Obsessed with Intelligence

I just read an article by Chris Hayes called “Why Elites Fail,” which is adapted from his new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy and presumably a condensed form of some of his central points.  His main argument is this: the unequal incomes produced by meritocratic systems always become self-perpetuating, maintaining elite status, diminishing social mobility, and undermining the meritocratic mechanisms that produced these results in the first place.  Hayes believes that just such a collapse of meritocracy has contributed heavily to the current elite stratification and social woes that characterize the United States in the 21st century.

The arguments are compelling, at least, and I’ve heard generally good things about the book, but what I found most interesting about this essay was Hayes’ discussion of the cultural valence of intelligence.  “Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites,” says Hayes, “none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness.”  He goes on: “Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment.”

But, he says, this obsession with intelligence actually presents a huge danger:

While smartness is necessary for competent elites, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes. More important, it intimidates. When a group of powerful people get together to make a group decision, conflict and argumentation ensue, and more often than not the decision that emerges is that which is articulated most forcefully by those parties perceived to be the “smartest.”

He discusses an example in Dick Cheney’s counsel and chief of staff (during his VP years) David Addington and concludes:

This is a potent articulation of the dark emotional roots of the Cult of Smartness: the desire to differentiate and dominate that the meritocracy encourages. Ironically, in seeking to stand apart, the Cult of Smartness can kill independent thought by subtly training people to defer to others whom one should “take seriously.”

This part of his essay is a fascinating illustration of the way that power, authority, and status become self-justifying.  Analytically, it’s the perfect cultural complement to an argument that focuses on social-economic (or “material”) factors, i.e., the way meritocratic institutions produce elites and the way these elites pull the newly accessible levers of social power to pull, as Hayes puts it, the ladder up behind them.

Image by Campus Progress

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