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Meritocracy is no match for the alpha-couple

In my favorite novel, Red and Black, the colors denote the only means of ascension of a low-born Francis. In the end, it’s neither the army’s red tunic nor the church’s black robe as the white linen of the boudoir that elevates our stupid hero. The wife of a mayor and the daughter of a marquis are among those who brought him close to his coveted status. That “red” headline, I always think, is a clever joke: the color not of war but of sex, the secular friend of the child.

Or at least an ex-friend. The last two centuries have opened up more professional avenues outside of its class than there are callable colors. At the same time, they closed the oldest method of the hypergamous novel. “Assorted mating” is the correctly coined phrase for the marriage of educated people, which compound their material and cognitive advantages in the process.

By the middle of the last century, the following observations had marked me as a curiosity. I don’t even know a straight person my age with a degree who has a spouse without one. Of the couples where one partner earns much more, the other tends to carry cultural influence, older relatives, a practical passport or such an equalizer. (Aspects are of insufficient strategic value to close the gap.) As for bachelors, of the hundred most active dates found each year, about 90 are with research university degrees. A transgressive evening is one spent with a senior in art or drama school.

There is a notion that only female graduates are reluctant to marry under their credentials. I’m sure this cause and effect is all messed up. When men of high status end up ordinarily with less educated wives, it does not reflect preference, necessarily, as a lack of alternatives. Once access to college and the workplace became widespread for women, both sexes were freed to be snobs. How generously we have used the license ever since. My consciousness is freed from almost every habit of the metro-liberal class that has been so tarnished and plummeted in recent years. Their romantic insularity is the exception. Nor does private education do so much to falsify an impure caste.

That’s why, with his remaining erudition, I was carried away by it The Talent Aristocracy. In his new book, Adrian Wooldridge seeks to save meritocracy from the excessive class abuse predicted by Aldous Huxley. Like all the best works of argumentative nonfiction, it falls into the stage of political reparations. Ideas of the “vocational training upgrade” type can improve life chances, no doubt. The tax code can cut into the legacy of inherited wealth far more than it does. But soon enough, a serious meritocracy comes up against the untouchable boundaries of the personal realm. Parents rule life for their children with a zeal that is no less antisocial to being natural. And the most skilled of these self-employed will be the double graduated teams. It’s not for society to “do” something about a choice as intimate as marriage. It’s up to society to count the costs.

And these go far beyond gumming up social mobility. What stands out about the modern alpha-pair is not an interest in elevation of scale as the grinding of blandness. Hypergamy is represented in the drama – Balzac, kitchen sink film, Cinderella – because he has a fascination that isn’t there when someone at UBS marries someone at Freshfields.

The supposed subversion of sex between classes is not the point (there is, after all, even a lot of that around it). It is the contact and finally the synthesis of two distinct life experiences. All the resulting children, to the point of absorbing a little of each, are going to be both more rounded and imaginative. The assorted pairs constitute perhaps the most disciplined, competitive, and highly functioning ruling class the West has ever known, but also the least original. Wooldridge is never better than when he traces the distance between his bohemian image and the monoculture of his private life.

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