One of the most distasteful aspects of our politics is the extent to which it is so obviously driven by envy, which is what 99 percent of that “privileged elite” talk ends up being about. But I suppose I am the wrong person to complain about that, because I was born rich, but I don't mean rich in the usual money sense.
Our intellectual and political life is dominated by a relatively narrow class of what we might call intellectually tall people, high-IQ people with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. And while a great many of them believe that inherited wealth is profoundly unfair, very few of them have any similar thoughts to share about the social role of inherited intelligence.
One of the hardest things to drill into the noggins of the American ruling class (and let’s not pretend that there isn’t one, even if it isn’t exactly what you might expect) is that there is no more merit in being born with certain economically valuable intellectual talents than there is in being born tall, or with curly hair—or white, for that matter. Inherited wealth is an enormous factor in the lives of a relatively small number of Americans and a more modest one in the lives of a larger number, but inherited brainpower is the unearned asset that matters most. We live in a very competitive, very connected world, one with very, very efficient labor markets...We have pretty effective tools (including standardized testing) that are very useful for reaching far, wide, and deep into the population to identify intellectual high-fliers and to direct them into educational and career paths that will give them the chance to make the most out of their lives. There probably is no better place in the world to be born poor and smart—but there is no more merit in being born smart than there is blame in being born poor.
The American “meritocracy” is based to a considerable extent on the generally unspoken proposition that intelligence is merit, and that smart people deserve their success in a special way. Our country is run by smart people, and the smart people in charge very much want to believe that they are where they are because of merit, because of the exemplary lives they have led, not because of some unearned hereditary trait that is the intellectual equivalent of a trust fund. The 1994 book "The Bell Curve" was an attempt to explore the paradox of the hereditary “meritocracy” in a serious way, and it was shouted down by—this was not coincidental—the class of people whose self-conception as a meritorious elite was most directly threatened by the authors’ hypothesis.
Understanding the privileges that go along with inherited intellectual ability as being in a moral sense very much like the privileges that go along with inherited wealth (or an inherited social-racial position or whatever privilege you like) opens up a radical and disruptive perspective on American public life—and draws attention to social situations that, even if understood to be unfair because of the role of hereditary advantage, are not open to resolution through redistributive taxes or affirmative action or anything like that. We aren’t going to mandate that half of the brain surgeons or theoretical physicists have below-average IQs.
Being a conservative, I believe that a healthy society necessarily contains a great deal of organic, authentic diversity. Being a realist, I also believe that this diversity comes with hierarchy. As Russell Kirk observed:
Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.