Political theorists and the public.

Ta-Nehisi’s reflections on meritocracy have got me thinking again:

Chris Hayes’ astounding Twilight of The Elites, [is] one of those rare books that originates from a political home (the left) and yet actually challenges assumptions that undergird the dominant logic in both political parties. This is not mealy-mouthed centrism. It is a substantive critique of the underlying logic of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — the logic of meritocracy. Hayes is not so much against the aims of meritocracy as he is against the inevitable outcome — a pure self-replicating meritocracy is a myth, which must always devolve into oligarchy.

He concludes that in America they don’t so much have a liberal mainstream media as a meritocratic one. That is, meritocracy is the blind norm, not liberalism. That observation is surely spot on. And we could probably broaden the claim even further and say that Western civil society as a whole is devoutly committed to meritocracy.

I explained the argument for the claim that, as Ta-Nehisi puts it, ‘a pure self-replicating meritocracy is a myth, which must always devolve into oligarchy’ back in June:

[E]quality 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?

As I also wrote back then, to claim that, for instance, I – a boy born into a middle class family in a town with a good grammar school – 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 – that’s an absurd proposition that borders on being offensive.

But what got me thinking this time is two things. First, I wonder just how true it is that politicians do not understand or accept that meritocracy is undermined by income inequality and other such factors. They must know that the empirical data shows that, oddly enough, rich children tend to end up a lot cleverer somehow than their impoverished counterparts. But how many prominent politicians assign this fact real salience so that it can guide their policy making? I’d venture a guess that Obama knows and believes it. And Nick Clegg. And Ed Miliband.

The second thought, though, relates to the question of just how detached political theorists are from the general public on this question. I bet my house that any surveys conducted by moral psychologists will show vast intuitive support amongst non-philosophers for the fundamental tenets of meritocracy. Who, without reflection, would ever think to oppose the idea that everyone ought to get a ‘fair shot‘?

Which is only surprising because I know of not a single political theorist that endorses the meritocratic consensus. The egalitarian school at Oxford, at least, is enormous, and its opponents tend only to offer libertarian principles according to which just distribution is about entitlement, not desert. When I wanted to research the philosophical arguments for meritocracy last year, I remember it took my tutor a good three minutes before he came up with a single name he deemed to be a major proponent of the position: George Sher.

This can, of course, be at least partially put down to widespread skepticism amongst philosophers about free will and thereby the validity of the notion of desert, as Sam Scheffler noted. That sort of foundational premise would naturally never catch on with the general public. But it’s nevertheless noteworthy, isn’t it, that the disparity between the opinions of the professionals and those of the public and politicians should be so broad. This might be as fundamental and vast as any such disparity gets.

Update: Of course, the one politician who definitely does not know that income inequality drastically undermines the pursuit of happiness? Mitt Romney, as Ari Kohen so excellently explains:

Most people don’t have the help that Romney and I had when we were younger. For me, this is something I think about pretty much every day. For Romney, it’s like a dark secret that’s best kept under wraps…


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