Thoughts on July 4, 2006

In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when I was at college and graduate school, the moral and social validity of meritocracy was beginning to be challenged by the schools and in the press.  Aristocracy of blood, a final casualty of World War II, was the one thing worse than aristocracy of intellect and talent.  Since then, meritocracy has joined aristocracy as (to torture Churchill’s famous dictum) the two worst types of social system, including all the other kinds.

What possible alternative there might be between these two eminently workable but emphatically rejected systems and the old and now thoroughly discredited program “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is consequently a major issue implicit in the squabbles of our day, on which no one has made progress, as the stubbornly unreflective and unrepentant champions of mass democracy vainly persist in their attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable.  In recent decades, it has seemed only libertarians believed in meritocracy, while nobody—with the exception, perhaps, of Leona Helmsley—had a good word to say for aristocracy, an inhuman institution on a moral plane with Aryanism and apartheid.  Thus, conscientious readers of the New York Times must have been flabbergasted to read, in a recent Books of the Times feature, a laconic notice by Michiko Kakutani of the historian...

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