Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Great Lie Of The Meritocracy

I never liked the sound of the word, “meritocracy.” It sounds too much like my town growing up, with all the boys fighting it out to establish and maintain the pecking order, to see who got to be the captains of the choose-up baseball teams, and who had to just shut up when someone asked him if he had any naked pictures of his own mother, who had to get out of the way when someone wanted to boost a certain girl. I have always preferred more egalitarian systems.

There is a good deal of loose talk these days about the exceptional nature of the pure, unalloyed expression of the American Ideal. The “things that made America great” are selectively hashed out, usually by people with no particular actual knowledge of American history. These narratives usually find fault with the modern America and strain to identify the historical movements and individuals who can be blamed for America’s somehow less-than-exceptional present day condition. And the narratives attach great significance to individual effort and merit.

“If only,” the narrative suggests, “we could get government out of people’s way, remove the artificial barriers of government regulation, get the hand of government out of people’s pockets, and give people back their sense of self-reliance, empowering them to make their own way in the markets, America could be great again!!!”

As a concession to the brevity of life, let’s leave out the God part of this narrative. Let’s also set aside for now the fact that it was those same much maligned historical movements and individuals that were responsible for America’s ascendancy to the apex of power during the middle of the 20th Century. I mean, this is a blog, not “War and Peace.”

But the narrative . . . there is a strong inference in this narrative that the return to “true American values” would greatly benefit individual Americans, that it would somehow unleash the native entrepreneurship of the American people, enabling them to rise to great heights through their own hard work and thrift. Real Americans don’t want government hand-outs, they don’t want the government to take care of them, just set them free and they’ll take care of themselves (and make the country rich beyond measure in the meantime).

This is the idea of the meritocracy. Let people sink or swim according to their own merit. The dark side of it is never mentioned.

There is real mischief in all of this, and it rises to the level of true evil in a least two ways:

First, the real supporters of this meritocratic narrative are corporate interests, whose own prosperity would be advanced by the goals of the narrative at the expense of the vast majority of the American people; and

Second, most Americans by far have no desire at all to set sail independently on the seas of commerce, to take great risks for chances at great gain (or corresponding loss). They have, in other words, no desire to be cast adrift on the seas of commerce, forced to negotiate their own prosperity.

The first evil should be self-explanatory, but the second bears further examination. Most Americans by far are workers. Although their lives may show a lot of merit, their merit is shown mostly in ways that do not enhance their financial security. They are good friends, good neighbors, good husbands and wives, good parents. The only merit that most Americans show in the area of production is the merit of being a good, loyal employee, a good worker.

This whole “we want to give you the freedom to get rich on your own” is an insidious lie. Most people are completely innocent of entrepreneurial ambitions. They are equipped neither by talent nor by inclination to start a business that will make them rich. I’m not being condescending here, I’m one of the people who failed in the attempt. I could tell that the shoe was pinching the instant I tried to put it on, my anxiety levels went through the roof. I gave up only after a sincere effort that lasted six years. It turned out that I was “most people” in this respect. Most people just want to have a decent job, at a fair wage, to be allowed to work hard for a fair boss, to have their work respected and their loyalty reciprocated, to be secure in this effort, and to have the freedom to live in peace and raise a family in the meantime.

If you’ve got a great idea, and lots of focus and energy, go for it! You’ll find out that it is still quite possible in America to stand on your own and get very, very rich. I just don’t think that makes you better than anybody else. And we certainly don’t need to adjust the playing field to make it easier for you to get rich.

So, a little reasonableness here. We humans have gotten as far as we have by helping each other, by making allowances for the differences between us, and most of all, by working together. It was the ability to organize and cooperate that has made us prosperous, not our ability to fight selfishly for advantage.

Rather than attempt to spell out how this all applies to contemporary American politics in general, I will leave it to you to search your own consciences and figure out on your own which political philosophies best suit your interpretation of these facts.

No comments: