Tyler Cowen’s Vision of a More Perfect Meritocracy

Average is OverTyler Cowen’s Average is Over could also be called The End of the Middle-Class Nation. Its subtitle is “Powering America Beyond the Age of Great Stagnation.” The imperatives of power or productivity will make America more unequal and more divided into the two classes of the “hyper-productive” and minimally productive. For the libertarian economist, the movement into a new age of a more perfect meritocracy based on productivity serves not only prosperity but justice. As the first bourgeois philosopher Hobbes told us, there’s no standard higher than the generation of power by which to rank human beings. The productivity of a person is his value.

Let me just call attention to some of the features of this new age, with the help of the fine overview of Cowen’s argument by Michael Barone. It goes without saying that I’ve added my own labor (as well as that of Charles Murray and others) to the description of these features:

1. New technologies will lead us out of stagnation. Productivity depends mainly on technological innovation.

2. The new birth of innovation will produce more very wealthy and more poor people, “including people,” Cowen predicts, “who do not always have access to basic public services.”

3. Two kinds of people will flourish in this new birth of innovation: Those who are very competent in working with machine intelligence. And those who are equally competent in managing and marketing those who are good with machines but lack people skills. The future is about digital, informational “genius machines,” marketing, and management. There is, we can say, a place for the economist as libertarian cheerleader for orienting as much of life as possible—including education—around these imperatives. The best economists, at least, will, because of their comprehensive grasp or even intuition of what really drives change, “be the only people left,” Cowen claims, who have a clear notion of what is going on.”

4. This top 15% or so of the population will be wealthier than ever before. And they will deserve what they have. Race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation and all that will mean less than ever. A meritocracy based on techno-productivity will be multicultural (or not really care about culture) and globalized. “Machines,” Cowen reminds us, “have no fear of the unfamiliar,” and increasingly neither will those distinguished by their comfort and competence in taking their cue from mechanical genius.

5. Those who provide services to the meritocrats will also do very well, although not as well. They will cater to the whims of the “classless.”

6. Other jobs will be oriented around being conscientious. That is: The mental labor for any particular class will have been by the hyper-productive. Others will work only insofar as they competently and reliably carry out their orders. Most jobs will become less creative, not more. Surely “our growing ability to measure and grade performance at a task” will suck whatever joy their once was in working in an office (as an undesirable byproduct of the cheerful fecklessness displayed on TV’s The Office). That might be bad news in particular for men, who are, on the whole, more spirited and worse listeners than women. Anyone with eyes to see knows that the dynamism of our economy is already very hard on men, who have been faring worse and worse. Those whom C.S. Lewis called “men without chests” will do better than men with chests. (I’ll pass on saying anything about women with or without chests.)

7. Many or most middle-class jobs will disappear. The real reason we’re in a jobless recovery is that the jobs taken out by the financial crisis weren’t productive. There’s no reason they should come back. Middle-management in general is on the way out. And so are secure careers in positions fairly insulated from the rigors of productivity, beginning with professors with tenure and most of the civil-service bureaucracy.

8. Upward mobility might be facilitated by high-tech education, which will identify the talented in non-meritocratic families and raise them up. Or, I suspect, it might not for all sorts of reasons. One is that high-tech education—MOOCs and other online delivery systems—won’t be very good and will put a high premium on the personal discipline of the student. The children of the hyper-productive will be getting a more traditional (in terms of delivery, at least) and a much better higher education at an elite school. Meanwhile, the families of those sinking out of the middle-class will get more pathological, including less achievement oriented. So an individual here and there will break into the world of the hyper-productive, but it won’t be that commonplace of an occurrence. It’s clear to me that Cowen believes that individual initiative in many cases won’t be enough.

9. The truth is that the hyper-productive will live in their own world and usually marry each other. So the heritability of intelligence will contribute to the cognitively-based class division. And the families of the hyper-productive, we can already see, will be stable and sensible. Kids will be well raised, at least from a productive point of view.

10. So as Barone says: “A fair society, ironically, may well have less social mobility.” But “fair” means valuing the virtues that lead to productivity and reducing the other virtues to mere lifestyle preferences. Can it really be the case that a society with decreasing social mobility is caused by more perfectly regarding each of us as free and equal individuals under the law?

11. The rich and clever people who have the money and power are unlikely to be magnanimously or generously or charitably concerned for the cost to the social fiber or “social capital.” They themselves, after all, won’t need the various safety nets—including government entitlements but also families, churches, local communities, and so forth—on which ordinary people depend to live decent lives. Religion and family will be lifestyle options or preferences for them, which they will probably often choose.

12. Ordinary people won’t revolt. They’ll be comfortable enough—especially if they move to places like Texas where lots of Mexican food that’s tasty, cheap, and nutritious is so readily available– and diverted enough by their various screens. They are going to get dumber and dumber, and Cowen refuses to sugarcoat or even be judgmental about that fact.

13. It’s true that “well-off intellectuals” might continue to “attempt to lead the egalitarian charge against the wealthy.” Cowen speculates that they do so because those who have “the status currency of intellect” compete with those who have “the status currency of money.” The intellectual class is small and losing on all fronts in the competition for status. More and more people both rich and poor will value learning only as a route to money. And so the alienated intellectuals can’t possibly win the attention of the diverted poor. They can’t even win the attention of the rich with the traditional thought that higher education is about more than money and power.

14. It’s easy to accuse Cowen of moral indifference. But he might respond that’s what being an economist is all about. And there’s something to be said for telling the truth about trends he can’t help but see with his own eyes.

15. Barone, against Cowen, says that we should build up the social capital that might help as many people as possible live a happy and successful life full of earned accomplishments. Economists have sometimes said that with the deconstruction of welfare state dependency social capital—beginning with strong families—would come back. Cowen gives us reasons to doubt that. The dynamic he describes is progressively more individualistic—with good consequences for some and bad for others. Minimalist dependency will continue. People will need it, but the rich and the clever will be pretty stingy about it.

16. Cowen does say, at one point, that people will, in fact, look “toward local communities and tight local bonds” as barriers against “economic risk.” But he also explains that most jobs will be more contingent or risky than ever, and all the evidence he gives would perpetuate our present pathological situation of underemployed men and lonely single moms. He adds, of course, that the men especially will tend to lose themselves in various techno-diversions. Women, or many of them, will be stuck with changing diapers they can barely afford.

17. For myself, I can’t help but think that the libertarian economist slights the possibility of a democratic reaction to these inegalitarian tendencies, just as he slights the possibility of a genuine religious revival. That revival wouldn’t necessarily be among the minimally (or less) productive. The lives of the hyper-productive seem much emptier to me than they do to him. There’s going to be all sorts of restlessness in the midst of hyper-prosperity that doesn’t have an economic cause. The truth about who we are as free and relational beings will work against the division of our country into merely economic classes.

18. The poverty of a certain strand of libertarian thinking is displayed in Cowen’s personal imagination. He “look[s] ahead to a time when the cheap and free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism.” It turns out that realistic vision of the world to come is “the real light at the end of the tunnel.” So it turns out that the Marxist and capitalist visions of a non-obsessive or amoral life governed by one whimsical enjoyment after another are about the same. For me, they’re visions of hell.

Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. Lawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004-09. He writes Big Think's conservative blog Rightly Understood, and his most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.

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  1. Escoffier says

    I left this at PomoCon as well but since the main text is here … (and I made some edits)

    Dang, this is depressing—because so accurate.

    However, I do have some corrections (of Cowen, not Lawler).

    Cowen is right in the main and what he is describing is what I have in other comments called “the Davos world-view.” This is the vision of paradise of the new upper class and their intellectual enablers and apologists (e.g., Cowen).

    Which brings me to Cowen’s first error. He’s wrong that there will be no place for intellectuals in the new order. He is living proof of that, in fact. A certain kind of celebrity professor (Niall Ferguson) and/or pop-econ/“Big Trend” author (S. Levitt, M. Gladwell) will always be able to make a very nice living as the “tutors” and also apologists of the Davos class. BUT only if they conform in the basics to that world view. Their role is threefold: 1) they need to “sell” the Davos/transie ideology to the UMC and to the reading middle classes. They need to help create and maintain a climate of opinion which holds that the whole rotten system is fundamentally just and even the best possible. 2) They need to flatter the Davos class by telling them what they want to hear; viz., that they are indeed the Renaissance men they think they are, not just lucky or smart or hardworking, but truly admirable people comparable to those at the top of the society pyramid in past epochs. 3) They punish apostasy by setting the (narrow) frames of acceptable discourse and then persecuting heretics (Richwine?) who transgress. Pour encourager les autres .

    The reward for so doing is money—not enough to live like the Davos class but enough to live comfortably in the UMC and, crucially, enough to live comfortable in the BLUE precincts, which is now VERY expensive. And you also get invited to speak at their conferences which gives you something of a status boost.

    So Cowen is wrong about that. The Davos class wants and needs court intellectuals and it will see to it that they are paid more than a living wage. What it has no use for are good honest teachers and free-thinking philosophers.

    Cowen’s second error is his claim that the new upper class positively does not care about the poor and will soon start cutting them off from various kinds of aid. This is absolutely not true. Cowen’s error stems, I speculate, from two sources.

    1) is simple libertarian wishful thinking. Libtards all dream of the day the welfare state withers away and so naturally he wants to believe it will actually happen. They look at the balance sheet of what WR Mead calls the “blue state social” model, see that the numbers don’t add up, and foresee an ending. But there cannot be an ending. In this, the Davos class is wiser than Cowen. They know they must keep the bread and circuses flowing to prevent revolt/collapse. They also have, if not a conscience, at least a measure of guilt. Radical inequality on the order of Bourbon France is a rather ugly thing. The only way they can justify it to themselves is by seeing to it that their inferiors live well above the level of French peasants—above the poverty line when even “poverty” is defined as “never hungry and all the modern conveniences.”

    2) is Cowen’s myopia about race, to which I will confine myself to the extent to which he fails to see the Davos class’ approach to race. Cowen is no doubt a genuinely colorblind person; he wishes each individual to be rewarded according to merit. The Davos class does not share this view. Certainly not in the way Cowen does. The Davos class sees massive disparities of outcome and it wishes to “fix” them—with money, education, outreach, all kinds of lib program that Cowen no doubt objects to. The Davos class sees these programs both as “good works” that help to justify their own privilege and also as necessary insurance against backlash, or “steam control” to borrow from Tom Wolfe’s Reverend Bacon. The old noblesse oblige among the aristocracy was to help your fellow citizens. The Davos class feels this impulse not one whit—except to the extent that certain fellow citizens are non-white, and in such cases citizenship is incidental, a non-factor. Such people are considered very important to help (not that the help is always or often effective, though the Davos class is VERY effective at hovering up the most talented non-white kids out of their communities and making of them one of their own. This is good for those kids, at least for their lifetime earnings, perhaps not so good for their communities). The Davos class is completely indifferent to the fate of the white lower and middle classes in Europe and the Anglo-sphere. They have, knowingly or not, bought into leftist academia’s concept of “white skin privilege” in which simply to be white means you can’t possibly have problems that any person would take seriously, and certainly not that warrants help from the pinnacles of society.

    So, wealth transfers and various forms of “aid” for the lower classes will remain in place, with a focus on the non-white, and if they end up aiding whites, that’s incidental or can’t be helped without being too obvious about the bias.

    Now, can society continue to pay for all this is an important question. The Cowens of the world will say “no” and being economists assume that if the math doesn’t work, then the system will have to end. But the Davos class takes a broader view than the simple balance sheet. Like any aristocracy, they have to comprehend the whole. They know that their power and privilege depends on finding a way to make the blue model continue to function and it would be premature, at this point, to bet against them.

    In the main, of course, I am with Peter. The world Cowen describes with approval (let’s not kid ourselves, he loves it) is wretched, apolitical, unjust, soul-killing–in the end, hell.

  2. gabe says

    Perhaps, the only question remaining is this: “In which circle of Hell shall we be assigned , or at least endeavor to be assigned?”
    Then again, I am sure that the superior class will work that out for us as well!

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson says

    I suggest that another important trend will play in this future scenario. It is the fact that religious people have significantly more children than the non-religious. Religion promotes self-discipline and other habits that help people succeed in education and work. Over the course of the next three or four generations, while technology advances, more people will be religious, until they dominate the population and much of the educated, higher income class.

    One of the best examples of this is the Mormons. They tend toward larger families at the same time they also seek higher education and have work habits that lead to success in careers. Studies have demonstrated that, in general, the more education a Mormon has, the more actively involved he is in his church. The historical trend of Mormon growth worldwide for more than a century has been a doubling of membership every twenty years or less. Projecting that trened into the future starts with 15 million individually named Mormons now, 30 million in 2033, 60 million in 2053, 120 million in 2073, and 240 million in 2093. This is due to both higher birth rates and conversions that account for half of this growth. Mormon dominated Utah is home to high tech industries. More than half of all Mormons already live outside the US and Canada. They will form a large market in and of themselves, and be able to supply that and other markets. Mormons live in 150 nations and speak 95 languages, and many Mormons learn a second language during two years as a missionary, so there is a lot of potential synergy in Mormon participation in developing high tech markets.

  4. Peter LawlerPeter Lawler says

    Mr. Swenson,
    Stay tuned for my take on the birth dearth. There’s obviously something to what you say.

    For those who care, there’s a rather complicated and really smart discussion of this take on Cowen in the thread on Postmodern Cnservative.

  5. Escoffier says

    Don’t worry about the Mormons. Cowen has that covered. However many kids they manage to crank out, Cowen will just import 10x the number of Third World Poor. Problem solved!

  6. Peter LawlerPeter Lawler says

    The E man is on the money on what Cowen suggests. But the upside of Cowen’s cold cosmpolitanism is that it highlights while “economic” libertarianism has ceased to be democratic. There should be a lesson here to some Mormons about the withering away of the connection between libertarianism–expecially of a certain kind–and social conservatism.

  7. djf says

    Prof. Lawler,

    I’m djf, the threader at Pomocon. At least some of your co-bloggers at this site seem to be a lot closer to Cowen’s position than to yours. You might want to take a look at Prof. Rappaport’s August 10 post, “Immigration, Open Borders and Libertarianism,” which responds rather harshly to my comment on a previous post that, in setting immigration policy, a nation is morally entitled to give the collective interest of its own citizens greater weight than the interests of potential immigrants. I never responded to Rappaport’s take-down (as he would see it) of my position, but his stated views seem to demonstrate that, even for more moderate self-described libertarians such as he, a “nation” is not a community but a set of laws, legal institutions and an economy. Perhaps that’s where we really are.

    • gabe says


      I remember the discussion and you are correct both in your recollection and your assertions! Specifically, Prof. Rappaport claimed that the only justifiable exclusion or limit on immigration would have to do with economic effects upon the citizenry and other commenters claimed that it would be improper to consider such things as “allegiance” to American ideals / philosophy, willingness to adapt to our way. Indeed, one claimed that my assertion that permitting entry to folks who are hostile to our way of life would be “beneficial.” Are you kidding me???? We are not simply a set of laws (obeyed by the way in a “willy-nilly” fashion by our elites), legal institutions (that apparently are unwilling to exert the rule of law when it comes to immigration) and an economy.
      Our laws, both positive and constituent are predicated upon certain premises. If you can not accept these premises and endeavor to incorporate them into your “new” lifestyle, then stay home and enjoy your impoverished multiculturism – and we don’t need the Davos crowd accusing us of xenophobia. After all, what the hell does “privileges and immunities of citizenship” mean anyway. OOPS, I forgot, only the COURT can determine that!!!
      take care

      • djf says

        Thanks for the response, Gabe. However, I think you’re understating the radicalism of Prof. Rappaport’s position – as I recall it (maybe he made a clarification in subsequent comments I did not read), Mike took the position that, in setting immigration policy, the interests of citizens and immigrants should be given equal weight, full stop – as I understood him, he would permit no special consideration for citizens even on economic effects. I am open to being shown that I misinterpreted Rappaport, but even if he only took the position you attribute to him, that still is quite radical (albeit the common position of the bipartisan ruling-class establishment in this supposedly democratic country). Best, djf

        • gabe says


          You are, of course, correct with the radicalism of Rappaport’s assertions. I intended in my resoponse to somehow tie it in with the post by Prof. Lawler – economics, etc and not cover the whole gauntlet of silliness that he and others propose.

          take care

  8. R Richard Schweitzer says

    For long periods assertions have been made that increasing centralization of power in the mechanism of the federal government was necessary to, or arose as a reaction generated to, offset the concentrations of economic and social powers that occurred during the industrial development of the United States and other developing nations.

    Is it not possible that the increasing differentials in the concentrations of incomes and accumulated wealth, as well as the trends noted by Tyler Cowen, are occurring as an offset and reaction to the dominating effects on our social order resulting from the continuing centralization of economic and political power in the mechanisms of governments?

    That continuing centralization of economic and political power has been identified* with the rising incidence in the numbers making up the masses who choose to defer and devolve the choices and risks of individuality to collective functions through the mechanisms of governments. Those who recognize the productivity potentials and power of individuality are finding needs to, and means to, preserve and advance them for their interests. Those interests to maintain individuality are contra to the collective objectives of centralized government.

    Historians tend to regard the decline of cultures, societies and civilizations in terms of a “descent,” rather than in terms of the fragmentations that can be identified in the past and observed in the present. History reveals that other cultures and societies and ultimately civilizations have been composed around the mixed fragments of preceding times. Evidence is building that supports the perception of the trends of fragmentation noted by Tyler Cowen.

    * “The Masses in Representative Democracy” by Michael Oakeshott (in “Freedom and Serfdom” Albert Hunold, ed. 1961)


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