Uncommon Sense

November 5, 2021

Is the U.S. a Meritocracy?

Filed under: Culture,History,Politics,Reason — Steve Ruis @ 11:02 am
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A couple of episodes ago, Ben Shapiro was on the Bill Maher show, Real Time. (For the life of me why people listen to Ben Shapiro is quite beyond my comprehension. He is a bigger blowhard than I am.)

Mr. Shapiro claimed in that show, and I assume elsewhere, that the U.S. was a “meritocracy” and had been since its inception. A meritocracy sounds like a good deal, people being rewarded on their merits, by Mr. Shapiro’s co-guest wasn’t having any of it. That person, I forget his name, was African-American and, according to him, his great-grandfather was a slave. It should be obvious that slaves were not allowed to participate in any meritocracy, if it indeed existed. And, it is fairly easy to prove that slaves created most of the wealth of the early colonies and the early U.S.

The claim that the U.S. is a meritocracy and has been, is ludicrous from the get-go. This is the claim that is made by people who have accumulated wealth, or personal esteem, or recognition in society, as a way to establish the righteousness of their rewards. They are wealthy because of their great talents, don’t you know. They are valued because of their merits as a whatever.

The classic case I can remember is Mitch Romney, when running for president, claiming that he was a self-made man, that he amassed his wealth on his own. He skipped over the two million dollars his father gave him as seed money to get started in business and the access to his father’s Rolodex, filled with contacts for the rich and famous galore. To put this in context, since Mr. Romney and I are roughly contemporaneous, I made in just less than forty years, as a college professor, about two million dollars. Mr. Romney was given an amount equivalent to my career earnings to “get started.” This is typical of the wealthy, whose parents were often also wealthy and who benefited from private schools, the best colleges, costly vacations, travel, etc. to get a head start on their “competitors.” (My family went on our first vacation when I was nine years old (and I was the “baby” of three children). We went camping in national parks using borrowed camping gear.)

Studies show that Americans rarely transcend the socioeconomic stratum they were born into. We love stories of folks who went from rags to riches and that does happen, just not very often.

You may have many good personal merits, but if others don’t get to see them, then they are hardly going to be rewarded. The aphorism is “it is not what you know, but who you know” . . . still stands. Sometimes it can be the case that impersonal rules affect your outcome. Consider children’s sports in which competitions are stratified by age groups, to provide “fair competition.” Often these groups are two year spans and the placement of kids into the groups is by setting a fixed date and using the child’s age at that date as the placing stat. But there is a problem with this. Kids who have birthdays shortly after the chosen date, will be placed as if they were a year younger and children with a birthday just before the date will be placed as if they were a year older. The kid who turns twelve the day after the placing date and the kid who turned eleven just before the placing date will both be placed as eleven-year olds, except that one has just turned eleven and the other is just turning twelve and is, effectively a year older.

Oh, pish-posh and tish-tosh you say, what effect can that have? A study of professional European soccer league players showed that close to all of them had birthdays just after the placing date and were effectively labeled as being a year younger than they were when participating in youth soccer play. The older kids are more physically developed, had superior skills and received more attention from coaches, more acclaim, more positive feedback, etc. There is even a name for the phenomenon, the Relative Age Effect; you can look it up.

Meritocracy, my ass.

John Ralston Saul has something to say on whether a meritocracy is even something to desire, in his 2001 book, “On Equilibrium:” (p. 7 of the paperback edition) “A meritocracy, on the other hand, is so busy concentrating on efficiently identifying who is best and pushing him to the fore that it shuts down its confidence in the rest of us – those of us turning our door handles and willing to contribute, each in her own way and at her own level. The whole idea of a society of winners – a place known above all for its best – leads with surprising speed to a narrow pyramidal social structure. And then to division and widespread passivity. That in turn leads to false populism and mediocrity; to a world obsessed by bread and circuses, Heroes and the need for leadership.

So, do you see why the very rich assholes and their front men, like Ben Shapiro, like the idea that we are a meritocracy? It reinforces the very polarized structure they have already created. The one that has them on top of the pyramid.

They have waged a class war . . . and won. Now what do we do?

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