hen I coined the word "meritocracy" and its imagined credo, IQ + Effort = Merit, I could never have anticipated that the actual rise of a "cognitive elite" in America and its contrary in the underclass would be chronicled with such meticulous scholarship forty years later. I was talking mostly of what might be; Herrnstein and Murray are talking of what has been, and is. One of the most enduring truths is that man is a verb; but what human beings can do remains astonishing and frightening.
I love America almost as much as my own country. This is perhaps partly because for three years running in the 1930s I was taken each summer by my informal foster parents (one of whom had been Eleanor Roosevelt's best friend at school) to stay in the White House. My childhood recollections are no doubt unreliable, and even more my judgments. But for what they are worth, I was impressed by Franklin Roosevelt not just as a wily politician but also as a man of moral stature, and I felt a little the same about some of his colleagues when I sat down for dinner with him and Wallace and Hull and Ickes and the other New Dealers. Whatever later revelations have done to tarnish the image of Roosevelt, I don't think that many people would consider that a comparison between him and Nixon or Reagan would be wholly unfavorable to their predecessor in the Presidency. One of the extraordinary things about moral qualities is that they are so readily recognized by those around the people who possess them. This can make goodness catching.
In 1940, Winston Churchill showed that he had learned something from Roosevelt's "fireside chats" when, as France was falling and England seemed open to imminent invasion by Hitler, he began his broadcast to the nation with the simple but inspired words, "The news from France is very bad." A prime minister who could face the truth at that moment was a man for whom people would die. John Major is not such a man.
I go so far back in the history of this century in order to make my main point about this magisterial book. The authors have much to say about the changes which have occurred since that time. In its main outlines theirs is a story of progress. Intelligence--or cognitive ability, as they prefer to call it most of the time--seems to have swept almost all before it. "The United States led the rest of the world in opening colleges to a mass of young people of ability, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, and financial resources.... Scoring above 700 is forty times more concentrated in the freshman classes at Yale and Harvard than in the national SAT population at large." After the 1950s, "The next three decades saw a great social leveling, as the executive suites filled with bright people who could maximize corporate profits, and never mind if they came from the wrong side of the tracks or worshipped at a temple instead of a church." In Washington, "the top echelons of federal officialdom, special interest groups, think tanks, and the rest of Washington's satellite institutions draw heavily from the cognitive elite.... Part 1 mostly described a success story--success for the people lucky enough to be part of the cognitive elite but also a success for the nation as a whole."
The other side, the dark side, of America is also portrayed: the steep upward curve in the rates of divorce and illegitimacy, with people of low ability most affected; the crime that is tearing a free society apart, with criminals having lower IQs; the poverty that afflicts the "very dull"; the people on welfare, these too with lower IQs. We are presented with a society savagely stratified according to cognitive ability.
The strange thing is that the authors, ardent for the truth though they be, are not prepared to recognize that nothing has failed like their kind of success, because success has been judged so narrowly, by the criteria which they hold onto like dear life. They are more broad-minded than some of their colleagues in their definition of ability. They see merit in Howard Gardner's seven distinct intelligences--linguistic, musical, spatial, etc. But neither he nor they admit even the possibility of the sort of "moral intelligence" which in my view characterized Roosevelt and Churchill.
They quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about an "aristocracy of virtue and talent," without noting that virtue came before talent. They do not cloud their minds with the thought that the quality of moral leadership has deteriorated as leadership has been more and more restricted to people with a particular kind of cognitive ability. It is not enough for members of the new elite to "keep the sidewalks shoveled in the winter." The fellow feeling that David Hume regarded as the foundation for all society is not bounded by sidewalks. The elite have burrowed their way into their comfortable nests by competing successfully and sometimes ruthlessly with their peers at school, all the way up to Yale and Harvard if they are smart enough to get there. Herrnstein and Murray are fond of the word "smart." Being Harvard men, they are certainly smart themselves.
But because they do not see the worm in their thesis, the contradictions in their underlying position, they have very little to say about remedies for the lot of the underclass, or indeed of any class, except for the timehonored maxim that the Federal Government should get off people's backs. "A wide range of social functions should be restored to the neighborhood when possible and otherwise to the municipality," they write. They do not ever consider that community and family morality is generated when children and adults live together over longish periods of time. Familiarity breeds not only contempt but tradition. The social mobility that is the subject of this book, and the geographical mobility that is associated with it, are themselves threats to fellow feeling. If the authors could accept that, they would be a little further along the road toward understanding and judging the unexampled century of the uncommon man and the uncommon woman.