Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Merit Principle

"Meritocracy, it's often noted, is the most vicious of hierarchies because it tells people not only that they have wound up at a certain level but that they deserve to be at that level. It may say something about the unwillingness of putative meritocrats (like [Charles] Clarke [, the Labor education minister]) to face the harshness of their own system that they need to acccuse people like [Prince] Charles, who make those harsh judgments explicit, of not being meritocrats but of really being aristos who don't want people to 'rise above their station.'" Mickey Kaus. ("Don't Let Prince Charles See The Incredibles.", 21 November 2004)
Meritocracy is an interesting idea, and one way of measuring its attractiveness is to look at all of the contexts in which we find it being invoked. Everything from Little League games to employment interviews to Presidential elections are seen by someone as an exercise in meritocracy. But it's also one of those systems that means one thing one the individual level, and quite another on the larger social level.

People like to think of meritocracy as removing barriers, allowing them to rise to a level of income and prestige that they feel that they are due, limited only by their own abilities and work ethic. But on a group level, meritocracy is about getting the best use out of the resources at hand, and cares little for what said resources might want. For a moment, let's go back to the Presidential election. Rarely to you see a major party candidate who is clearly unqualified for the job, regardless of what the other candidates might tell you in their advertising campaigns. So it's likely that ANY of the people running for President could actually do the job, and do it quite well. In fact, there are likely at least a few thousand Americans who would make a good President. But Chief Executive is a singular position - there's only one at a time. So there is a large pool of Presidential talent that goes untapped. This belies the idea of meritocracy that Mickey Kaus invokes.

Social systems that are designed for the good of the overall society have little to say about individuals. It's possible that one is a janitor within a meritocracy simply because all of the more demanding and prestigious positions that one is qualified for are already filled by perfectly competent individuals. A greater understanding of that would de-stigmatize lower-prestige positions, and remove much of the system's perceived harshness.

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