We may finally be seeing the decline of people talking about “meritocracy” and we should be thankful; it’s a dumb concept not grounded in reality that is used to excuse bad behavior.
The origin of “meritocracy” is a satirical novel about how dumb the idea is
A British sociologist and politician named Michael Young published a novel called “The Rise of the Meritocracy” in 1958. Young was criticizing the British educational practices of his time; he described a system in which all advancement was supposed to come based on one’s abilities and effort, run by an elite who cannot see the advantages they were born with and conveniently conclude that they must be the smartest and hardest working members of society. In other words, a mid-century British version of Newt Gingrich. He did not mean this as an ideal to be pursued; he was quite aware of the impact of class and social position, having succeeded despite those factors. Now it’s the mantra of Silicon Valley and the Republican Party.
Side note: I would like to read this book but cannot find a reasonably priced copy of it.
Belief in meritocracy makes people behave badly
Just think about the conservative outrage when President Obama observed that people who create successful business don’t do it on their own. Yes, they provide central creative energy, planning, sometimes resources, and drive to see it through, but it’s pretty obvious that it helps to have access to educated employees, a banking system, a transportation system to get people to work and goods to market, a legal system to enforce contracts, public health systems that keep everyone from getting cholera, police to arrest wrongdoer, sanitation systems so that your headquarters city doesn’t drown in shit… and so on, and so on. There’s a reason people start a lot of businesses in the US and Europe but you don’t see a lot of hot new companies coming out of Somalia.
But that struck at the concept of meritocracy, so bad Obama.
Are we over this idea yet?
Not really, but things have changed. In thirty-odd years of adult life, I have noticed a growth in sensibilities about social responsibility; it’s far from universal (see: U.S. governing party) but I do see a growing sense in the last decade that we can’t really be a healthy society when we’re wealthy (by global standards) but have people in poverty at our doorsteps, we can’t provide basic medical care for our people, and our economic model depends on externalizing all the costs of our consumption to our descendants in the form of climate change and resource exhaustion. It’s those much maligned millennials, and they’re making my Gen X look bad.
So, that’s positive, I guess. But I work in tech so “meritocracy” still pops up now and then. I try to seek opportunities to get people to think about what they’re saying.
Because ultimate, I think I’m the living proof that it’s a lie. I have a comfortable existence, a great job with a great paycheck to go with it, a nice home, and I don’t wake up at night wondering where the money will come from. And yes, some of that is due to innate abilities (I am smart and analytics) and a whole lot due to social factors (I’m a white man in America, I grew up in a comfortable suburb, my parents sent me to good schools right up through college). I have everything in my favor.
I don’t feel guilty about it but I do recognize that I could have been born with the exact same abilities but non-white and going to a failing public school in the South Bronx, and the path of my life would probably look quite different. It would certainly have taken a lot more effort to get where I am here.
So I don’t kid myself that I’m where I am because we’re a “meritocracy.”