meant that such abuses were also hypocrisies, and this did act to restrain, form, and direct the behavior of American elites in some meaningful ways.
The sheer exclusivity of this elite became intolerable (most significantly to the WASPs themselves) by the middle of the 20th century, and this led to a process of explicitly broadening the entry criteria into the upper reaches of American life. Because elite colleges are the King’s Highway into every other elite institution, higher-education has been at the center of these reforms from the start. Basing admission on standardized testing, and especially the SAT, offered a way to select students from a relatively broader range of backgrounds. The appeal of the tests was not so much that they measured the skills or abilities most relevant to college success (let alone elite power) as that they measured relevant skills and abilities that could be quantified without regard to an applicant’s other characteristics. They offered a single, objective standard of comparison, and so would break the stranglehold of the patrician WASP families. This has opened opportunities for able Americans from many backgrounds, and diversified our elite dramatically.
These elites of different backgrounds nonetheless do have one thing in common: They generally measure up by the standards that are now said to represent “merit.” Yet those standards are not by any means self-evidently suited to supplying us with an able and legitimate elite. And they cannot avoid the simple and unchangeable fact about elites: They are inherently narrow and exclusive. In fact, our meritocracy has turned out not to be able to avoid even the tendency of elites to become outright aristocracies—that is, to transmit privilege generationally. Thanks to both assortative mating and the powerful incentives to game the tests that grant entry into the American elite, children whose parents are in the upper echelons of our society have a very strong (and growing) chance of finding themselves in those upper echelons as adults. At first glance, this kind of gaming seems to be what is scandalous about the admissions scandal revealed last week.
But there’s an even bigger problem. This new aristocracy is in some important respects less reticent about its own legitimacy than the old. Because each of its members must work to prove his merit—to pass the key tests, and clear the key hurdles—today’s elite is more likely to believe it has earned its power, and possesses it by right more than privilege. Because our elite as a whole has inclined to this view, it tends to impose fewer restraints on its own uses of power, and generally doesn’t subscribe to the kind of code of conduct that sometimes characterized past aristocracies. Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as fulfilling an obligation to give back for an unearned privilege but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness and merit.
A meritocracy naturally assumes its authority is merited. But rather than prove its worth by its service to the larger society, the idea of merit at the core of our meritocracy is radically individualistic and dismally technocratic. The sort of elite that results implicitly substitutes a cold and sterile notion of intellect for a warm and spirited understanding of character as its measure of worth, and our society (including some elites themselves) increasingly cannot escape the intuition that this is an unjustifiable substitution. But rather than impose tests of character on itself, our elite inclines to respond to these concerns with increasingly intense displays of its ideal of social justice. It doubles down on the logic of meritocracy, adopts the language of privilege in its critiques of the larger society, and pushes for even more inclusive criteria of admission to elite institutions—all in an effort to make its claims to legitimate authority more persuasive.
But this ignores the second necessary element of elite legitimacy in a democratic society, which is the more important one. Most people don’t actually strive to enter our new aristocracy. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to go to Harvard, or to have their kids go there. It just isn’t part of their idea of success or their notion of the good life. But most Americans do care about living in a society where people are treated fairly and everyone plays by the rules.
The claims to legitimacy of today’s elite are met with skepticism not so much because it is too hard to enter the upper tier of American life (even if it is) as because those in that tier seem to be permitted to do whatever they want. Our elite is increasingly guilt-ridden, and the broader democratic public is increasingly cynical about its leaders, less because too few Americans can get into elite colleges than because those who do too often act as though they are then entitled to exercise power without restraints or standards.
Precisely because our elite does not think of itself as an aristocracy, it does not perceive itself to be in need of restraints. Ironically, to strengthen its case for legitimacy, it might have to understand itself more as an aristocracy. As the great essayist Helen Andrews argues in an astute piece on this subject, “the meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable?”
What would it mean, though, for our elite to make itself presentable, or persuasive? It would surely require some sense of what has made it unpresentable or unpersuasive to begin with. And our meritocracy has lacked that sense. We have implicitly mistaken an idea of merit meant to broaden the entry criteria into elite institutions for an idea of merit that could justify and legitimate authority. But authority is not legitimated merely by the ways it is obtained. Often more important in the end are the ways in which it is used.
Restraints on how elites use their power would require, among other things, a resurgence of a certain kind of institutionalism—one that views institutions (from Congress and the presidency to the university and the professions and into civic, religious, and family life) as molds that shape the people within them to take on a certain character rather than as platforms upon which those people can perform and build their personal brands. The meritocracy has pushed us in the opposite direction.
So although the scandal revealed by last week’s arrests involves college admissions, it has touched a nerve not because of a widespread desire to get into Yale but because of a widespread perception that the people who go there think they can get away with anything. It isn’t aggravating because it’s a betrayal of the principles of meritocracy but because it is an example of the practice of it. That’s not a problem that can be addressed through more fair and open college admissions. It is a problem that would need to be addressed through more constraints on the behavior of American elites—constraints built into formative institutions with a lower opinion of the inherent merits of those elites.
To say we aren’t thinking about such ways forward would be a gross understatement. We generally don’t even see the problem.