Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meritocracy and the left

I’ve been thinking about meritocracy, partly in conversation with Liam, partly in relation to the left’s attitude to bad luck, and partly in response to something Don Paskini said:

In a meritocratic society, power is wielded by the minority who are judged to have the most 'merit'. Is that really what the left should be aiming for?

There’s a vital question hinted at here: who defines ‘merit’ and decides how much we all have?

In meritocratic theory, the market; in practice, the biggest market participants. (OK, Don was talking about political power rather than financial success, but the question can be posed of either; I’m looking at the latter.)

Now it’s true that, insofar as markets and their larger participants operate by catering to the desires of the many ordinary consumers, a market definition of merit will have some connection to public opinion. But there’s a vast difference between providing the products that customers want and treating the people involved in that process in a way that the customers deem fair.

And yes, markets will tend to favour people who, within a given line of work, are harder-working and more talented. Markets will also tend to favour those in lines of work where the necessary skills are rarer relative to the demand for them. These two features – especially the former – will seem fair to most, although there remains a huge question about people who, through no fault of their own, have limited skills for which there is either little demand or oversupply. Do they merit the pittance they can get?

More fundamentally, the means of developing the qualities that might count as ‘merit’ are distributed neither equally nor meritocratically (however defined); the distribution of merit isn’t independent of, say, the pre-existing distribution of power and wealth.

Meritocracy can thus become a hierarchy, with levels that shift in response to a series of market echoes of the prejudices of whoever had previously been in the strongest position.

That’s clearly not what the left should be aiming for.

So the questions for the left are: if we think that rewarding merit is to whatever extent reasonable, how do we promote non-market notions of merit? How much do we restrain the market’s freedom to punish those it deems lacking? How do we most widely spread the ability to acquire merit (of whatever type)? How far, in other words, can we go towards Tawney’s ‘equal start and an open road’?

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