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Twilight of the Elites. Or the Unintended Consequences of Meritocracy

I just finished reading a very interesting, and quite alarming, book by Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites. As best as I can tell, Hayes doesn’t know about cultural multilevel selection (CMLS) theory, yet his book is a perfect illustration of one of the general principles directly stemming from a central theoretical result in CMLS, the Price Equation.

Without going into the technical details, one of the implications of the Price equation is that internal competition between group members corrodes cooperation within the group. There are other implications (external competition between groups promotes cooperation, and the cultural variances between and within groups are also highly important), but today I will focus just on internal competition.

       (from http://www.wbez.org/blogs/bez/2012-06/chris-hayes-and-twilight-elites-100308)

Christopher Hayes is a journalist and political commentator. I believe that the core of his argument is right on the money, but some of the theoretical frameworks that he employs are dated. I don’t want to criticize the book for what is really peripheral to the main message, so I will simply use the theoretical language that I consider most suitable. So here’s the Hayes’ argument as viewed through my theoretical lenses.

The first question is – who are the ‘elites’? There is a mythology, pushed on us by the right-wing commentators, that the elites are not those with political influence, but snobby cosmopolitan East coast intellectuals. It’s a great rhetorical device that has been used in advancing certain political agendas. Hayes skewers this mythology in the following delightful passage:

“So if ‘pointy headed intellectuals’ who spend their days in anonymity running climate models count as members of the elite, we end up with the perverse situation of the world’s most powerful energy companies marshaling anti-elitist sentiment to keep their profits intact and the atmosphere polluted.”

Hayes’ book is not about ‘pointy headed intellectuals,’ but about the elites in the sociological sense – simply put, the small proportion of the population who have concentrated in their hands various kinds of social power – political, economic, and ideological.

Elites are very important because it is they who primarily determine how well a society functions, even a democratic society. The starting premise of Hayes book is that the American society is in trouble (the first sentence of the book is, “America feels broken”), and the reason we are in trouble is due to the collective failure of American elites. Political leaders pass laws to benefit IBM, which “ruined many people’s lives” and “discouraged the creation of small, independent businesses” in the technology industry. Economic leaders drive the economy into the Great Recession, while enriching themselves:

“Between 2001 and 2006, [the CEO of Countrywide Angelo] Mozilo managed to arrange for himself a staggering $470 million in total executive compensation. The most cynical interpretation of these actions, though also the most plausible, is that Mozilo was looting the company he’d built as fast as he could before the markets or regulators caught up to him.”

And the media wrote “endless glowing profiles” of Mozilo, as he was doing this (the press coverage of Enron, before it collapsed, was also characterized by “sycophantic, fawning tone.”) One of the biggest puzzles is how 9,000 professional business reporters and tens of thousands of academic and government economists “missed the biggest story on the beat” – the impending financial crisis of 2008.

So what is Hayes’ explanation for these collective failures of political, economic, and ideological/intellectual elites? It will come as a surprise to many, but he points the finger at meritocracy – “a ruling class composed of bright and industrious members of all classes.” Before the 1960s America was ruled by the Protestant Establishment. Children of the established elites were preferentially admitted to the best universities and after graduation given the pick of the best jobs in government, corporations, and law firms. African-Americans, Jews, and Catholics, on the other hand, were severely discriminated against.

During the 1960s all this changed. Entrance to the Ivy League universities, for example, became much more meritocratic, and there was a mass entry of the smart and hard-working members from previously excluded groups. This was clearly good, because the previous system was patently unfair. However, the new system resulted in some unanticipated consequences. The main one was that the massive increase in the numbers of ‘elite aspirants,’ individuals vying for power positions in politics and economy, has resulted in a correspondingly massive increase in intraelite competition. “Societies whose upper class is marked by birth, title, and lineage do not tend to cultivate a voracious appetite for competition in the same way ours does.”

And internal competition, as the CMLS theory tells us, is corrosive of cooperation and social cohesion, which are the basis of good and effective government. “[W]ithout the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges.”

One case study into which Hayes delves is that of steroids in baseball, which illustrates how “intensely competitive, high-reward meritocratic environments are prone to produce all kinds of fraud, deception, conniving, and game rigging.”

                      (from http://deadspin.com/twilight-of-the-elites/)

We can think of taking steroids as a cultural trait, which can be learned from others (Hayes describes the first adopters of this practice and how it was communicated through the web of personal relations between different baseball players). Although using steroids is illegal and harmful to your health, it increases the probability of hitting a home run. The critical environmental variable for determining whether steroid-using spreads or not is the degree of competition. “An environment as intensely competitive as baseball produces a very rapid and intense form of evolution: those who do not perform quickly find themselves back in the minors, while those who succeed are imitated.” This statement could easily come from a Richerson/Boyd article!

Something very similar has been going on in the world of politics and business. Intense competition leads to “’criminogenic environments,’ institutional settings that produce systemic rule-breaking.” So we have Bernie Madoff, London traders of J.P. Morgan Chase, Libor rate rigging, and rampant insider trading.

The elite recruiting system before the 1960s was unfair as hell, but paradoxically it produced a reasonably functional ruling class that took America through the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar Prosperity. Then, in the 1960s the system was changed to a much fairer one (although a black kid from a poor Bronx neighborhood still has a much lower chance of getting into Harvard than a rich white kid from Westchester County). But the rise of meritocracy had an unintended consequence – intensifying intraelite competition. Several decades later, we have the result – unraveling cooperation and increasingly dysfunctional governance. At least, that is the main message of Christopher Hayes’ book.

18 Comments

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18 Comments

  1. Some truth to the general case, but the diagnosis is silly. These rich bosses are not meritocrats. If the successes I know (mostly high university administrators and such) are any guide, they have less brains than a baboon’s blue behind. They get where they are by contacts, manipulation, and cheating. That’s the way people have been succeeding politically since Kautilya and Machiavelli.
    The problem in the US now is that the US has run into resource limits, economic limits, and social limits, and it is doing what countries do in that situation: getting caught up in negative-sum games. People think they are going downhill, and try to make sure that others go down faster. White less-educated males in the US fear for their privilege, so they are desperately trying to take out the other groups they can see and recognize. Other groups tend to respond rather similarly. Eventually nobody is minding the store because everyone is throwing cans at each other, and the store is ruined.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Well, I don’t think that high university administrators are a good guide to the world of politics and economics. But I agree that being very intelligent is only one trait that helps in the rat race, and perhaps not the most important. Also, what do you mean by intelligence? What’s really important in success is ‘social intelligence’ – building social relations, manipulating others, and so on. That’s very different from the kind of intelligence needed in science. Certainly knowing how to cheat effectively and get away with it is very useful to get ahead in the game.

  2. Edward.T says:

    As the visual media age has progressed there has been increased competition and selection based on presentation. The elites – executives, political leaders – are now more female and this has increased elite competition. Some career women take testosterone supplements to compete with men for power. Over last few decades this must have impacted on the male only secret societies such as the Freemasons and Old Boys Network, and family&friends networks. Since the 80s there has been a secret society in UK called “common purpose” which was started by a women, includes leaders of public and private institutions. Today it cannot be so easy to make decisions within old elite networks because secrecy was a male thing, and now there are powerful women about who won’t be ‘in the loop’. Bilderberg meetings which date from 60s are one example – not a secret any more. Many of the elite females will be siblings of the elite males, adding new family networks. The newer more female elite networks may be no better for society than male ones but it must change elite dynamics somewhat if there are now new networks of elites competing with old ones. Men who would have gone into one network maybe drawn towards another. Men may become less interested in secret networks and more interested in open display of power.

    • O.Voron says:

      “Some career women take testosterone supplements to compete with men for power.”

      You mean, literally??

      • Peter Turchin says:

        I heard this, but I think it is an urban myth

      • Edward.T says:

        It’s been reported to the New Statesman magazine by Dr Malcolm Whitehead. “I have prescribed testosterone implants for female politicians who want to compete better with their male colleagues in committee meetings and parliamentary debates. “They claim the hormone boosts their assertiveness and mekes them feel more powerful.” Testosterone abuse occurs in female sports because of the advantages to athletic performance. If it were to give advantages in other fields, where there is no drug testing, and it made females more successful… they would rise to the top. I suspect the numbers are much smaller than the number of retellings of the story though! link to news.bbc.co.uk

      • Peter Turchin says:

        Thanks, Edward. Interesting tidbit.

    • O.Voron says:

      Edward, Thank you for the BBC link. Interesting indeed. On the other hand, John Kerry, former presidential candidate, made public jokes about his using Botox, something from women’s ‘arsenal’. For these people, whether male or female, every bit counts.

  3. Hayes’ hypothesis is plausible I think. Also, globalization as forced industrial workers to compete on a global scale as countries like China, India, and Brazil have invested in better education for cohorts at the end of their population explosions. Sharp competition between members of the elite also seems to have damaged the solidarity between elites and ordinary citizes as the incomes of the latter stagnate. It is interesting that the policy debates in Europe and America are tending to become focussed on ideological issues to the exclusion of real problems. In the US, the atmosphere seems to hark back to the 16th Century European Wars of Religion. The GOP in the US seems almost wholly consumed by ideological concerns with scant rational policy concerns at all. Peter, is this a common feature the cyclical crises you study? Ideology is used in part to create identities and tight identities may be an adaptation to intense conflict. Ideology may also be useful for elite recruitment of non-elites, making it possible in circumstances where we might expect non-elites to revolt. The trouble then would be that a structural-demographic crisis, when level-headed leadership would be most useful, is exactly the time when the hot-heads are most successful.

    George Friedman wrote some interesting pieces on the crisis of confidence in elites a few months back. They struck a chord with me. The current rather unfavorable structural-demographic situation coupled with the potential for things like serious global environmental change might lead you to think that elites really don’t have any idea what to do. One might hypothesize that under favorable structural-demographic conditions the “leaders” of complex societies make governing look easy. But it is really an illusion. Their apparent skill really boils down to favorable conditions. When the structural-demographic conditions are unfavorable, the essentially ungovernable complexity of our societies is exposed. I don’t mean this to be unduly pessimistic. We can’t fix what we don’t understand.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      That’s absolutely right. Jack Goldstone made this observation in his 1991 book — that different elite factions tend to subscribe to rival ideologies during the pre-crisis and crisis stages. So elite fragmentation is typically accompanied by ideological polarization. 16th century Wars of Religion is a good example, with southern French nobility converting to Protestantism, and northeastern nobility (the Guises) adopting militant Catholicism. During the Age of Revolutions the ideology was nationalism. Interestingly, during the First Century BC crisis of the Roman republic, the division between the populares and optimates was similar to that between Democrats and Republicans of today’s America.

  4. John Lilburne says:

    The rise of the meritocracy has lead to a leadership that is somewhere between indifferent and actualy hostile to the people they rule

    link to thosewhocansee.blogspot.com
    link to thosewhocansee.blogspot.com
    link to kevinmacdonald.net

    Group conflict has progressed into the elite. The response of the elite has been to promote cosmopolitan, multicultural outlook amongst the educated as a buffer. This is commented on by Matt tabbibi –
    That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege – a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.
    link to rollingstone.com

    Rootlesseness has worked whilst the US has been in the Kondratiev upswing. .but now we are in the Kondratiev winter where the debts and malinvestment of the past 30 years will have to be purged. It should be an interesting ride
    link to crisishq.com
    link to theamericanconservative.com

  5. Meritocracy is main problem!? May be within football league, but let’s compare the incomes of “best of the best” professionals in the sport, show-business and, for instance, science. Well, is this a meritocracy? Again, given the high levels of inequality (Gini index) in the U.S., meritocracy is not the actual agenda everywhere except coupe of sport leagues.
    Regarding the real “twilight of the elites”. That’s what Marquis de Condorcet said before the Great French Revolution: a real problem for our elite is that they produce more than one male offspring in marriage and many more outside of marriage. Sooner or later, the first with the active support of the second will kill us and then himself.

  6. Peter Turchin says:

    Chris Hayes himself is somewhat ambivalent about ‘meritocracy.’ One idea he discusses is what he calls the iron law of meritocracy – in which what starts as a meritocracy, leads to hugely unequal outcomes, which in turn subvert the meritocracy as those who climbed to the top pull up the ladder to prevent others from joining them (and perhaps displacing them from the top).

  7. Paul N. says:

    Mediocracy not meritocracy is the problem.

    Hayes misconceptions of that problem are simply rooted in his group alliance. He definitely is mediocre himself and owes his career to mentioned changes in universities entrance policy. What he calls “fair” was not the introduction of meritocracy but the rise of mediocracy. That conclusion can be drawn from his own text. He describes a “mass entry”. If it were a mere meritocratic change into a more fair system, the absolute number of students would not have changed but maybe the social composition. The mass entry rather reflects that the gates to higher education were widely opened, and suppose the bell curve of intelligence did not change abruptly in the 60s the logical consequence of such a mass entry is lower average intelligence, which we use to call mediocracy, don’t we.

    To read more about how political decision making is impaired by mediocracy you may want to follow this link. (link to fauceir.wordpress.com)