You need three things to make it in America: talent, hard work and good luck.
What a stupid system.
Focus first on the last one, good luck: what we call “meritocracy” is actually “two-thirds meritocracy.” Odds are you’ve heard of a band or writer or artist or entrepreneur who worked hard and produced great work but failed because they were too ahead of their time, or never met the right gatekeeper, or the market tanked. This era of technological disruption probably makes the concept personal for you or someone you know; you could be the best damn factory worker in the world but if they move your job to Mexico you’re screwed through no fault of your own.
America’s pseudo-meritocracy purports to issue rewards (grades, diplomas, contacts, jobs, wages, social programs) based on conventionally accepted standards of worthiness (studiousness, obedience, affability, industriousness, cleverness, likeability). Setting aside for the moment the innate arbitrariness of those metrics, whether or not you measure up is based in large part on chance.
Any system that ranks its participants on luck is by definition unfair.
It’s hard to be studious if your home life is chaotic or violent, or you have no home at all. Whether people like you is a function of hard-wired genetically-inherited personality traits and upbringing, both the result of utter happenstance—who you get as parents.
Even ardent defenders of meritocracism concede that it only rewards the values, habits and personality traits the system wants to encourage. Arthur Brooks, president of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post in 2011:
“We are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy, embrace a system that rewards merit, and work tirelessly for true equal opportunity. The system that makes this possible, of course, is free enterprise. When I work harder or longer hours in the free-enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards. Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a Politburo, but by citizens in the marketplace.” [emphases mine]
Work hard or long, Brooks argues, and you’ll probably get paid more. Be smart or clever, he says, and you’re likelier than not to do well. Problem is, probably here is a synonym for maybe. Which means, maybe not. A system whose sales pitch is “work hard and you may (or may not) do well” cannot be fair. A teacher who told his students “do ‘A’ work and you might get an ‘A’ grade” should be fired.
As game theory experiments show, unfair incentive structures are ineffective because not everyone is optimistic. In a system with winners and losers some people reach for the brass ring because they think they might get win. Pessimists do not. They weigh the cost of effort and decide not to bother for there mere chance at success. In our economy this phenomenon is evidenced by the country’s falling worker participation rate (mostly because lower-skilled male workers know they can’t earn enough at a job) and the millions of citizens who choose to collect tiny government disability checks, effectively opting out of the workforce for life rather than look for a job.
The loose connection between work/talent and reward in meritocracy is problematic enough. What about the underlying assumptions that people who are talented and work hard (assuming those metrics can be objectively defined!) deserve higher salaries and social status than the untalented and the lazy?
The Protestant work ethic will serve America poorly in this newish century. “All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows,” the British theologian Jonathan Clatworthy wrote in 2014. “Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs.”
But the myth of scarcity is no longer credible now that productivity is so high.
Robotics, algorithms, AR/VR and all manner of automation are replacing flesh-and-blood humans. Automation will eliminate 10% of all jobs in the U.S. in 2019 alone, while adding 3% for a net loss of 7%, according to Forrester Research. The numbers are shocking: experts predict that anywhere between a third to half of all jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated by automation by 2025. If we’re smart we’ll start paying people not to work. We can easily afford to care for everyone; we simply need to prioritize people and to stop denegrating nonworkers as lazy. Otherwise we will face soaring crime and political unrest.
In any case, who’s to say that hardworking people are better than the indolent? People who work long and hard may be good for their employers’ bottom lines but they’re less engaged parents, don’t have time for civic involvement, don’t have bandwidth to be as creative or productive in other aspects of life.
What Americans call meritocracy has worked great for me. I’m white, male, able-bodied, tall and intelligent enough to get into Mensa. I grew up poor, studied and worked hard and made a career for myself that I love. The American Dream personified! But I didn’t do well because I’m a “good” person. Being born into a society’s dominant race and gender and in good health are simply a matter of luck. IQ is half genetics, half environmental stuff like nutrition, education and parenting. My mom taught and yelled and hit me into my work ethic.
Even a winner can see the system is unjust. Why should other people get paid less than me, merely because they didn’t luck into the same demographics? Because their parents didn’t bully them into working a lot? Because they don’t have a knack for drawing or playing basketball or writing code or whatever else the economy happens to be rewarding when they happen to be in the workforce?
Meritocracy is a toxic fiction that props up the fundamental evil of capitalism: the assumption that anyone deserves more anything than anyone else. Meritocracy must die.
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)