Your point about populism being primarily anti-meritocracy rings true, but raises a problem I can’t my head around: however much resentment (etc.) is felt by those who see themselves as not part of the meritocracy, it seems that in matters of immediate personal concern, they DEMAND meritocracy: they won’t stand for second-rate medicine, bridge-designing, supermarket-stocking, road paving, telephone service, . . . . . And we are now (I hope) beginning to see very clearly that if you shun expertise in advisors in government, you end up doing truly stupid things! It does seem that Trump, for example, doesn’t worry about surrounding himself with expert economists, diplomats, military strategists, . . . . etc., but still yearns for expert legal advice (which he isn’t getting much of) and expert polling, . . . --Daniel Dennett (personal correspondence, June 27, 2018), [Quoted with permission.]
Dennett's note is a response to my recent post on the crisis of liberalism (recall). In the body of the post I did not mention populism. The link between the rise of populism and meritocracy was made by Steve Davies in a comment on the the post; I concurred in response. (My colleagues in comparative political science are debating the relationship between the effects of globalization, educational attainment, economics success/class and populist politics so I do not mean to suggest this is self-evidently true.)
I had made a different claim. I had claimed that all kinds of intermediary social orders -- e.g., military, law, health, education, research, clergy, trade-unions, press, etc. --, often associated with professions and skilled virtues or with social goals that are in some sense self-justifying or whose primary purpose often predates the state or commercial society had been transformed by (what I call) 'financialization,' under the guise of meritocracy. That this happened suggests, first, that pre-existing hierarchy and status within such orders must have come to be felt unearned and/or inadequately justified and, second, that these social orders lacked the self-confidence in the justification of their primary mission to resist encroachment (about this some other time).
The transformation of these intermediary social orders has had an unintended effect: namely that a derivative social function or indirect public good these social orders can provide has disappeared. This public good can be described in many different ways in part because none of them is wholly satisfactory: but these social orders are sites of practical rationality, of dispersed power, of (ahh) social capital, of pursuits of a fundamental ends (health, safety, spiritual belonging, justice, knowledge, etc.), and also a natural source of pluralism in society. In addition to the opinions of individual citizens, it's these social orders that help stabilize, even buffer a liberal society. My thought here is indebted to Adam Smith,* although the idea is associated with Burke; but unlike Burke I do so with less fondness for small platoons and (thanks to Jacob Levy's work [recall]) with due alertness to the local tyrannies the busybodies of these social orders can generate.
A key point here is that the intrinsic missions of these great social intermediaries is multi-dimensional in what I call (with a nod to Dennett's work) 'value space.' Some of their primary ends cohere naturally with each other, some are sometimes in tension and sometimes complementary. Others are often contradictory. The point is that these ends belong to different fundamental features of human existence which can be incommensurable (but need not be so); it's the multi-dimensionality of value space that makes these social intermediaries natural bulwarks of social pluralism (even if the agents and institutions within each are not so). Financialization threatens the dimensionality of value space.
By 'financialization' I refer, in short-hand, to a number of related, and self-sustaining phenomena: the introduction of new public management, the acceptance of financial leverage as a key 'management tool,' and (facilitated by SAP) the embrace of financial indicators (including profit goals and high salaries for those that climb the ladder) as key guides in the mission of the order. (Often this is treated as the effects of neo-liberalism.) The crucial point is that the joint embraces of financialization flattens the dimensionality of the value-space in society and makes comparison along a modest number of dimensions possible (and so reduces pluralism).
Financialization also flattens how we think about merit: to simplify, contribution to the (financial) bottom line or earned income become proxies for merit. These would converge if their is an efficient market in professional labor; but government regulation and professional qualifications tend to prevent such an efficient market in the professions. The problem is that financial merit and intrinsic professional quality need not coincide.
Now, I can turn back to Dennett's query. If I ask one of my wife's medical friends -- she is a surgeon -- for the best doctor to treat a friend's condition, I am not asking for the highest paid doctor. In fact, I would be somewhat taken aback and become mistrustful if one of them recommends a physician in virtue of the fact that they were the best paid physician. (Such a financial proxy is meaningless, in fact, when we compare physicians among different countries with different health care systems.) If in addition to his/her degree, the physician had a statement of a private banker hanging on the wall or, more likely (and not infrequently), an air of moral superiority over the patient, this would also be reason for concern about their quality as (say) a caring physician. (I did once get treated by a physician who bragged to my wife how efficiently he saw patients; it did not endear him to me.)
The previous paragraph already makes clear that one can want the best expert for one's needs while being cautious about the system of meritocracy that's developing around us in our society. And I think that's sufficient to answer Dennett's general question. I happen to think people need not be fully coherent in their aims, desires, and judgments (as long as they avoid placing bets with Bayesians). In complex societies like ours I actually think this makes us more responsive, adaptable, and happier, but nothing I say turns on that. But I do want to make one more pertinent point about Dennett's comment.
Social hierarchies are unpleasant and insufferable in different ways. In a social hierarchy that (increasingly) focuses rather narrowly on money and, in turn, treats the hierarchy as merited (both in the sense as being justified and fair as well as also in the sense of tracking personal quality of the contributions to society) -- so with a low dimensional value space --, it increasingly becomes natural to speak of those on top of the hierarchy as winners and those on the lower rungs as (justified) losers (even the social science literature does this). (This despite the fact that even in perfectly competitive markets -- and few of ours approximate that -- luck plays, as Knight, Keynes and Hayek agreed -- an intrinsic role in outcomes.) In a properly functioning liberal society, by contrast, the value space is multi-dimensional and there are complex ways in which different elements of the hierarchies interact.
To go through life being thought and internalizing the idea that one is a loser is grounds for (justified, I think, recall this post) resentment. In such circumstances one can still want the best for oneself and rail against the system, perhaps, even wish for its downfall.