Chris Hayes on Elite Failure

His new book Twilight of the Elites is coming out next Tuesday, and the Nation excerpted a section that gives you a flavor of the argument. He proposes that there is an “iron law of meritocracy,” where meritocratic institutions naturally become corrupted through elites desire to perpetuate themselves and avoid accountability:

And we might ask what a society that has been corrupted entirely by the Iron Law of Meritocracy would look like. It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.

Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars. In the same way the bailouts combined the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism, such a social order would fuse the worst aspects of meritocracy and bureaucracy.

It would, in other words, look a lot like the American elite in the first years of the twenty-first century.

I was lucky enough to pick up an advance copy of the book and I recommend it highly. It will definitely make my top ten list for the year.

Also, if you’re a DC resident, Hayes will be giving a talk at the Politics and Prose bookstore on the 18th of this month.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.