Saturday, January 13, 2018

I love a mystery

Drawing by Barry Deutsch, via Bicultural Familia.

Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos "strength, power") is a political philosophy which holds that certain things, such as economic goods or power, should be vested in individuals on the basis of talent. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement.
The Rise of the Meritocracy is a satirical novel by British sociologist and politician Michael Young which was first published in 1958. It describes a dystopian society in a future United Kingdom in which intelligence and merit have become the central tenet of society, replacing previous divisions of social class and creating a society stratified between a merited power holding elite and a disenfranchised underclass of the less merited. The essay satirised the Tripartite System of education that was being practised at the time.[1]
Meritocracy is the political philosophy in which political influence is assigned largely according to the intellectual talent and achievement of the individual. Michael Young coined the term, formed by combining the Latin root "mereō" and Ancient Greek suffix "cracy", in his [writing,] to describe and ridicule such a society, the selective education system that was the Tripartite System, and the philosophy in general.

We've often seen David Brooks inveighing against "meritocracy", and it really is mysterious, as Jordan noted in comments earlier today. Not mysterious that he should be against meritocracy, at least in the allocation of political power, which I think should be regarded as basic democracy, neither left nor right: there's no legitimate power above the people that's entitled to set an exam for who's going to represent us, I'm against that too—but that he should be convinced that it exists in the United States (outside of the civil service, which has used meritocratic principles very successfully since the 1883 reform, and is not something David Brooks has ever shown any interest in), and it really makes him angry, as something crass, utilitarian, not quite decent, as in these passages from The Road to Character:

And then the astonishing bit from his Gleichschaltung column just a month ago (the most evil thing, I think, I've seen from him), where he accuses the meritocracy of creating the opposite of a meritocracy:
Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality.
Where the design of meritocracy, in its original manifestation in the ancient Chinese imperial examination system, is meant precisely to spread the exercise of power outside the landed aristocracy—to eliminate the "casted system of inherited inequality", to open it up to everybody (at which the Chinese imperial exams certainly failed most of the time, but that's a different story).

Where is this meritocracy whereof you speak, David F. Brooks? Do you think you've been cheated of some promotion you deserved just because some competitor was better qualified than you? And what exactly would you even mean by that, that you deserved it even though you were less qualified? What would you be talking about?

Anyway, I think I've found out, from an essay Brooks wrote 15 years ago (when his writing had more energy than it does now) for The Atlantic, on "The Merits of Meritocracy": because apparently he was for it before he was against it. What you can learn from that is that he doesn't know what the word means; rather than the distribution of power and the κράτος root, he thinks it's about child-rearing:
It's true that we live amid plenty; even in time of war we are told to keep shopping. But today's kids have a way of life that entails its own character-building process, its own ethical system. They live in a world of almost crystalline meritocracy. Starting at birth, middle-class Americans are called on to master skills, do well in school, practice sports, excel in extracurricular activities, get into college, build their résumés, change careers, be good in bed, set up retirement plans, and so on. This is a way of life that emphasizes individual achievement, self-propulsion, perpetual improvement, and permanent exertion.
The prime ethical imperative for the meritocrat is self-fulfillment. The phrase sounds New Agey; it calls to mind a Zen vegan sitting on the beach at dawn contemplating his narcissism. But over the past several years the philosophers Charles Taylor, of McGill University, and Alan Gewirth, of the University of Chicago, have argued that a serious moral force is contained in the idea of self-fulfillment. Meritocrats may not necessarily be able to articulate this morality, but they live by it nonetheless.
What he's talking about isn't meritocracy at all. It ought to have another name, like meritotropism, or maybe meritolepsy, the condition of being seized by merit. And a Scouting concept of what merit is, the object of a continuous quest for badges. It's not about power but about self-actualization, and he liked it when he had school-age kids of his own to cart around to their sports activities and music and art lessons, but he hates it now. Maybe he thought it would lead to his kids attaining splendid social status and is disappointed that it hasn't happened. Who knows? But in any case that mystery is solved: we don't understand what Brooks is talking about because he doesn't understand it either.

(He could have been confused by the literary example used in Merriam-Webster's dictionary definition: “...only the elite, in that new meritocracy, would enjoy the opportunity for self-fulfillment,” cited from R.P. Warren.)

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