Monday, June 24, 2013

The evils of meritocracy

When I was younger I thought meritocracy was a great idea. Why shouldn't the smart and effective people make the decisions?

When I grew up I discovered that merit is relative. People who are good at one thing are not necessarily good at another. People who are good at something are not necessarily good at it in a different context. People don't stay good (or bad) at things.

For meritocracy to work, the definition of merit has to be fluid, redefined at every decision point.

Pretty obviously, this is impossible. What happens instead is that your merit rankings get codified and ossified, and pretty soon you just have plain old aristocracy.

The bright side of the coin is that evil is also relative; with the proper channeling, a useful social intervention or two, Hitler would have been a perfectly decent and productive member of society. His fate as monster of the world was not born with him.

We are, all of us, products not just of our own choices but of the choices of those around us, and sometimes merely of arbitrary fate. This, ultimately, is why I can never be a libertarian; because the libertarian ideal of self-hood simply does not acknowledge the biological reality that our personalities require and are therefore partly defined by the personalities of others. We are a social animal. Our brains are incomplete; they distribute processing to the brains of those around us (note the key to this experiment is that the basketball players pretend not to notice the gorilla).

In this context, the idea of meritocracy is rendered absurd; we are only as good as those around us let us be. The towering - and solitary - creative genius is a myth; Newton not only profited from the investigations, past and present, of others, but was also merely slightly ahead of Leibniz.

Admitting that we depend on others takes strength; ironically, more strength than going it alone. Admitting that we do not control our fates takes courage, more courage than facing mere death. Admitting that we cannot always reward merit requires the fortitude to admit that we cannot always punish evil.

I still have trouble with that very last bit, so I understand why conservatives balk so rigidly at the idea of redistribution: the idea that some undeserving might get something undeserved.sticks in their craw, and well it should. It sticks in mine.

But I have come to realize that undeserving is a much narrower term that it might appear. To the extent that those dull masses exist merely to buy Bill Gate's products, they enable his greatness. Does that not make them deserving? How much writing would I do if I had no readers? (Answer: not much). When I create a book, don't the people I created it for, whose enjoyment nourishes my creativity, deserve some of the credit too?

Redistribution - that blind leveling, cutting off the top of the mound and throwing it back to the ground - is the tool we use to reward the people whose contributions cannot be measured. Yes, some undeserving get rewarded too - Ayn Rand drew Social Security payments - but that is no justification to shortchange the rest.

And ultimately, it is necessary. The wheat thrown down seeds the next generation, provides something for the compulsively productive to accumulate again. No society (not even Rome) has ever collapsed because there were too many losers living on the dole; but plenty have sunk under the weight of winners who have forgotten how they got on top.

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