The Flaws of Meritocracy

In the past, and even today, it was common in hierarchical or traditional societies for the sons or, less commonly, the daughters of prominent individuals to succeed to their parent’s position merely on the basis of familial relatedness. In the absence of direct progeny, other closely-related relatives were promoted in their place. This sequential model was so firmly established that it took a long time before it was replaced by a different model. In the realm of politics, the transition from the hereditary governing tradition of monarchy to democracy, where the leaders are elected by the people, rather than succeeding or being appointed to important governing positions, was a lengthy transition, often punctuated by blood and violence, that took many centuries before democracy was finally able to displace monarchy as the preferred form of government.

In other areas besides government, the concept of advancement or promotion based on merit or ability, rather than on traditional criteria such as seniority, nobility, or family ties, roughly paralleled the adoption of democracy in the sphere of government. Both changes were based on the belief that this would ensure, or at least make it more likely, that the best-qualified individuals would occupy important positions of authority and responsibility. This is all well and good, and most people would probably agree that this system has many advantages over a system that promotes individuals based solely or primarily on seniority, nobility, or family ties. However, this does not mean that meritocracy is not without flaws.

When a person is awarded a position, salary, or bonus based on one’s performance or abilities, one frequently comes to believe that one is superior to or better than everyone else. Inevitably, this leads to a class based primarily on ability; and since, in a capitalist economic system, superior ability is often rewarded with larger amounts of money, it leads to societal or class divisions based on how much money one earns or has. But the main flaw in this belief is that it overlooks the important fact that all or many people are capable of learning to do whatever any one human being is capable of doing, provided they observe the proper models of behaviour from a relatively young age, and provided they are given the chance to perform those behaviours, since many positions, like other human activities, require years and years of practice, including the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, in order for their practitioners to become skilled at them.

There is no question that some people are better than others at doing certain things. But many people mistakenly assume that these differences are hereditary, genetic, or innate. And yet, in the case of language, which is a complex skill that takes many years to acquire, it has been found that the great majority of people are able to learn their native language, and are able to speak or write it with the same proficiency as those who are in their realm of influence. Differences in linguistic ability are largely due to the differences that exist between the various social or economic milieus in which different people are born, grow up, and live.

Of course, even if many people are able to do something, the fact that this particular individual did it – and not the many others who might or could have done it – is still significant. For in any economic system, one is only paid for the work that one has accomplished, and not for the work that one could have accomplished. When it comes to remuneration, mere unrealized potentials or possibilities are no more significant than they are in our personal lives, such as in matters of love or other missed opportunities.

Motivation is, of course, critical in determining how proficient a person will be at anything, since it determines how strenuously and resolutely one will strive to accomplish something, such as by continually improving one’s abilities or increasing one’s knowledge. But, again, the motivation to perform a certain activity is not something that is genetically determined. According to the Law of Human Desire, the motivation or desire to do something comes from having observed and admired others performing the action regularly, and clearly these things are not genetically determined. The principal reason for the fact that so many people today are unmotivated is due to the widespread adoption of the extremely foolish Platonic system of education. In my opinion, the separation of children from places where people work, although it was unintended,[1] was one of the greatest blunders in human history, and constitutes one of the primary flaws of present educational systems.

So what does all this have to do with the concept of meritocracy? The fundamental but mistaken assumption of meritocracy leads those who are able to achieve much or become successful in any given field to assume that their accomplishments mean that they are necessarily or innately superior to others, and therefore they deserve everything they are able to earn or acquire by their position, status, celebrity, or exalted rank. In other words, unless it is corrected or mitigated, meritocracy leads inevitably to great inequality – and in this regard, it is no different from other, more traditional systems of social and economic organization. Coupled with this frequently unjustified sense of superiority is the exclusion of all those who are not given the chance to succeed, which exclusion may be the result of prejudice, rather than to inferior or limited ability.

Apart from considerations of costs and revenues, how much a person is paid for performing a certain profession is primarily determined by conventions; in other words, regardless of what the economists may say, these things are nothing more than particular models of behaviour, meaning that they could be different from what they are. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the very great increase in the amounts that are paid to famous entertainers, athletes, musicians, and other prominent individuals: first, the ability to reach a larger and larger audience, since some of these people will be willing to pay for whatever it is that one is selling; and second, a growing economy that is able to create more wealth, both because of a constantly increasing human population and because of technological advancements that enable workers to produce more than they were able to in the past, or the replacement of human labour by machines.

In a society in which everyone seeks to gain as much money as possible for oneself, this results in a dominant model of behaviour where there is strong and constant competition to outdo others. Each time someone is able to demand or achieve a level of pay that exceeds what others have earned in the past, because of our very strong tendency to imitate, this sets a precedent that is then regarded as the new standard that should apply to anyone else of comparable skills, abilities, knowledge, or achievements. Hence, in a growing economy, the confluence of these factors leads almost inevitably to rising salaries for those who are able rise to the top of their profession.

The belief that celebrities and other prominent individuals deserve the large amounts of money they are paid is also due to the strong feeling of admiration that many people have towards them, since admiration makes people uncritical, adulatory, and deferential, while contempt has the opposite effect, making people overly critical, disparaging, demeaning, and belittling. Roughly speaking, in a capitalist society, there is a correlation between how much a person or profession is admired and how much money one is paid for one’s work. This is obvious in the case of celebrities, where there is frequently a very significant gap between the amounts that are earned by the highest-paid celebrities – entertainers, actors, musicians, athletes, models, and so forth – and those who are not as prominent or admired. Contrary to what economists believe, these things are not determined exclusively by purely objective numerical measures or impersonal mechanisms such as costs and profits, or the interactions of the supply and demand curves. In other words, the “market” is an amalgamation of many things, including non-economic factors such as admiration and contempt, which determine the relative values that we attribute to different individuals, objects, positions, and professions, including how much money different people are paid for their labour, or how much different things or brands cost. This is another example of how the Theory of Imitation underlies, influences, and determines the phenomena that are studied by economists, which important influence they have generally overlooked in the past.

The free-market economists declare that whatever pay a person receives, as determined by the free market, is right and good, and therefore this is as it should be, since, according to them, these individuals entirely deserve whatever they are paid, no matter how outrageous their remuneration may seem to ordinary people. But since economists, and in particular free-market economists, have been wrong about so many other things, it is also possible that they are wrong about this matter. In effect, what economists are saying is that the models of behaviour that become dominant in a free-market capitalist economic system should not be questioned, and neither should they be modified or interfered with in any way. But there are many things that different societies have done or permitted in the past that most people would agree should neither be allowed nor tolerated – warfare, cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide, child marriage, and suttee, or the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, to name a few – and this is equally true of some of the models that become dominant in a free-market capitalist society.

As we have seen, in a free-market capitalist society, individuals who are admired by many people are usually paid more, and sometimes a great deal more, than the amounts earned by ordinary people. As a result, there are many people who would like to imitate them in terms of their accomplishments, large remuneration, and the exalted position they occupy in society. But in many ways, this is nothing more than a delusion – that those who have risen to the top of their profession are happier than those who have not. Of course, if one desires to imitate a model, it is better to be able to imitate it successfully than not to be able to imitate it.[2] But besides these two starkly contrasting alternatives of success and failure, there is another possibility, which is not to have the desire to imitate the model in question. Before the presentation of the Theory of Imitation, most people were not aware of how their desires were determined. But now, following the presentation of this theory, we know that the desire to do something arises from observing others performing it; and the more often one observes a particular model of behaviour, then generally the stronger will be one’s desire to perform it. Hence, if one doesn’t want to fill one’s head with what, for many people, are unachievable goals and desires, then one should simply avoid observing these models on a regular basis. By doing so, one will gain a measure of control over one’s life, while making oneself more independent of the efforts of advertisers, marketers, and other individuals and companies that want to make you buy their product, or whatever else it is they are trying to sell to you.

[1] In Plato’s Republic, which was the source of this very bad model of education that has, unfortunately, been adopted in pretty nearly all countries around the world, it is not certain that Plato did not intend for this to happen. At the beginning, he banishes all the adult members of society in order to eliminate the traditional influence that adults have on a society’s younger members. Plato did this so that he could create his ideal society, which was rigidly divided into three classes – the rulers, whom he called philosopher-kings, the protectors or guardians, and those who produce the things that the inhabitants of his utopian republic need, such as food, clothes, tools, and dwellings, in order to survive and prosper. Plato’s basic mistake, which has been ignorantly imitated by all subsequent utopia-makers, was to assume that something as complex as a human society could be designed solely according to one’s conceptions of what is good, and therefore should be permitted or encouraged, and what is bad, and therefore should be prohibited or discouraged. In doing so, he set the template for communism, socialism, free-market capitalism, and all the other social chimeras that have plagued humanity ever since he wrote his foolish, ignorant, harmful, and error-ridden book.

[2] Another primarily modern phenomenon is the fact that often there exists a discrepancy between one’s idea of the successful imitation of a model and the reality. This is because many people watch or observe artificial, invented, simulated, or rehearsed models of behaviour that are performed by actors, are created by advertising agencies, or depict only certain usually exciting or emotional parts of prominent people’s lives, such as concerts, athletic contests, games, parties, and so forth. In the past, these kinds of invented or feigned models of behaviour didn’t exist, and so a person’s idea of what the imitation of a model required and entailed did not differ from reality, or was less likely to do so. Hence, the kinds of delusions and disappointments that many people experience when they are able to accomplish something they have long wanted to accomplish either didn’t exist or were much less common in the past than they are now.