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GEORGE: Are we living in a meritocracy?

November 28, 2017 - 12:00 PM



There is a story we use in our culture to justify our economic system. A story of the self-made man, the rugged individualist, who through grit and determination overcomes heavy odds to become a success. The outcome, in this case, is used as a shining example for the rest of us of the benefits of hard work and determination. We are told that the status rewards in our society are reserved for those who have earned it, that anyone can make it, and that if we want to experience that social status we can surely find our own way. It is up to us, our personal responsibility.

But how do we negate the inequity of accident of birth?

Equal opportunity lies at the core of the idea of meritocracy. A level playing field is fair; rigging the outcome is not. The state often chooses to level everyone's privileges by focusing on equality of outcome, as it is a whole lot easier and tends to get votes. It also allows the already privileged to remain safely in their cocoon, as their offspring will be guaranteed privileges right out of the gate that others can only dream of.

Often when I bring this idea up in conversation, I am accused of being socialist or communist. The mistake here is thinking that working to equalize opportunity is the same as working to equalize outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guaranteeing opportunity is fair, guaranteeing outcome puts someone in the position of picking winners and losers arbitrarily, with no regard at all for individual effort.

State sponsored higher education (based on merit) was a noble attempt at creating a meritocracy, but it quickly devolved into a "pay for paper" mill, with education itself simply another commodity. Those who can't pay, don't get the paper. Even the trades require a financial commitment to get ticketed. We have ended up not with a meritocracy for all, but a limited version, where the children of wealth and privilege sort out who among them will be the biggest "success" in the next generation. Limiting the pool of talent available to society, and corrupting the outcomes with wealth isn't doing us any favours.

Stephen Jay Gould quipped that “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”. In a perfect world the sharecropper's daughter would have just as good a chance at becoming a successful professional as the indolent son of a banker. This isn't that world.

Great things have been accomplished by the frat boys from the big schools, don't get me wrong. But imagine what our society could accomplish if we were to actually search out competence and brilliance instead of simply letting the birth lottery determine life chances. It reminds me of the aristocracy that was appointed by the monarchs. We seem to have the same system, except the aristocrats are appointed by historical wealth and privilege instead of the whims of a ruler.

I think a meritocracy, where hard work and initiative were rewarded would be nice. It is unfortunate that for every self made man there are dozens who have relied on their family's social position or their parents money for "success". I have given a lot of thought on how best to ensure a level playing field, to equalize opportunity rather than relying on equalizing outcome.

We could provide state sponsored education to all for starters. And then give each citizen a small stake of capital at age 21 so they can put that education to work. We would, of course, have to find a way to pay for it. Luckily, those self made men and those who made it on influence and inheritances would be happy to support a robust estate tax if it meant living in the truly meritocratic society they pay lip service to. Why would they want to deprive their children of the opportunity to gain satisfaction by working hard for their own success?

Many would see this as going too far. I certainly do. But there is an innate hypocrisy involved in our version of a meritocratic society, where we ignore accident of birth as a primary determinant of life chances for people. We will never be able to totally negate the impact that a parent's wealth can have on their child's lives, nor should we. But we should do our level best to ensure that everyone has a real opportunity to get their share of the status rewards in our society, based not on accident of birth, but on their own merits.

Alternatively, we could forgo using meritocracy as an excuse for not working towards a more just society. The argument rings hollow when we see what has happened over the past generation. We are doing everything but trying to use education as a tool to level the playing field. It seems that the upper class has recognized that higher education for all reduces their offspring's chance to land a great career and have started actively working against the idea.

So what happens to the work ethic when we can no longer even pretend that meritocracy is a thing? I mean the pretense itself has gotten us this far, but now it appears that we aren't even willing to keep up the facade.

We can keep working for equality. Not of outcomes, but of opportunity. And as with all social issues, that is much easier said than done. It is going to take political will and money to roll back the commodification of education and before we can do that we need to make sure the ruling class knows we aren't falling for the meritocracy line anymore.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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