Thursday, June 22, 2006

Meritocracy and Losers

Is a meritocracy necessarily a good thing?

Before I get keel-hauled over the gangplank, or however the metaphor works, I'll say upfront that I don't have a preferred alternative at the ready. I'm not shilling for primogeniture or the rule of capricorns. It's just that meritocracy has some consequences that I'm not sure we've thought through.

Parkinson’s law suggests that the meritocratic design is self-defeating; people will keep getting promoted for being good at their jobs until they reach a level where they aren’t good anymore, and that’s where they’ll stay. There’s some truth to this.

But there are other, less hackneyed, objections. Let’s say that we liberals purify the educational system sufficiently that nobody’s talent goes to waste for lack of tuition money. (For the record, I consider this a worthy, noble, and unfinished endeavor.) There would still be a hierarchy of talent. And the sneaky underside of meritocracy is that it suggests that those on the bottom deserve their fate.

Over the years, we’ve sort of assumed that ‘vocational’ programs will meet the needs of the folks who would otherwise spend their time filling out the left-hand side of the academic bell curve. Sometimes this works, but it’s not at all clear to me that academic skills are irrelevant for the skilled trades, or that we’d want them to be. The hosts of ‘Car Talk,’ for example, have engineering degrees from MIT, and they work(ed) as car mechanics. Those engineering backgrounds give them an ability to talk about cars with a depth of understanding you don’t always find. They’ve parlayed that ability into a sort of celebrity status.

A sociologist named Michael Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ when he used it as the title of his dystopian novel, written in the late 1950’s. (It was set a few generations into the future.) The conceit of the novel was that all industries were organized by rigorous merit, with the result that the lower classes were horrifically exploited, since anyone in the lower classes with any ability was quickly reslotted somewhere else. The ones left over were the ones incapable of defending themselves. And nobody else defended them, since they lost fair and square. Over time, it came to resemble a caste system.

The real economy is much more diverse than this, of course, and what counts as merit in one industry will be irrelevant in another, and vice versa. (The skills of a great cruise director and the skills of a great software engineer may or may not overlap.) But the overall direction is recognizable, and kind of scary. To the extent that we combine an assumption that meritocracy is a Good Thing with economic polarization, we come up with a default cultural assumption that the rich are rich because they deserve it, and the struggling struggle because they deserve it. And if earthly wealth is really a reflection of God’s favor, then any sort of redistribution is clearly immoral. Don’t give health care to people without jobs – they don’t deserve it! Don’t penalize success!

I’m in the paradoxical position of saying this, while also believing strongly that many barriers to meritocracy – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – absolutely need to be defeated in its name. My college recently instituted domestic partner health benefits for employees, mostly to help us recruit the best faculty, and I think it’s great. Meritocracy beats the crap out of most other systems, at least as far as morality and productivity go.

Maybe what I’d prefer would be a little more humility mixed in. Talents are, in part, a function of luck. Good health is, in part, a function of luck – no matter how well you take care of yourself, you could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Luck can change. I’m fumbling around for the political rhetoric that combines a recognition of talent and hard work with a recognition of shared human frailty. Yes, some will be paid more than others, and I’m okay with that. The smart kid who worked his butt off to become an oncologist deserves more than the smart kid who cruised by on attitude. I’m fine with that. But there’s a limit to how low we should let the bottom be, because there but for the grace of God goes anybody. And to say that it’s deserved strikes me as immorally arrogant.