The Dangerous Allure of Meritocracy

Merit Matters, But it is Not All That Matters

In the wake of the rise, ascendency, and dominance of the “successor ideology” that is ruthlessly seeking a universal race-conscious society, the elimination of sexual differences, and the pure instantiation of egalitarian outcomes, conservative activists have hit back hard. At the head of the pack is Chris Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Rufo rose to fame through his vigorous and effective opposition to critical race theory that climaxed with his 2023 book America’s Cultural Revolution, and more recently he was the driving force behind exposing the plagiarism of ex-Harvard President Claudine Gay who has since resigned the office. Additionally, last year the Supreme Court ruled against Harvard’s racist admissions policies in SFFA v. Harvard, and a new Florida state law has limited the use of public funds for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offices, leading to a round of firings. The political Left has noticed and is now on the defensive.

The work of Rufo and countless others raises an important question for those of us on the Right: if (and this is a big if) the racial, gay, and anti-human Left in America can be defeated and reason and common sense once again rise to prominence, what political tradition should supplant the “successor ideology”? Already some conservatives, like Coleman Hughes in his new book The End of Race Politics, are pushing hard for the return of a colorblind society (whether symbolically or in fact), which would seem to be the necessary logical corollary to rejecting race-conscious policy. Critical race theorists are well-known for openly scorning the central ideas and symbols that conservatives have long embraced and championed—individualism, colorblindness, meritocracy, capitalism and the like—and deriding and relativizing them as merely the products of “whiteness.” Perhaps, then, the political tradition that ought to triumph over the racialists is something along these lines, which would signal a return to a classically liberal era that has long since been trampled and left in the dust.

Of these ideas, meritocracy is probably coveted most dearly by conservatives and most closely associated with America’s aspirational ideal as a nation, from our founding until today. That aspiration is as common as apple pie: if you come to America and are honest and work hard to get ahead, you will be treated justly according to what you deserve, which in turn will result in a better life for you and your children. This powerful ideal has been realized by millions and continually draws millions to our shores from around the world. It rests upon the belief that a meritocracy is the best society: that the institutional practice and policy of rewarding and elevating talent, hard work, and achievement while demoting laziness, stupidity, and underperforming mediocrity will produce a healthy and flourishing life for all. The indefatigable Heather Mac Donald makes a compelling case for the virtue of merit in interviews as well as in her newest book When Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty, and Threatens Lives.

The successor ideology directly targets the idea of merit as an ideological tool deployed by whites to oppress blacks and other minorities in order to eternally prop up the white elite and white working class. To achieve their twisted ends, race-conscious ideologues have made meritocracy Ground Zero for their war on traditional America, as the proliferation of DEI ideology, seminars, and departments in every sector and institution of society now demonstrate. Conservatives are right to be worried about DEI’s corrosive effects on the functionality of American society. Recently, Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro documented in a thread on X the dysfunction in medicine caused by DEI practices. Regular Americans express dismay and caution about commercial flights, especially after the CEO of United Airlines promised that fifty percent of new pilots will be women or people of color. While one might hope that anyone hired and trained as a commercial pilot would only be approved after the most rigorous testing and qualification, the false assumptions, fantastical goals, and fanatical drive to achieve equal outcomes by the DEI bureaucracy make this increasingly unlikely.

Thus, it would seem that the most effective means for combatting race-conscious DEI policy would be to once again pursue a purely meritocratic society that measures and rewards success on the basis of talent, performance, and achievement and not according to accidents of race or gender. However, the virtue of merit and the possibility of fundamentally orienting society around that virtue is dangerous and should only be pursued with the utmost caution.

The Dangers of Merit

At its best, the virtue of merit is twofold: it is a condition of justice, and it rewards and encourages human excellence. What human excellence consists of and how we measure it is a contentious issue, relying as it does upon a proper understanding of the nature of the human person. For the sake of our argument, we will grant that advocates of a meritocracy rightly grasp human nature and are able to accurately measure genuine talent and success—either at a particular job or skill or in being an excellent human being simply.

The dangers of merit also come in two forms. The first has plagued the conservative movement in America since the 1944 publication of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and William F. Buckley’s National Review mission statement a decade later in 1955. The problem is that conservatives have yielded to the temptation to elevate the virtue of merit above all other virtues and all other American political and religious traditions. Merit, and merit alone, has become the cornerstone of the modern, capitalist, and liberal democratic state.

The elevation and idolization of merit have been driven both by a fundamentalist free market ideology that has conflated consumer valuation measured by the price system with moral and religious virtues measured by independent and objective standards (rather than the unstable acquisitive habits of the dēmos); and by a political theory of an open and liberal American society that cares little about one’s history or heritage or morality or religion, but cares only that citizens and immigrants alike contribute (in whatever form) to a growing, dynamic, and global America where the increase of prosperity and the progress of freedom knows no bounds. The first rewards any entrepreneur who can produce the goods and services the American consumer demands. The second rewards any citizen who can prove that their authenticity and genuineness will advance a multicultural and diverse America. The only thing that is required of both the entrepreneur and the citizen is that they mouth loyalty to a set of ideas that are presented as being the “essence” of American identity—merit being one of the central ideas of our so-called “propositional Nation.” Thus, the entrepreneur and citizen can simultaneously profess allegiance to a meritocratic America while redefining merit according to economically relative and personally subjectivist criteria.

In this way, the conservative movement contributed to creating an uncontrolled meritocracy unmoored from America’s heritage and the knowledge of who she once was as a people. The result has been that certain citizens are rewarded according to genuine measures of success and talent, but who are still unfit for certain occupations or leadership roles. For example, the last fifteen years have witnessed Presidential candidates who are not Christians, but who are otherwise well-spoken, knowledgeable, and successful capitalists with many talents. By most meritocratic metrics, and even formal constitutional requirements, these individuals are well-qualified to be President of the United States. Mormons or Hindus are not Christians. In the two hundred and forty-eight years since America was founded in 1776, she has never had a non-Christian president—and only two (JFK and Biden) have been Catholic while all the others have been Protestant.

Of course, constitutional conservatives will immediately object that the U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for office (Art. VI, sec. 3), and thus in principle opens the way for a non-Christian to hold the highest political office in the country. While this is not the place to debate this clause in its historic and constitutional setting, the reality is that at the time of the founding (1776-1789), ninety-nine percent of American colonists were Christian (ninety-seven percent were Protestant) and they never envisioned non-Christians holding office in the U.S. government. The unquantifiable Christian cultural heritage of America is why every single U.S. President has been a Christian of some kind, and it is why the American people—regardless of originalist constitutional technicalities—should reject any presidential candidate who is not a public Christian despite whatever other kind of talents, merits, or successes they may have achieved.

Additionally, the cult of merit has led America’s corporate, educational, and political elites to value talented immigrants over less talented native citizens. Why hire the white youth from Appalachia who will require more investment in terms of time, money, education, and training when you can snatch up mathematical and tech geniuses from India to run your Silicon Valley bank or tech start-up, or boost academic performance and institutional prestige with visiting Chinese students? Why hire the white and black underclass to work your fields when you can import cheap and illegal slave labor from Mexico and Latin America who will work harder for less and who won’t complain for fear of being deported by ICE? The cult of meritocracy has driven talent up and down simultaneously, creating a massive gap between the elites and the underclass, and leaving a deracinated and disillusioned citizen class in the middle. The unrestricted pursuit of merit has led America’s leaders to flirt with and court the residents of the world—either to bring them here or to offshore jobs overseas—while justifying neglect and abandonment of American citizens at home.

The problem with merit alone is it reduces a citizen’s value to what they can contribute to make society ‘better.’ It overlooks and spits out those who don’t seem to contribute anything according to the prevailing yet ephemeral zeitgeist of administrative efficiency and progress—those who eat up resources and time and who don’t merit our honor or esteem. Thus, meritocracies tend to produce competitive and cutthroat citizens, each trying to outdo or outperform the rest in order to garner praise and a public platform and the moral and cultural authority that follows. In turn, this destroys citizenship itself, turning members of the civitas—those bound together by common loves, chords of friendship, cooperative tasks, and a common end as expressed in civil law—into material and economic units divided into factions and willing to throw each other under the bus in order to come out on top. When sufficiently talented members of society become scarce, the meritocratic system is forced to search for the deserving elsewhere, driving interest in importing immigrant talent from abroad. 

But this is not all, for there is a second danger of the virtue of merit. Meritocratic societies advance the belief that the essence of justice is giving someone what they deserve, as well as the ideal that complete justice can be socially and politically achieved. This produces citizens who are zealous to pursue and realize perfect and pure justice. However, justice-as-merit raises troubling questions for citizens: does anyone merit being harmed? is it deserving to turn away the poor and suffering immigrant who is being persecuted or has fallen on hard times through no fault of their own? do external enemies really deserve to die simply because they are loyally fighting for their own country? does any criminal actually merit the death penalty or life in prison?

If an academic and commentariat class arises and answers these questions with an authoritative ‘No!’, an ethos of bourgeois compassion or universal empathy quickly develops. Citizen morality and the political will to survive as a people—to prefer and preserve one’s own—begins to slacken, if not disappear altogether. At this stage, the nation is in danger of being conquered, from without or within, by the conniving or opportunistic—exactly what has happened with the rise of critical race and gender ideology and the DEI bureaucracy. To prevent this from happening, a people must come to grips with the fact that perfect meritocratic justice may be inimical to the good life, and that the just man is not identical to the political man—the statesman—the latter of whom must do what is necessary (whether viewed as just or unjust) to preserve his own people and heritage.

The Real American Political Tradition

The rejection of a pure meritocracy and the demotion of merit to a second or third-class virtue raises the question as to what should be elevated in its place. The question is not about merit, but about the preservation of America. By contrasting these two, readers will discern that a meritocracy is not what makes America great, nor is it even essential to her identity as a people and nation. The core of America as a people is the political tradition of covenantalism. Political covenantalism is when a Christian people voluntarily bind themselves together to create a body politic, acknowledging God and the authority of his law, and swearing an oath to each in the sight of God to be faithful and true to the public promises they are making.

From the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, political covenantalism has characterized American political thought and practice. The Massachusetts’s Constitution of 1780, authored by John Adams, describes it most succinctly and beautifully: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”

James Wilson, in his famous 1790-1791 Lectures on Law inquired into the origin of justice and right, moral obligation, and the authority of law: “Having thus stated the question—what is the efficient cause of moral obligation?—I give it this answer—the will of God. This is the supreme law. His just and full right of imposing laws, and our duty in obeying them, are the sources of our moral obligations.” Unsurprisingly, Wilson concludes that “the Author of nature has done much for us … What we do, indeed, must be founded on what he has done; and the deficiencies of our laws must be supplied by the perfections of his. Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine.”

To preserve this unique and beautiful Christian political tradition, Americans must learn to be tribal. This begins by discerning friends from enemies. Those who reject the moral, religious, intellectual, and political heritage of covenantalism are to be shamed, if not excluded. This is one area where the Right can learn from the Left. Identity politics correctly understands that merit must take a back seat to a prior assessment regarding the very possibility of civil harmony: are you one of us, do you agree with our fundamental beliefs and way of life, and will you fight for our cause? The perversity of the identitarian Left comes in their twisted belief that in-group analysis can be determined merely by external and accidental traits—or that such characteristics are always indicative of certain ideological beliefs.

What the conservative movement has gotten so disastrously wrong is its widespread belief that the American Way of Life—its dominant English and Protestant heritage—can be hollowed out indefinitely, to be replaced by neutral platitudes, constitutional proceduralism, market exchanges, and a minimal libertarian moral code of “no harm.” Yet no society has ever existed that is purely pluralistic and without a center: all growing or thriving civilizations require a dominant culture oriented around a shared language, religion, law, customs, mores, fashion (policed through honor and shame), and countless other ways of life. Preserving this dominant culture is what ‘being tribal’ means for the New Right. It is the natural and reasonable prejudice we should have toward our Anglo-American Protestant tradition.

Historically, Americans have taken a unique and sane approach to preserving their heritage without falling into the traps of unlimited pluralism (America today) or ingrown isolation. That approach first requires taking whatever steps necessary to maintain English as the national language, Christianity as the favored religion, Christian morality as the public ethical standard, and the enforcement of American constitutional and English common law as historically practiced by both state and national governments. Receptivity or openness to those outside of this tradition—especially to immigrants from other countries or overseas—requires self-confidence to defend the heritage against corrosive forces, such as the increase of non-English-speaking minorities, antiracism racism, LGBTQ perversions, political lawfare, and separation of church and state legal doctrines that inexorably drive us toward public atheism.

This does not mean implacable and blind hostility toward foreigners, of course. Instead, it means demanding that those who come here first pass certain qualification tests (are they capable of self-government? are they industrious and moral? are they willing to learn English and abide by our laws? is their religion compatible with Christianity or are they willing to live under Christian laws?), and that once here, they submit to a rigorous process of assimilation. This is the nature of national engrafting by which a common people preserve themselves and their way of life, while still inviting outsiders to join in that way of life.

To accomplish this, however, merit must be demoted. Self-preservation is the first order of business of any civilization. Then, and only then, can a standard of merit grounded in that nation’s moral and political heritage be applied to those who remain. No doubt, merit is highly important, for we do not want deadly incompetence to run amuck, and we certainly want to encourage and honor genuine human excellence. But a meritocracy will not save us if the traditional foundations of American political society have been laid waste and are rotting from neglect.

Righting the ship requires, among other things, that America once again become the dominant Anglo-American Protestant society she was prior to the emergence of postwar (WWII) globalist ideology and liberal international order. She must close her border to the hordes of Third World immigrants inundating her shores and deport en masse the millions of illegals already here. She must close her military-industrial complex to the world’s riches and quit blustering as a global hegemon and financing endless conflicts overseas. She must close her whoring heart to talent abroad and the promise of endless prosperity through the control of global markets and the world’s currency. She must conquer and subdue the successor ideology in all its permutations and perversions. America must then begin to look inward, to cultivate talent at home among citizens who understand America’s true identity and who love and are loyal to this country.

In its rightful place, merit is good, necessary, and beautiful for a people and nation. But it is neither the first nor most important virtue that Americans should prize. Instead, we must develop citizen morality, citizen patriotism, and citizen nationalism oriented around our heritage of Christian political covenantalism. A pure meritocracy may be alluring, but its hidden dangers will prove deadly.

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Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

5 thoughts on “The Dangerous Allure of Meritocracy

  1. This is well done. You took the idea of meritocracy, an idea engrained into many of us without question (including me thanks to government school), and not only critiqued it, but offered a proper Christian alternative. This is helpful to us who hear the call of rebuilding Christendom, and our Protestant American heritage, yet must be reprogrammed away from prior secular ideology. God bless!

  2. Though there are some individual points on which one can agree with Crenshaw, the above article is arguing for a WASP version of Affirmative Action. That alone puts its criticisms of CRT into context even though to argue against what the original promoters of CRT wrote is to argue, to a very large extent, against what Martin Luther King worked for during his last few years (watch Xander Vanocur’s 1967 interview with King on YouTube).

    What Crenshaw is arguing for here is, what some others have argued for here, an authoritarian WASP ethnocracy. That makes it ironic, to say the least, for Crenshaw to accuse CRT of being racist. Such an accusation shows that Crenshaw has no knowledge of what CRT means by racism.

    What grounds does Crenshaw use to advocate for a WASP ethnocracy? They are that some of the people who landed in New England and made the nation here a covenant nation for God. And using that as the grounds, Crenshaw exhibits a lack of knowledge as to what makes a people God’s covenant people. Crenshaw ignores that those who first came to Jamestown preceded those who came to New England and that they came to America for completely different reasons than those who first landed in New England.

    We should also note that it is God who defines who is covenant people are as well as the terms of their covenant. There has only been one covenant nation in world history; that was Israel. We should note that with Israel, they didn’t come out of Egypt as much as God brought them out. And then it was God alone who dictated the terms of the covenant. No nation in world history has ever had the right to dictate a covenant with God. Part of that is because no person can bind another person to a covenant with God. But a more important part is that no one can speak for God and obligate Him to follow a promise.

    In the New Testament, there is no covenant nation. Why? It is because God’s covenant people is the Church and the Church consists of people from all races and from all parts of the world. And, btw, it was God who dictated the terms of the New Covenant.

    The idea that Christians would follow a national version of the Benedict Option goes against the whole New Testament. That is because, as it says in I Cor 5, that it is not our job to so separate ourselves from unbelievers. To do so is to resist following the Great Commission.

    One has to wonder whether the P, which is for Protestant, at the end of WASP is just religious garb to camouflage a form of white supremacy.

    1. Curt, when you say “there is no covenant nation”, and “There has only been one covenant nation in world history; that was Israel”, you overlook the covenant of works that God made with Adam. God commanded all mankind to “fill the earth and subdue it”, in essence to govern and rule. Ergo, all nations and people are in covenant relationship with Go, either covenant keeping (in Christ) or covenant breaking (in Adam).

      1. Jordan,
        I understand what you are saying, however, there are still no covenant nations. Why do I say that in the light of your comment?

        First, a covenant nation of God indicates that the nation had a special belonging to God based on the covenant God made with it. Being a covenant nation of God distinguished that nation from other nations.

        Second, the Covenant of Works was made with Adam as he represented all humanity. And thus people were under that covenant not by virtue of their national identity, but because of their link to Adam. Realize who were the only people who could have possibly met the conditions of the Covenant of Works.

        Third, we should note that the Covenant of Grace supersedes the Covenant of Works. And the Covenant of Grace began with the promises given to Adam and Eve after the fall and continued throughout the covenants made in the Old Testament.

        Fourth, in the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Israel as a nation and only with Israel as a nation and that distinguished Israel from all other nations. Nowhere in the Old Testament was any other nation referred to as God’s covenant people or nation. If your logic held true here, then Israel would not be God’s only covenant nation in Old Testament times. After all, it was Israel that corporately received the promises and the Law. No nation outside of Israel had corporately received a covenant from God as a specific nation. And Israel received the Covenant that God made with it in order to eventually provide salvation to the rest of the world, to those who were outside of God’s covenant.

        Fifth, under the New Covenant, the covenant people of God are called the Church. Just because a given nation has Christians or has the New Covenant preached to it does not make that nation a covenant nation. That is because it is the Church that has the covenant people of God and thus there is a unique tie between the Christians of all nations that takes precedence over national identity. This would be true even if every person in a given nation was a Christian. What makes us a covenant people is our belonging to the true Church.

        That is how I see it, let me know what you think.

  3. I think any organization has to include some form of trustworthiness in it’s recruitment and retention criteria.

    The most technically brilliant, but untrustworthy finance and accounting guys produced Enron.

    A brave and successful general was named Benedict Arnold.

    That said, if you don’t also require technical competence to go with moral and political reliability, you get Pete Buttigeig. (He is reliable for his side). I can’t think of a good recent right-wing example, perhaps that just demonstrates that the contemporary right is over-prioritizing technical competence, because trustworthiness has been a major recurring problem.

    Call it a rejection of meritocracy, or say that merit is more than technical competence (technocracy), either way a recalibration is in order.

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