Saturday, 29 December 2018

How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other's faults

From a posting a year ago: 

"Is 'meritocracy' really all it's made out to be?"

Recently, Hilary Clinton's memoir basically said how the hardest working, cleverest candidate merited the job and was cheated of the final prize:
Futures Forum: Politicians, wonks and technocrats

In Singapore, on the other hand, merit got what it deserved - and is a model we would all emulate:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and the Singapore model
Newly sworn-in President Halimah Yacob pledges to uphold multi-racialism, meritocracy, stewardship

Here's a recent piece arguing for meritocracy:
Libertarianism vs. meritocracy - The Washington Post

A year ago, the Prime Minister gave a speech promoting the idea:
Britain, the great meritocracy: Prime Minister's speech - GOV.UK
A meritocracy is a complex, dangerous thing – Theresa May must tread carefully - Telegraph
Theresa May's 'meritocracy' is a recipe for Darwinian dystopia - Telegraph

However: apparently, we don't actually deserve what we get.

All along, it's been about how 'lucky' we are:
Futures Forum: Good luck!

As a new piece on Bloomberg argues:
Hard Work Isn’t the Reason for Your Success - Bloomberg

We seem to have taken a political satire from the 1950s rather too seriously:

But no insult has had such a perverted appropriation as ‘meritocracy’.

Its originator, Michael Young did not mean it as a compliment when he coined the word in 1958. His satire The Rise of the Meritocracy may not match Orwell and Huxley but he realised his dystopic vision well enough. Young’s future was a world where the people at the top did not believe they were there because of birth or good luck, but because they were George Osborne’s strivers. All sense of noblesse oblige would vanish in the new and insufferable smugocracy, Young warned. Those beneath the elite would feel that they were not held down because of class or lack of opportunity, but because they had failed. They would not be the victims of an unfair world, but of their own weakness and stupidity.

The lies of meritocratic Britain | Coffee House 

When the British sociologist Michael Young first coined the word meritocracy, he didn’t consider it an ideal to aspire towards. In a satirical novel, he mocked the tripartite system of education first adopted in Britain in the 1940s – wherein children were assessed via the 11-plus exam and sorted into either grammar, secondary technical or secondary modern schools.
Decades later, he expressed dismay that Tony Blair had adopted meritocracy as a defining philosophy of the New Labour project, writing in the Guardian: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”
Meritocracy hasn’t worked in Britain – it’s time for a radical rethink | Abi Wilkinson | Opinion | The Guardian

Perhaps Michael Gove was right after all when he said 'we have all had enough of experts':
Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove - Financial Times
Michael Gove was (accidentally) right about experts | The Spectator

Futures Forum: Is 'meritocracy' really all it's made out to be?


The argument continues to rage - as with this piece from the New York Times (and a response from the Washington Post) from last week shows:

The West at an Impasse

How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other's faults.

By Ross Douthat
Opinion Columnist
Dec. 19, 2018

President Emmanuel Macron presides over a country roiled by populist protests. Credit Pool photo by Benoit Tessier

In France, where the extraordinarily unpopular Emmanuel Macron presides over a country roiled by populist protests, a leading politician of Macron’s centrist party was asked in a televised interview what policy mistakes his peers had made: “We were probably too intelligent, too subtle,” he told the interviewer, whose eyebrows danced with disbelief.

Around the same time a Hungarian newspaper ran an interview with Radek Sikorski, the former foreign minister of Poland and a member of a centrist party that has been swept aside by the populists who currently rule in Warsaw. Asked to explain the chaotic European situation, he cited a recent Atlantic essay by his wife, the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, which portrayed populism as, in part, a revolt by the resentfully unsuccessful against “meritocracy and competition.” The centrist alternative to populism, he suggested, was embodied by Macron, who won the French presidency on “positive ideas” rather than “what is worst in us.”

“Macron’s poll numbers are breaking negative records,” the interviewer dryly noted.

While I read both of these exchanges, my Kindle was open to “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” written in 1958 by the British civil servant Michael Young. The book coined the term in its title, and Young’s neologism was soon adopted as a compliment, a term of praise for a system of elite formation that relied on SAT tests and resumes and promised rule by the most intelligent rather than the well-bred.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

But Young had something more dystopian in mind. His book, a work of fiction that purported to be a work of history and political analysis written in the middle of the 21st century, envisioned a world whose classes were increasingly segregated by talent and intelligence, in which the brainy, standardized-test-acing elite became an increasingly intolerable version of the old aristocracy, leading eventually to riots and populist revolutions in the then far-distant future of 2034.

I went back to Young’s book because I’ve been writing recently (to some controversy) about the faults of our own meritocracy. What I found there was a prophecy that fit the contemporary Western political landscape remarkably well, even if the populist revolts have arrived a little early.

The book’s fictional author is a pompous sociologist who believes absolutely in the meritocratic system, which has produced an elite “more brilliant” than any in the past. He also believes in its essential stability, because the nature of meritocracy itself ensures that the populists threatening revolt simply aren’t as smart or as capable as the new elite that rules them:

"Behind the shift and turn of current politics is the underlying fact with which I opened my essay. The last century has witnessed a far-reaching redistribution of ability between the classes in society, and the consequence is that the lower classes no longer have the power to make revolt effective. For a short moment they may prosper through an alliance with the odd and passing disillusion of a section of the upper classes. But such déclassé people can never be more than an eccentric minority — the Populists have never been more than that as a serious political force — because the élite is treated with all the wise distinction that any heart can desire. Without intelligence in their heads, the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble, even if they are sometimes sullen, sometimes mercurial, not yet completely predictable. If the hopes of some earlier dissidents had been realized and the brilliant children from the lower classes remained there, to teach, to inspire, and to organize the masses, then I should have had a different story to tell. The few who now propose such a radical step are a hundred years too late."

His point here, expressed with maximal elitism and arrogance, is that meritocracy essentially co-opts the talented people who in a different world would be leaders in their local communities, their regions, their social classes, pulling them all up into a national elite and weakening every rival power center in the process.

Because Young is a satirist, this authorial pride gets its comeuppance: We learn in a postscript that the author of the book was killed in a populist riot, leaving his manuscript unfinished.

But the book doesn’t tell us if the populists are able to prove its writer wrong by making their revolt “effective” — if they’re able to take power as well as instigate violence, and if they can actually govern once they’ve overthrown the pompous mandarins.

The evidence of our own era suggests that they might not be so capable. It suggests, in fact, that when meritocracy loses credibility and legitimacy, the result is a political impasse. The official elite becomes too arrogant and self-deceiving and unpopular to govern effectively, but the populist alternative is much as Young’s narrator describes — disorganized, ill-led, susceptible to snake-oil salesmen and vulnerable to manipulation by factions within the upper class.

In this situation, which is ours, the meritocrats have no mandate and no sense of why the public hates them — believing, with Sikorski and the Macron apparatchik, that their governance was wise and just and there’s nothing wrong with meritocracy that can’t be fixed with more of it. But the populists have no competence and no coherent program, and so all their revolt can win is stalemate.

Different versions of this impasse exist in Britain, France and the United States. In the British version the forces of populism won a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum but lacked real leaders (save hacks and opportunists) and a clear plan for pushing forward (save implausible promises). The result is Theresa May’s shambolic attempt to deliver the impossible, a job she’s graced with because nobody else wants it — save Jeremy Corbyn, whose left-populism seems entirely unready for power in its own way.

In France the “gilets jaunes” protests have brought populist fury from France’s peripheries into the heart of Paris and wrecked Macron’s centrist-technocratic plans. But as a political force the protest movement remains essentially inchoate, now pulled toward the far left and now toward the far right, awaiting leadership and vision. Which, judging by the equally dismal approval ratings of Macron’s rivals, is something that French politics is unlikely to supply.

In the United States the populists theoretically hold the White House, under a president who promised to be a traitor to his class. Except that these promises were mostly just a con job, the Trump inner circle is a parliament of opportunists, and his administration’s policy agenda has been steered by the Republican Party’s business elite rather than by the voters who elected him.

Each case is a variation on the same theme, a slightly different intimation of the meritocratic endgame that Michael Young foresaw 60 years ago. A governing class that has vaulting self-confidence and dwindling credibility, locked in stalemate with populist movements that are easily grifted upon and offer more grievances than plans.

In theory the impasse can be overcome. That’s what statesmanship is for — to bridge gaps between complacent winners and angry losers, to weld populism’s motley grievances into a new agenda suited for the times, to manifest an elitism that is magnanimous instead of arrogant.

But can the system we have really produce such a statesman? The next one we find will be the first.

Opinion | The West at an Impasse - The New York Times

Here's a response from the Washington Post:

A New York Times columnist started a big argument on meritocracy. Here’s a better way to debate the issue.

Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, right, watches Microsoft founder Bill Gates use an oversize paddle as they play doubles against table tennis prodigy Ariel Hsing in Omaha on May 6, 2012. (Nati Harnik/AP)

By Michael Locke McLendon
December 22 at 6:00 AM
Democracy Dies in Darkness
Monkey Cage Analysis

This week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took up a long-standing argument against meritocracy, blaming it for the rise of right-wing populism. He was reviving 20th-century sociologist Michael Young’s argument against a government populated by a select elite defined by their cognitive excellence and personal achievement. Any such class, Young argues, is bound to be arrogant and contemptuous of those below them. It will devise policy that at best ignores the interests of the masses and at worst actively undermines them.

Reaction to Douthat has been swift and predictable. In the comment section, several left-wing posts claim that Douthat misdiagnosed contemporary populism as a reaction to merit rather than the inequality of wealth. In this view, we suffer not from meritocracy but from oligarchy.

There’s another main argument as well. In a tweet, Steven Pinker asked whether, if Douthat opposes meritocracy, he would “fire his competent research assistant & hire a dull-witted one?” A different version of this argument might ask whether, when we need surgery, we will seek the most skilled surgeon to perform the operation.

But if Douthat went further back in history, he could convincingly respond to both the concerns of plutocracy and the Pinker defense of meritocracy.

Why Rousseau feared a meritocratic elite

Young wasn’t the first to worry about handing political power to a cognitive elite. So did 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who burst on the Parisian intellectual scene by declaring in his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” that the arts and sciences corrupt morals and society.

Rousseau’s reception in the 1750s was no gentler than Douthat’s on Tuesday. He was decried as a hypocrite and a barbarian who wished to burn down the libraries. As Rousseau slowly worked through these criticisms, he arrived at a few important realizations.

First, in response to the argument represented by Pinker, he concluded that the problem with what we now term “meritocracy” is not talent or the public use of talent. Rather, it is how society values talented people. Through his concept of amour-propre, which literally means self-love but is often translated as vanity, Rousseau argues that talent is problematic as the core of a person’s identity.

In other words, when talent is the measure of an excellent human, there is a good chance those who possess the most talent will become morally corrupt. People who define themselves as innately superior to others inevitably become arrogant and cruel. More so than the nobles, who owe their superiority to arbitrary bloodlines, talented people are convinced that they’re special — and hence more likely to dominate those residing below them in the hierarchy of social esteem.

Second, in response to the oligarchic critique, Rousseau realized that in a commercial economy that rewards people financially according to their productivity, it is difficult to disentangle talent and wealth. Talents boost productivity and make someone a more effective economic actor. Although there are notable exceptions, it is generally true that the most cognitively demanding professions are also among the most highly compensated. In our climate, many talented people not only feel entitled to amass as much wealth as possible, but also try to pay as little in taxes as well. Rather than support government services, such as education, they privately fund alternative systems that work for them but not the masses.

[Tackling poverty isn’t enough. Inequality is a serious problem too.]

To prevent this, Rousseau hoped to nip the Enlightenment tendency to overvalue talent in the bud by reviving the rural provinces’ cornerstones of identity: patriotism, religion and virtue. He laments in his “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts” that “people no longer ask about a man whether he has probity, but whether he has talents.” By shifting public identity’s emphasis from talent to patriotism and virtue, he hoped ordinary people would neither resent the talented nor feel ashamed if they lacked distinctive talent; their abilities or lack thereof would just be trivial facts, akin to blond hair or bushy eyebrows. This way, Rousseau believed, society could find a healthy place for the cognitively gifted that would not corrupt their personalities by encouraging them to look for public praise.

Like Pinker, Rousseau argues that it is better to be governed by brilliance than by idiocy. But he wanted the great artists and scientists to use their talents in government service, creating good public policy. That way, he felt, they could offer social value without drawing undue attention to themselves or reminding others of their mediocrity.

[Plato predicted Pizzagate — or rather, fake news more generally]

Rousseau’s solution is unrealistic. He offers no serious proposals about to how to reverse the twinned 18th-century cultural trends: the rise of commerce and meritocracy. Why would intellectuals want to hide themselves away in government and work on public policy rather than become obscenely wealthy and celebrated as cultural icons akin to Homeric heroes? As Friedrich Nietzsche and many other 19th-century philosophers observed, religion and virtue could not stand up against the tide of science and economic self-interest.

Further, Rousseau’s faith in patriotism might be too optimistic. As we have seen over the past 150 years, patriotism can be corrupted into a nasty nationalism.

[Would Rousseau actually approve of Trump? Not exactly.]

Still, we can learn from Rousseau’s failure. More than either Douthat or Pinker, he saw why meritocracy can be so corrupting. He grasped that there is a world of difference between doing engineering work and being an engineer. He saw that the key issue is how to make good use of humanity’s various talents without creating a ruling class of the clever and the corrupt. Even if he does not offer a plausible road map, he clarifies that the solution will be found in defining public identities based on something other than talent.

Michael Locke McLendon is professor and chair of the department of political science at California State University at Los Angeles and author of “The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau’s ‘Amour-Propre ” (University of Pennsylvania Press, December 2018).

A New York Times columnist started a big argument on meritocracy. Here’s a better way to debate the issue. - The Washington Post

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