FORTUNE — I could see them from my dorm room window. The signs on the tents in front of the John Harvard statue read: “We want a university for the 99%!” With this slogan, Occupy Harvard — a student protest expressing solidarity with the larger Occupy movement — managed to alienate students from across the political spectrum. “That’s ludicrous,” said one self-described liberal friend. “Harvard’s special because not just any idiot can get in.”
In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes indicts this sort of thinking, arguing that our faith in meritocracy — the notion that society’s rewards accrue to the best, brightest, and most diligent among us — is unfounded.
“America feels broken,” Hayes opens. He argues that the country is experiencing a “crisis of authority,” illustrated by the scandals on Capitol Hill and Wall Street, in baseball and the Catholic Church, among others. Well written, thoroughly researched, and easy to read, the book delivers ample evidence that our elites are failing us.
That being said, I’m not sure I buy it. I don’t doubt the existence of elite corruption and malfeasance, but I find elite incompetence a much more probable explanation. Call me sentimental. As Einstein allegedly said, “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not yet sure about the universe.” (I refer anyone who takes issue with this to the comments section of anything on the Internet, ever.)
If stupidity is infinite then it must extend to elites at all times and in all places. Hayes argues, unpersuasively, that we’re in a special, sunset period of history — what he calls the “Fail Decade.” Yet history is replete with examples of elite incompetence — think Nero, Lord Cardigan, Neville Chamberlain, and whoever called the Titanic unsinkable.
And if stupidity is infinite, people of all titles, incomes, and prestige levels are susceptible. It’s true that distinguished individuals often mess up their responsibilities. But so do their less distinguished, non-elite brethren. As Damon Runyon said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”
I had to laugh when Hayes criticized what he calls the “Cult of Smartness.” The idea that this is not a book written by a man who thinks he’s smarter than most people seems a bit silly. In fairness, Hayes makes the argument that money and power interact to facilitate inequality of opportunity more skillfully than I’ve seen it made elsewhere. But lingering in the background of his book, along with a hint of paranoia, is the assumption that the self-critical answer must be the right one.
This logic permeates the Ivy League, serving two distinct purposes in my experience. First, it alleviates the guilt that develops when one has both a strong belief in equality and an uncomfortable amount of personal success. It also fulfills the common need to be perceived as open-minded and forward thinking. And what could be more open-minded than vilifying, as Hayes does, the very system that conferred elite status on you in the first place? Of course, Hayes neatly exculpates himself from the charge of entitlement on the grounds that he’s now showing us the light.
One of Hayes’s targets is Hunter College High School, the alma mater we share. This “talented and gifted” New York City public school is frequently criticized for its mostly white and Asian demographics. The admissions process — a single exam — is not really meritocratic, Hayes argues, because wealthy applicants can afford the best tutoring.
Though intuitively compelling, this narrative is far from complete. In my experience, the students who’d done the most prepping were those of the most modest means. “The Flushing prep schools aren’t filled with rich kids,” said a Hunter alumnus from the neighborhood.
More diversity at Hunter would absolutely be better. But Hunter facilitates upward mobility for many — so does Harvard. These institutions are far from perfect, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will always be a 1%. That’s a mathematical statement, not a political one. Though Twilight of the Elites makes for an interesting and informative read, I’m still convinced that meritocracy is our best and only option.
The reader must wade through 200 pages of erudite complaining before Hayes concedes that it would be ridiculous to lottery off surgeons’ licenses. He then argues: “The challenge, and it is not a small one, is directing the frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite. One that marshals insurrectionist sentiment without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust. One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism. One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable, and connected social order.”
In short, Hayes offers us a meaningless, utopian alternative to meritocracy, which is no alternative at all. I can’t step outside of my head, and so I can’t insulate myself from the criticism that my faith in meritocracy is self-justifying. But — sorry Hayes — I’m still a believer.
Fortune intern Lisa Mogilanski begins her sophomore year at Harvard in the fall. Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.
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