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The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Götterdämmerung for Europe's Meritocratic Elites

Ivan Krastev in the New York Times:

When you can’t understand why people behave in a certain way, the easiest thing to do is to convince yourself that people do not know what they are doing. This is what European political, business and news media leaders have done in response to the populist wave that is sweeping the old Continent. They are shocked that many of their compatriots are voting for irresponsible demagogues. They find it difficult to understand the sources of the rage against the meritocratic elites best symbolized by the well-trained, competent civil servants in Brussels.

Why are the “exams-passing classes” so resented at a time when the complexity of the world suggests that people need them most? Why do people who work hard so that their kids can graduate from the world’s best universities refuse to trust people who have already graduated from these universities? How is it possible that anybody can agree with Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit politician, who said people “have had enough of experts”?

It should seem obvious that meritocracy — a system in which the most talented and capable, the best educated, those who score highest on the tests, are put in leading positions — is better than plutocracy, gerontocracy, aristocracy and, perhaps, even the rule of the majority, democracy.

But Europe’s meritocratic elites aren’t hated simply because of populists’ bigoted stupidity or the confusion of ordinary people....

What makes meritocrats so unbearable to their critics is not so much their success but their insistence that they have succeeded because they worked harder than others, because they happened to be more qualified than others and because they passed the tests that others failed....

In the eyes of the meritocratic elites, their success outside of their country is a proof of their talents, but in the eyes of many people, this very mobility is a reason not to trust them.

People trust their leaders not only because of their competence but also because of their courage and commitment, and because they believe that their leaders will remain with their own in times of crisis rather than being helicoptered to the emergency exit. Paradoxically, it is the convertible competencies of the present elites, the fact that they are equally fit to run a bank in Bulgaria or in Bangladesh or to teach in Athens or Tokyo, that make people so suspicious of them. People fear that in times of trouble, the meritocrats will opt to leave instead of sharing the cost of staying.

Unsurprisingly then, it is loyalty — namely the unconditional loyalty to ethnic, religious or social groups — that is at the heart of the appeal of Europe’s new populism. Populists promise people not to judge them based solely on their merits. They promise solidarity but not necessarily justice....

The American philosopher John Rawls spoke for many liberals when he argued that being a loser in a meritocratic society was not as painful as being a loser in an openly unjust society. In his conception, the fairness of the game would reconcile people with failure. Today it looks as if the great philosopher may have been wrong.

He was wrong, because losers in a meritocracy get the message that they are losers because they are less hard-working, disciplined, and intelligent than the winners. Regardless of whether this message is true (it often is), it will be unpopular. In fact, the truer it is, the more unpopular. For endless examples, see Chris Anrade's twitter feed.

I remember debates with friends in the mid-2000s about the so-called European Constitution. I observed that the public-relations campaign for this thing was moronic. The document itself was ridiculously long and complex, the opposite of what a constitution should be. The public relations campaign mostly involved ancient stuffed shirts like Giscard d'Estaing writing pompous op-eds in respectable broadsheets -- i.e., the kind of newspapers read by people who were already going to vote for the constitution in referendums.

My friends would respond by pointing to all the progressive, thoughtful, ingenious elements of the constitution. People should vote for it, because it's a good idea. I had to chuckle at how naive their idea of politics was. Now, my friends are highly intelligent people, winners under the meritocratic European system, many have passed the notoriously difficult Concours! But what European elites never learn about is marketing. Or mass psychology. Or practical leadership.

As we all know, the European Constitution project fizzled out after it was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands. So it was eventually turned into the Treaty of Lisbon, which avoided the danger of asking people in EU countries whether they wanted it. In retrospect, the disaster of the European Constitution project seems like a harbinger of the deeper rot within the EU. Now the EU itself is teetering on the brink of collapse. If you ask me, one of the many reasons why is the inability of EU meritocrats to effectively communicate with the 70% of Europeans who've never graduated from college.

In fact, not only are they unable to communicate, they're unable to imagine why they should try. Still. The fact that the arguments in this post and in Krastev's op-ed will be dismissed by these folks as "irresponsible" and "populist" just proves the point.