Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Incoherence of Meritocracy

Who should rule? Perhaps you think the answer is spelled out in the concept of a meritocracy, of a society run by those who excel on account of their ability and talent. The elites in a meritocracy are meant to be the opposite of plutocrats who buy power and of aristocrats who inherit power regardless of their aptitude.

“Meritocracy,” though, is a curious concept. Even in an aristocracy, the rulers do excel—at being selfish, spoiled, aloof, and indolent. An aristocrat would be incompetent at improving the lives of the peasants and slave labourers who support the empire, if that were the empire’s purpose, but a royal can inspire as a symbol of how arbitrary power corrupts character. Or take the kleptocracy, the society in which political power is stolen. The thieves in charge still excel—at conning the masses and wasting the natural resources. Or take an even more obvious case of a society supposedly run by impostors who don’t deserve their power, the kakistocracy which, by definition, is a society run by the worst persons. Again, these rulers would be abysmal, morally speaking, but that’s not to say they would be bereft of any talent. Con artists, for example, excel at selling, which is to say at deceiving and at restricting their perspective to their primitive, selfish urges as a result of their lack of empathy.

Only in a country in which power is handed out randomly would we expect the rulers to have no common skills. An aristocracy comes close to that scenario, because the randomness inherent to sexual reproduction is a factor in the bestowing of political power along a bloodline. That randomness, though, is balanced by the upper-class institutions that rear the royal child and by absolute power’s natural tendency to monstrify the powerful person, so that aristocratic personalities and talents do resemble each other. For example, aristocrats are all rich and they live in castles and have sycophantic servants; they also receive top-notch education, they’re famous from birth and know they won’t face immediate oblivion in the history books, unlike most people who ever lived, so aristocrats have to adapt to that common environment.

Amoral, Moral, and Mixed Meritocracies

These complications point to a more fundamental problem with meritocracy, which is that the concept might be incoherent. After all, ruling or governing implies some degree of coercion, of exercising power over others. If the kind of merit that’s relevant to a meritocracy were determined by moral criteria, the moral elites might be poor candidates for that job since they’d be inclined to avoid committing even the slightest infraction of the citizens’ rights. Depending on which skills are relevant to the task of ruling over the masses, or to speak euphemistically, of “governing the nation’s affairs,” some who’ve earned various merits might be the worst candidates for a political position. This would be the political realist’s perspective, which has recently entered popular culture via the success of “Game of Thrones.” The notion of a meritocracy, then, almost serves as a weasel word for obscuring these preliminary questions of the purpose of government and of which talents are suited to fulfilling that purpose.

“Democracy,” “aristocracy,” “plutocracy,” “meritocracy”—all such terms are based on the Greek word for “rule” or “government.” If ruling a nation were inherently a dirty business, the talents required to excel in that field would be those shown to best effect in the most amoral political systems such as a kleptocracy or a plutocracy. By contrast, were the goal of government to elevate the quality of the citizens so that they’d no longer need to be guided or ruled, the desired endpoint being anarchy, the rulers would have to be averse to exercising political power; that is, the rulers would dedicate themselves to the dominance hierarchy’s dissolution, by selflessly enhancing the citizens’ ability to govern themselves. Perhaps, instead, the purpose of government is to feign having a lofty purpose while secretly deferring to amoral natural probabilities, as in the case of a pseudo-democracy that rationalizes its plutocratic effects.

How the relevant talents are measured will depend on government’s ultimate purpose. Were the political purpose amoral, as in a “realistic,” natural society in which the strong dominate the weak, the talents could be measured by the results. Who is demonstrably the strongest, most sociopathic member of society? That individual would deserve to rule in that he or she would be fittest to fulfill that social purpose. Talk of “merit” in such a society would be instrumental, of course, since moral values are shams from a naturalistic, Game of Thrones perspective. This is to say that merit in that system would have to do with efficiency, with picking the best means of achieving a goal. The goal itself would be neither good nor bad but would merely obtain as a natural fact. Such amorality would appall those who take seriously the conventional fictions that flatter them. In any case, you wouldn’t need to test the citizens in the systematic Chinese manner to measure their amorality, since the most Machiavellian citizens would likely be infamous.

Even those who prefer to keep their social manipulations covert could be awarded the honour of deserving to rule an amoral society, given the evidence of their privately-amassed wealth. The assumption would be that great wealth is never acquired on a moral basis. That, however, raises the question whether those most deserving to exploit or to oppress the masses would be inclined to take the job, since political responsibilities might impede their pettier cons. In nature, the strongest or most cunning member of the group takes power by displaying dominance and beating back challenges to his or her privileges. But it’s an open question whether the greatest human villain would be the individual who tends to acquire political power, given that only amoral standards apply to the political process. Dictators or mafia bosses often mirror the beastly struggle for power in the jungle, taking power as they do by bloody coups. But capitalism allows for greater profit to be made from private forms of sociopathy, as compared with public ones.

Suppose, however, we confine our interest to moral meritocracies. In that case, would the Chinese test-based system be best for picking the elites? Not necessarily, because Chinese meritocracy is pragmatic, not moralistic. The political goal in China is for the elites to be competent in ensuring that the social system functions smoothly, so that China’s meritocracy is largely technocratic. Education is a condition of competence in that instrumental sense, and test-taking is part of the process of acquiring an education. How, then, would you measure the moral skills that would be relevant to governing a compassionate society? The procedure here would seem to be the opposite of the one employed in the ruthless, amoral meritocracy. You’d search the streets for the least powerful citizens who are in the business of sacrificing their personal interests for altruistic reasons. That isn’t to say the poorest, least successful members would automatically deserve to rule, since some homeless people, for example, might prefer to be wealthy and might have only failed in business. But you could do worse than to scour charities and homeless shelters, taking care, though, to exclude those who are in the altruistic habit for religious reasons, since the promise of reward in the afterlife vitiates the do-gooder’s selflessness.

Having found such selfless individuals, you might wonder why there was any such need to look for them in the first place. If we assume the social interest in morality is genuine, the most scrupulous members might be expected to rise automatically to political power in such an altruistic environment. The problem would be that free-riders would exploit the good intentions of such a system, make a show of their phony empathy, and compete for the “throne.” Of course, there should be no throne, no symbol of dominance in a nation that prides itself on its unnatural values. But as long as genuine altruists have to live with even a minority of sociopaths, the latter will have the upper hand until natural, regressive instincts and compromises are eliminated from interpersonal relationships. In any case, even if the most deserving members wouldn’t automatically rise to the pinnacle of a compassionate society, in principle you could distinguish the genuine saint from the fraud, and the former would obviously deserve to “rule” in such a society.

What, though, would “ruling over others” mean in that case? Perhaps the moral leader would serve only as a guide or inspiration, like a guru. The nation would be like a giant cult except that instead of worshipping the dear leader, as in North Korea, the goal would be to help others or to do what’s otherwise right in the moral sense. A better comparison would be with a charity. Imagine that instead of a capitalistic economy, the system were about elevating those who are worse off. Suppose this egalitarian goal were achieved and business were conducted not for private profit or for the sake of empowering some at the expense of others, but—should any inequality be tolerated—to elevate the lives of others at the expense of yours. It’s hard to see how anyone would have a right to rule over such a society, since the public would have altogether abandoned politics. The citizens would govern themselves; there would be no conflicts calling for mere pragmatic solutions, since the majority, at least, would do the right thing. Mind you, happiness would be paradoxical in that heaven on earth, as shown at the end of “Schindler’s List,” when Oscar Schindler is horrified to realize that he could have done more to save Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Those who care more about increasing the happiness of others than about enjoying their life might be pleased to act selflessly, but they wouldn’t be content until all injustices had been eradicated. An entire society of altruists might be as tortured as a knight errant, thrusting himself into danger at personal risk, in pursuit of a greater good. The point, though, is that a saintly society wouldn’t be a meritocracy, since the government wouldn’t rule over the citizens.

Short of such utopia, a coercive government would seem to be required because of inadequate self-guidance on the part of the majority of citizens in a more realistic (natural or animalistic) society. If most people are incapable of doing what’s right in their private life, they’re hardly likely to act in the nation’s best interest or for the good of the planet. The government is supposed to step in to rectify that deficiency. In an incompletely-moral nation, then, a meritocratic system would be one governed by elites who excel in deciding when to put aside morality by way of reconciling themselves to the imperfections of the system and of the population. These elites would be expert at oscillating between moral and amoral, pragmatic frameworks, and at covering up the contradictions between them. In short, this would encompass the fraudulent sort of society, the one that might truly earn the oxymoronic title of “meritocracy,” since the value of merit would be belied by the natural call for political rule and thus for systematic social inequality.

Again, those who “deserve” to rule in an amoral society, because they’re the most selfish and powerful and villainous couldn’t consistently speak of that honour, because there would be no such thing as value or merit in such a primitive setting. There would be only natural probabilities, causal relationships, and a horrific lack of vindication by any greater plan. The alpha male wolf might be physically the most vicious member of the pack, and you could go on to compare the skills of the other wolves, but there would be no merit or greatness in any of those skills. The value of those skills would be as illusory as the intelligent design of the wolf’s body type. Thus, to say that the strong “earn the right” to rule over the weak would be nonsensical, from the perspective of the strongest individual who’s eschewed the concept of a good greater than self-interest. In short, ethical egoism and social Darwinism suffer from a performative self-contradiction if they’re taken to imply that selfish profit-seeking is best; that is, we mustn’t confuse amorality with evil. There’s no evil in a system in which certain natural talents are exploited to achieve selfish advantage over the majority, such as by some massive con or theft or brutal coup. The behaviour in a social system that’s easily explained in its entirety in sociobiological terms is amoral.

By the same token, in an unnatural society, governed by moral ideals rather than by biological norms, there’s plenty of value but no politics. Only in the interim system that goes back and forth between high-minded concerns and regressive instincts might you have prescription and politics, an ideal dictating what ought to be done and a lapse into fight-or-flight, social dominance, or other animal tactics. The trick would be to preserve an interest in morality while observing the ease with which most people fall well short of their ideals. For example, keeping the American dream alive in spite of the farce of the Trump presidency might be beyond the human capacity for rationalization. When animal patterns intrude on a more rarified artificial endeavor, we have a tragedy. So when a democracy—which is supposed to be a system in which the majority rule (on account of most people’s success in governing themselves)—declines and turns into an authoritarian spectacle, ideality is overrun by politics. The American liberal ideal, deriving from Enlightenment philosophy, is proven to be a mere transient artwork like the Notre Dame cathedral which can burn to ashes at any moment. When most Americans and Europeans no longer believe in liberalism, because they’ve witnessed the self-sacrificial consequences of economic globalism, as poor countries are elevated at the expense of middleclass jobs in the richer ones, they lash out as animals, trolling the elites and craving an anarchic do-over, as in Brexit, Trump’s aristocratic “presidency,” or other such suicidal fiascos.

As to who should rule in these half-hearted countries in which faith in the greater good is waning, most fitting would be elites who likewise pretend to care about what should be done, whereas they excel at doing what must be done according to sociobiological, animal law. These elites would be animals wearing human masks, like George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatives,” otherwise known well as neocons. Conceivably, an elite leader of a mixed (moral but flawed) meritocracy might have a genuine interest in moral ideals, and might lament the need to compromise with natural tendencies. But the more compromises the technocrat must make with natural reality, the more jaded she would become. Persistent faith in an unnatural ideal in the face of flagrant daily violations, on account of nature’s palpable indifference to what should be done would require a type of mania or other insanity that might disqualify the individual from a leadership role in a meritocracy. So the elites in a mixed meritocracy would tend to be con artists, masters of what Leo Strauss and Plato called the noble lie. Their greatest merit would be their ability to pretend that progress is feasible or that a flawed population is likely to adopt worthy principles in the first place.

In summary, there are evidently three types of meritocracies, depending on whether the leader’s merit is amoral, moral, or an untenable combination of the two. In either case, the concept of “rule by merit” isn’t strictly coherent. The politics overwhelm the values, the values obviate the need for politics, or a synthesis is maintained on the basis of a fraud, as in a half-hearted appeal to liberal values of personal freedom that fly in the face of plutocratic and technological realities.


  1. As I see it you've brought up two crucial points & I would like to address each in turn within a separate post.

    Your 1st point concerns the purpose of a meriticracy. You point out that. If we work backwards & assume that the purpose of a given government can be deduced from what types of people rise through its ranks most readily, then it becomes clear that ANY government could be described as a meritocracy. For example: if the US government is predominantly composed of men who sit on the boards of large corporations, then it could be inferred that the US is a plutocracy. Conversely, if the US is a plutocracy then it would expected that the government is staffed by some of the same people who occupy the highest levels of its top corporations. Hence, as a plutocracy the US is about as meritocratic as can be. However, this definition of 'meritocratacy' makes the term rather redundant; in this sense 'meritocratic' could simply be replaced with 'efficient'.

    What's really at issue here is the purpose of government. The 1st book of Plato's Republic covers this topic pretty thoroughly. Socrates compares the art of government to the art of medicine while Thrasymachus compares it to shepherding. Socrates reasons that a physician exercises his art to cure his patient, while Thrasymachus argues that the shepherd has no ultimate interest in his flock and only feeds and protects them so he can fleece and devour them in the future. Naturally, these analogies lead to two irreconcilable ideals of statesmanship. I tend to side with Socrates on semantic grounds since, as I see it, there is no practical difference between the kind of despotism Thrasymachus advocates and the state of nature. A government can be many things, but one thing it cannot be is its opposite. 'Government' implies civilization: a factitious social structure which is the very antithesis of primitive savagery.

    But I think I have an even better analogy for government than Socrates did: a civilization is a garden and its government is the gardener. The difference between civilization & savagery is like the difference between a well-cultivated garden & a sward of weeds and toadstools: the former is 'unnatural' in the sense that it requires constant maintenance if it isn't going to revert to the default state of nature. A 'government' that only served to facilitate the exploitation of the weak by the strong would be as redundant as a gardener who never bothered to weed. So a government worthy of the name would be one that serves the general interests of its citizens rather than the private interests of the few; and a meritocratic government would be one which does this in the most efficient way possible by ensuring that each of its citizens have everything they need to actualize their full, individual potentials in a way that contributes to the overall richness of the civilization. For Socrates, that every man and woman should serve society by doing whatever it is that they are best at is the very definition of social justice; I wholeheartedly agree.

    No civilization has ever had a perfect government in this sense; but every one has been forced to accept some sort of unnatural breach of jungle law from time to time in order to survive. The Roman Republic had to fall so that Rome, as a civilization, could continue to exist under the considerably more humane control of the emperors. Athens would never have survived long enough to become a center of learning if not for rulers like Solon, Cleanthenes & Pisistratus who did what they could to protect weak citizens from strong ones. Spartan history as we know it began with a massive redistribution of land & the cancelation of debts. And that's just from classical history. I'm sure you could think of plenty more examples.

  2. Your 2nd point concerns the type of people who would be qualified to run a meriticracy. You contend, correctly, that a saint would not be fit to rule since he wouldn't have the stomach to do what was necessary to maintain order. A sociopath would have no qualms about putting down anyone who stepped out of line but he isn't someone who could ever be trusted with power in the first place. Now, what you say is true as it goes, but I think it also happens to be a false dichotomy. The most important quality for anyone in a position of authority is sound judgment. A good leader is not overly burdened by sentiments. Both compassion & greed are sentiments, and sentiment is the enemy of clear judgment.

    To give you a concrete example of what I mean, think of Spock from Star Trek. He is as dispassionate as anyone can be. He isn't a a cold-blooded psychopath, but neither is he overwhelmed by pity when strong actions are required. He has a firm moral center, but his ethical code is not dictated by emotions.

    A guardian of our meritocracy may not share Spock's utilitarian ethics nor would she suppress the slightest stirring of emotion; but none of that is necessary. All that's required is that our guardian be cool headed enough to put aside her feelings when acting in her capacity as guardian & instead act on pragmatic ethical principles that conduce to the type of society she is administering. I don't consider this beyond human capacity. While it's true that the majority would not be able to do it, history proves that some can. A well known example is Winston Churchill when he was PM of Britain during WWII. After the British decoded the German enigma cypher they were faced with a moral dilemma: should they use this knowledge to save the lives of innocent Britons by evacuating them from places the Germans had targeted for bombing & thereby risk alerting the enemy that their code had been broken? Or should they allow innocent people to die so that they could continue to eavesdrop on the Nazis & use that inside knowledge to defeat them & end the war?

    These are the types of hard decisions the guardians would be confronted with. They must be at once dispassionate & scrupulous. These traits rarely coexist within the same person or even exist singularly in individuals. But that was Socrates' point: those who are competent to rule are the rarest & most unlikely of persons. You might label them amoral technocrats, but I think there is a sharp distinction between the two. The amoral technocrat doesn't base their decisions on any ethical principle, but only does what she must to keep the system running smoothly, wheres a guardian would have definite principles & the system would never be an end in itself. It was amoral technocrats who bailed out the failed banks back in 2008 at the expense of their victims. A guardian would more likely have socialized the banks, initiated an investigation & put those who perpetrated the ponzi schemes on trial for fraud & possibly treason as well.

    Maybe 'meritocracy' isn't the most best word for the type of government I'm imagining, but I used it for two reasons. The 1st is that when people fantasize about living in a society that would give every individual a fair chance & reward them according to their respective accomplishments, meritocracy is the word that most readily comes to mind. The 2nd reason is that the type of government I'm describing is pretty consistent with the platform of a global movement that calls itself 'The Meritocracy Party'. As far as I know they are the only political party in the world at present that champions a 100% inheritance tax on everyone, and their overall goal seems consistent with the general idea of 'meritocracy' as most would understand it. I'm not a formal member myself, but I support their agenda and, since reading their manifesto, I've been brainstorming practical ways to implement their policies should they ever succeed in coming to power.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sybok. I didn't mean to rain on your parade, but I go where the inspiration strikes.

      I agree that your garden analogy gets at the political ideal. So if we're talking about what I call the mixed meritocracy, the realistic, flawed attempt to create one by pursuing the political ideal, a problem I raise is that the guardians would be flawed too.

      As I say, "The trick would be to preserve an interest in morality while observing the ease with which most people fall well short of their ideals...Persistent faith in an unnatural ideal in the face of flagrant daily violations, on account of nature’s palpable indifference to what should be done would require a type of mania or other insanity that might disqualify the individual from a leadership role in a meritocracy. So the elites in a mixed meritocracy would tend to be con artists, masters of what Leo Strauss and Plato called the noble lie. Their greatest merit would be their ability to pretend that progress is feasible or that a flawed population is likely to adopt worthy principles in the first place."

      I agree that objectivity in a leader is possible. We can call an objective but non-sociopathic leader a "guardian" as opposed to a "technocrat." I wonder, though, what prevents a guardian from sliding into cynicism.

      A great example would be Robert Mueller. If Donald Trump gets away without his comeuppance, I think Mueller's faith in the law would have to be regarded as insane. Bill Maher's criticism of Mueller would be vindicated (link below), which is to say that Mueller's by-the-book approach would be an insane, technocratic, foolish failure to rise to the level of the hero who's needed to set history right. Mueller would have been outplayed by the sociopaths. If, however, Mueller's approach is vindicated and Trump is somehow punished for his villainy (whether he's impeached, indicted, or voted out of office), that would make Mueller a good example of a realistic guardian, which would count as a point against the cynical take in the above article.

      Could Mueller preserve his faith in the garden ideal after seeing the manifest injustices perpetrated by Trump, and indeed after recognizing those injustices as signs of the nation's decline? If the law becomes a plaything for powerful sociopaths who are obviously above the law, what could keep the faith in the political ideal other than a type of insanity? Should the objective guardian, then, be insane?

  3. "Thanks for your thoughts, Sybok. I didn't mean to rain on your parade, but I go where the inspiration strikes."

    Never apologize for criticism. I used to be an avid poster on internet forums, but I found myself being either banned or just told to leave because some users found my opinions offensive and, lacking the capacity to refute my arguments, whined that was trolling the forum. I find your arguments refreshing and I am grateful to have found someone who is actually capable of offering rational criticism rather than tantrums. I'm not emotionally committed to meritocracy (the party or the idea), it just one of those fantasies that give me a reason to get out of bed in the afternoon. I suppose you could compare it to the faith of an existential Christian; though I think my 'religion' requires a little more faith.

    It all goes back to the trauma I experienced at six when my mom told me that Star Trek wasn't real: there were no aliens, no spaceships and humans hadn't even colonized the Moon yet. I knew Star Trek was a show, of course, but I thought it was a show based on an underlying reality like Law & Order. Up until I was six I really believed that there was a United Federation, fleets of starships whizzing around the galaxy and dozens of humanoid aliens! I seriously planned on attending the academy when I turned sixteen! I don't think my patents realized what a trauma it was for me to realize it was all fiction. But it gave me a good model of how humans SHOULD behave and how a proper civilization might function.

    As for Mueller, I find it very difficult to relate to him. Judging from the thoroughness of his report he seems to sincerely believe in the system; if he were as cynical as either of us he would have just halfed-assed the entire project. I think Trump's surprise victory drove a lot of people a little closer to madness. Speaking for myself, I was actually questioning my own sanity for the first year or so to the extent that I seriously considered seeing a psychiatrist a few times. I found it easier to accept that I might be crazy for believing in Trump's election then to accept that hundreds of thousands of people were crazy enough to vote for him. I've since come to a grim acceptance of my own sanity, but I still suspect that either Trump or someone else may have hacked the voting machines to turn the tide in his favor.

    Sanity, as you know, is relative. Muller might be insane for believing that anyone really cares how flagrantly Trump has attempted to obstruct his own investigation. Frankly, I think half the people I know are insane by that definition. The problem is I can't tell if they are being sincere. Perhaps their indignation is just an act to conceal their own cynicism and lack of concern. Do you think Roman Catholics really feel any sympathy for the victims of their clergy? Do you think any of them really believe there is anything wrong with raping little kids?

    I don't.

    I think their indignation is nothing more than a cynical pose and that they would gladly hand their own sons and daughters over to be sodomized if they believed it would increase their chances of going to Heaven. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just hopeless when it comes to understanding how the minds of my fellow humans work. All I can do is put myself in their shoes and imagine why I would continue to be a part of a global child sex ring that masquerades as a religion.

    1. The problem of cynicism in leaders goes well beyond meritocracy, I think. Whenever we're aiming towards an ideal in an imperfect world, we can be encouraged when we achieve some success, and taken aback when we fail. A political leader is at the tip of the spear and is likely to be aware of all the setbacks and systematic social problems. A meritocracy would represent a great challenge to nature's inhuman indifference, and so whenever nature intrudes on the perfect plan, as it were, the leader will have to withstand that disappointment and recommit herself to the ideal, to avoid becoming jaded and nihilistic.

      One of the main ways nature asserts its dominance in the human oasis is in the familiar process by which power corrupts the person who has the opportunity to overpower others. The fiasco/catastrophe/apocalypse of the Trump presidency should dishearten idealists for centuries to come. We see a smug Mueller, a centrist who trusts in the law and in the legal system, even as the monstrous psychopaths in the White House have obviously wiped their asses with the American Constitution and legal traditions. Mueller wants to hand the whole thing over to Congress even as Bill Maher points out the obvious: Congress, and particularly the Republican Party which literally had to cheat for decades to cling to power (gerrymandering, voter suppression, Electoral College, etc), is thoroughly corrupt and incapable of doing what's right.

      Presumably these problems are theoretically fixable, but there are also psychological and existential problems to address. What kind of a man or a woman (or a machine?) is needed to oppose nature's tendency to keep us living as beasts in the jungle? How can that kind of leader be created or found?