Notes: I wrote this under an assumed name in 2006, I no longer agree with all of it. Originally published in the Green Triangle in August 2006.
On Meritocracy and Hierarchy
“Advice to intellectuals; let no-one represent you. The fungibility of all services and people, and the resultant belief that everyone must be able to do everything, prove, in the existing order, fetters”- Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”- Ludwig Wittgenstien, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus
“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”-Albert Camus
On Meritocracy I’ll start by quoting my old boss from my insurance days, Warren Buffett,
I don’t believe in the divine right of the womb. I see no reason why somebody that happens to win the ovarian lottery and come out of the right womb is entitled to fan themselves for the next 50 years or command the resources of society. If we’re going to pick an Olympic team in the year 2000, I don’t think we ought to take the eldest son or the eldest daughter of who won all the prizes in 1976 and put them on the team. I really believe in a meritocracy in athletics and I believe in a meritocracy in terms of who has the, who handles the resources of society. And we’re a better society because that’s the case. […] I take the view, it’s kind of interesting, you have people talk about the debilitating effect of food stamps on welfare recipients, the cycle of dependency and all of that sort of thing, but if you come out of the right womb, you’re on welfare the day you’re born. I mean instead of calling it a welfare officer you have a trust officer. Instead of calling it food stamps you have dividends and interest. But it’s the same picture. And I really think that, I really think that everybody ought to start at fairly close to the same place.
— Nightline interview with Ted Koppel, March 2, 1999.
Meritocracy is predicated on everyone having equal beginning standing in the fields of protection by the law and in the fields of possible economic engagement. There is no such thing as a true and completely meritocratic society, but one can have relative levels of relationship to this. Or, at least, the law should not add any more burdens to this process. There have been critiques of meritocratic culture going from all political extremes: anarchists critique it for creating hierarchy and embedding it against the whims of “equality,” communist critique is essentially the same by in the guise of economic dialectic, and traditional European conservative and counter-revolutionary thought links this thought to both social instability and lack of compassion.
I site Warren Buffet’s quote, not because I agree with its welfare-theory, but because it shows that limited meritocracy does not, by nature, have to lack compassion. I will address anarchist and other idealist forms of equality below, but I will talk about the problems with the fix many European style conservatives posit. One, it is predicated on a hard definition of class limitations and that those class limitations be rigid. Secondly, it requires social order to more monolithic and have the state and society enforce those ideas. Thirdly, this logic hardly can be said to produce social stability without adding a metaphysical, “all jobs are equal in nobility” clause to it to reduce resentment. Fourthly, most of these conservative arguments, however, do not think the king is equal to the tax collector in social value thus invalidating the third point. Finally, this does any with the competence encouraged by meritocratic competition and can cause social order to stagnate and economic order to become inefficient. The latter has to with incentives and has been a critique of such ordered societies–both conservative and leftist–from the time of Aristole to Karl Popper.
“All the citizens of a state cannot be equally powerful, but they may be equally free”-Voltaire
“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”-Aristole
“From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.”-Fredrich Hayek
“Even when repressed,inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom, and in the end superior ability has its way”- Will Durrant
Equality, as a notion, is extremely confusing. Unlike meritocracy, whose definition is generally understood and rejected or accepted in kind, equality is a word so overused that is sometimes does not have meaning.
If by equality, we use it as a codeword for, equality before the law’s protections and before the law’s judgment in regards to merit, I agree with it–but will state that you are confusingly using a term vaguely and inaccurately. IF we say inequality of body, mind, and economic position is different from the overall value of a person, I will say that the position is metaphysical and ontological and has little to no place in either social organization or law. Equality means, literally, equal attributes or equal value. It is important that the later idea is related to mathematics where qualifying context is stripped away.
Now, we can speak of the equality of race, gender, sex, and religion in regards to overall social value and be sincere, because we are talking about sociological constructed or sociologically used ideas. It is easy to make abstractions equal, they have no context in which to contradict that judgment and, generally, increased equal treatment and better opportunity for those amongst those sociological groups to increase their ability to achieve goals. It is a misunderstanding or, at best, an evolution of the meaning of equality as a term because it is obvious that such sociological constructs do not have the same attributes, but they could have equal value because individualized context is stripped away in this discourse just like in mathematic.
One is unwise, however, to talk about individuals in the “values” based way, because individuals are defined by their context that is what gives them difference from the collective whole. Individual equality, then, as often preached by anarchists and American liberals who don’t seem to understand the mythological implications of what they are doing, is contrary to both experience and to the meaning of the word. Individual equality can only exist in context, generally, in regards to law or social or economic possibility for advancement.
On the Paradox of Meritocracy and Equality being both accepted
I will not spend much time on this because this could be an entire book, but it seems problematic that equality and meritocracy are both accepted in the dominant ideology. While they may not have to conflict in regards to abstracted equality, the idea of personal equality and personal meritocracy are in direct conflict since one implies heirarchy and the other is dependent on its lack.
Self-law is a good thing. To impose restraints on oneself so an outside force does not have to, is a noble act that increases personal liberty by removing the need of imposed law upon you. Yet, this notion, so crucial to American libertarian and anarcho-capitalist thought, is stable enough to rest an entire social system unless it is predicated on a unalienable source. In short, unless the society has the same ontological, epistemic, religious, and sociological underpinnings, self-law cannot be anything more than a virtue amongst individuals.