Why Meritocracy Makes Us Miserable

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

Today, the compulsive habit of comparison driven by our democratic way of life has gotten entirely out of hand.

Nothing is more characteristic of the modern world than the spirit of comparison. Our economic system and our political system both impose a duty of comparison on everyone in society in order for them both to function. Our social order, meanwhile, is shot through with sleepless, incessant measurements of status taken by each of us against the standard of our neighbors. No doubt this comparative impulse is endemic to our nature to a great degree — its evolutionary utility alone is obvious. But it’s nevertheless true that the advent of the modern world — of liberal democracy, capitalism, and urban industry — exacerbated this habit or impulse of comparison to an altogether pathological extent.

The burgeoning ascendancy of the comparative mindset in the West fascinated Alexis de Tocqueville, who witnessed it coming to birth during the 19th century in post-feudal France and America:

In certain areas of the Old World . . . the inhabitants are for the most part extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light. In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung upon their brows, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures. The chief reason for this contrast is that the former do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter are forever brooding over the advantages they do not possess.

It’s a troubling paradox. “The freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords” are those for whom happiness remains most elusive, yet the destitute of the earth “are generally placid and their spirits light.” It’s unwise to romanticize destitution and unfreedom, the evils and sufferings of which are clear and harrowing, but those who have traveled widely in the third world will at some point have witnessed the kind of uncomplicated contentment of which Tocqueville writes. My father sees it often in rural India, where men walk to and from the sites of their subsistence labor, holding hands entirely platonically, absorbed in the enjoyment of their mutual affection and taking no thought of the riches that elude them.

Tocqueville thought that this contrast between spiritual contentment amid material suffering and spiritual crisis amid material wealth could be put down to the different psychological implications of stratified and democratic social orders. As Larry Siedentop explains in his book on the great Frenchman:

Whereas identities in an aristocratic society seem “natural” or fated, in a democratic society they are constructed or artificial. For comparison is the essence of a democratic society. Individuals can distinguish between persons and roles, compare roles and aspire (at least in principle) to almost any role. That yields a remarkable result — there is an unprecedented release of energy in a democratic society. Individuals are no longer held back by fixed or assigned identities. They can aspire to power, wealth, and status. Thus, civil equality fosters a society marked by ambition, innovation, and restlessness. When people no longer feel tied to a particular situation, they compare what they have with what they might have, and the consequence is the multiplication of wants. Instead of the static wants of an aristocratic society, where people feel that their lot is fixed, members of a democratic society are obsessed with acquiring what they do not yet have.

In hierarchical societies, the radical inequality between different groups of people circumscribes the goals to which any given individual might aspire. After all, it’s only possible to be saddened by the absence of some good that was at least theoretically possible for one to obtain in the first place. Many people today are anxious or frustrated about not having the kind of house they’d like to live in. Far fewer are languishing in turmoil over the fact that they have never ridden a dragon or a unicorn.

For the serfs of a 16th-century Russian prince, to take an example at random, the possibility of acquiring an estate and titles of nobility was negligible. The reason for this is that inherited identities and social roles constrain both the number and the grandeur of the desires that can reasonably dwell in the breast of any given member of society. A peasant might aspire to be the most revered man on the commune, but he will not feel any great sense of disappointment over the fact that he is not the czar.

The establishment of political equality changed all this. By placing every citizen (at least theoretically) on a level footing with all of his or her fellows, and by propagating the notion that work, talent, and merit can take anyone wherever they might like to go, a democratic society imposes on each citizen the crushing responsibility of creating themselves from scratch. Because each person regards him- or herself as the equal of everyone else, failure to match the success of others is received as a huge psychological blow. As Tocqueville writes:

The same equality which allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realise them. It circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition. . . . To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust of life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of . . . their easy existence.

Status, wealth, and privilege used to be allocated by accident of birth. We would never want to return to such a social order, but it was nevertheless a virtue of this ancien régime that people spent little time fretting over their lack of these things.

Let’s compare the fictional serf we imagined above with another hypothetical figure: a young boy born in 1867 in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Ky. In many ways, he is similar to our Russian serf. He will probably live a life of poverty in absolute terms, and will live hand-to-mouth by farming the land. But he lives at a time and place where equality — at least among white men — has advanced much further than it had in medieval Russia. In 1860, a man from a background almost identical to this fictional Kentucky boy was elected president of the United States. Consequently, it’s not nearly as fanciful for this boy to compare himself to President Lincoln as it would be for a serf to compare himself to the czar.

For the most part, of course, this is the glory of equality and, by extension, the glory of America. Lincoln himself was keen to advertise his election as evidence that every father’s son might aspire to the same office as his had. But with the possibility of that aspiration comes a possibility of disappointment hanging over the head of our farm boy like the sword of Damocles and a restless anxiety born of the need to justify himself that neither his father nor his grandfather had ever known.

Today, the compulsive habit of comparison driven by our democratic way of life has gotten entirely out of hand. The range of people with whom young people compare themselves today is uncircumscribed by almost any limiting factor. Once again, this is a cause for celebration in most respects, but democratization and globalism taken together have enlarged the social sphere in which people seek out status to an altogether oppressive degree. All sorts of jobs, social roles, and identity markers that would once have accorded a satisfying amount of status to people in local communities have been drained of their status by a mass celebrity culture that reallocates this status (along with power and wealth) to those at the top of the meritocratic pyramid.

The comparative excesses of meritocracy in this new global statusphere account for the weightlessness and anonymity felt by many people in the modern world. They also account for some of our most fanatical and deranged social conflicts. When status, wealth, and power are all up for grabs by anyone, the bitterest rivalries often sprout up between immediate rivals for these goods. This is why intra-conservative debates on the American right have always been more heated than debates between right and left more broadly.

Probably the most distressing example of how the comparative spirit of meritocracy is wreaking havoc on America today concerns college administrators. In a society of self-assured citizens at peace with themselves, college administrators would be content with doing their jobs. But as Lyell Asher pointed out in a memorable 2018 essay written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Great Awokening currently spreading across college campuses like a prairie fire can largely be put down to status anxiety on the part of these administrators. Having spent decades working in close proximity to people who are accorded a higher status by our culture than they themselves are — academics — a need was felt on the part of administrators to recast themselves as “educators.”

The descent of college administrators into a state of Jacobin degeneracy is just one example of how the scramble for status in our meritocratic world is making us miserable. Other examples abound, and some will undoubtedly have occurred to the reader by this point. But the lesson of each different permutation of this pathology is the same: We will not be able to live free, equal, prosperous, and happy all at the same time until we overcome what Thomas Merton called “the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men.” “A weird life it is, indeed,” he wrote, “to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!” Without finding a sure footing for personal worth apart from the comparative meritocratic advantage we might have over and against another, none of us will escape the fate of Tocqueville’s miserable men of material wealth and spiritual squalor.

In order to make our meritocratic social order function in a healthy way, each of us has to find some unearned grace in our solitude that will insulate us from the perils of both ascent and descent on meritocracy’s ladder: a grace akin to that which Jacob found on that other ladder of old on which angels ascended and descended, and from whose heights he heard a voice saying, “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest.” Whether or not one is religious is, in many ways, incidental to the matter at hand. But we all need to have something of ourselves we can withhold from meritocracy’s merciless calculations. Otherwise we’re headed for a social order remade from root to branch in the image of college administrators and other reckless graspers after self-actualizing social status. What a fate to contemplate.

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