How the Class War Ends
Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks authored an essay in The Atlantic entitled “How the Bobos Broke America.” Now, if you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head when you read that title is “What the hell is a bobo?” And this kind of makes his point. Bobos are the so-called “creative class,” the educated elite. The journalists, the scientists, the information technology specialists, the architects. Brooks himself is one of them, and he can’t help but notice that the institutions these people frequent have lost a lot of the trust they once had. The bobos don’t connect with “ordinary” folks. Even the term bobo, which was created by a bobo, namely Brooks, is unfamiliar to working class Americans.
The bobos, unlike the conservative elite that dominated the ruling class before them, seem to value justice, equality, and tolerance. The problem is that their actions only seem to amplify inequality and alienate the working class. They cluster together in high-tech communities and drive up housing costs. More than anything, they promote meritocracy. And it is becoming increasingly clear that meritocracy is tearing America apart.
On its face, meritocracy seems beneficial and logical. Martin Luther King famously said that he dreamed of the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Many of us have grown up believing that in an ideal society, discrimination would only be based on merit. That’s fair, right? Merit. If you win, fair and square, that’s good. If you lose, fair and square, that’s fine too.
Only it’s not fine. The meritocracy merely becomes one more excuse to maintain, even amplify, injustice, inequality, and intolerance. Even if the criteria for inclusion and exclusion are “fair,” what does it matter if it increases human suffering? If meritocracy is the way to go, why doesn’t it apply to voting? Shouldn’t voting be a privilege that has to be earned? One person, one vote is imposed equality. Equality is imposed because each person should have an equal chance to control their own life. But when it comes to economics, which have just as big an influence on one’s life, we accept meritocracy.
The result of America’s meritocracy is that one person gets a first class ticket and 10 others get lifetimes of struggle. As Brooks puts it, the meritocracy “determines who gets included in the upper echelons of society and who gets excluded; who gets an escalator ride to premier status and worldly success and who faces a wall.” The bobos ended up protecting their privilege just as assiduously, if not more so, than the WASP elites that preceded them. Working class America gets the shaft. “Some 60 years after its birth, the meritocracy seems more and more morally vacuous,” Brooks concedes. “Does the ability to take tests when you’re young make you a better person than others? Does a society built on that ability become more just and caring?”
The last section of Brooks’ essay is entitled “How the Class War Ends.” His solution is partly economic: Close the income gap and provide good jobs to people without college degrees. But Brooks goes farther. He maintains that the meritocracy itself, the sorting mechanism that leaves so many behind, must change dramatically. I think he’s right. But this is really no different than what Franklin Roosevelt envisioned with his Second Bill of Rights. That every American would be guaranteed the basics so that they can strive for the privileges. A decent home. A decent job. Decent health care. A decent education. No one should have to have a college degree in order to have access to the basics.
Where Brooks and I probably differ is on what has been the real instigator of America’s vast inequality. The bobos may have played a big role in maintaining it, but it was Ronald Reagan who gave us the church of the almighty trickle-down. It was Ronald Reagan who led the country into a profound distrust of government and the degradation of public spaces. And only by breaking the back of Reaganomics will we be able to restore trust. Brooks speaks of a society in which people are rewarded for the ability to work in teams, to sacrifice for the common good, to be honest, kind, and trustworthy. It is precisely the public good that has been allowed to wither in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, and only a self-conscious national movement is going to restore it.
To me the meritocracy is much like eugenics, an idea that was once popular and seemed very reasonable to many smart people. Like eugenics, the meritocracy seeks to improve life by sorting people. And like eugenics, it ends up increasing human misery. I have to judge it by its results. It doesn’t work. People have to be able to trust their government, their schools, and their scientists. Exclusion and massive inequality create resentment. The meritocracy has to go.
I do not mean that privileges should be eradicated. As I have said before, I don’t really care how much wealth Jeff Bezos controls. What I care about, and what I think Brooks cares about, is that we have a healthy middle class in which people don’t have to struggle just for the basics. You can’t adequately compete for the privileges if you have to constantly struggle just for the basics. Everyone should be guaranteed the basics. That’s how the class war ends.