Meritocracy or Utopia
with Daniel Bessner
I’ve been very vocal in my advocacy for meritocratic values. And for meritocracy to function correctly, we need to ensure that everyone is participating on as level a playing field as possible. This is why I often criticize the most extreme examples of affirmative action while maintaining that we do need affirmative action in some form. On the one hand, admitting underrepresented students who do not have the same qualifications as their peers to elite institutions is a profound mistake. It doesn’t help the underrepresented students, it damages the integrity of the institution, and it can have far-reaching negative effects in society.
On the other hand, a student from a wealthy family may have access to more resources—better schools, better teachers, better tutors—than a student from a poor family. They both have to take the same tests. If the rich kid performs better on the tests, can we be sure it’s because she’s that much smarter than the poor kid? Or might she simply have had more help? We should want to mitigate these disparities, to truly level the playing field and allow both students to perform to the best of their ability, and then let the chips fall where they may. If that’s what you mean by affirmative action, I’m for it.
In the following excerpt from my recent conversation with the historian Daniel Bessner, we debate whether meritocracy is an idea that can be saved or is worth saving. What’s interesting is how often this question leads us not to numbers and statistics but to differing conceptions of humanity and society. Is seeking to eliminate inequality from society merely far-fetched utopianism? Or do we need some idea of utopia in order to guide us? These are big questions, and we seem to have some big disagreements! But I enjoy having Daniel on because we disagree, and we’re able to do so productively and with good humor.
I had fun with this one. Let me know what you think!
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DANIEL BESSNER: I think public schooling isn't that great in this country. I think that the capture of universities by neoliberal corporatism isn't the greatest thing in the world.
GLENN LOURY: How could you say public schooling is great when I'm looking at the disastrous effects of ...
I said it isn't great.
Oh, you said “is not great.”
Yeah, yeah, because it's based on property taxes.
Ok, spell that out a little more. I misunderstood you.
I think it hasn't gotten great because we've had these mixed structures where, instead of doing blanket funding, we base it on property taxes. So the rich people get the good education and the poor people get the bad education. And I think this is what happens, ultimately, in a capitalist system. I mean, I think the market is a tool that has been overused in this particular social structure for the last 60, 70 years.
But we're talking about public education.
Yeah. But they marketized public education. I mean, the logic could still be a market, even if it's technically public.
What would you do? I mean, I'm really, I'm literally curious. I will declare that I am a pro-educational choice guy. My gut instinct is to let parents make decisions on behalf of their children and to allow for there to be many different sources of educational service provision. What would you do?
Well, I'm not an expert on this, but I think you definitely have to get rid of funding it through property taxes. That seems to be a recipe for inequality in public education. I think you probably have to pay teachers more. I think you probably have to revisit the Deweyan model of people sitting in a classroom for eight hours that was made for the industrial era. I think you have to have all sorts of reforms that are basically impossible in the present system.
But with charter schools and with independent schools, whether they be parochial or not, with people free to take many different approaches to delivering education to kids, wouldn't there be a greater chance of getting some of the pedagogic reforms that you advocate? And if you were to control the delivery of money to support education from the government by channeling it in an equal basis through vouchers or grants to families, you could bypass the property tax system and guarantee the equality of the government support for education irrespective of the income of the community that the kids' families were living in.
I would actually ask you: Has that happened?
Well, no, it hasn't happened, because everybody who wants to do something along the lines that I'm talking about gets opposed by public employee unions who want to maintain the status quo.
Again, I don't know much about it, but is it just the public employee unions, or is it because rich people are fixing the system to benefit themselves and their own kids?
It's not just the public employee unions. If you propose merging—I used to live in Boston. Brookline is a separate town. It's got wonderful schools. And Newton is a separate town. It's got wonderful schools. Wellesley is a separate town. It's got wonderful schools. And if you propose merging them all together and busing kids back and forth, everybody would go ballistic.
Shock among shocks.
They'd say, “We've got a METCO program, which allows a few hundred kids to get bused out. But if you try to take control of my kid’s future and put it on the same plane with these kids from the inner city's future, I'll fight you to the death.”
Yeah. And because everyone feels precarious. Everyone's worried about proletarianization, and that's a function of capitalism. That's a function of the system we created where you could fall in class and then lose all of your privileges, ultimately. And that has sort of perverse effects, like the one we're talking about. That's what I'd say about that one.
But the world is insecure. You're blaming capitalism for the fact that ...
The world can be made less insecure. I mean, I don't think that's an impossibility. The world doesn't have to be as precarious as the one that we've created, particularly for such a wealthy society like this one.
Where on Earth is this society that you envision actually being enacted?
Well, if I was cheeky, I would say Cuba. Free healthcare.
That would be cheeky. [laughs]
When people ask me that, I'm like the nation state is barely 350 years old. Let's give it some time before we foreclose all forms of possibility here. That's what I say to that. Just because something hasn't necessarily happened in the world doesn't mean that it's impossible. The public didn't get the vote. We didn't have true democracy in this country until the 1960s. So let's give it some time before we foreclose possibilities and make ontological statements about what human beings are, thereby saying that it's essentially impossible to live in a non-precarious society.
Okay. Somebody is going to call you a utopian.
Well, I mean, what's wrong with utopianism? First of all, the free market's a utopia. Friedrich Hayek was a utopian. Ludwig von Mises is a utopian. The idea that the free market's going to work everything out ... Utopian thinking is important, at least in setting out a goal. You might not ever reach that goal, but it it serves as sort of a North Star where you're moving toward. I'm fine with utopianism.
What my colleague at the Hoover Institution Thomas Sowell would say is that, you know, this is a vision of possibility that fails to come to terms with the tragic reality of limited resources and and human nature. In the spirit of a visionary Soviet ideology, you would remake the man and woman and you would repeal the laws. The laws of supply and demand, there's no free lunch, the laws that people respond to incentives and so on and so on.
I would ask Professor Sowell how he's so sure of what human nature is. That's a pretty gigantic leap to make, that you know what human nature is. There's no such thing as Robinson Crusoe. Humans don't exist outside culture. How would you ever determine what human nature capital-I Is? It's impossible.
“Propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.” This is Adam Smith.
Adam Smith was talking about a theory of moral sentiments. Emphasis on “theory.”
As well, as well.
And I mean, I just think it's fundamentally, as a historian … Humans have propensities. Maybe. How the hell would we ever determine what they were? You don't exist outside of culture. And if you did exist outside of culture, that's not natural anyway. So why is that a more “real” example of human propensity or human nature? I think Sowell's 91. I think he's very much a guy who was educated in the '50s, in the '60s where people were making huge claims about human nature vis-a-vis the Soviet Union which I just think are empirically impossible to prove. You can't know what human nature is. It's impossible.
I remember some of my best arguments in my book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Harvard University Press 2002, reissued in a new edition with a new preface 2022. I remember some of the best arguments in that book were very much in the spirit of what you just said, which is we don't exist outside of the flow of history and the web of culture.
I was talking about colorblindness and racial inequality, and I was saying that the liberal idea—every tub on its own bottom, individuals separate from one another, freedom of action and freedom from government coercion rooted in racial identity—was an idea, when applied to the problem of persisting racial inequality, that was divorced from the flow of history. After all, slavery and racial domination at the core of the evolution of the United States. And the web of culture, which is that race is not simply a thing, it's not just simply a natural thing. It's also a social creation. It's a product of our own making and remaking.
So I'm not unfamiliar with these arguments. But that makes me want to ask you, we kind of wind down here, what you're thinking is—we jumping around a little bit—about the affirmative action debate in higher education, and more generally about meritocracy. This is an empire in decline, and China is a nation on the rise. I think we agreed to that. And the part of the debate about affirmative action, I hear this from my friends on the right, is that it's a compromise with our meritocratic standards and it's a slide down the slippery slope, kind of mediocrity.
We're unwilling to enforce judgments of quality because of the disparate incidents that such enforcement would have. It will reveal the racial differences in performance that we don't want to confront. And so we are going to scrap the SAT, and we're going to get rid of the hoops that people have to jump through or hurdles that they have to clear on behalf of a racially egalitarian objective. Can you speak to this set of debates?
It is shocking to me that any professor in the year 2022 would claim that our system is a meritocratic system. Talk about utopianism. As someone who's been in the university for basically the last 20 years and has taught all over the place. I taught at Columbia, I taught at Cornell, I gave class lectures at Dartmouth when I was a fellow there, at Duke, at UW. Do you know what the main difference between those students was, between the elite and non-elite? Money. And I think it's very clear that rich people have captured the social reproduction, the Ivy league and the elite colleges, which essentially serve, as Markovitz said in the book, The Meritocracy Trap ...
Kids at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are not any smarter than kids at UVA or West Virginia.
Yes. I would say they are not any smarter, but they certainly are richer. Someone once had a phrase, like aristocracy was the ideology of feudalism, meritocracy is the ideology of neoliberalism. I think it serves as a way to justify inequality, like Markovitz I think argued correctly in the book, in The Meritocracy Trap. I think it just doesn't really exist.
I think people are basically born on third base or they're not. And if you're born on third base, if you have rich parents, if you're able to access the tutors, if you're able to go to the feeder schools, you're able to get to Harvard. And I think, Glenn, you might be more familiar immediately with this statistic. What is it, more people who come from the top 10% of the income distribution go to Harvard than the bottom 90% or something? Something like that, something ridiculous, right? It's so obviously not a functioning system that to me it's a joke that someone would claim that affirmative action is getting in the way of our perfect meritocracy. What are you talking about? And it would be more serious to address the failings of meritocracy.
No, what I'm talking about is somebody got on the combined math and verbal 1500 out of the 1600 on the test, and somebody else got 1100 out of 1600 on the test. And I think there's a difference between the mental acuity and acquired mastery over intellectual work of those two people.
Now, it turns out that if I want to have enough of group X, I'm talking about blacks and Latinos, I'm going to have to dip down the scale on the SAT in order to incorporate them into my student body. And I'm going to do that knowing full well that there are differences between individuals—I'm not talking about racial groups as such—and just how prepared they are to take on the very specialized kind of work that you do when you're operating at a high level in an academic environment. And that's what I'm talking about. That's not a figment of my imagination.
Now, it may be that that disparity that I called attention to is itself a reflection of underlying economic and social inequalities and educational opportunity and the structure of families, what the society is doing in a larger sense. But the sheer judgment that, if I use different standards to admit kids based on race, I can expect them to perform differently after I admit them, it's not a utopian judgment in my view. I think it's a fair reading of the evidence.
Empirically demonstrated, yeah.
Firstly, and as always, examples of civil discourse are paramount during this time period in American consciousness, so I commend both of you for proceeding with your arguments amicably. Secondly, I used to believe that property tax did give higher wage earners better schools, thereby providing their children with a better education. (I did question if equal distribution of federal funds would ever really solve that problem, considering that the States must make up the deficit with the taxes they impose. Since municipalities are not equal in regard to property values, let alone States, there would always be an imbalance of funding for public schools. ie Mississippi schools would always lack in funding compared to New York schools, simply because Mississippi cannot tax its citizens at the rate New York can.) However, when i taught high school for eight years, I soon realized what was meant by the old axiom "throwing money at a problem." The second to last high school where I taught was T.C. Williams of Remember the Titans fame. Located in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the wealthiest cities in America, T.C. Williams had just opened its doors to a new, state of the art facility. Every student received a tax funded laptop as well as access to city wide free WIFI. The class sizes where reduced, which not only made my life bearable (I taught four classes of English rather than five), but students had a better learning environment. The laundry list of new public school services funded through tax dollars was extensive. BUT T.C. Williams had a student population in which 54% were on free or reduced lunch, meaning the majority of students came from economically poor households. The high school, I believe, was 130th out of 134th in state performance; in fact, all this money was poured into public education because the State Government of Virginia was threatening to take the school away from City Officials. And still, midway through the school year, I had sixteen students in danger of failing for the year simply because they did not do the work assigned to them. My point is that the equal distribution of tax dollars to fund education will never solve the problem of an elitist ideology that values a college degree over functional skillsets NOR the inexorable conditions of a child's home life, where many are without one or both parents and have no cultural understanding of the value and, yes, privilege of a free education, even one that is funded at the bare minimum.
Bessner seems not to have learned the salient point about planned economies. When an economy is planned, bureaucrats limit the number of attempts where people can be successful for a variety of non-market reasons. But market-based economies (meritocracy) offer an infinite number of attempts because it is politically neutral. In a planned economy, the odds of an Elon Musk or a Bill Gates making it through the system is much lower than in a planned economy. This is the reason why there are so few important inventions that were produced by the Soviets, and why so little of the art and culture they created is of use today.