Tag Archives: Meritocracy

Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.


Uncomfortable Questions, Depressing Answers

In a recent INforefront post, James Madison asked some uncomfortable questions about the role class distinctions play in (theoretically classless) America.

Does the Land of the Free have class distinctions? Are such distinctions inevitable? Defensible?

American notions of class aren’t grounded in lineage and tradition—at least, not to the extent they are elsewhere. Class in America gets confused with concepts of meritocracy and echoes of Calvinism, the belief that earthly success was a sign of God’s favor and one’s  “chosen-ness.”

The conviction that material wealth was evidence of moral merit was accompanied by the conclusion that poverty must signal moral defect. Over the years, these doctrinal roots of our belief in the comparative worth of rich and poor was lost, subsumed into a secular, class-based proposition: poor folks are lazy “takers” who lack “middle-class values.”

In a culture that celebrates (fast-disappearing) meritocracy and social mobility, it’s easy to conclude that poverty is a result of class-based attitudes and characteristics. And of course, if you’re privileged, it’s satisfying to attribute your good fortune to individual merit rather than the fact you were born (with the “right” race, religion, gender and sexual orientation) into a family with the wherewithal to feed, clothe, educate and endow you.

These attitudes foster policies that favor the fortunate, diminish the middle class, and make social mobility virtually impossible for the working poor.

There will always be winners and losers. There will always be some people who work harder than others, who are smarter or more entrepreneurial and deserve to do better. But a society that confuses individual worth with money and social status is a class-based society.

Right now, unfortunately, that describes America.

This Blew My Mind

A former student–President of the Chamber of Commerce in his small Indiana town–sent me a link to this Ted Talk.

There are several “nits” one might pick, but it is a fascinating argument, and well worth the 20 minutes it takes to listen. At the very least, it’s a reproach to arrogant assumptions about the way others should live….

That said, it brings to mind an important point raised by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom: the issue is not democracy, it is liberty. Living under the tyranny of a majority is not appreciably different than living under the tyranny of an autocrat. There can be a wide variety of mechanisms for making decisions about governing. We should judge them not just by their effect on the material well-being of the governed, but by the degree to which they respect fundamental individual rights.

Meritocracy and Mobility

A great benefit of vacations is time to read. I loaded up the Kindle app on my IPad, and I’ve been going through the digital version of what used to be a pile of books on my nightstand.

Yesterday, I finished Chris Hayes “Twilight of the Elites,” and unlike so many of the entirely predictable books reliably pumped out by pundits of the left and right, I found this to be a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the political and social failures that account for our sour American mood. Hayes connects the angst of the Tea Party to that of the Occupy Movement, and sees both as part of a more widespread distrust of our common institutions.

I should probably note that this emphasis on institutional failure was also at the center of my 2010 book, Distrust, American Style. Hayes focuses on many of the same scandals  that I included in that book; however, my purpose was to show the effects of institutional distrust on social capital—to explore institutional failure as a cause of increased distrust of our neighbors, especially those who may not look or talk or worship as we do.

Hayes’ purpose is to explore what those institutional failures tell us about the failure of America’s approach to meritocracy.

There are so many worthwhile and illuminating passages in the book that picking any one out seems arbitrary, but here’s an example. Hayes notes that any meritocratic system—any system that purports to reward excellent performance rather than social or economic status—depends upon the existence of genuine social mobility. That genius child of poor parents must have a real shot at getting the scholarship, or the job, or the loan to start his business—in other words, a meritocratic society must have mechanisms that facilitate the discovery and advancement of the people who possess merit.

As Hayes points out, however,

            This ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible….Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.

America used to be the land of social mobility; today, of the Western democratic nations only England has less social mobility than we do.

As Hayes says elsewhere, “A deep recognition of the slow death of the meritocratic dream underlies the decline in trust in public institutions and the crisis of authority in which we are now mired.”

Even if you aren’t on vacation, even if you are skeptical of his premises–you should read this book.