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?