Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meritocracy & Losers


Some time ago now, I posted here a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville points out the mental strain common in an egalitarian, meritocratic society like America. The reason for the mental strain, according to Tocqueville, is "the constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them." In other words, equality makes the average person in society think that the only limitation on what he can achieve is his own ambition. When this person eventually realizes that he simply cannot achieve everything he might desire, he will most likely scale back his ambitions somewhat, but will secretly still end up frustrated because he has not come out on top. High expectations inevitably get dashed--and disillusionment and depression result. This was the mental strain of which Tocqueville spoke.

Here's a much pithier way to express all this:
Frustration is the distinctive psychological characteristic of democratic society. Where all may legitimately aspire to the summit, the entire pyramid is an accumulation of frustrated individuals.
(Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito: Selección, p. 196)
For Tocqueville--and I would agree with him--the representative American believes in the virtue of ambition and meritocracy. Indeed, from an early age we are all taught to believe in our dreams in school, to pursue our ambitions. Moreover, we are taught to be proud of everything we achieve. If we reach the top, it is because of our merit.

But what about all those people without ambition? Are they just a bunch of losers? And, what about all those who simply have a hard time with life? There are a lot of them out there, perhaps more than we would like to admit. Are they just a bunch of losers too? Christian charity, I believe, dictates that we answer with a resounding "No."

We have to approach these questions on two levels. First, there is no doubt that we must start on the individual level. Every individual must realize that he does not have to live the rat race, and then make a deliberate choice to live out this insight. Nobody else can make that decision for him.

Second, even though the individual must make the decision himself, he probably cannot persevere all by himself. It is a conceit to imagine that the individual must become some kind of superman and achieve virtue all on his own. It's a Pelagian, perhaps even Promethean, view of virtue. In other words, individuals are generally weak by themselves, and therefore need the support of society at large in their pursuit of virtue and happiness.

But, is there any way to solve this problem? The only societal solution to this problem might be to do away with meritocracy, and the egalitarian ideology propping up the meritocracy.
In societies where everybody believes they are equal, the inevitable superiority of a few makes the rest feel like failures. Inversely, in societies where inequality is the norm, each person settles into his own distinct place, without feeling the urge to compare himself with other, nor even conceiving the possibility. Only a hierarchical structure is compassionate towards the mediocre and the meek.
(Ibid., p. 138)
The mediocre and the meek are the losers of today. They are the "least of these" whom Christ teaches us to care for.

So, here's my question: Is advocating a radical meritocracy just one way of saying that we really shouldn't have to care about others less talented and weaker in faith than ourselves?

I'm not sure exactly where I come out on this question. However, I would like to end by suggesting that any adequate answer to this question has to acknowledge two principles that are in tension with each other. On the one hand, somebody has to govern society, and it is not necessarily a bad idea to let the talented rise to the top. That's the meritocratic approach. On the other hand, it also seems likely that the meritocratic approach induces those few who do rise to the top to become excessively proud of their own accomplishments, and to neglect the mediocre and the meek. What do we do?

Note: Some of the language about it being a "conceit" to imagine we can be virtuous on our own I found on the Internet recently, but I can't remember where now. Somebody else deserves credit, but I don't know who.
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