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More on “Elites” and the Supreme Court

In a previous post, I expressed a worry about a “consensus” that seems to be emerging that the next Supreme Court nominee should not come from an Ivy-League school. I noted:

What troubles me is that this would-be consensus seems to be part of a general tend in American politics to reject anything that has the appearance of being elite. And while I believe it is proper to reject leaders or judges that are snobs or disconnected from reality or condescending or patronizing, I think that in our leadership– both political and judicial– seeking the “elite” is not a bad thing. While the word “elite” has come to be associated with snobs, one of its core dictionary definitions is the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.” Using this definition, don’t we want an elite surgeon to perform our neurosurgery? Don’t we want an elite group of commandos to rescue a person held hostage? In other words, don’t we want to try to get the best for our most challenging tasks? I don’t really care where the next Supreme Court Justice when to undergrad or law school, but I do want to try to get a person that would be among the best– among the elite.

My great friend Steve Bainbridge has a very thoughtful response. He writes:

I wonder whether the consensus to which Tony refers is perhaps motivated by a concern that modern American “elites” are a self-replicating sliver of society entrance to which requires certain credentials. There are those who will tell you that social mobility in the United States is not as easy as we like to think. Indeed, as the Economist’s Lexington observed a couple of years ago:

AMERICAN universities like to think of themselves as engines of social justice, thronging with “diversity”. But how much truth is there in this flattering self-image? Over the past few years Daniel Golden has written a series of coruscating stories in the Wall Street Journal about the admissions practices of America’s elite universities, suggesting that they are not so much engines of social justice as bastions of privilege. Now he has produced a book—The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates—that deserves to become a classic.

Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.

The American establishment is extraordinarily good at getting its children into the best colleges. In the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families. Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances. Universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year’s deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.

Why do Mr Golden’s findings matter so much? The most important reason is that America is witnessing a potentially explosive combination of trends. Social inequality is rising at a time when the escalators of social mobility are slowing (America has lower levels of social mobility than most European countries). The returns on higher education are rising: the median earnings in 2000 of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher were about double those of high-school leavers. But elite universities are becoming more socially exclusive. Between 1980 and 1992, for example, the proportion of disadvantaged children in four-year colleges fell slightly (from 29% to 28%) while the proportion of well-to-do children rose substantially (from 55% to 66%).

If this is what’s driving the consensus to which Tony refers, I have no problem with that consensus. Indeed, I think it’s over due.

I agree with Steve. If “elite” means persons from the privileged class whose admission to certain schools or advancement in a certain career is not based on merit but rather on family position or status, then I would not want such a person on the Supreme Court. On the other hand, as Steve notes, “if by elite you mean the end result of a meritocracy — a fair tournament in which everybody competes on a more or less even playing field (equality of opportunity) — than I agree that I’d like the next SCOTUS to be an elite judge.”

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.