This morning I awoke to find that some Republican senator or some such had upset a number of those I follow on Twitter by suggesting that people who are sick have not “lived good lives” and thus shouldn’t expect those who have to subsidies their healthcare costs. Which gives me an opportunity to rant a little about meritocracy.

On the face of it meritocracy seems good. It’s sold as a fair way to distribute wealth and power. Instead of doing it based on birthright or some other arbitrary privilege, meritocracy promises that we can do it on the basis of who deserves it most. I mean, that seems fine doesn’t it? Until, of course, you realise that it’s essentially impossible and ultimately tautological.

You begin with the problem of how we define merit. Merit is, according to my dictionary, the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. So merit is whatever is good. Do you begin to see a problem? Who exactly gets to decide what is good?

The question of what is good and what is bad has been bugging philosophers for thousands of years. It seems unlikely, therefore, that we are close to a consensus on this topic and even if we were would that consensus not be merely a temporary construct? In which case the thing that we currently consider to be “merit” is essentially arbitrary. There was a time when being a strong slave owner was seen as worthy of praise, when beating one’s wife when she got out of hand was smiled upon, when it was good to put people to death for blasphemy, and so on. Would it be anything other than hubris to imagine that our concepts of good and bad will seem any less strange to our decedents?

But, people argue, we don’t need human opinions on this, we can simply use the Invisible Hand of the Market to decide. Which is where we go from impossible to tautological.

If the market decides what is good and what is bad, how do we learn of this decision? Why, we learn of it through how much wealth the market decides to bestow upon various people. Ergo, we know what is good by how much money that thing makes. In other words, if something deserves to make money we know it deserves it because it is making money. See, tautological.

This isn’t the end of it, however. Because once people begin to believe that they live in a meritocracy you start to see the most powerful perversions of the idea. If we are meritocratic then what happens to someone, either good or bad, is deserved. The poor deserve poverty, the wealthy deserve wealthy. Sick people should not be helped by the healthy because they clearly do not deserve health. We should not tax the rich or provide relief for the poor because to do so would be to undermine meritocracy. Why strive if your deserved rewards will be taken from you and handed to those less deserving?

Taken to the natural conclusion a believer in meritocracy should also support eugenics since inferior genes do not deserve to be passed on. To enable someone who is inferior to breed would be to pass a burden to the next generation.

The very idea of meritocracy depends on the belief that life is in some way fair to begin with, that good decisions will always lead to good outcomes and that people have an abundance of control over their lives. The most passing inspection of the world would put pay to that idea in a moment.

First of all, we don’t have control over our lives. Every day decisions are made, forces act upon the world, that are beyond the understanding, let alone control, of any individual. The weather, random fads and trends, infectious illnesses passed around invisibly through a thousand unpredictable vectors. How many people might have invented Facebook had some small variation in history taken place? A chance encounter, a misdirected communication, a car accident, or some other random event?

And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of free will. Even if we allow that we have free will, it’s very difficult to argue that we have actively chosen our starting points. Did Mark Zuckerberg choose to be born in the USA and have the genes that coded for a well above average intellect? And had he been born with the exact same genes only ten years early or later would he have been rewarded so richly for these gifts?

None of this is to diminish the role of hard work and ability. To achieve something we need effort and we need talent. But we also need luck. Had Mr. Zuckerberg been struck down with a nasty ailment at just the wrong time he may have missed the window to create his fortune. Perhaps he’d have found another window but this we cannot know. We can know, however, that with our frail bodies and chaotic universe, we are all subject to the powerful forces of fate no matter how hard we work or how talented we are.

What can we take from all of this? I think there are two lessons.

  1. Be humble when you succeed because no matter how much it feels like the result of your own hard work and abilities any success must come along with a great deal of luck, even if that luck is merely being born at the right time and with the right genetics.
  2. Be forgiving of failure, your own and other’s. Just as the fates must have smiled on those who succeeded, it is likely that failure is as much down to poor fortune as it is to poor choices.

It is right and good for people to strive for what they want. Fulfilling your life’s purpose must be your ultimate goal. I am not arguing in favour of a world of nihilism and self denial. But be flexible in your goals because fate may have other plans for you. Forgive yourself your failures and be grateful and humble in the face of success. You may deserve your success, but that doesn’t mean someone else wasn’t equally deserving but just a little less lucky.








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