Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Problem with Meritocracy

Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966): 
If all men are said to have the same chances of advancement, those left behind will lose the face-saving and acceptable excuse of social injustice and lowly birth. The weakness of mind or character of the overwhelming majority of average or below-average people will be harshly revealed as the reason for failure, and it would be a poor observer of the human soul who thought that this revelation would not prove poisonous. No more murderous attack on the sum total of human happiness can be imagined than this kind of equality of opportunity, for, given the aristocratic distribution of the higher gifts of mind and character among a few only, such equality will benefit a small minority and make the majority all the unhappier.
I copied this text last year, intending to post it, but I haven't gotten around to it because I am not sure how I feel about it. Is it the truth, expressed harshly? Or does it express contempt for most of humanity? Is it simply true that meritocracy, both as reality and ideology, will make many people feel terrible about themselves, or is this a lame excuse for hereditary rank? (Out of the kindness of our hearts, we will protect the commoners by keeping them out of a competition they cannot win. . . . ) But, anyway, this made a strong impression on me when I read it, so I have decided to toss it out and find out what others think.


David said...

On the level of rhetoric or culture, I would heartily agree with the author. I don't personally find meritocracy especially beautiful or moral, nor do I find it in principle fair or just (given what the author calls the aristocratic distribution of gifts and talents), nor do I find inherited position deeply horrifying in principle. And I think meritocracy-boosters all too often forget that in fact most people can't be anything they want to be if they work hard enough. Plus, I find people like Sheryl Sandberg intensely annoying.

On the other hand, I really don't think feeling inadequate about oneself is even a fraction as bad as, say, being systematically beaten by one's aristocratic master, or starved because of his rent demands, or kicked off his land so he can have a deer park. I enjoy Downton Abbey very much, but on the whole aristocratic systems have historically tended to spread a lot of misery.

In the end, I think meritocracy is mainly useful. Having smart, knowledgeable, hardworking engineers design our stuff is a good thing.

leif said...

the conversation must be more nuanced than simply saying everyone starts equal (they don't) and advance on merit alone (also not the case). to insist that merit alone drives advancement is not simply a naive position, but rather it is a political view translated into a condescending pat on the head.

conversely, a lack of effort more certainly leads to a lack of advancement, and thus one can use that inductively to reason that advancement *is* brought about by merit, by struggle, by taking advantage. in both cases, there is enough evidence to suggest that indeed the lazy tend to fail to advance and the ambitious tend to advance.

however, this confuses ambition with merit. ambition implies a desire to advance, improve or effect some change. merit implies an intrinsic state of worthiness, of being born gifted, destined for greatness. this is festering tripe; personalized, it predicts narcissism. scaled, it is nationalism.

David said...

On a personal note, I find it troubling when fellow professors teach mainly to the best students. I find something killing in simply leaving the others to drift.

One thing I think we can see in Ropke's piece and in Leif's and my responses is that meritocracy generates a fair amount of hostility. I love the phrase "festering tripe."

The old aristocracy also generated hostility, deservedly so, and some of it bloodthirsty. But our memories of them usually have a certain glow, as if our culture can't avoid a kind of nostalgia. I think partly this is because aristocracy is about family, something most people can identify with. But the meritocracy, they're different from you and me.

Would anyone miss the elite of merit if they went away?

Cindy said...

David, try not to be annoyed by Sheryl Sandberg. She gives valuable enouragement and advice to women who want to have careers in male-dominated fields: here's how you can cut through some of subconscious sexist BS you are up against. That's different from saying you can do anything if you work hard enough (which is total BS).

David said...

I suppose that's what I get for picking a name on the basis of public buzz, rather than having, say, read her book. :-)

On the other hand, her critics at least do detect a sort of "Go, go, go, Git R Done!" boosterism in her work.