Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When I Hear the Word "Meritocracy" I Reach for My Critical Thinking

I'm not sure why it seems important to write something about Chris Hayes's recent book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown, 2012).  Glenn Greenwald recommended it highly, and I have a lot of respect for Greenwald.  (On the other hand, he thinks more highly of Rachel Maddow than I do.)  For another Hayes has done some good work on his TV program.  But the most important reason is that I find the whole question of elites and meritocracy provocative.

Before reading Hayes's book, though, I read a classic of sociological satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, by Michael D. Young, originally published in 1958. Young invented the word meritocracy, and it's remarkable how quickly what he intended as snark was adopted by the very people he was mocking.  Understandably, this annoyed him, and in 2001 he complained in print that the Labour party had borrowed the word for its own purposes, along with the abuses Young had warned about.

"Meritocracy" is a hybrid word: like "homosexuality," it consists of a Latin and a Greek component glued together.  The -ocracy was an obvious choice, given its already widespread use.  Why didn't Young use a Greek prefix?  Maybe because such a compound already existed: aristocracy, which means rule by the best or most excellent.  For several hundred years, though, aristocracy had taken on connotations of rule by the privileged, the "best-born," and one could refer to an aristocrat without meaning that he or she was an excellent person -- rather the opposite.  Even those who mainly supported the social order, like Jane Austen were aware that birth and breeding didn't guarantee excellence, virtue, or even mediocrity: an aristocrat could be crass, stupid, dishonest, and corrupt.  I don't think I'm the only person for whom aristocracy suggests an inbred class of people, probably related to each other, who assume their excellence, especially when they have none.

Merit has similar ambiguities, though, like any abstraction.  It used to mean an earned reward or punishment; I guess demerit eventually took on the sense of an earned punishment.  Two of Merriam-Webster's definitions, "the qualities or actions that constitute the basis of one's deserts" and "character or conduct deserving reward, honor, or esteem", are probably what Young was thinking of.  They're basically circular, but then Young didn't mean his new word to be a sensible one.  Still, in 2001 he could write, "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit."  The difficulty is working out exactly what "merit" is pertinent to a job.  One common problem that seems to be overlooked, probably because it's intractable: Even after a person has occupied a position for some time, he or she can be excellent in some respects and terrible in others; so what do you do?  Young's fictional narrator could claim that by the late 1900s, testing had been developed to the point where a candidate's aptitude for a given spot could be measured precisely; in the real 2010s we're still far from such discernment.

There appears to be a widespread notion in the US and in the UK that we already live in a meritocracy.  Or sort of one.  Or we'd like to.  Or we should.  Or we used to, but it's turning into an oligarchy.  I did a web search for "we live in a meritocracy," and most of the results were questions rather than declarations.  Not too surprisingly, the pundit David Brooks came up with his own use for the word: "The hunger for recognition is a great motivator for the meritocrat ... Each person responds to signals from those around him, working hard at activities that win praise and abandoning those that don't", as if simply wanting to rise in a hierarchy made a person a meritocrat, or constituted merit.  (The article is a tiny masterpiece of free association.)

Most people who use the word "meritocracy," even critically, seem to take for granted that people in high places actually have proven their merit.  I don't.  Generally their success within the system is assumed to be evidence that they have merit, which is conveniently circular.  In the absence of better evidence, I think Noam Chomsky had a good point:
One might suppose that some mixture of avarice, selfishness, lack of concern for others, aggressiveness, and similar characteristics play a part in getting ahead and "making it" in a competitive society based on capitalist principles. Others may counter with their own prejudices. Whatever the correct collection of attributes may be, we may ask what follows from the fact, if it is a fact, that some partially inherited combination of attributes tends to lead to material success?
People tend to overlook the suffix of "meritocracy," the idea that those with "merit" should rule. The first violinist of the New York Philharmonic may be one of the best violinists in the world, but the main benefit accruing to his or her merit is ... playing in the New York Philharmonic.  Some prestige too, no doubt, but the achievement is an end in itself, as achievement mostly should be.  The same goes for star athletes: they may get paid a lot of money, but no one thinks that their achievement entitles them or qualifies them to do anything but play their sport.  Yet people who make large amounts of money in business or finance often think, and are thought by some, to know how the government should be run, or even just the economy.  Aside from the huge business and fiscal disasters over which such people have presided, their public statements since the re-election of Barack Obama should have disabused most people of any notion that they're even qualified to decide their own salaries: they routinely think they're worth a lot more than they are.

Lately at the library book sale I stumbled on The Reality Club (Lynx Books, 1988), a collection of papers from (according to the blurb) "New York's most vibrant intellectual salon", which offered "every reader a journey to the cutting edge of ideas and knowledge in our culture."  I decided to buy it because one paper was "In Defense of Elitism," by Gerald Feinberg, a Professor of Physics at Columbia.  Strictly speaking, "elitism" isn't the same thing as "meritocracy," but since neither word is well-defined, they work out in practice to be roughly the same thing.  (Feinberg helpfully posts a definition as an epigraph to his article: "the leadership by the choice part or segment" [275], though the definition is neither helpful nor very grammatical: "the leadership"?)  Like "aristocracy," "elitism" has acquired some negative baggage, but there's always somebody game to defend it.

"In what passes for social commentary in present-day America, it is hard to find someone who has anything favorable to say about elitism," Feinberg bravely begins.  Yet "No voices have been raised to condemn the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even though those institutions are elitist according to any plausible definition of that term" (275).  Really?  I'm not sure they fit even Feinberg's definition.  What do they "lead"?  Who chose them?  Audiences attend events featuring either "segment" not to be led, but to see what they hope will be excellent performances; but also from local chauvinism, loyalty to the brand, to see and be seen by other fans, and so on.  Or again: who "leads"?  It's not the players but their coaches who lead, and the course of the orchestra will be influenced if not determined by wealthy donors who possess no musical excellence themselves.

Feinberg is quick to distance himself from political elitism:
I am not arguing that elitism is a desirable approach to determining who should govern society.  I agree with the view that was adopted early in our society that participation in the process of government by a large part of society is a more important matter than how effective the governors are [276].
Cute.  And disingenuous; surely Feinberg is aware what a question-begging word "effective" is in this context.  Does he mean, say, making the trains run on time?  He also seems to overestimate the actual "participation in the process of government by a large part of society" in the American system, even in theory.
My defense of the proposition that elitism is a desirable attitude, at least in certain situations, is based on two simple ideas.  One is that some activities are accepted as so worthwhile, both by those that do them and by society at large, that they should be done as well as they can be done.  The other proposition is that some individuals are much better at doing these activities than others, or can become by any methods now known [276].
Even if I grant his ideas, what does either one have to do with leadership?  Why should  acceptance by the ignorant canaille ("society at large") have any more weight in determining what is "worthwhile"?  True, Americans do invest a large amount of interest, energy, and money in elite sports, but in what way does that make the NBA or the NFL more worthwhile than pro wrestling?  Classical orchestras are having increasing financial trouble, so does that mean that they are less worthwhile than they used to be, and would Feinberg admit the worth of more profitable music with less old-people prestige, such as or Lady Gaga or hiphop?  The idea that only two-hundred-year-old European art music is "worthwhile" has less to do with its intrinsic excellence (which is often real, I'm not disputing that) and more to do with class stratification.

Excellence in sport or musical performance has a certain advantage over other kinds of excellence: it's a lot simpler, and easier to evaluate, than excellence (or effectiveness) in politics or artistic invention or many other areas.  Feinberg glosses over this problem with handwaving, and it soon becomes clear that his article, far from being cutting edge, is an old-fashioned attack on the Trash They're Letting Into College These Days, and the Barbaric Garbage That Is Being Taught as Art.  He's deliberately vague about the details, but then he could probably count on his intended audiences agreeing.

Ironically enough, Feinberg turns out to be part of the problem he's complaining about, when he dismisses "what passes for social commentary in present-day America."  He may not know much about society, politics, or art, but he knows what he likes.  On top of that he's a particle physicist and a professor at an elite institution of higher learning, so his uninformed and half-thought-out ramblings on social policy and the arts are supposed to count for more than the opinions of someone who has actually studied such subjects and knows what he or she is talking about.  As a physicist Feinberg was elite -- he shared a Nobel Prize in Physics for work on neutrinos -- but expertise in physics doesn't translate into expertise on social issues.  It doesn't even follow that a Nobel Laureate in the sciences is qualified to lead his own academic department; if he is, it's coincidence.

That's the trouble with elitism, though it resembles Feinberg's swipe at popular participation in the process of government, the notion that one man is as good as another and a damn sight better too.  Elitism as an ideology encourages people who do well in one area to believe they can automatically do well in others.