To the Winners of Genetic Lotteries

When you are a person capable of destroying billions of dollars of financial assets overnight by blandly noting in public that some day monetary stimulus would end, a commencement address must be a perilous opportunity. So it’s probably no accident Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Benanke kept things relative light and jokey in his remarks to Princeton graduates yesterday.

But in a light and jokey way, this most unlikely moral spokesman said a couple of things that might have been better placed in the midst of last year’s “you didn’t built that” presidential campaign furor:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

He also went on to say:

I hope that as you develop your own definition of success, you will be able to do so, if you wish, with a close companion on your journey. In making that choice, remember that physical beauty is evolution’s way of assuring us that the other person doesn’t have too many intestinal parasites.

These are reasonably provocative things to say to a crowd of genetic lottery winners. But Bernanke’s first point about meritocracy is actually kind of important. There is a social and economic argument to be made on grounds of efficiency, if not justice, for seeking to build a society which showers the blessings of the good life disproportionately on people who have most fully exploited birth privileges (including genetic endowments). It’s hardly an unassailable argument, since privilege begets privilege, and hence propagates structural inequality if not an actual aristocracy.

But that’s an entirely separate consideration from meritocracy as a moral proposition. And a big part of the bitter and unforgiving tone of political and cultural controversies in this country recently has been a growing sense of self-righteousness among America’s “winners,” accompanied by what can only be described as class resentment of less fortunate “losers” and their advocates, whose greatest sin is to doubt that wealth is primarily a reward for “merit” in the moral sense of “virtue.” Go back some time and read or watch Rick Santelli’s famous 2009 “rant,” generally credited as launching the Tea Party Movement. It’s mostly a cry of rage against any public policies that might interfere with the “natural” order that makes some people wealthy and successful and others, well, “losers.”

Now it’s true that you are more likely to find Tea Folk among upper-middle-class retirees worried about the value of their carefully accumulated assets than among young Princeton graduates. But the basic idea that successful people, on however modest a scale, should be in a state of perpetual solidarity against anyone doubting the identity of wealth and virtue, is at the pernicious heart of conservative economic messaging these days. Link it to the belief that the same people favoring outrages like progressive taxation are also willfully destroying “traditional culture,” and you can begin to see why America’s “winners” are so often angry and vengeful. That they are made even angrier by reminders that they actually “didn’t build that” is no reason to stop speaking the truth.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.