17 June 2008

Considering meritocracy

It's nice to reflect on how comparatively just society is today. In the distant past, when you saw a rich or successful person, you could reasonably assume that he or she attained advantage through some unfair means ' by killing someone, or inheriting privilege or being in a monopoly. But for the last few hundred years, politicians have been striving to build a society which we in the west nowadays call 'meritocratic.' That is, a society where if you have something to say, if you have talent and energy, you'll be able to achieve on a more or less level playing field.

But this sense of social justice has brought one big problem with it, for if you genuinely believe that the successful merit their success, you have to believe that the unsuccessful deserve their failure. In a meritocratic age, a sense of justice enters into the distribution of poverty as well as wealth. Low status comes to seem not merely regrettable, but also deserved. The rich are not only wealthier; they could also be plain better.


The great cruelty behind the idea of meritocracy is that it's crazy to imagine that we'll ever build a society where you'll be able to rank everyone in order of goodness and reward them accordingly, the rich being the best, the poor the worst. A wiser course might be to be inspired by the traditional Christian idea that the merit of others is in fact so hard to judge that only God is up to the task, and even He can only start work on the Day of Judgment with the help of a thousand angels and a large pair of scales'. A crazy idea from a secular point of view but a useful corrective to the view that you can just look at someone's resume and judge how good he or she happens to be.

None of this is to say that merit is equally distributed or indeed theoretically immeasurable, but simply to insist that you or I are in practical terms unlikely ever to know how to do the measuring properly and hence should display infinite care before acting or thinking in ways that presume we can.

Source: Alain de Botton interview by »Editred, via Mr C

Thoughts from my 40-minute commute -

  • Meritocracy is to be used an ex ante tool to guide the allocation of limited resources. It cannot be reasonably used as an ex post explanation to account for a given state of affairs (why you are rich and I am poor), for far more is at play in bringing about the latter. Highly disagree with his premise [in bold].
  • The decision of our society to rely on the resumé as a proxy for measuring 'merit' is unfortunate, but is one that reflects poorly on the choice of proxy rather than on the idea of meritocracy itself. Since we will never be able to have a thousand angels or large enough a pair of scales at our disposal, every proxy remains a proxy and we must bear in mind de Botton's strong caution. Agree with his conclusion [last paragraph].
  • I appreciate that in this world, luck, intellectual endowment, inheritance size and history differ. Correspondingly, meritocracy is destined to be an imperfect solution for such a world and we should not deceive ourselves otherwise. But I find it difficult to believe that meritocracy is more cruel or deterministic than a caste- or pedigree-based system, especially if we consider that meritocracy does not have to be implemented exclusively of other socialist concepts. So let's have meritocracy with a good dash of compassion* please.

*But without systemizing incentives to slack. Maybe it is an Asian (Singaporean?) concept, but effort matters - I cannot help you unless you help yourself. Your best might not be good enough and life might be unfair, but try and we take it from there. I »still take as my premise that humans have a natural propensity towards the path of least resistance, which is only restrained in some people by honour and morality.

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