Perverse Logic of Meritocracy – Who Runs our Complex Systems!

Dear Commons Community,

Ross Douthat has a rather provocative column today in the NY Times entitled, The Great Consolidation.  It comments on how many of the major failings we have experienced (economy, environment, national security) has resulted in greater concentrations of power in the government and other large organizations.  His conclusion is:  “This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it”.


A NY Times article on the above is available at:


  1. Tony,

    I think perhaps I’ll settle for amusing myself with imaginative names for such a group…Americans for Cents? The Thinking Caps? The Anti-Dunce Confederation? The Association for Useful Grumpiness? People Punting Pundits? I’m sure we’ll come up with something…otherwise I’ll just wait until the Colbert Nation transforms itself into a legally validated political entity.


  2. Tim,

    Another excellent analysis. I like especially your thoughts about a Tea Party that would be a bit left of center. It would have to be a party/movement that was not based on a single issue such as the Green Party but supported multiple ideas and causes. Ralph Nader has tried to do some of this over the decades and our own Stanley Aronowitz, ran as an independent for governor a few years. Both were/are frustrated with the two-party system that serves certain-well financed constituencies and lobbyists well but does not represent the “people” well at all. There is a big “however”, such a party would have to be careful as to where and how it plans its election involvement so as not to be a “spoiler” for Democratic candidates ala Ralph Nader but a force to move the Democratic Party to be more representative of the people and less of big time lobbyists.

    More thoughts and not enough solutions.


  3. Hi Tony,

    I share your positions with regard to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Tea Party. Sarah Palin scares the snot out of me. As for the economic bailouts and the national debt, I think we slide back toward the Douthat conundrum: I, for one, am not well enough informed to say for sure whether the steps that the president and Congress have taken with regard to these issues have been more helpful than hurtful. I do believe that without the stimulus package things would likely be much worse than they are, which suggests to me that a more strangling fix may well have been in store for us had we not decided on this one, rushed as it was. I only wish that we had tried enacting actual changes in market conduct, perhaps by pairing some key firings with a few loophole-clogging restrictions. I was also glad to see health care passed, though I think the timing is far from ideal.

    I wonder about the possibility of a more liberal group that would resemble the Tea Party. It seems to me that the rigidity of our two party system makes it extremely dangerous for those who sympathize with one side more than the other to criticize the leaders of the side they prefer, as they may quickly find themselves associated, through a painfully simple logic of reversal, with an opposing camp that stands for a number of ideas that they do not agree with at all.

    It’s not that there is no middle ground, it’s that the middle ground can only be reached by entertaining the ideas of the “other” side, never by critiquing those proposed by one’s “own” side.

    More thoughts, ever fewer solutions,


  4. Tim,

    The war on terror is very different than the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was fought entirely on foreign soil and the decision to leave effectively ended American involvement in the War. The War on Terror is fought both on foreign soil and here in the US particularly here in New York. Any decision to leave Iraq or Afghanistan does not end the War on Terror here in the US. It is my position that we had to go to Afghanistan to hunt down terrorists but not Iraq and we should stay in Afghanistan until those who commit terrorism against the US are brought to justice or otherwise eliminated. I don’t see this happening in the near/intermediate future.

    I agree that the election of President Obama was an important first step for our country and I support everything that he has done regarding the War on Terror since coming to office. However, other issues are more problematic. I and I think many other people who voted for him do not agree fully with some of his domestic policies (e.g., economic bailouts, national debt, education). So while I have no need to rattle him for his foreign/war policies, I would support rattling him for his domestic policies. The Tea Party, for instance, may be a model and is doing some rattling on domestic issues but it lacks leadership and is way too conservative for me. It also has provided a forum for individuals such as Sarah Palin who would be a complete disaster for our country if elected to high office.

    Just some thoughts not necessarily solutions.


  5. Hey Tony,

    You’re perfectly welcome! I appreciate the articles you find and share in the Commons. And I think a little rattling is precisely what is needed, but the problem is: How best to rattle in the 21st century? I generally appease myself for short periods of time (before again becoming agitated with the current state of affairs) by pointing out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the guys I go to for much of my American news. It seems to me, however, that something slightly bigger will be required. Electing Obama was a big move, I thought. Nevertheless, the continued threat of terrorist attacks is causing regular pushes for nationalist solidarity that keep active criticism of the government more marginal that is usual. Yet I am not convinced, even were we to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, that the “War on Terror” will end, so we will be obligated, eventually, to discover a means of instigating 60s-style rattling from within this atmosphere of semi-war. (Of course, there was a war in the 60s too, but there was no accompanying 9/11, which seems to make all the difference…)


  6. Tim,

    Thanks for such a substantive response to this post. You raise excellent questions. I think part of what Douthat is expressing is a frustration that as we progress as a society we do get more complex and maybe progress beyond what we can manage. Your right though what is the alternative to our method of government. As a child of the 60s, we talked “revolution” but did not walk it as much as rattle the establishment a bit. Maybe we need some more rattling before a revolution.

    Thanks again for the post,


  7. Hey Tony,

    Though I would hesitate to claim that Douthat’s provocation is without purpose, these sorts of remarks always beg the same question: “So what’s your answer?” A plutocracy? A gerontocracy? A Magic Eight Ball? Let Martha Stewart and Michael Jordan decide everything?

    The point is not that the present configuration is the best one we’ve found but that it represents the point of departure, the body we will have to contort to arrive at a future that would be different from the one we currently imagine ourselves approaching. Considering this, I think Douthat implies the importance of a discussion he fails (or avoids) to confront directly. Douthat writes:

    “Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.”

    What is lacking in this mechanical progression is a dynamic element outside of the closed dichotomy of “us” and “them” (represented by “our” and “their” in the article) that could provide the possibility of destabilizing what Douthat appears to see as a meritocracy headed toward dystopia, allowing “us” and “them” to shuffle the cards once in a while. I mean revolution, of course, or revolt, or uprising.

    Douthat says that “this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.” Maybe, but there is little need to state this unless we mean to highlight a bigger question, albeit one that may well stand at the edge of the same philosophical battleground: “What role does revolution have to play in America’s political future?”