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Yes, we live in a meritocracy of sorts. Do we want to live there, or is there somewhere better? Because I read the economics blogs -- including the inevitable libertarian economics blogs one confronts nowadays -- I'm now finally realizing that the intersection of politics and economics is also the intersection where many of life's questions get posed. Add the morality portion, and it's game on!

The question of the value and nature of a meritocratic system is as good as any frame for understanding the basis of political stances. Whether you're a socialist, liberal, mongrel, conservative, or libertarian can be expressed or signaled, if you will, by how you view our society in terms of what one "deserves."

Libertarian: Stop asking for anything to be done for you. Good luck, dog!

Conservative: Don't expect me to use any of my resources for your opportunities. Tax is theft! Regulation is a disincentive! Pay for your own opportunities. If you don't have any, why are you looking at me? Blame God.

Mongrel: Life is life. I'm a moderate, so what are you talking about? Why should I care? I'm going to Burger King for a chicken sandwich. Meritocracy? Who you kidding? I have no hard-and-fast views, maybe that's it. Sure, we live in a meritocracy, I suppose. Have you asked Joe Lieberman?

Liberal: I look at outcomes. I believe in better outcomes, regardless of morality. That means I will help those that are "undeserving" because even improvements on the margins are better than having our shining city on the hill split between gated communities in the suburbs and gated front doors in the inner cities. Create opportunities in education, open access to healthcare, and use policy to create more opportunity.

Socialist: Societies get to choose how they want to advance the culture in their milieux. and I choose to advance as diverse a population as I can. A strong safety net, even at the expense of the well-off, is a public good and, as such, should be supported for the benefit of the entire public. Oh, and while I was raised Christian, I actually noticed Christ's policy positions, which clearly state that man helps fellow man.

Anarchist (I almost forgot): The system, meritocracy or not, doesn't work, so I choose to blow stuff up.

As with any simplification, there are inconsistencies. A conservative would say they look at outcomes, too, it's just they prefer to spend money only on their own. Libertarians aren't much different, but they like to stress that freedom is the basis of choice and that government by its nature restricts choice. The difference might be that conservatives like government restricting choice, as long as it follows conservative principles.

The difference between liberals and socialists may also be a matter of degree. Liberals would want a college education to be affordable. A socialist would want it to be free.

Moderates (I prefer the term mongrel, if only because it actually feels more accurate, if provocative) have always struck me as people who have trouble making up their minds. They're the soft middle of our political decision-making apparatus and probably most responsible for the lack of true direction or consistency in our policy decisions and thus manage to cripple the effectiveness of government at a number of levels. Conservatives and libertarians don't truly exist in numbers that could dominate without the support of the undecided middle. That may be true of liberals, as well. When we're satisfied with the state of our lives, we can get sucked into the conservative point of view: I'm keeping mine, stay away. When we're dissatisfied, we're ready for the liberal viewpoint: Let's share resources to improve the lot of our whole society (maybe I'll get some).

What does this have to do with the question of whether or not we live in a meritocracy or whether we should or, if we should, what it would look like? Here:

Libertarian: We get what we deserve out of life, period.

Conservative
: We get what we deserve out of life, and those of us who succeed do so because we're more worthy.

Mongrel: Yeah, I suppose. What?

Liberal: We live in a meritocracy, which is the basis for a fair-minded model of society. A meritocracy provides us with a framework to avoid moral hazard, but we shouldn't be so hardhearted as to throw the unlucky to the dogs.

Socialist: A meritocracy is fine, as far as it goes. But allowing the "undeserving" to drag us down makes no sense whatsoever. We can devise a system where all realize an advantage from public spending that amounts to a safety net that even the most successful benefit from and that even the most nefarious will have their deleterious effect on society negated. That's why it must be a societal enterprise, and not simply piecemeal.

Anarchist: I prefer chaos, so these questions are meaningless. I'd be a libertarian if I didn't like to blow stuff up.

It may look like I'm having fun with this dissection, but these are, for many, life-and-death matters. Political seasons bring out the best and the worst and everything in between in political rhetoric. You'd only have to watch the Republican debates to see which way madness lies when you embark down the libertarian road (I feel most ideas in the Republican base right now are more libertarian than conservative, except perhaps Mitt Romney's milquetoast pontifications on the beauties of capitalism amid his distortions about almost any essential policy question: what does he believe, huh?). The crowd screams approval at how many executions Rick Perry perpetuated. It roared "Yeah!" when asked if a person who didn't have health insurance should die because of it. It screamed "More guns!" whenever the 2nd Amendment was mentioned. Taxes are anathema. And so forth.

What we never heard were policy prescriptions for improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Conservatives and libertarians alike find their solutions in the absence of policy, not in the implementation of one. More of the same, and more of Ronald Reagan's laissez-faire: Government is the problem, not the solution. So why are they running for office? Anarchists would like to know.

By now, it's obvious that I'm a liberal with socialist leanings, and I prefer public policy that is highly prescriptive. I actually have come to despise laissez-faire economists of the freshwater school who use their reasoning to hamper any progressive policies that foster widespread opportunities. When these mostly academy-based individuals cloak their arguments in nearly opaque "Humean" language, I feel my brain start to explode. But then, that's what they're aiming at to begin with. Keep the proletariat and the hoi polloi on their heals, which is where they belong.

I'm going to start quoting Marx, so I'd better stop. Still, wouldn't society be better off if the leaders we elected actually liked society, even one little bit?

The American Human

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Comment Preferences

  •  I guess I must be a Socialist. n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mahakali overdrive, Orinoco

    Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. equalitymaine.org

    by commonmass on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 08:17:15 AM PST

  •  Hmmm... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, EthrDemon, redlum jak

    You slander anarchists unfairly, using the meme that those who are pro hierarchy have created. Anarchists are not against government. That would be called anocracy. Anarchists are against hierarchy, public or private. Libertarians are the ones who want to metaphorically "blow stuff up." Like government.

    I don't think liberals want equality of outcome so much as equality of opportunity. We don't want everyone to starve, but that doesn't mean that we believe the undeserving should be rewarded so much as we believe they shouldn't be starved to death.

    Meritocracy itself is a tricky concept because we all have different ideas about merit. Merit means worth, or value. Well we all value different things. Capitalists think it is meritorious to take everything you can. Socialists think it is meritorious to ensure that everyone has their basic needs met.

    One might think anarchists would be against a meritocracy. Isn't it a form of hierarchy? Well, it certainly can be, if a small class of people are the ones deciding who has merit. But there is another form of meritocracy I have seen at anarchists events. Respect, freely given, does not constitute a hierarchy because there is no one at the top telling you who to respect. In this form of meritocracy, those who can get things done gain respect. People want effective leaders, they will follow those who can help them achieve their goals, but that isn't a hierarchy because it isn't imposed by force.

  •  Don't underestimate the cruelty of meritocracy (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Orinoco, EthrDemon

    If we measure a society not by what it tells its winners, but by what it tells its losers, meritocracy is the most hideous thing ever developed.  Other systems tell them that's how it goes--outcomes are arbitrary, or at least have nothing to do with the attributes of the losers.  But meritocracy tells losers that they suck and it's their fault.  Meritocracy is just cruelly annotated libertarianism,

    That's why liberalism-to-socialism is necessary: we need meritocracy but we also need to soften the blow of losing, since most people lose at most things.  

    But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

    by Rich in PA on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 08:39:51 AM PST

    •  Meritocracyin Ming China (0+ / 0-)

      The Ming Dynasty of China arguably presided over the longest period of orderly government and social stability in human history and I think that was in large part due to the fact that they had a strict meritocracy in civil service.

      Theoretically, anyone who passed the grueling examinations could become a scholar-official in the bureaucracy. Practically speaking, it took most people a lot of money and free time to prepare for the grueling examinations, which included moral tests as well as tests of practical knowledge. But there are many examples of poor folks passing the exams. Applicants were basically locked in a room with some water and a huge exam book for two days. Only about 5% passed.

      Meritocracy in it's true form can be very beneficial to society, but most times, what is called meritocracy is actually just a strict hierarchy. If you are at the top of the hierarchy, you have merit, if you are at the bottom, you have none. A person's merit is dependent on their position. That is the opposite of a real meritocracy, where a person's position is dependent on their merit.

    •  Or heirarchical meritocracy (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rich in PA

      in SethRightmer's formulation.

      I recall a study done a while ago that simulated winners and losers in an economic system, and it turned out that to a high degree outcomes depended as much on luck as they did on merit. Sure, the winner had to have some skill and talent, but being in the right place at the right time was just as important.

      Meritocracy of that nature ought to tell the losers that they suck and it's fate, another word for luck of the draw. So a liberal to socialist safety net is just another way of providing insurance against bad luck, and has nothing to do with whether people saved by the net are deserving or undeserving.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 09:56:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  All true, and I'd add that... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco

        ...being in the right place at the right time is totally influenced by wealth and social capital, so a pure meritocracy tends to reproduce privilege forever.

        But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

        by Rich in PA on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 10:21:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Not totally (0+ / 0-)

          People do still win the lottery, after all.

          I completely agree that privilege tends to use meritocracy by limiting places and times to those accessible to the already privileged.

          However, here we are, posting at Daily Kos, which has become Alpha Dog in the liberal blogosphere. Marcos took advantage of some privilege, of course: he is educated, a veteran, had stable employment and is computer savvy, but no more so than a lot of other people who had the same skill set but were not "in the right place, at the right time" for one blog to become way more than first among equals.

          Daily Kos didn't become what it is because Markos had an in at the local equivalent of the Friar's Club. He worked hard, true, he had the appropriate skill set, also true, but there was also an element of luck that put this one particular blog at the top of the heap. Now that it's there, of course, the fact that it is there keeps it there.

          Another place to look is in creative persuits. We have stars, in singing, acting, writing, painting, animation... who get hundreds of times the compensation and accolades as their almost equally talented peers. Are they hundreds of times better than those peers, especially at the beginning of their careers, when they were toiling in the shadows waiting for that big break? If they were, those people wouldn't call it a big break. It's partly luck.

          If it were totally dependant on existing privilege, there would be no point to having a safety net. The rich would simply take care of themselves and their clients (in the ancient Roman sense) and the government would put everyone not in the rentier or artisan class on the dole and keep them entertained with circuses.

          But it is partly luck, so it does make sense to have a safety net to catch those who do not have the good fortune to call all the right shots for their entire lives, and the good fortune to enjoy excellent health while they are about it.

          "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

          by Orinoco on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 03:08:15 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  a pure meritocracy is undesireable (0+ / 0-)

    This would mean no one helping out someone who isn't quite as qualified as another person but could possibly do the job with some mentoring, like someone with a disability.

    •  That's a good point, that a pure meritocracy would (0+ / 0-)

      rule out a helping-hand approach to anything. Since our "meritocracy" is really more of a hierarchy where our fortune stems more from the wealth and status of our parents than from an actual work ethic. Hard work is rewarded but not always. I read a statistic that something like 70% of the children of the wealthy follow in their parents footsteps, as in work for the same company, or the same profession. My father was a teacher who really wished he owned his own nightclub and could play there. I became a musician and later bought a club. I later became a teacher. We were solidly middle class, with my father having humble roots, so I don't see what I did as an example of following in my father's shadow for advantage. I just did a little wish fulfillment for my dad, before I got more practical with age.

      Anyway, more to the point: What I liked about teaching was the idea that I was helping kids get ready for real life. I was a jobs teacher in the tech field, ranging from computer technician training to networking, marketing, and digital media. My students would, from time to time, stop by and let me know that they got a job doing what I taught them to do, and I was always gratified to hear that.

  •  What is this (0+ / 0-)

    Political Philosophy for Dummies?  Dog save us from those pragmatic centrists who can't grasp that all policy positions must pass a red/green ideological test.  Good luck with a political program that saws off the limb you're sitting on.

    •  I'm not sure whether you like the centrists (0+ / 0-)

      which you label as pragmatic. I don't believe that's an actual attribute of the moderates. People with core beliefs can compromise on legislation in ways that are "pragmatic," in the sense that a liberal might choose to support the public option instead of demanding single payer. That's pragmatism, but I don't think of it as a centrist position. Most moderates tend to gut real substance. Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, and their ilk come to mind. Evan Bayh is another example. They strike me as deeply flawed people; I'd prefer to call them contemptible, as vitriolic as the term is.

      As for the Political Philosophy for Dummies comment, fine. I spent 11 years as a tech columnist, and I was rewarded for simplifying concepts that are tough for some to wrap their heads around. I guess I still do that, even in political discussions. I find simplicity preferable to either over-elaboration or intellectually distant analyses. As soon as a writer (I find this with some academics) starts using discipline-specific lingo, especially in ways that obscure, then, yeah, I'm inspired to take the Insert_topic_here for Dummies approach. I like it when others, like Paul Krugman, do the same for me (not that I'm in his category of intellect).

  •  No and no. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

    by Greyhound on Wed Feb 01, 2012 at 11:33:44 AM PST

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