Twilight of the Elites. Or the Unintended Consequences of Meritocracy

Posted on August 29, 2012 by

I just finished reading a very interesting, and quite alarming, book by Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites. As best as I can tell, Hayes doesn’t know about cultural multilevel selection (CMLS) theory, yet his book is a perfect illustration of one of the general principles directly stemming from a central theoretical result in CMLS, the Price Equation.

Without going into the technical details, one of the implications of the Price equation is that internal competition between group members corrodes cooperation within the group. There are other implications (external competition between groups promotes cooperation, and the cultural variances between and within groups are also highly important), but today I will focus just on internal competition.


Christopher Hayes is a journalist and political commentator. I believe that the core of his argument is right on the money, but some of the theoretical frameworks that he employs are dated. I don’t want to criticize the book for what is really peripheral to the main message, so I will simply use the theoretical language that I consider most suitable. So here’s the Hayes’ argument as viewed through my theoretical lenses.

The first question is – who are the ‘elites’? There is a mythology, pushed on us by the right-wing commentators, that the elites are not those with political influence, but snobby cosmopolitan East coast intellectuals. It’s a great rhetorical device that has been used in advancing certain political agendas. Hayes skewers this mythology in the following delightful passage:

“So if ‘pointy headed intellectuals’ who spend their days in anonymity running climate models count as members of the elite, we end up with the perverse situation of the world’s most powerful energy companies marshaling anti-elitist sentiment to keep their profits intact and the atmosphere polluted.”

Hayes’ book is not about ‘pointy headed intellectuals,’ but about the elites in the sociological sense – simply put, the small proportion of the population who have concentrated in their hands various kinds of social power – political, economic, and ideological.

Elites are very important because it is they who primarily determine how well a society functions, even a democratic society. The starting premise of Hayes book is that the American society is in trouble (the first sentence of the book is, “America feels broken”), and the reason we are in trouble is due to the collective failure of American elites. Political leaders pass laws to benefit IBM, which “ruined many people’s lives” and “discouraged the creation of small, independent businesses” in the technology industry. Economic leaders drive the economy into the Great Recession, while enriching themselves:

“Between 2001 and 2006, [the CEO of Countrywide Angelo] Mozilo managed to arrange for himself a staggering $470 million in total executive compensation. The most cynical interpretation of these actions, though also the most plausible, is that Mozilo was looting the company he’d built as fast as he could before the markets or regulators caught up to him.”

And the media wrote “endless glowing profiles” of Mozilo, as he was doing this (the press coverage of Enron, before it collapsed, was also characterized by “sycophantic, fawning tone.”) One of the biggest puzzles is how 9,000 professional business reporters and tens of thousands of academic and government economists “missed the biggest story on the beat” – the impending financial crisis of 2008.

So what is Hayes’ explanation for these collective failures of political, economic, and ideological/intellectual elites? It will come as a surprise to many, but he points the finger at meritocracy – “a ruling class composed of bright and industrious members of all classes.” Before the 1960s America was ruled by the Protestant Establishment. Children of the established elites were preferentially admitted to the best universities and after graduation given the pick of the best jobs in government, corporations, and law firms. African-Americans, Jews, and Catholics, on the other hand, were severely discriminated against.

During the 1960s all this changed. Entrance to the Ivy League universities, for example, became much more meritocratic, and there was a mass entry of the smart and hard-working members from previously excluded groups. This was clearly good, because the previous system was patently unfair. However, the new system resulted in some unanticipated consequences. The main one was that the massive increase in the numbers of ‘elite aspirants,’ individuals vying for power positions in politics and economy, has resulted in a correspondingly massive increase in intraelite competition. “Societies whose upper class is marked by birth, title, and lineage do not tend to cultivate a voracious appetite for competition in the same way ours does.”

And internal competition, as the CMLS theory tells us, is corrosive of cooperation and social cohesion, which are the basis of good and effective government. “[W]ithout the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges.”

One case study into which Hayes delves is that of steroids in baseball, which illustrates how “intensely competitive, high-reward meritocratic environments are prone to produce all kinds of fraud, deception, conniving, and game rigging.”


We can think of taking steroids as a cultural trait, which can be learned from others (Hayes describes the first adopters of this practice and how it was communicated through the web of personal relations between different baseball players). Although using steroids is illegal and harmful to your health, it increases the probability of hitting a home run. The critical environmental variable for determining whether steroid-using spreads or not is the degree of competition. “An environment as intensely competitive as baseball produces a very rapid and intense form of evolution: those who do not perform quickly find themselves back in the minors, while those who succeed are imitated.” This statement could easily come from a Richerson/Boyd article!

Something very similar has been going on in the world of politics and business. Intense competition leads to “’criminogenic environments,’ institutional settings that produce systemic rule-breaking.” So we have Bernie Madoff, London traders of J.P. Morgan Chase, Libor rate rigging, and rampant insider trading.

The elite recruiting system before the 1960s was unfair as hell, but paradoxically it produced a reasonably functional ruling class that took America through the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar Prosperity. Then, in the 1960s the system was changed to a much fairer one (although a black kid from a poor Bronx neighborhood still has a much lower chance of getting into Harvard than a rich white kid from Westchester County). But the rise of meritocracy had an unintended consequence – intensifying intraelite competition. Several decades later, we have the result – unraveling cooperation and increasingly dysfunctional governance. At least, that is the main message of Christopher Hayes’ book.

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