JOHN DERBYSHIRE: Calvin Coolidge, David Brooks And The Limits of “Meritocracy”
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[Adapted from the latest Radio Derb, now available exclusively on]

Last week, Mrs. Derbyshire and I attended the centenary celebration in Vermont of the ascent to the Presidency, in the early morning hours of August 3rd, 1923, of Calvin Coolidge, who subsequently went on to sign the 1924 Immigration Act, the moratorium model for today’s immigration patriots. The story of that inauguration is, as I described at length,  one of the most dramatic and romantic in American political history.

It was all great fun. We had a wonderful time. Our heartfelt thanks to the Trustees and staff of the Coolidge Foundation and to the sponsors whose donations made it all possible.

There is now a new, authorized and annotated edition of Coolidge’s autobiography that I recommend to your attention. It has an introduction by Amity Shlaes, who is a recent biographer of Coolidge and is currently Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Coolidge Foundation:

As he explicitly states in his autobiography, Coolidge believed former presidents should not live off the federal purse. As a result, there is no federally funded Coolidge Presidential Library. At the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, we seek to honor the president’s intentions and currently operate without federal aid.

When Amity Shlaes’ biography of Coolidge first came out ten years ago, I had things to say about it here at

That wasn’t a negative review. I liked the book, writing that “Coolidge is not a bad read.“ By my reviewing standards, “not a bad read“ is lavish praise.

However, this being, I chided Amity Shlaes for having skipped lightly over the 1924 Immigration Act, which Coolidge signed:

Given the momentous demographic consequences of the Act … this must be regarded as unforgivably dismissive.

I softened that blow (I hope) by then recording that all other biographers of the Thirtieth President were equally silent about the Immigration Act. Claude Fuess, whose 1939 biography of Coolidge I’ve been quoting a lot, doesn’t mention it at all in his book, which is more than five hundred pages long.

And yes, I was inclined to cut Amity Shlaes as much slack as I could on account of the fact that she, like me, had once fallen afoul of America’s chronic refusal to face reality on matters of race.

That was back in 1994 when she published an opinion column titled “Black Mischief“ in the London Spectator and provoked a Two Minutes Hate that presaged what I went through with “The Talk” in 2012.

The United States of a hundred years ago of course differed in many ways from the country we live in today. It’s a cliché to say it, but like most clichés it’s true—we are much more divided than we’ve been since the Civil War.

Nineteen twenty-three America was also divided, but differently. There were plenty of radical Progressives in that America, inspired by the Russian Revolution of a few years earlier. There were reactionaries, too, of many kinds: religious and social reactionaries, reactionary intellectuals—for example  H.L. Mencken—and thirty thousand Klansmen marching in robes and hoods down Pennsylvania Avenue [The day 30,000 white supremacists in KKK robes marched in the nation’s capital, by Terence McArdle, Washington Post, August 11, 2018]. Sure, there was division.

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Our division today, though, seems more solid, more structural, more clearly binary: them and us. Why?

For a clue you might try reading New York Times token conservative David Brooks’ long opinion piece of August 4: What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?

I have mixed feelings about Brooks. He doesn’t categorize easily, but a fair approximation would be: cookie-cutter Jewish left-liberal immigration advocate with very acute social-observation skills, but not a very firm grasp of the underlying sciences.

In nature-nurture issues, for example, he is much more favorable to nurture than our current understanding can support. See my review of his 2011 book about human nature, Hard Wiring.

But those very acute social-observation skills are on display in this New York Times column. What has divided us so deeply, Brooks argues, is meritocracy. Since the 1960s, writes Brooks—

The ideal that we’re all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.

The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement. Highly educated parents go to elite schools, marry each other, work at high-paying professional jobs and pour enormous resources into our children, who get into the same elite schools, marry each other and pass their exclusive class privileges down from generation to generation.

There is of course much more than that that needs saying; but that needs saying.

And it has been said—by me, amongst other people. There is a deep knotty conundrum at the heart of meritocracy; and our ever-improving understanding of biology and the human sciences just makes it clear to us how very, very knotty that conundrum is.

The conundrum first came into clear view way back in 1958 when British social scientist Michael Young published his book The Rise of the Meritocracy [PDF], the book that first coined the word “meritocracy.“

I wrote at some length about Michael Young’s book in my monthly Diary for February 2018, the sixtieth anniversary of the book’s publication.

Young’s book is an imagined report written by a British sociologist of the year 2033. The report reviews the previous century of social developments in his country, which are summarized by his title, The Rise of the Meritocracy.

It describes the conundrum of meritocracy, which Michael Young foresaw sixty-five years ago and David Brooks is commenting on today. Brooks has observed in reality the process that Michael Young described in fiction.

Sample quote from Brooks:

When I began my journalism career in Chicago in the 1980s, there were still some old crusty working-class guys around the newsroom. Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession; we’re an elite-college-dominated profession.

The same applies, says Brooks, to all the other professions. We’ve developed a smug, arrogant, inbreeding, self-satisfied elite class that loathes and despises the less-educated people, who loathe and despise the elites right back.

Hence Donald Trump, champion of the non-elites.

It was all said by Michael Young sixty-five years ago.

And N.B.: Young’s fictional sociologist, writing up his report in the year 2033, gets lynched by a low-IQ mob.

Michael Young and David Brooks are birds of a feather. They want—in Young’s case, wanted—social equality, and believe—in Young’s case, believed—it can be attained by social engineering.

Here is David Brooks in an earlier article:

The government has to work aggressively to reduce the human capital inequalities that open up in an innovation economy. That means early and constant interventions so everybody has a chance to participate.

[The Talent Magnet, NYT, January 24, 2011]

“Early and constant interventions“—right. Fix the schools!

If the government just works on that—and especially if we import lots of talented young people from the rest of the world—the Meritocracy will be saved!


But from what the human sciences are telling us today, that’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy. In intelligence, personality, and characteristic behavior, we’re as equal as we’re ever going to be. Some probable developments in the near future—embryo selection for the offspring of elites, for example—will make us less equal.

Facing reality, and bringing back common-sense ideas about human nature, might help.

They might get us back on the rails towards real progress in human happiness and human flourishing—the rails we were on a hundred years ago when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Hey, I can dream.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

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