Why meritocracy makes us miserable

Probably the most distressing example of how the comparative spirit of meritocracy is wreaking havoc on America today concerns college administrators. In a society of self-assured citizens at peace with themselves, college administrators would be content with doing their jobs. But as Lyell Asher pointed out in a memorable 2018 essay written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Great Awokening currently spreading across college campuses like a prairie fire can largely be put down to status anxiety on the part of these administrators. Having spent decades working in close proximity to people who are accorded a higher status by our culture than they themselves are — academics — a need was felt on the part of administrators to recast themselves as “educators.”

The descent of college administrators into a state of Jacobin degeneracy is just one example of how the scramble for status in our meritocratic world is making us miserable. Other examples abound, and some will undoubtedly have occurred to the reader by this point. But the lesson of each different permutation of this pathology is the same: We will not be able to live free, equal, prosperous, and happy all at the same time until we overcome what Thomas Merton called “the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men.” “A weird life it is, indeed,” he wrote, “to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!” Without finding a sure footing for personal worth apart from the comparative meritocratic advantage we might have over and against another, none of us will escape the fate of Tocqueville’s miserable men of material wealth and spiritual squalor.

In order to make our meritocratic social order function in a healthy way, each of us has to find some unearned grace in our solitude that will insulate us from the perils of both ascent and descent on meritocracy’s ladder: a grace akin to that which Jacob found on that other ladder of old on which angels ascended and descended, and from whose heights he heard a voice saying, “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest.”