Myth of Meritocracy

MeritocracyAs much as I may complain about Matt Yglesais, I never question that he is a brilliant young man. Now, brilliant can mean a lot of different things. When I use the term, I normally mean: thinks what I do. This afternoon, he wrote a very interesting article, Meritocracy Should Lead to Massive Entrenched Inequality. In it, he gets to the heart of what I’ve been writing about for years: meritocracy is not that great a thing.

This goes along with my resistance to the idea of free will. We are what we are. People do what comes naturally to themselves. If it is true that the smoker who manages to quit has more will power than the one who doesn’t, that just means that he was born with more will power. He isn’t a better person, or at least, there isn’t anything he is actively doing that the first guy isn’t. Think of two people who go to the hospital with gunshot wounds. One needs 10 mg of morphine for the pain, but the other needs only 5 mg. Does that make the second guy better? Of course not! They both took the amount that they needed to deal reasonably with the pain.

Yglesias puts it directly in how it effects social policy. He talks about golf and how it is an egalitarian system, but not a fair one. Some people just aren’t good at golf. The truth is that some people just aren’t good at anything and they are no more responsible for that than they would be if a meteor fell on their heads:

But lots of people suffer from less visible problems, be it a genetic weakness for alcoholism or the below-average intelligence that afflicts exactly 50 percent of the population. Those people should have great lives, too. But a very egalitarian society in which everyone enjoys a high standard of living is almost certainly going to have become that way precisely because it doesn’t strive to turn the remorseless meritocracy of the PGA tour into a model for society.

I would like to see us get past this. The truth is that such understanding should cause our society to create some kind of base level of safety net: support for those who can’t work and guaranteed work for those who can. The problem is that those who have done well in our system want to continue to feel not only that they are smarter and more capable than their poor brothers; they want to think that they are better because they did so much more with what they were given. To me, it is ridiculous to make so many people suffer so that a relatively few who already have excellent lives can feel even better by accepting the myth of moral superiority.

Unfortunately, as we saw in the 2016 presidential race, both parties claim to want to work toward “equality of opportunity.” We know that even if such a goal were possible (and it isn’t), it would not lead us to the promised land of relative equality and prosperity. Instead, it would lead us to a proto-feudal state and would quickly devolve into aristocracy. I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed, and the embrace of “meritocracy” is a big part of what’s pushing us there.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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