is a political discussion blog. Please read the annoying legalese on the "About" page.

Responding on “merit”…

Responding to a quote in Sean McElwee’s excellent screed on the topic of why Americans seem to be so complacent:

“The Waltons and Kochs, parasites living off their parent’s work rather than creating their own fortunes, are examples of how the old story of the “self-made man” is increasingly out of date.”

My cross-posted comment:

But even if they had “created” their own fortunes would it really be fair anyway? Did Bill Gates will himself to be smart? Did Warren Buffet will himself to be ambitious?

The answer is “no”. They can except credit for their God given (or universe given, or whatever) talents as the farmer can take credit for the rain watering his crops. Their success is at least as attributable to luck as any self-derived talent. Sure, maybe Lloyd Blanfein works harder than I do, but the fact that he wants that and is able to sustain that has less to do with a choice, than the hand that he was dealt by genetics and upbringing. That someone is the CEO of a corporation is not because they choose to try harder, it’s because trying harder is literally easier for them. They are wired to try hard – the “trying hard” they do, unlike most of us, isn’t “work” (or at least as much work) for them.

I am better at computers than many people I know, but while I can claim I have worked harder on computers than others, the reason I worked harder is ironically because it was easier for me. I may have struggled with this or that, but it sure as hell wasn’t as much of a struggle as most. While I will allow myself to be proud of my accomplishments, objectively I cannot claim to be the source of my talents. I was just lucky to be wired the right way at the right time.

So, why should the Wal*Mart employee be punished because he’s not wired like Lloyd Blankfein (or me the lucky computer guy)? Why should Lloyd Blankfein (or me the computer guy) get all the spoils of his good luck rather than effort?

Sure, we want to incentivize certain traits to encourage those with and without luck to aspire to them, but it’s a matter of degrees. Even “meritocracy” can be taken too far (and that of course even forgets your well put arguments, the fact that we confuse “merit” with hubris/assholedom, and that claims of merit are often remarkably exaggerated or even false).

Obviously there are limitations to this philosophy and one could easily end up in trouble should you go too far down this road, however we find ourselves in the trouble we are in currently because conversely we have gone too far down some other roads.

One problem we have as humans is we want everything to fit in a nice tidy box, when the truth of creating a better world will probably be an ugly and ever-changing mish-mash of ideas and methods. It would be nice to say, “Everyone who believes X will go to Hell and everyone who believes in Y will go to Heaven,” but we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work that well. In the end, just because you need water to live, doesn’t mean that holding you underwater will be double-plus-good.

But going to extremes is as American as apple pie or rather, the Big Gulp (though to give us Americans credit, we do seem to do a better job than our European brethren at stepping back from the brink).


Incidentally, I am not the first one to question the idea of “merit” as being a good metric:

O.M.: The merits of the metal machine would be far above those of the stone one?

Y.M.: Of course.

O.M.: Personal merits?

Y.M.: PERSONAL merits? How do you mean?

O.M.: It would be personally entitled to the credit of its own performance?

Y.M.: The engine? Certainly not.

O.M.: Why not?

Y.M.: Because its performance is not personal. It is the result of the law of construction. It is not a MERIT that it does the things which it is set to do–it can’t HELP doing them.

O.M.: And it is not a personal demerit in the stone machine that it does so little?

Y.M.: Certainly not. It does no more and no less than the law of its make permits and compels it to do. There is nothing PERSONAL about it; it cannot choose. In this process of “working up to the matter” is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?

Of course you do risk getting back to this:

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”

But as I said, “mish-mash”, the Libertarians aren’t all wrong, nor were the Marxists (and besides, putting down the Marxists is a bit of “hippie-bashing“, a way to say, “We’re not one of those people.”).


Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>