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11/30/2015

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Eric Enlow

I also wonder whether meritocracies, when they truly convince new members of a society that they are chosen without any grace, have a difficult time generating loyalty to the society. Loyalty, in the sense I mean it, arises from gratitude and gratitude from a feeling that someone has been gracious, not giving only one's due.

This is not necessarily true in generally non-meritocratic contexts. Some meritocratic societies, if most others have declared to be anti-meritocratic, may generate loyalty for being meritocratic because there is a strong sense that it was gracious to be meritocratic. But one meritocracy among many equally meritocratic meritocracies generates no such gratitude for judging on the basis of merit. An honest judge among man corrupt ones is thanked for an impartial verdict, but among many impartial judges, an impartial verdict is received without feeling. It is felt to be simply one's due, as it is.

Meritocracies might fix this by considering loyalty a part of merit. That is, for example, they might consider themselves not only as being devoted to whatever function which the society has chosen but also to being a society, i.e. dependent on its members loyalty for its social existence. For example, a scientific-research society might consider its hires not only with reference to the merit of being an able researcher but also with reference to which researchers will continue the society by giving more than they are given.

If they do not do this, meritocracies also face the problem of discouraging loyalty. Loyal members of the society, persons who have gracious feelings to the society itself and not just capacity with respect to its function grow deeply discouraged when they are passed over in favor of someone with less loyalty and more talent. This is particularly true when the society has accepted the loyalty of a potential member, accepted some sacrifice, and then forwards another who has not displayed loyalty because they forward the function of the society.

My own sense of the evolution of most modern institutions is that they adopt a mode of purportedly rational decision-making that falsely ignores the truly rational consideration of the social bonds of the society and concentrates exclusively on the non-social function to which the society aims. A push to meritocracy is often led by a faction that wishes to ignore the sacrifices and loyalty of another faction, to leverage their superiority in forwarding the extrinsic goals of an institution to feast off the loyalty-based investments that others have made. This often leads to a brief flash of promoting the goals of the society, while the endowment of social loyalty is eaten away. When that is gone, the new "technically meritocratic" but disloyal faction is unwilling loyally to sacrifice and the long-term goals of the group die off completely. Thus, a truly rational decision about how to promote a social project must consider not only merit with respect to the extrinsic project but also merit with respect to maintaining the society itself, even at some cost to the extrinsic goal.

Schliesser, Eric

Eric, thank you for these fascinating comments. Yes, I agree that meritocratic values may generate some tension(s) with loyalty (although the absence of meritocratic values may do so, too.) I think you may underestimate the degree to which a push for meritocratic values springs from our noblest impulses -- you see it as more opportunistic, I fear, than I do --, but I agree with your sense that there are ways in which meritocratic values may undermine the loyalty to the group and that this may not always be a good thing. This is, indeed, one way to cash out my hunch that political stability and meritocracy may be in tension in a way that I had not quite reflected on.

Eric Enlow

No, I basically agree with you about the nobility of the goal. I expressed myself too broadly.

There is something to be said, too, about institutions that rightly are primarily based on loyalty, e.g., the family, versus others that are more properly meritocratic.

Traditional East Asian societies are very interesting in this regard with their cultural emphases on developing both very strong bonds of family loyalty and very strong civil systems purged of such loyalties in civil administration. The classical Chinese examination system, I have read, was vastly influential in developing ideas of meritocracy in the West. The missionaries coming back in the sixteenth or seventeenth century (?) reported on the anti-aristocratic, anti-familial, merit based opportunities for all, from the richest to the poorest, to attain high office by passing rigorous examinations open to all. This in turn inspired proposals for adopting similar systems in the West.

It may be one of the most influential of Europe's greatest cultural imports from the "East" aside from gunpowder.

Pieter Bonte

The qualms you voice here are very similar to the ones that prompted Michael Dunlop Young to coin the phrase 'meritocracy' to begin with, and he phrased the country as satire, as a belief system that ultimately leads into a dystopia where the ruling class actually _is_ objectively better and functionally more deserving of their high societal positions, having made their way up without any social privilege whatsoever, strictly because of their greater talent and capacity. The elites are thereby freed from any sense of undeservedness, and the lower classes are thereby stripped of any sense of injustice. They are equally stripped of any kind of excuses. They can no longer appeal to circumstances keeping them down: meritocracy forces them to openly face up to the fact that they are functionally inferior. This causes such smugness in the elites and such shame in the marginalised that a violent insurrection ensues, and the utopia of pure and perfected meritocracy gets torn asunder.

The key blind spot, which Dunlop could have stated more clearly, is that the very notion of 'meritocracy' serves as sheepskin for the actual wolf ethic that lies underneath it, which is what I've called _talentocracy_. The wrongheaded belief that constitutional luck can somehow justify pride and a sense of merit.

As Jefferson wrote to Adams, the core idea of the 'land of equal opportunity' that is America is not at all to overcome aristocracy. No, it is to _purify_ and rationalise aristocracy, an aristocracy that has widened up to the happenstance of the natural lottery and the possibility that specimens of superior stock may also be found among the huddled, unwashed masses. Schooling all equally and counteracting excessive disparities in family wealth was to serve the goal of creating a nation in which "the true, natural aristocracy" can rise unhindered to their highest ranks, commanding awe and respect from the less-endowed mediocre masses because their superiority will have stood the test of the competition of all against all.

Schliesser, Eric

Thank you, Peter. On Facebook, several commentators (Liam Kofi Bright, Lisa Maria Herzog) also noted that my qualms echo Young's original satire (which I plan to read soon). I am grateful, too, for you pointing me back to Jefferson's correspondence with Adams.
Where have you written about 'talentocracy?' I should say I am a bit skeptical of the effectiveness of the focus on luck, which, as I note in the original post, is undoubtedly a real phenomenon, in order to combat the ideology of merit.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.

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