Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meritocracy vs. Freedom

Secret shame time: in high school I was a libertarian. This was a pretty weird position for me to take, all things considered: My family lived on welfare, my health care was a mix of Medicaid and free clinics, and my education was courtesy of (at the time) the best public high school in America, and by a number of measures one of the best high schools, period.

But a libertarian I was, nonetheless. A lot appealed to me about libertarianism, so I will here present what I understood the ideal libertarian society to be, before I explain why I now reject both the movement and the ideal.

The ideal, at least as I understood it, was a society of maximal freedom, here understood to mean a society in which one cannot use force or the threat of force to compel the actions of others, but all other actions are entirely legal. The government exists solely as a monopoly on the use of force, which it uses only to prevent others from using force – in other words, the military and police. I recall fire departments were rarely to never mentioned, but I think the general consensus was that the government could run those, too. Nobody was very clear on how the government would go about paying for these things; generally the idea was to eliminate the progressive income tax and introduce a flat tax or a sales tax, which would be “fair.”

In such a society, the reasoning went, we would all be maximally free. True, some people would be more successful than others, but that was because they had the skills necessary to get by or achieve. People who lacked the necessary skills or were lazy would fail, and that’s as it should be. The term for this was “meritocracy.” It was regarded as vastly superior to equality or democracy, which were held in contempt – after all, the general population is an ignorant rabble who waste their time following sports and celebrities, and can at most regurgitate a couple of popular slogans, but understand nothing of science, business, or politics.

There’s not really one thing that led me to realize how entirely idiotic (not to mention inhumanly heartless and cruelly elitist) this vision was. A lot of factors played into it. One major influence was learning some history, and seeing the term “meritocracy” used in another context: the old Chinese system of public service exams. I had heard these praised as a shining example of meritocracy in action before, but it wasn’t until nearly the end of high school that I learned they tested mostly one’s ability to memorize and regurgitate classic Chinese texts, plus some general liberal arts – writing poetry, painting, calligraphy, and the like. How could that be a meritocracy? What does the ability to draw have to do with the ability to govern? It was obvious to me what happened: people who were well-versed in Chinese texts and the liberal arts, who measured a person’s worth by knowledge of Chinese texts and the liberal arts, decided to make rank in their society dependent on knowledge of Chinese texts and the liberal arts.

In my first semester of college, I read Plato’s Republic. In it, he argues for another meritocracy; in this one, philosophers rule. That seemed a little more reasonable – wouldn’t a person who studied ethics and government be the ideal person to govern? Except, of course, that Plato was a philosopher himself. Was his proposal really any less self-serving than the old Chinese civil servants? Any less self-serving than medieval nobles who, lucky enough to be born into noble families, declared that such birth was the only rightful qualification for power?

As I studied more, I began to realize that “meritocracy” was really just a form of tyranny: it is a system by which people who have power can perpetuate that power, by defining merit as whatever the powerful regard as virtuous about themselves. When the powerful are good at war and born into elite families, those are the requirements for power. When the powerful are good at the liberal arts, that becomes the requirement for power. When a philosopher proposes a meritocracy, he makes merit equivalent to knowledge of philosophy.

And when people who see themselves as more intelligent, harder working, and possessing (or, in the case of my high school self, in the process of acquiring) desirable job skills design a meritocracy, they build a capitalist one, where intelligence, hard work, and job skills lead (supposedly) to power. It’s ultimately just elitist, self-serving arrogance.

It’s idiotic, too. Figuring that out required learning a bit of economics, and in particular, the fact that wealth has gravity. The more wealth you have, the less effort it takes to acquire more. Once you get more than a certain amount of wealth, you can invest broadly and deeply enough that you turn a profit every single day – without making a single product, providing a single service, or managing a single employee. There’s a decent argument to be made that, by the act of investing itself, you are enabling others to do these things, and thus still contributing to society – but you aren’t actually demonstrating any intelligence, skill, or effort, which supposedly is the measure of merit.

In fact, in libertopia, the measure of merit is wealth, and it really doesn’t matter how you come by it. If you are wealthy, you are presumed to be intelligent, hard-working, and skilled. If you are not wealthy, you are assumed to be failing that measure in at least one respect. Wealth is power; at its core, libertarianism teaches that to have power is necessarily to deserve it. Might makes right, in other words.

Further, wealth inevitably follows a Pareto distribution. In any society with anything remotely resembling markets, the majority of the wealth will always be controlled by a minority of the population. This minority’s wealth exerts that gravitational pull, and so, in the absence of contrary forces, they get richer and richer. In libertopia, where wealth really is the only form of personal power that matters, the inevitable result is that the most powerful become more powerful every day, while everyone else becomes weaker.

What really broke libertarianism for me, at least on the meritocracy front, was the realization that by “freedom” it really meant “the freedom of the strong to oppress the weak.” In a libertopia, a worker has no recourse against any abuse. Sure, there are always strikes, but with nothing to prevent managers from bringing in scabs and no social safety net to support the strikers, such an attempt is doomed to failure, and quite likely to end in poverty and starvation.

Libertopia is not a free society at all. It is a society in which a small number of people live like kings, while the rest labor in near-slavery. A tiny segment of the population have enormous freedom to do almost anything they want, with no need of force or threat of force to control the rest; they can simply dangle the prospect of unemployment and resulting starvation, and everyone jumps to their call. Sure, in theory the unemployed could seek employment elsewhere – but if every employer is equally abusive, how will that help? And yes, the unemployed are free to try to start their own business – but with what capital?

No, there is a word for “meritocracy,” for a society where an elite few have all the power and all the freedom, and the rest must labor in their service or suffer the consequences. And that word definitely isn’t “freedom.”


  1. Yes! This! Every time I hear some idiot with a microphone wax rhapsodic in a brainless, Orwellian "Taxes bad! Free Market Capitalism good!" manner; I want to grab them by the scruff of the neck (or the throat, whichever's most convenient and painful), drag them to a time machine, and warp them to various so-called "golden ages" that fit your definition of "libertopia" above. (And there have been plenty! Medieval feudalism, Tsarist Russia before the fall of serfdom, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sometime just before the infamous fire,the Stalinist Soviet Union during the purges*, the slave-worker-manned factories and concentration camps of Hitler's Third Reich**, etc.) Then, after returning to the present, I would unceremoniously drag them to the nearest sweatshop in New York's Garment District to show them the "libertopia" that the workers get to go through each day so that they can dress in that expensive tailored suit. Our last stop (with the requisite amount of dragging) would be the Meritocratic Libertopia of Somalia; where money and guns are, in equal measure, the coin of the Realm and The Law of The Land and human life is literally cheaper than the dirt used to bury anyone who forgets that.

    So, yeah; a libertopian meritocracy can be a nice place to dream about -- or even live in -- if you have a lot of money and are willing to spend large amounts of it protecting what you've got...but it tends to be a living Hell for those who, for whatever reason, don't (or can't) live up to the standard that the word "merit" implies.

    *Though this was more of an inversion of the trope, as it were.
    **Yes, I realize that I risk Godwin-izing myself with this one; but Oskar Schindler is only the best known example of German businesses/industries that made huge profits off of slave-workers and political prisoners.

  2. a libertarian society would essentially be feudalism on the grand scale: great to be a noble, but really sucks to be everyone else.

    plus, libertarians all say that they want equality of opportunity.

    and they are vehemently opposed to estate taxes.


  3. Great post,
    what you are fighting is not meritocracy but the natural perversion of capitalism with meritocracy as a ripoff slogan. Ideally a merit based society which regulated workers rights and had cheap availability of education would produce a stronger economy than a soulless feudal society.

  4. @Anonymous: Wow, thanks for the comment. Wasn't expecting one this long after the post.

    Before I can discuss your response, I have to understand two things: What is your definition of "merit," and then how exactly does this merit-based society reward it?


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