From The Sun Journal of Lewiston (Maine), Oct. 10, 2012:
It's tough to argue with the concept of merit. Those who display skill and diligence deserve the most respected and highly compensated positions a society has to offer.
And merit is ultimately at the heart of the debate the U.S. Supreme Court took up again (this month), specifically whether minority college students can receive preferences in the college admission process over those with more academic merit.
The conservative court is widely expected to further diminish the ability of colleges to use racial criteria to form a student body that more closely resembles an increasingly diverse society.
The University of Texas at Austin was sued in 2008 by Abigail Fisher after she was denied admission to the main campus because, she claims, less qualified applicants were given preference based upon their race.
The college, and many other colleges, argue in court briefs that they were simply seeking to structure a class diverse in many ways. Doing so requires giving preferences not only to certain races but also to those with athletic or even musical abilities that might otherwise not meet the college's basic admissions criteria.
The opponents argue that merit is the only fair criterion for making such decisions, that the students who have the highest test scores and grades, and perhaps perform best in interviews, should receive the coveted slots at the most prestigious schools.
The legal arguments aside, the practical challenge to a pure meritocracy is presented in a recent book, "Twilight of the Elites," by Christopher Hayes.
The author argues that America is increasingly dominated by a small and detached meritocracy that has embedded within it the seeds of its own undoing.
Hayes asks an interesting question: If the smartest people in the United States have risen to the top in media, business, academia and government, why are all of our most important institutions so corrupt, untrustworthy and dysfunctional?
The answer, according to Hayes, is that meritocracy eventually means oligarchy, that while meritoric elites enjoy growing political power and monetary rewards, they create ways to isolate themselves from sanctions, competition and accountability.
For instance, while we are quick to catch and punish the man who robs a pharmacy, very few of the people who nearly wrecked our financial system and ruined thousands of lives have been prosecuted.
While the office or factory worker who screws up at work is fired, the CEO who ruins a company and threatens the financial system with reckless decisions retains his job or is granted an extremely lucrative "golden parachute" before leaving.
Elites, Hayes says, ultimately rig the system in a way that favors their economic interests and nearly guarantees equal success to their children and relatives.
The result, according to Hayes, is a country full of ordinary people who feel alienated, angry and betrayed by the people running the economy, media and government.
And if that doesn't describe the feeling of a large swath of Americans and the tea party movement, we don't know what does.
Parental income is the single best indicator of a child's later success in school and career.
Wealthy children generally go to the best schools, attend educational summer camps, receive tutoring when they struggle, and music and horseback riding lessons when they desire.
Compare that to the opportunities afforded a child - black, white or Latino - who grows up with a single parent working two jobs, who attends failing schools for 12 years and can only afford to hang out on street corners.
Which child is most likely bound for a top-tier college based upon SAT scores?
The Supreme Court will rule on a much narrower, more antiseptic, question of constitutionality.
But in the real world, the decision could lead to less social mobility and an even more detached ruling elite.