A New Economy of Honor?
September 23, 2020

The University of Maryland reported recently that it’s cutting $292 million from its budget this year. Anyone making over $150,000 will take a pay cut. It’s not an isolated case. In their current form, universities are hugely expensive to run, and many were financially troubled even before the pandemic.

This isn’t just a crisis for universities. It could be the cause of a major upheaval in the way our society is organized. David Goodhart is one of several recent writers to subject our “meritocracy” to critical examination.

Goodhart organizes his discussion around the themes of Head, Hand, and Heart. Some kinds of work require highly developed cognitive skills; trades are vocations of the “hand”; heart jobs include nursing, care for the elderly and education of small children, child care.

Over the past several decades, we have reached what Goodhart calls “Peak Head.” Head jobs are highly esteemed and well-compensated. Heads get more honor and money because, we think, they’ve earned it.

Cognitive-analytical ability, the kind of “talent that helps people to pass exams and then handle information efficiently, in their professional lives . . . has become the gold standard of human esteem.” Hand and Heart work is correspondingly undervalued. As a result, “in most developed countries there is something like a single, common elite.”

Universities are crucial institutions for maintaining a society of Peak Head. Head workers are judged most able because they have “higher levels of cognitive ability,” or at least they’ve been “certified as such by the education system.” The common elite has “passed through the same funnel of higher education and then into the top quartile of professional and managerial occupations.”

Goodhart acknowledges the merits of a merit society. We do want qualified accountants doing our taxes, vetted attorneys to handle our legal business, trained surgeons to cut into our bodies. It seems eminently fair that the best candidate for an open position gets the job. But can we have a meritocracy for jobs without a meritocratic society?

Goodhart doesn’t think we can resolve that dilemma through, say, taxing the wealthy or raising the minimum wage. The problem isn’t the money economy so much as the economy of esteem. What needs to happen is a rebalancing of Head, Hand, and Heart, so that the latter two are rewarded appropriately, with both honor and wealth.

Goodhart doesn't offer a theological argument for his paradigm, but it's not hard to make. The Bible doesn't teach the primacy of the intellect, and a Christian understanding of society wouldn't give such exclusive honor to brains or smarts. Those who work with bodies, and especially those who care for the weakest, deserve high praise.

Goodhart's model has some affinities with the medieval vision of the "three orders" of Christian society: Those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. It expresses a holistic vision of man, and of human society.

The problem now is to redress the imbalance without undermining the gains of Peak Head. The balancing act is to “constrain our partial cognitive meritocracies in a way that prevents disproportionate levels of status and wealth from going to high-cognitive-ability jobs without at the same time disincentivizing the cleverest and most ambitious.”

The financial challenges of the universities make that sort of rebalancing all the more urgent. If universities cut back or close down, they won’t fulfill the vetting function they’ve had for the past few decades.

On the other side, as the glut of university graduates increases, as the community of diplomaed baristas and Uber drivers expands, university education will no longer be seen as the sole pathway to the elite.

That will be extremely painful, and will feel like a broken promise to many young college graduates. But perhaps it’s one of the difficult but necessary steps toward the balanced economy of honor that Goodhart envisions.

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