Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes

For the last 15 years or so, the US has been increasingly failed by its institutions:

  • The government (think response to Katrina, build up and carrying out of Iraq War)
  • The universities (think Penn State child rape scandal, and I'd add, Baylor University)
  • The Catholic Church
  • Financial regulators
  • The media (think missing the story of the Iraq War, the missing story of financial regulation).

Hayes is interested in illustrating where the failure comes from and what it's doing to us.

We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of broad and devastating crisis of authority.


Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating the extreme economic inequality of scope and scale unseen since since the last Gilded Age. … There are many reasons for inequality, but the underlying idea is it is shared in our meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be member in good standing of that select few.


But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.