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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/12/19

Meritocracy is Stupid and Evil and Must Die

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You need three things to make it in America: talent, hard work and good luck.

What a stupid system.

Focus first on the last one, good luck: what we call "meritocracy" is actually "two-thirds meritocracy." Odds are you've heard of a band or writer or artist or entrepreneur who worked hard and produced great work but failed because they were too ahead of their time, or never met the right gatekeeper, or the market tanked. This era of technological disruption probably makes the concept personal for you or someone you know; you could be the best damn factory worker in the world but if they move your job to Mexico you're screwed through no fault of your own.

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America's pseudo-meritocracy purports to issue rewards (grades, diplomas, contacts, jobs, wages, social programs) based on conventionally accepted standards of worthiness (studiousness, obedience, affability, industriousness, cleverness, like-ability). Setting aside for the moment the innate arbitrariness of those metrics, whether or not you measure up is based in large part on chance.

Any system that ranks its participants on luck is by definition unfair.

It's hard to be studious if your home life is chaotic or violent, or you have no home at all. Whether people like you is a function of hard-wired genetically-inherited personality traits and upbringing, both the result of utter happenstance who you get as parents.

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Even ardent defenders of meritocracism concede that it only rewards the values, habits and personality traits the system wants to encourage. Arthur Brooks, president of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post in 2011:

"We are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy, embrace a system that rewards merit, and work tirelessly for true equal opportunity. The system that makes this possible, of course, is free enterprise. When I work harder or longer hours in the free-enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards. Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a Politburo, but by citizens in the marketplace." [emphases mine]

Work hard or long, Brooks argues, and you'll probably get paid more. Be smart or clever, he says, and you're likelier than not to do well. Problem is, probably here is a synonym for maybe. Which means, maybe not. A system whose sales pitch is "work hard and you may (or may not) do well" cannot be fair. A teacher who told his students "do 'A' work and you might get an 'A' grade" should be fired.

As game theory experiments show, unfair incentive structures are ineffective because not everyone is optimistic. In a system with winners and losers some people reach for the brass ring because they think they might get win. Pessimists do not. They weigh the cost of effort and decide not to bother for their mere chance at success. In our economy this phenomenon is evidenced by the country's falling worker participation rate (mostly because lower-skilled male workers know they can't earn enough at a job) and the millions of citizens who choose to collect tiny government disability checks, effectively opting out of the workforce for life rather than look for a job.

The loose connection between work/talent and reward in meritocracy is problematic enough. What about the underlying assumptions that people who are talented and work hard (assuming those metrics can be objectively defined!) deserve higher salaries and social status than the untalented and the lazy?

The Protestant work ethic will serve America poorly in this newish century. "All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows," the British theologian Jonathan Clatworthy wrote in 2014. "Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs."

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But the myth of scarcity is no longer credible now that productivity is so high.

Robotics, algorithms, AR/VR and all manner of automation are replacing flesh-and-blood humans. Automation will eliminate 10% of all jobs in the U.S. in 2019 alone, while adding 3% for a net loss of 7%, according to Forrester Research. The numbers are shocking: experts predict that anywhere between a third to half of all jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated by automation by 2025. If we're smart we'll start paying people not to work. We can easily afford to care for everyone; we simply need to prioritize people and to stop denegrating nonworkers as lazy. Otherwise we will face soaring crime and political unrest.

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Ted Rall, a political cartoonist, is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963, raised in Kettering, Ohio and graduated from Fairmont West High School in 1981. His first cartoons were published (more...)
 

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4 people are discussing this page, with 4 comments  Post Comment


Kenneth Morris

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I recommend that you take this critique to the next step and ask whether meritocracy would be just even if it worked.

Right now, as I read it, you're in effect defending meritocracy, at least in theory. Your criticisms focus on the role of luck in the form of either unequal opportunities to develop and display merit or having merit recognized and rewarded. By implication, you're implying that a meritocracy would be just if luck weren't a factor. Well, suppose that luck weren't a factor. Would meritocracy then be just?

I don't think that the answer to this question is yes. Neither do I think most people would answer the question in the affirmative. While most people generally affirm meritocracy, albeit they also carp about the departures from meritocracy, I haven't met anyone who believes that those without merit deserve their corresponding fates. Instead, everyone wants compassion to supplement merit when merit is genuinely lacking. I have also noticed that lots of people resent those with greater merit and try to tear them down simply because of their superior merit.

Basically, I don't think that most people believe that a meritocracy is just even when it works, although everybody seems to believe that they would support a meritocracy if one could operate without bias. These conflicting beliefs prevent the discussion of justice from ever getting off the ground. That discussion stays bogged down in carping about the imperfect implementation of meritocracy despite the fact that nobody even wants it were it to work perfectly.

Submitted on Friday, Apr 12, 2019 at 10:44:43 PM

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June Genis

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Reply to Kenneth Morris:   New Content

" everyone wants compassion to supplement merit when merit is genuinely lacking"

I think this is the most important thing you said. I don't particularly like the word "meritocracy" but I do like the idea that those who contribute in any way to the advancement of the human condition will be rewarded for those efforts. If there is no reward there is no incentive. For some people the satisfaction of seeing their ideas implemented is reward enough. Others require more material compensation to motivate them. I don't think progress is possible without both kinds of people.

This article reminds me too much of "From each according to their ability to each according to their need" which I think would just lead to a world of whiners not doers.

Submitted on Saturday, Apr 13, 2019 at 6:31:41 PM

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Starbuck

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Reply to June Genis:   New Content

Applying an evil sounding code word like "meritocracy" to something one is arguing against is as old as politics. No system that has ever followed a concept of equality of outcome will ever survive. There will always be those that freeload on the system and expect others to carry their weight. They must not be rewarded.


There will also be those that are willing to go beyond the call. They must be rewarded. Without incentive, all systems fail.


It sounds too much like "From each according to their ability to each according to their need" because that is exactly what it is.

Submitted on Saturday, Apr 13, 2019 at 9:00:29 PM

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BFalcon

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Reply to Kenneth Morris:   New Content

What do you mean by meritocracy?


There are two kinds:


1. You are smart and able and you get rich and famous.


2. You are smart and able and you are given opportunity and support to accomplish things.


We badly miss the second one.

And there is not much of the first one either.


Submitted on Wednesday, Apr 17, 2019 at 6:10:51 PM

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