The case against meritocracy.

in #meritocracylast month


For many years now one of my views that seems to set me apart from many people I otherwise agree with is that meritocracy is a really bad idea, one of the worst ever in fact. I read Michael Young's little book - The Rise of Meritocracy - (while in high school) but what really turned me into a fierce opponent was reading Christopher Lasch's "The True and Only Heaven" in the early 1990s and in particular his critique of the idea of social mobility. Meritocracy as both idea and practice is against the social ideals of all three major political traditions: conservatives because part of that is a defence of the inevitability and value of social hierarchy, egalitarians for obvious reasons (but maybe not obvious - I am amazed by the number of self-proclaimed socialists and social democrats who say they believe in meritocracy), liberals because a traditional liberal value is the equal esteem and dignity of all kinds of work and life.

The practice is very damaging for too many reasons to go into but two are these: it logically entails equality of opportunity which is a totalitarian idea and project, and it has destroyed academic and scholarly life and indeed education in general. There are lots of critiques of meritocracy out there that amount to pointing out how the reality is the entrenchment of privilege but the underlying thesis is that the ideal is fine, it's the execution that is bad. It's the actual ideal that is bad because a central element of it is the notion that some kinds of work and occupation are intrinsically better than others, not in the sense of earning more but that of being more dignified, having higher status, and being more morally worthwhile and superior. This means that some kinds of people are more worthwhile and valuable than others.

In the last few months, quite suddenly, there's been a spate of arguments appearing against the actual idea. Michael Sandel is about to bring out a book arguing the case against which has got a lot of attention. Here is another interesting essay looking at another critique by Fredrik deBoer (interesting because he's previously defended things like the SAT).

The essay makes the point that left-wing critics like Sandel and deBoer are both incorrect and doing themselves a disservice in the persuasion stakes by saying that the case against meritocracy necessarily entails economic equality. That means they can't find common ground with liberal critics of meritocracy. The common ground is a belief on equality of esteem - you can then have a secondary argument about whether that does require economic equality.

This is an argument we will see a lot more of because of the way it plays out in politics. Resentment of the way the meritocratic labour market is working is perhaps the main factor behind the realignment of politics and the rise of so-called populism. It's worth saying that imo meritocracy as an idea is an ideology in the strict and original meaning of the word (the Friedrich Engels one) - it's the ideology of the managerial class.

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