“Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
. . . insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven . . . ”
In his most recent book Charles Murray argues that over the course of more than five decades American society has undergone an evolution of social classes “different in kind and degree than [sic] anything the nation has ever known.” More specifically, Murray focuses on white America at the upper and lower ends of the class spectrum. Much of his argument is familiar. As Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein first argued in The Bell Curve, increasing stratification in the college-admissions process—beginning in the late 1950’s—has created an unprecedented “cognitive elite” in American society. Of course, despite our egalitarian illusions, America has always been ruled by elites—albeit not hereditary elites, or at least not exclusively or permanently hereditary. And those elites have often obtained their success by “merit,” in the broadest sense of the term—talent, organizational skill, political acumen, intelligence, and sheer hard work—as well as by family connections and...