The construction of functional hierarchies is a fundamental task of political theory. Like biological organisms, human systems need centralization to coordinate their activities in harmony. Faced with ever-increasing complexity, modern societies have built institutional pipelines to harness talent, tackle long-term challenges, and organize collective action at scale. Some regimes are more egalitarian than others, but all cultivate an elite that shapes and directs the polity—consciously or not.
As Peter Turchin observes, large-scale societies with dynamic hierarchies have outlasted and outcompeted more horizontal models since the beginning of the Holocene. Meanwhile, those who try to do away with hierarchy fail to produce anything but corruption and sclerosis. Lenin rightly argues that even revolutionary Marxists need a vanguard; for better or worse, the question of elite production is inescapable.
We can visualize competing ways to select elites by imagining a two-by-two matrix in which the first axis opposes meritocracy to aristocracy, and the second axis opposes moral desert to functionalism.
The first axis deals with our definitions of excellence. At face value, the distinction between meritocracy and aristocracy seems illusory. Indeed, meritocracy is a modern echo of aristocracy: both point to a system in which hierarchies elevate those who possess a select set of virtues. But the kind of excellence which modern meritocracy selects for is altogether different. Aristocracy, in the ancient sense, was tied to certain traits of character which demonstrated a great soul: wisdom, prudence, intellect, and courage. Meritocratic achievement is linked to results rather than soul, demonstrated through productivity and expertise. The definitions of excellence assumed by America’s ruling class evolved over the generations from ones defined aristocracy to ones derived from meritocracy. The panoply of virtues that underpins our elite-selection pipeline corresponds to the utilitarian virtues of a liberal, market-based society in which managerial types have long replaced the Renaissance men of the founding generation.
The second axis is easier to grasp. It deals with the distinction between desert-based and functionalist models. Desert-based systems legitimize hierarchies by claiming that those who rule deserve their position and privileges. By contrast, functionalist societies seek to build political systems in which the virtuous and competent rule because they serve the common good, regardless of who owns these achievements. Questions of moral desert have dominated America’s national conversation for more than twenty years. Do the test scores of Ivy Leaguers justify their influence? Do Elon Musk’s achievements explain his wealth? But this obsession with desert, however well-intentioned, obscures the need for more systematic thought on the creation of hierarchies that serve functional ends.
The institutions that identify and empower elites operate on the same frameworks as the classes they broadly serve. Among the building blocks of America’s elite-selection pipeline, none plays a greater role than top universities. With endowments greater than the GDP of entire countries, centuries of accumulated prestige, and networks at every level of the ruling class, the likes of Harvard and Yale wield a unique kind of socio-cultural influence. Diving into the pathologies of these schools will allow us to understand the broader reasons why America is stuck in a dysfunctional desert-oriented meritocracy, one that struggles to produce a competent and principled class of statesmen.
The Aristocratic University
America’s elite universities have long fused the myth of meritocracy with the reality of aristocracy. As early as 1820, critics accused Harvard—then a bastion of the Boston upper-class—of elitism, a charge to which administrators responded by introducing difficult entrance exams. These tests did not change the institution’s makeup, and deliberately so. From Latin and Greek to political philosophy, Harvard’s faculty selected themes and questions that no one but students from a handful of preparatory schools could address. In fact, the function of the new admissions process had little to do with access, and much to do with legitimacy. Hiding behind the convenient veil of meritocracy, Harvard could claim the mantle of equal opportunity while remaining exclusive.
Every time public schools managed to adapt and prepare their middle-class students for the entrance exam, the university would change the test’s structure to make it impossible for commoners to compete. In 1850, the exam lasted eight hours; by 1865, it lasted three days and covered twice as many subjects. Harvard justified these changes by re-affirming their desire to become more meritocratic. Far from a gatekeeping tool, the ever-changing exam would prevent the undeserving sons of the elite from corrupting an institution wherein achievement alone prevailed—or so the administration claimed. Of course, the leaders of the college knew that Harvard would remain as aristocratic as ever. But they understood the need to use the meritocracy narrative to protect the university from attacks in the name of democratic consistency.
Every elite needs a story to legitimize its status. In secular democracies, where neither birth nor divine authority suffices, the search for legitimating mechanisms must operate in subtler, more opaque ways. Democratic elites are in constant self-denial, preserving privileges whose existence they cannot acknowledge in public. From the classroom to the boardroom, the ruling class has to adopt the language of egalitarianism while preventing its material realization.
To fulfill both of these objectives at once, the American elite has built a stack of social technologies around the concept of meritocracy. On paper, every institution of elite production is accessible to all who deserve access. But the players who control the definition of merit and the metrics of achievement have evident incentives to limit the democratization of status. There lies the genius of meritocracy as we know it: the public mind does not grasp that a handful of institutions shape our perception of merit, that the selection processes change to protect dynastic privileges, and that meritocracy at-large consists of little more than a legitimating mechanism by and for elites. Dressed in the garb of equality, meritocracy allows hidden bastions of aristocracy to thrive in democratic societies.
America’s top universities have long embraced this framework, mobilizing the language of merit to protect institutions of elite production and reproduction. In fact, despite its internal contradictions, this dual structure serves vital functions. The egalitarian spirit of democracy makes us vulnerable to uniformity. Obsessed with erasing distinctions in rank, we run the risk of elevating mediocrity, failing to produce distinguished statesmen to steward the political order, and thereby endangering our own success.
The founding generation understood this inescapable tension. For them, aristocratic institutions were the best allies of democracies. To aspiring elites, the likes of Harvard provided a positive view of the good life, a sense of noblesse oblige, and a stellar education in the humanities. More than factories of statesmen, bastions of aristocracy served as a counter-cultural force, preserving sophisticated traditions of excellence against the vulgarization of popular culture. The hereditary character of these institutions facilitated their insulation. Responsible for the transmission of aristocratic virtues among a select set of families, elite universities ensured that a distinctive, functional approach to stewardship survived the corrosive entropy of time. Liberated from the pressures of society-at-large, distinguished colleges would act as incubators of elite creativity and talent.
America’s Mixed Regime
The American political order relies on a set of contradictory principles. The authors of The Federalist Papers recognized the need for a “natural aristocracy” to protect the state’s democratic outlook. They designed the Senate as a mechanism to identify and elevate proto-aristocrats, hoping to counterbalance the short-termism of the House. Where the lower chamber would attract popular leaders who cared about—and depended upon—the whims of public opinion, the higher chamber would select for refined personalities who had mastered the art of statecraft.
Of course, the Senate never fulfilled this function. If America did have aristocrats at all, the select few were shaped by institutions whose importance Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison failed to grasp: elite universities. Detached from the immediate constraints of the outer world, academic ivory towers provided a space where the cult of genius thrived. Fusing the Renaissance’s dedication to the liberal arts, the puritans’ religious commitments, and the unabashed elitism of Oxford and Cambridge, America’s selective universities produced the very class of refined statesmen that the Framers envisioned. As former Dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman puts it in The Assault on American Excellence, the likes of Harvard acted as “aristocratic islands in a democratic sea.” Ultimately, the balance between democratic procedures and aristocratic institutions underpinned the stability of America’s mixed regime.
This balance no longer holds. Granted, elite universities today still bear a lot of their original institutional DNA. They still produce America’s ruling class, use meritocracy as a legitimating narrative, and adapt their admission processes to protect the interests of the few. But the values they instill have fundamentally changed. In the 19th century, selective colleges used the idea of meritocracy without abandoning a resolutely aristocratic view of education. By teaching canonical works, inculcating gentlemanly virtues, and encouraging physical exercise, these institutions shaped aspiring elites according to a specific conception of the good life.
As Harvard professor Irving Babbitt put it, the very idea of “humanistic education” implies that a certain kind of schooling makes us better at being human. There lies the essential difference between meritocracy and aristocracy. The former judges people by what they can do; the latter judges people by who they are. Meritocracy claims to build hierarchies on the basis of competence alone, without discriminating between different ways of life. To preserve the egalitarian outlook of liberal democracy, meritocracy distinguishes between skill and character; we remain equal in character, even if we differ in our abilities to perform productive tasks. By contrast, aristocracy focuses upon the kind of people we elevate to elite status. Beyond sheer competence, it seeks to establish hierarchies of virtue. In other words, where meritocracy is compatible with the classical liberal exhortation to “live and let live,” aristocracy presupposes the existence of higher ways of life—which aristocratic institutions aim to develop and preserve.
America’s elite universities have long abandoned the pursuit of higher ways of living. Where their former selves hid behind the noble lie of meritocracy, their current selves have embraced it outright. The transition began at the end of the 19th century and accelerated during the Cold War. The likes of James Conant, who served as president of Harvard University from 1933 until 1953, transformed these proto-aristocratic universities into meritocratic institutions obsessed with raw, quantifiable aptitude—a trend that culminated with the creation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The primary purpose of the university shifted from deep education into higher modes of life to pre-professional schooling in practical trades. As the managerial class replaced the elites of old, selective colleges turned into factories producing mostly consultants and financiers.
In 1820, Harvard paid lip service to meritocratic virtues while producing aristocrats. In 2021, Harvard pays lip service to aristocratic virtues while producing meritocrats.
Of course, elite colleges still inculcate substantive virtues. In theory, meritocracy seeks to judge people by their competence alone, thereby remaining agnostic about the ultimate ends of life. In practice, however, meritocratic institutions do promote a specific lifestyle. The managerial class’s relentless credentialism, obsession with expertise, disdain for leisure, unwillingness to marry before the age of 30, and workaholic disposition all constitute facets of a broader way of life. In this sense, meritocracy reflects the broader issue with liberal proceduralism—namely, that beneath claims of neutrality lie powerful but dysfunctional engines of social engineering.
Functionalist Cultivation of Elites
The publication of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice transformed the Western literature on meritocracy. Targeting the very idea of merit, Rawls argued that intelligence, conscientiousness, and all the other traits correlated with socio-economic success are morally arbitrary. Whether genetic or environmental, the factors that determine our ability to achieve extraordinary things remain by and large outside of our control. We may retain the ability to do much with what we receive, but the parameters within which we operate have little to do with individual choices. As a result, Rawls claims, hierarchies based upon “merit” are illegitimate and illusory.
Since then, opponents and proponents of meritocracy have articulated their debates around the notion of moral desert. Do elites deserve their privileges? Are their achievements truly theirs? To what extent can we build fair hierarchies? Such questions obsess Western theorists, who view the question of elite production as a matter of fairness, moral desert, and redistribution. Unable to justify inequality without appealing to moral desert, but stuck with the necessary reality of hierarchy, Rawl’s contribution ironically leaves us with the arbitrary privileges he argued against.
On the other side of the Pacific, however, a group of philosophers adopts an altogether different approach to this question. Drawing on the Confucian tradition, thinkers such as Jiang Qing and Bai Tongdong operate within the frame of “virtue politics;” that is, they try to construct a harmonious social order in which the common good determines the virtues that elite institutions cultivate. Rejecting the Western emphasis upon moral desert, these theorists of Confucian political meritocracy seek to build political systems in which the virtuous rule well—whether the achievements are “theirs” or not.
In this sense, these intellectuals adopt a functionalist approach to elite production. Their first-order concern lies with the production of a virtuous elite that serves the common good, with little attention paid to the metaphysics of individual desert. Nonetheless, Confucian meritocrats do not necessarily envision a rigid or hereditary ruling class; they seek to make every step of the selection process widely accessible. Like the American framers, Confucians realize that functional elites integrate talent from non-elite circles, balancing functionality with continuity. Still, the frame of virtue politics departs from the liberal tradition in one central respect. Where liberal philosophers build systems to restrain the power of potentially vicious rulers with strict procedures, theorists of virtue politics elevate the selection of rulers over the restriction of their power.
The Confucian legacy still underpins many of China’s institutions, where the ideal of functionalist aristocracy often translates into an imperfect form of functionalist meritocracy. For centuries, Confucian theorists worked on a stack of institutions—selective examinations, evaluation by peers, modes of promotion, and so on—whose main objective was not to restrain state power, but to elevate the right people to wield it. In a post-communist China shaped by the intellectual influence of Mao, Confucians have not yet managed to impose an aristocratic model in which the system selects for real character virtues, as opposed to mere competence. Still, Confucian thought provides a roadmap for reform towards functionalist aristocracy, one from which both China and America would benefit.
Where we grind away human capital by plunging our greatest minds into a never-ending rat-race through the unproductive spheres of America’s managerial elite, Confucian theorists invite us to produce statesmen and intellectuals who can steward the political order. Where we build systems whose main goal is to restrain the power of bad rulers, Confucians ask why our institutions produce incompetent and unvirtuous elites in the first place. Where we expect the invisible hand to harness talent for us, Confucians emphasize the need to plan the selection of qualities that have nothing to do with market forces. In short, while we remain stuck with the pathologies of desert-oriented meritocracy, Confucians exhort us to embrace functionalist aristocracy.
The distinction between desert-oriented and functionalist systems is not the difference between meritocracy and aristocracy. Historically, functionalist meritocracies emerge in uncertain times during which the state’s survival demands raw efficiency. The British navy, for instance, began to select for hyper-competence when hereditary cadres could no longer preserve the empire on their own. Similar situations explain the rise of meritocracy in Napoleonic France and Imperial China. In every case, the urgent needs of the moment—be it a war, an expansionist foreign policy, internal conflicts, or the management of complex societies at scale—lead sclerotic ruling classes to open their ranks to the competent few. These systems are functionalist insofar as meritocrats justify their political power by their contribution to the common good, but they remain non-aristocratic since meritocratic institutions select for brute-force competence, not refined character.
Conversely, while desert-oriented systems can be meritocratic or aristocratic, they inevitably accompany times of decline. When aristocrats can no longer justify their privileges by pointing to the ways in which their superior character serves the common good, they construct narratives of desert—divine rights, hereditary titles, and so on—that hide their lack of virtue, tame popular discontentment, and delay the emergence of revolt. Analogously, when meritocracies no longer seem to have evident benefits for the whole of society, the question of desert takes center stage. Critics of meritocracy obsess over the illusory nature of merit while incompetent meritocrats hide behind their credentials to defend their privileges.
The Future of American Education
In a sense, America began as a functionalist aristocracy. The American Revolution, like other moments of instability and refoundation, allowed a set of extraordinary individuals to emerge. A simple glance at the biographies of the country’s first presidents should suffice to prove that America’s founding leaders possessed a rare panoply of virtues.
Better still, the elite-production pipeline first served a resolutely aristocratic mission: the likes of Harvard and Yale saw themselves as formative antechambers of intellectual experimentation and virtuous statesmanship. While top universities and other institutions soon began to hide behind the protective veneer of meritocracy, the elites themselves continued to operate on an aristocratic ethos. But what began as an excuse became the norm.
The Industrial Revolution and the rise of managerialism encouraged the development of meritocracy; the World Wars and the Cold War cemented its supremacy. The end of post-Cold War liberal triumphalism then exposed the sclerotic state of our elite-production pipeline. The ensuing rise in popular distrust and discontentment underpins our present moment of dysfunctional, desert-oriented meritocracy. We now find ourselves in a situation wherein prominent voices obsess over competing definitions of moral desert without envisioning any deeper functional remedy to the failures of our elite.
Since hierarchies are inescapable, the central task of politics is to design institutions that ensure that the elite remains talented, virtuous, and well-organized. More than ever, the fundamental purpose of elite universities—and institutions of elite production more broadly—lies in the identification, empowerment, and elevation of those who can rule well.
Whether our elite-production pipeline will be reformed from within or replaced from without remains an open question. Either way, we need to overcome our obsession with moral desert, embrace a resolutely functionalist approach to hierarchy, and reshape our institutions to elevate character over sheer competence. America’s central problem is not a lack of technical expertise but an absence of moral vision. We do not want for means to our ends; we thirst for a new class of elites dedicated to the functional stewardship of an organic social order. This is not a question of privilege and desert, but of virtue and orientation.
Ultimately, elite universities should serve this explicitly aristocratic function: a place where the talented can develop a broader historical and moral perspective, away from popular distractions; where aspiring elites cultivate virtues like asabiyyah and courage, not managerial activism; where education shapes statesmen and guardians of high culture, not consultants and Excel spread-sheeters.