The fragility of meritocracy

Jake Blumgart sits down with Chris Hayes to talk about meritocracy and Hayes’ new book. The main argument:

[M]eritocracy is our social ideal, particularly among good liberals. Equality of opportunity, but not of outcome. Not evaluating people by their [outside] features, but by their innate talent and drive. And I do not say this mockingly. It’s an incredibly appealing vision. But meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction. It concedes inequality. As an ethos it doesn’t trouble itself with what the results are going to be. One of the key arguments of the book is that those results have real effects. And they then queer the system to produce more inequality and restrict equality of opportunity.

An example:

The students they are admitting [in test-entry schools] are almost entirely white, affluent kids with tutors or second generation, first generation immigrants from Queens and other places where the parents pay for test prep. You end up with a system where who you are really letting in are the kids with access to test prep, the kids with access to resources.

And grounds for hope:

The important lesson is that it’s doable. It wasn’t rocket science. The Lula government [in Brazil] started giving a lot of money to poor people. This isn’t something beyond our control, there are things we can do.

This all hits on the common claim from egalitarians that equality of opportunity, severed from concerns about equality of income, is a hollow ideal. It’s like telling a blind man he’s free to see. If you really wish to commit to the value and make meritocracy real, you have to ensure the odds aren’t stacked against some people from day one. How is the marathon fair if some have to run it on ice?

It’s hard to stomach, of course. We all like to think our achievements are due to our own greatness. But the reality is that if my parents hadn’t made the odd decision to ignore the experts and not send me to speech school; if my father’s job hadn’t compelled him to leave Stoke on Trent and instead move to Newport; if my father hadn’t earned the type of money which allowed my mother to care for me throughout my childhood; and if a few special teachers hadn’t nudged me in this direction – I definitely wouldn’t be here today doing so well through “sheer hard work”. To say I had the same opportunity to attend Oxford as a working class kid born in Glasgow because the University would happily assess both of our capabilities is absurd, and borderline offensive.

And these type of thoughts can often leave us with even greater doubts about the reality of meritocracy. Perhaps the whole thing is a sham. After all, even if we managed to make the playing field level, who is to say I’ve earned and am entitled to any natural intelligence and skills I have? What if my determination to work hard was genetically rigged from the first second of conception?

Which is why those that tend to reflect on these questions often end up rejecting the ideal altogether. Rewarding those that are the best sounds fair, until you realise your superiority is a function of pure luck. But the slogan sounds nice. And it’s very hard to accept that your success is out of your hands. So we plough on with it and keep living under the illusion.

That’s my explanation, anyway. The other, I guess, could be that we simply don’t have the stomach for the kinds of social reform any mildly better notion of equality of opportunity would require. Most people seem to resent the state’s taking their money to merely keep other humans alive, never mind to potentially make their lives as good as our own. That would be all altruistic and socialist and thereby obviously and necessarily Stalinist. Take any of Hayes’ steps towards realising the present platitude that is meritocracy, and the logic would inescapably lead to the police storming bedrooms, making sure middle class parents weren’t giving their children a head start by reading them extra bed time stories.

Hat Tip: Sterling Wong.


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