ANNE APPLEBAUM has written an interesting column on meritocracy, in which, among other things, she chastises the conservative movement for its repeated assaults on educational elites, not least people who went to Yale.
Ms Applebaum arguably understates her case. She could have pointed out that American conservatism is currently being disfigured not just by populism, but also by nepotism. The neo-conservative movement is dominated by the children of the founders, the so-called mini-cons. Commentary is now edited by the son of its longest-serving editor, John Podhoretz. Adam Bellow, Saul's son and one of the stars of conservative publishing, has even written a (rather good) book justifying nepotism.
And conservatives have generally made fools of themselves in replying to Ms Applebaum. They have criticised her for committing such unforgivable sins as attending Yale and living in Poland. They are not against real meritocracy, they argue, just the sham meritocracy that America now embraces, which is why they rail against anybody who happens to have a PhD but make endless excuses for numbskulls such as Christine O'Donnell, that great constitutional scholar, and Sarah Palin, that great historian of the Founding Fathers.
Still, I think that the debate about the state of America's meritocracy is actually much more interesting than Ms Applebaum allows, and actually cuts more in favour of the tea-partiers than their critics.
The American meritocracy has recently entered its triumphalist phase. It elected its first pure blood member as president (Bill Clinton, though probably cleverer than Mr Obama, had other personas, including that of the good ol boy). It enacted some of its most cherished programs, not least health-care reform. It has happily thumbed its nose at popular prejudices about gay marriage, the ground-zero mosque, deficit spending, etc.
That would be fine if Ms Applebaum's portrait of the meritocracy, with universities welcoming high IQ types and allocating them to productive jobs in a thriving society, were accurate. But in fact this triumphalism is oddly timed, to put it mildly. The past few years have seen the best and brightest, obsessed by clever academic models, wreaking havoc in one area after another. The products of America's elite business schools were responsible for introducing complicated financial tools that almost wrecked the economy, for example: at the height of the financial boom more than 40% of the graduates of Harvard Business School and the like went into the financial-services sector.
America's meritocracy is also in danger of calcifying into a caste, decorated with a few members from favoured minorities, but cut off from the great mass of the population. The social hierarchy is getting both steeper and harder to climb. Poor children are finding it harder to find a good education, thanks in part to the innovation-destroying power of the teacher's unions. Ms Applebaum celebrates America's universities for opening themselves up to people from all backgrounds. In fact, there is mounting evidence, brilliantly marshalled in Daniel Golden's "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates", that, after a period of outreach, America's universities are pulling up the drawbridge once again. They are stuffed full of the children of the elite, going out of their way to recruit the offspring of alumni, celebrities, potential donors and the well-connected, and are increasingly out of reach of the white working class.