Meritocracy

Jeremy Beer offers a thought-provoking essay on how meritocracy is killing Middle America:

…fly-over country, by and large, has been hemorrhaging intellectual capital for decades. The most talented young men and women, the most able, the most intelligent and creative, have been leaving to go off to college — or have been lured off to college — only to return in ever-diminishing numbers.

Much of Beer’s rhetoric is based on a denial, made explicit only at the very end of the article, “that we ‘need’ to maximize our economic value”. I’d argue that “maximizing” may not be necessary, but that economic progress is in fact one of our moral obligations to society, both present and future. The need for community and social cohesion does not completely obviate the tangible benefits of prosperity, which can support attempts to foster community. If remote communities are to close the growing gap with the world’s creative hubs, I expect that they will do so on the back of technologies like telecommuting and digital distribution—both direct products of economic and technological innovation.

The point that rings most true in the essay, however, is the contention that support for meritocracy can be motivated as much by self-interest as by abstract moral ideals:

…modernity, whose distinctive political philosophies have stressed equality, has led to greater inequality than ever, precisely because it has equalized opportunity — that is, because it has unleashed talent either to sink or swim — more than had ever previously been done. To put it yet another way, modernity has created many more opportunities for the expression of inequality than ever. And it has made inherent inequality more important than ever in determining social and economic distinctions.

This sheds some light on the cries of elitism that seem to grow only louder. Whether or not elites run things better isn’t the point; it’s whether offering all the benefits of power to the fortunate few is inherently fair.

The real irony is that in the US, conservative anti-elitism is tightly coupled with laissez-faire capitalism: the fortunate few shouldn’t be allowed to run things, but there is no limit to how disproportionate their share of the benefits should be. The opposite liberal stance is in fact far more coherent: the most competent should be in charge, but oversight should dampen the inequalities that result.