Overclass Rules

Forbes ASAP , October 08, 1995

All capital is vulnerable to confiscation and redistribution, to seizure in the name of fairness or popular will. Human capital is no exception. And for more than a decade, an intellectual campaign has been building for the confiscation of human capital.

That campaign broke into general public view with Newsweek's July 31 cover story on "The Overclass," a slippery term coined by New Republic Senior Editor Michael Lind. This newly discovered class -- highly educated and generally highly paid, with highly educated and generally highly paid spouses -- is the product of three basic trends: Elite universities, notably the Ivy League, started letting in more smart middle-class (or even poor) kids and stopped excluding Jews, women, and other non-old boys' network types. Once-closed professions, especially finance, law, politics, and national journalism, followed suit. And the economic rewards for what Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts" and what Peter Drucker, less pejoratively, calls "knowledge workers" rose substantially.

Every society has an elite. But this one is huge -- millions of college-educated professionals -- and, for the most part, unapologetic. Both its size and its attitude upset egalitarian social critics.

"It's one thing to have an unequal distribution of income," writes Lind's colleague Mickey Kaus in The End of Equality. "It's another to have that same distribution of income rigorously based on schooling and skills. In the latter situation, those with more money will be able to claim not just that they have more money, but that they have something else, knowledge, that makes them more valuable. The pay-for-skills trend lends all income differences, small and large, a nasty meritocratic bite."

Certainly, it is dangerous, and incorrect, to equate what the market values at a particular moment with some Platonic form of "merit." Market processes simply express the intersection of diverse tastes and scarce talents. But what, exactly, is so "nasty" about a meritocracy? What is so evil about an open system that rewards skills?

Perhaps it's simply too open. In The Revolt of the Elites, the late social critic Christopher Lasch, wrote that "the real objection to meritocracy [is] that it drains talent away from the lower classes and thus deprives them of effective leadership." He was also none too friendly to uppity women, seeing in feminism no more than yuppie greed: "Female careerism provides the indispensable basis of [the professional class's] prosperous, glamorous, gaudy, sometimes indecently lavish way of life."

That stifling the talents of people born poor or female might be wrong, as well as economically foolish, was no concern of Lasch's. In The True and Only Heaven, he celebrated the culture of the parochial, anti-intellectual, anti-ambition, anti-achievement Charlestown section of Boston. A self-proclaimed populist (despite his snooty obsession with the evils of shopping malls), Lasch made a virtue of accepting one's place.

But the anti-meritocracy crusade isn't mostly about keeping poor girls down. It's about Bill Gates -- and not because he's worth $13 billion. In Kaus and Lind and Lasch's ideal world, Bill Gates simply would not have happened. Antimeritocracy polemicists may disagree on many issues, but on one public policy all concur: America made a terrible mistake in 1973 when we ended the draft and told young people that their lives were their own. Three years after that fateful decision, Gates dropped out of Harvard to work full time for Microsoft.

From Kaus to Lind to Lasch to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter to philosopher Michael Walzer, every antimeritocracy polemicist wants to see universal, mandatory national service: a peacetime draft, every young man and woman toting a rifle or cleaning bedpans in a nursing home. "For social egalitarians, national service is valuable precisely because it would force Americans to pause in their disparate career trajectories and immerse themselves in a common, public enterprise," writes Kaus.

The point isn't to fill jobs that need doing; it's to confiscate human capital, and the precious years young people have to build it: no late nights in the library or the lab; no long hours in the gym, the theater, the school newspaper. No fooling with computers, no honing political arguments, no traveling the world. No working at a job for which you get paid. No Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson; no Quentin Tarentino, no John Singleton; no Michael Dell; no Marc Andreessen.

Squandering such talents, and the lives of millions of lesser known but nonetheless productive people, is a terrible price to pay to satisfy a few writers' egalitarian fancies. Only an Overclass could even imagine such a thing.