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On “merit”…

In the bad old days position in society was based on birth and wealth. For a short time there was a threat that it would be based on need (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”), however that was safely squashed with the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Since then the metric has evolved to more and more purist visions of  a “meritocracy”.

Certainly on a basic level this seems very appealing – after all, doesn’t it seem fair that those who work hardest obtain the most reward? There is no “doubt compared to metric of birth and wealth, this is far superior, “The aristocracy is dead, long live the meritocracy!”

Or is the aristocracy dead?

First, it doesn’t take a lot of paying attention to see that wealthy (their wealth more often than not made the old fashioned way – inherited), seem to have an unexpectedly large hold on so-called “merit”. That is, for some curious reason everyone who is rich is a “hard worker” or “smarter” than the rest of us. In fact rich people seem to outperform the mean by extraordinary measure. Everywhere we turn we have the meritous rich.

Oddly the poor don’t seem to be so luckily endowed. They are, we are told, spending too much time, “drinking or smoking and socializing” (as we all know, the rich never  “drink” or “socialize”).  The poor are a lazy lot, otherwise why would have god and/or fate frowned so upon them?

It certainly is a compelling narrative – the rich are rich because they deserve it and the poor are poor similarly because they deserve it. In fact it is so compelling based on the “evidence” we are given, that one might suspect that there is some sort of “genetic” difference, that somehow the rich, even those who obtained such from “rags to riches”, are somehow inherently better than us.

Of course when one pays attention, one notices the word “inherent” has common roots as “inherited” and “inherited traits” where exactly what was supposed to make the aristocracy so much better than us and deserving that their blood carry on ruling us for time immemorial.

In short, “meritocracy” seems to build another kind of “aristocracy”. It may not be by literal birth, but it certainly has an implication of the same blood derived source. Some of us are better than others by nature, those who are not, deserve that which they reap (even though, we should note, if we equate it to blood or nature, we have to admit their position would thus not be by choice).

One might almost think that the successful chose to be successful prior to being born, rather than being born with the luck of ambition, intelligence, and self-assurance (assuming, as noted, that such success isn’t outright inherited). And being born (or raised) with ambition, intelligence, and self-assurance is truly lucky – something that those who have it are at a loss to recognize (few born on third think they hit anything but a triple). In the words of Billy Bragg:

“Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy.”

Of course, what is “merit”? If we’re going to have a “meritocracy” we ought to understand what “merit” really means. Do we really know? It seems a hazily defined subject (perhaps because such haziness has its benefits to our meritorious rulers). Is it goodness? Intelligence? Competence? Ambition? Ruthlessness?

It seems as of late the later two are as equally synonymous in the public’s eye as the former three, even though most would be loath to believe such in practice (nor admit such if a practitioner). After all, isn’t it goodness, intelligence, and competence that we want to promote with the richness of reward? Yet isn’t it obvious that ambition and ruthlessness (not to mention “duplicity”) make worthy substitutes?

In fact, is hard not to see that a large percentage, perhaps the majority of those at the top are at least equal parts ambition and ruthlessness as the more worthy adjectives?

Is that our goal, that those who are “meaner” and have more “hubris” should succeed over not only those with (supposed) little merit, but even those with more?

It certainly seems to be the right wing “Social Darwinian” answer.

And does “merit” include being able to charm those around you? Clearly many a man (or woman) with charisma and the right connections has been promoted over those without. On that basis merit is a very fickle thing and without doubt within the eye of the beholder.

And that leads us to the end of our discussion – what of all those without merit?

After all, we cannot all be smart, strong, interesting, and, confident. Someone must slog through the work of building the innovators’ and entrepreneurs’ dreams (by “slog” I of course do not mean “work hard”, since clearly those without merit cannot have their efforts categorized as such lest we be caught in the conundrum that maybe there are more ways toward merit than what the currently meritorious classify).

It would seem as society currently states that those who aren’t the innovators, the entrepreneurs – the “owners” as it were, well their worth is of little value. Despite the fact that they do most of the work, they are chattel to be used up and thrown away as all property can be such disposed. Their work has no worth because it has no “merit” and it has no “merit” because it does not fall into the definition that the meritorious, who rule our society, define for us.

Curious that is, how those who rule us define “merit” to be something they are and something we are not?

Alas, but do not think about it. It might disturb the self-induced slumber of X-Factor or the myriad of other diversions intended to keep you from remarking the reality as it is flagrantly divergent from the reality it is supposed to be.


One might note that a society so clearly based on merit as ours should function in a highly efficient and perhaps flawless state. That our society, which has moved so far from the post war boom with its lack of proper understanding of the value of merit, to instead a society that correctly rewards and values “merit” as it should – well, one might expect it would be functioning so effectively now that all flaws should virtually be eradicated.

That it isn’t, to some, might encourage a rethink of our value system. To others, it simply means we need to “double down”, reigning more riches on the meritorious and more pain on the merit-less.

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