The Meritocracy In Reverse

How do we justify such rampant inequalities of wealth when humans are so similar?  (Source: Tuca Vieira)

How do we justify such rampant inequalities of wealth when humans are so similar? Answer: By suggesting that humans are actually very different.(Source: Tuca Vieira)

Humans learn from their mistakes. There exists a litany of quotations from famous thinkers on the necessity of mistakes: “An expert is a man who has made all of the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field,” by Neils Bohr; “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” by Albert Einstein; “experience is simply the name we give for our mistakes,” by Oscar Wilde; and the list goes on. There’s even a name for it: “trial and error.” Mistakes are a lesson–even a sign of learning–but in this society, mistakes are an anchor, limiting our future and pinning us to our past. Mistakes send us down varying paths of a sieve, a filter that serves to weed-out those without the head-start afforded to the affluent, those recipients of a fast-track to life’s great lessons. Our mistakes are used in this society to separate us into “deserving” and “undeserving” groupings, subject to the needs of a highly unequal society; mistakes are not seen as opportunities for growth.

There can be no better example of this than how our society decides to handle the issue of crime and punishment: How long do we punish our citizens for their transgressions? We could grapple with a philosophical answer to this question, but a practical observation is in order: In the United States, you’re more likely to still be sitting in a jail-cell–punished for your past crimes–many years after the transgression than in any other country with which the United States would ordinarily be compared. In addition, recidivism, the return to crime by prison alumni, is increased by the way we manage to hold citizens to their crimes; the “ex-con” stigma lasts forever, discouraging future employers from ending the cycle of poverty and crime that characterizes most inmates. There are many more examples, from the importance and non-mutability of college G.P.A.s to the difficulty in changing from the career you chose when you were a mere 18-year-old, society is interested in pinning you to your past.

It should actually be very difficult–morally speaking, if nothing else–to repudiate someone for their distant past. It’s said to be all about “accountability,” but you’re a different person today; in a major way, you’re no longer even the same person: the you in the past couldn’t speak for the you today. This is a problem for those looking to make commitments at a very early age: could you imagine your, much younger, 17-year-old-self making marital decisions for you? This is a decision for your future-self that you simply cannot be expected to make at 17. It’s not even desirable: how can you speak for a different self, your future-self? This has always complicated one’s ability to make this kind of a decision–at least early on in the rapidly-changing world of adolescence. It enslaves your future-self to your past-self.

Humans need a chance to develop, to change into a more enlightened self. Anyone who has moved away from their friends and family to go to college in a far-away place knows why this is important. To lock one into their yesterday-self is to objectify the individual; it’s to turn the individual into an object with “properties” instead of recognizing the dynamic, learning-nature of human beings. Oppressive ideologies often accompany the transformation of an individual into an object. In fact, one finds this sort of objectification or “holding back” of the individual in all oppressive social orders.

One fundamental reason for this objectification–the belief that your mental development is unchanging–is the need to justify the rampant material inequalities in this society. America is an interesting country: it’s proclaimed to be a “democracy,” ruled by “the people,” yet “at no time has the majority of the U.S. adult population or households managed to gain title to any more than about 10 percent of the nation’s wealth.” This is certainly not the result you would expect from a “democracy.” In addition, according to an analysis by a senior economist at the Federal Reserve, in 2001 the top 10 percent of households owned 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the remaining 90 percent shared only 30 percent. These huge disparities in the resources of the society are hard to grapple with.

The distribution of wealth in this country is very different from what would be expected in a "democracy" controlled by the people.

The distribution of wealth in this country is very different from what would be expected in a “democracy” controlled by the people. (Source: Mother Jones)

It’s the “meritocracy” in reverse: looking for differences in people in hopes of justifying differences in wealth. The fact is, this society never cared about your development; it never cared about fully utilizing your skill-set or placing you properly in some sort of “meritocratic” structure. This is a shame, as many consider these supreme societal values: as Albert Einstein once said, “all that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.” This was not a view shared by the Founding Fathers–contrary to the propaganda.

When the Founding Fathers set out to create the nation, they were nearly ubiquitous in their fear of democracy and the “leveling spirit” of the masses. It was a brave stance to push for more democracy than the owners of the nation would allow–John Jay’s famous maxim was, “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

James Madison’s Federalist Paper Number 10–an explanation of the founding of the new nation by the Father of the Constitution himself–is particularly instructive. Madison had the standard view of wealth inequality–not surprising considering his own affluence–that inequalities of wealth in a society are due to the unequal “faculties” of the individuals compromising it: “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate is [an] insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests.” In his very next sentence, he also explains that the protection of one’s ability to acquire and hold wealth, no matter the consequence, is the first object of government: “The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results[.]” This is the ideology underpinning an entire nation.

There was little present at the Constitutional Convention that would contrast the views of Madison–and virtually everyone else that was present; many were even in favor of outright monarchy. James Wilson was in the extreme minority. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, one of the first Supreme Court justices appointed by George Washington, and one of fifty-five “representatives” to the Constitutional Convention, Wilson was of a different persuasion: the “cultivation of the human mind,” he thought, was the first object of government–not protecting property relations, or even, presumably, the physical safety of the citizenry.

This society is obsessed with seeing “the differences” between people. We justify huge inequalities of wealth–and a host of other, oppressive orders–using the “differences” in human beings. The extreme inequalities of wealth are allegedly due to these differences, the “meritocracy”: those that are rich deserve to be due to their high personal qualities; those that are poor are so because of some negative personal pathology–usually the poorly defined, and nevertheless, constantly abused term, “laziness.” But the reality behind wealth inequality is much different.

Economist Dean Baker succinctly analyzed the particular case of a very rich man, Bill Gates:

Most billionaires (at least those who didn’t inherit the money) are probably smart and hard-working, but so are millions of other people. What most distinguishes someone like Bill Gates from the hundreds of thousands of other software entrepreneurs is luck and sharp elbows. Suppose IBM had refused to allow Gates to keep control of the Dos operating system? Gates might still be very rich, but certainly not the richest man in the world. Alternatively, if the government still enforced anti-trust laws Microsoft might have faced serious penalties for engaging in textbook anti-competitive practices to get and keep a near monopoly in operating systems, Gates also would not have the fortune he has today.

It doesn’t take long to convince oneself that the inequalities are certainly not justified by personal merit, no matter one’s conclusions about this important fact.

In truth, we still live in a strongly class-based society of “kings” and “barons,” but with newer, professional designations: “engineers” and “scientists.” Huge differences in material wealth are justified by flimsily asserting that an extensive, exclusive, hard-to-learn skill-set is required for these positions, even when an arbitrary, fresh mathematics graduate, a ‘C’ student, could quickly learn the ropes for almost all of these positions at the entry-level.

Never considered are the ways in which a society of extraordinary material inequalities actually manufactures both real and imagined inequalities in humans—the “meritocracy” in reverse. If there are extraordinary inequalities in humans, the logic goes, then naturally there should also be extraordinary inequalities in wealth—it’s a subtle justification.

If you had friends with this mentality, who seem to objectify you, locking you into yesterday because it fulfills their own nefarious purposes, you would leave them.

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