The Rise and Fall of European Meritocracy

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.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, in December. Credit Yves Herman/Reuters

Michael Young, the British sociologist who in the middle of the last century coined the term “meritocracy,” would not be surprised by the turn of events. He was the first to explain that even though “meritocracy” might sound good to most people, a meritocratic society would be a disaster. It would create a society of selfish and arrogant winners, and angry and desperate losers. The triumph of meritocracy, Young understood, would lead to a loss of political community.

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.

The paradox of the current political crisis in Europe is rooted in the fact that the Brussels elites are blamed for the same reasons that they praised themselves for: their cosmopolitanism, their resistance to public pressure and their mobility.

In Europe, the meritocratic elite is a mercenary elite, not unlike the way the best soccer players are traded around to the most successful clubs across the Continent. Successful Dutch bankers move to London; competent German bureaucrats move to Brussels. European institutions and banks, just like soccer clubs, spend colossal amounts of money acquiring the best “players.” Usually, this system means victories on the pitch or in the central bank’s boardroom.

But what happens when these teams start to lose or the economy slows down? Their fans abandon them. That’s because there’s no relationship connecting the “players” and their fans beyond celebrating victories. They are not from the same neighborhood. They don’t have mutual friends or shared memories. Many of the players aren’t even from the same countries as their teams. You can admire the hired “stars,” but you do not have reason to be sorry for them.

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.

Unlike a century ago, today’s popular leaders aren’t interested in nationalizing industries. Instead, they promise to nationalize the elites. They do not promise to save the people but to stay with them. They promise to re-establish the national and ideological constraints that were removed by globalization. In short, what populists promise their voters is not competence but intimacy. They promise to re-establish the bond between the elites and the people. And many in Europe today find this promise appealing.

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.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer.

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