Twilight of the Elites perhaps blames too many pathologies on America's relationship with meritocracy. Don't elites in most cultural systems grow distant, self-perpetuating, and unaccountable? Still, most of what Hayes laments are problematic aspects of the current ruling order.
So how to reform it?
This is the part of Twilight of the Elites that I found least satisfying. Early in the book, discussing the elite public high school he attended, Hayes lamented its practice of granting seats based solely on an admissions test. Neutral as that may at first seem, he accurately called attention to the way that it advantaged kids from exceptional elementary schools and those with access to expensive test prep courses. (Yes, some kids now take those to get into high school!) As a result, he writes, very few black or Hispanic students gain entry to the school. Hence calls for affirmative action in admissions, which was the main solution Hayes advocated.
Later in the book, having written about the ways in which inequality can make elites both self-perpetuating and less equipped to make significant decisions sure to affect the whole of society, Hayes suggests a broader remedy. "My proposed solution for correcting the excesses of our extreme version of meritocracy is quite simple: make America more equal," he writes. "If you don't concern yourself at all with equality of outcomes, you will, over time, produce a system with horrendous inequality of opportunity. This is the paradox of meritocracy: It can only truly come to flower in a society that starts out with a relatively high degree of equality. So if you want meritocracy, work for equality."
It's worth dwelling on his argument:
As inequality has grown, as its negative consequences have become harder and harder to ignore, our response has been to put more and more weight on the educational system, to look to school reform as the means of closing the "achievement gap" and of guaranteeing the increasingly illusory promise of equal opportunity. We ask the education system to expiate the sins of the rest of society and then condemn it as hopelessly broken when it doesn't prove up to the task. Because education lies on the opportunity side of the opportunity/outcome divide, it is the only place where we see sustained and genuinely bipartisan consensus on domestic policy... there is an elite consensus that education, and specifically a certain vision of education reform, can provide the equality of opportunity that is so scandalously absent at present.
To urge that we consider equality of outcomes, however, is heresy, and for no small reason. There are ample historical examples of societies ideologically committed to equality of outcomes that resulted in a small, corrupt, and morally bankrupt ruling class and widespread penury and immiseration. Taken to its absolute extreme, a commitment to equality of outcomes is summed up by the Maoist adage, "The tall stalk gets cut down." Clearly I'm not saying we should do whatever it takes to ensure perfect equality of outcomes. But as a democratic society we should care much, much more than we currently do about them. We can't continue to tell ourselves that all is well as long as we're working for "equality of opportunity."
What Hayes finally counsels is raising taxes on the rich, redistributing more to the poor, increasing the estate tax, and reversing the tax trends of the last several decades wherein the rich game the system. "The tax system, the most straightforward means of restraining inequality, has been subverted, so as to become a tool for maintaining and expanding it," he writes. Intriguingly, he suggests the tax code might be made more progressive if outsized gains at the very top inspire the upper middle class to revolt against the elites who are pulling away from them:
The challenge, and it is not a small one, is directing the frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite. One that marshals insurrectionist sentiment without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust. One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism. One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable and connected social order. The most obvious obstacle to building a potent coalition of the radicalized upper middle class is the deep partisan and ideological division that runs between conservatives and liberals.
His idea is to create a virtuous cycle. Affirmative action and progressive taxation increase equality. The elite is thus less able to self-perpetuate, and better able to govern due to decreased social distance.