Measuring Meritocracy

‘Two successful sharp cookies marry and bear sharp cookies: voilà, a self-sustaining upper class based not on historical injustice but merit’

On the Contrary US Politics

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (Random House) is chock-full of things you’re not supposed to say. Putting my foot in it having become a personal speciality, I feel compelled to repeat them.

Murray’s larger thesis — that the US has polarised into a not-always-metaphorically gated community of the “new upper class” that still hews to traditional American values of industriousness and intact families, and a “new lower class” in which hard work and marriage are, fatally, no longer the norm — is too wide-ranging to address here.  But his submission about “homogamy” is   irresistibly incendiary.

Homogamy isn’t New Year’s Eve in Scotland. It refers to the tendency of like to marry like. Since top-flight American universities with an enormous pool of applicants have for decades creamed the smartest young people from the population, and university is often where we meet our mates, educational selectivity increases the chances that clever Americans marry clever Americans. Even if high-flyers don’t find love in college or grad school, they are apt to find employment alongside others with degrees from Harvard, say, or MIT — and the workplace is another common context in which romance thrives. Murray posits that “cognitive ability” in a digitalised, high-tech, knowledge-based economy has become the single most determinative attribute of career success.

Intelligence is hereditary. Even allowing for gravitation towards the mean (alas, I am probably stupider than both my parents), high-IQ parents have children whose intelligence is also above average. With braininess the key to financial ascendancy, smart parents can afford to send their smart kids to elite schools — where the smart kids will meet smart mates and beget more smart children. Get the picture? We’re bordering on voluntary eugenics here.

Yanks and Brits have long held departing versions of their upper classes, starting with the farcical American conceit that we don’t have classes at all. The British have latterly crafted a variation: the UK does have an upper class, ostensibly inbred and addled by idleness, but there lives not a Briton today who admits to belonging to it. 

But Murray’s “new upper class” is smart. Not only crafty, but medically, statistically, verifiably smart. As the US elite marries within itself and passes the genetic baton to its children, the privilege that attaches to brains can be entrenched within a single generation. Two successful sharp cookies marry and bear sharp cookies: voilà, a self-sustaining upper class based not on historical injustice but merit — or merit of a kind.

I say “of a kind”, because no one earns a high IQ; intelligence is one of the many socially valued attributes that either cropped up in the crib, or not — along with musical talent or a knack for ballroom dancing.  Nevertheless, we do arguably prize intellect above all other qualities. Murray’s observations about who gets ahead in the US these days and why is sure to jar with the more European outlook that rich folks at the top do not deserve their status or their income and if anything ought to be punished.

Moreover, potentially lurking in Murray’s construct is an explosive corollary he never asserts outright: that the lower class is dumb. That, being dumb, they ended up at the bottom of the heap by an inexorable sorting process that’s genetic — ergo, they’re at the bottom because that’s where they belong. Offended yet?

Murray’s exclusive focus on whites is wise. He thus weeds out the confounds of race and immigration. Coming Apart is no paean to the genius of the upper echelon, either. The very values that helped to elevate this new upper class — industry, honesty, committed marriage, and religiosity — are fraying in the elect as well as among the hoi polloi. Murray chides the American elite for walling itself off from the vast bulk of the country’s people and culture, and for hiding in a bland non-judgmentalism about single parenthood, poor educational attainment, and withdrawal from the workforce — established recipes for social disaster. Members of the new upper class are thus “keeping the goodies to themselves” by “failing to preach what they practise”.

Murray’s observations serve as a corrective to a fashionable European egalitarianism that we all know, in our heart of hearts, is rubbish. No, everyone is not the same. No, if you put a bunch of people in the same circumstances with the same opportunities, they are not all going to do equally well — some will fall behind, some will excel. And no, high earnings are not always the result of institutional injustice. After all, we can’t push kids to work hard, do well in school, and strive for challenging jobs, and then tell them their success is merely an accident, or even an outrage. It isn’t.