Of Mountains and Meritocracies Final
So what do I draw from this tale of real life?
As I mentioned in a past post, meritocracies have been on my mind for the last several months. In theory they sound great. Everyone starts at theoretical equality, everyone is given the same starter opportunities and whoever works the hardest or thinks the best rises to the top and commands the greatest portion of resources in a system, or in other words, the best player wins, the best adapted survive. In the United States we go on and on telling ourselves this great narrative of how our system is so meritocratic. We use all of these (outlier) rags to riches stories to bolster the anecdotal evidence in support of this narrative. We identify all of these ambiguous traits like will power, confidence, and tenacity, and assign these as the ultimate keys to success, then claim that everyone has an equal access to these keys. When scientists look into the data and identify what looks like an unconscious bias that disadvantages a group of people based on a trait that society accepts is outside the scope of personal choice, We re-scrutinize the data and pick out (outlier) individual datapoints that contradict the general trend and use it to loudly discredit the entire trend and claim once again that success is only reliant on those matters of personal choice. We will ignore everyone’s individual circumstances and declare that anyone can “make it” so long as they are willing to take on whatever load of debt and work load is required to both acquire the skills and squash their individuality by conforming to the societal norms enough to jam themselves into the succeeding trend. We will further ignore any claims that people don’t universally have access to sufficient decent/non-predatory credit.
I have a problem with this narrative. The first part of this problem is summed up by Alain de Botton in his TED Talk. When we believe in a truly meritocratic system we believe not only that the rich get rich on their merit, but that the poor are deserving of the shitty life they receive.
The second problem I have with this narrative is that, while the overall trend may be true in a super zoomed out way, that on average people who work harder generally float to the top of the social pyramid, on the individual scale, nothing can be further from the truth. No sustainable true purely meritocratic system really exists anywhere. Not in nature, Not on the internet, and certainly not as the US economic system.
I should define my terms though. What do I mean by pure meritocracy? I would define it as a system where the input and the result is 1:1, with no information loss. If I put one extra hour in of effort, I move one rung higher on the pay scale. If I study one class more and work hard and get a better grade than the next person, I get the better ranked position in life. This would have to be a rule of law without fault, simple input, simple output. Then there could be no interference of chance uncontrollable obstacle or employer’s unconscious bias towards tall people, which would weight the equal effort of one individual above another. There would also have to be no catastrophic accidents that could take all the effort one person had made and completely ruin it.
And this is where I bring it back to the mountain. Climbing the mountain is about as close to a pure meritocratic task as I could think of. You have a group of people and they can each determine how much effort they will put into climbing the mountain. They can climb at different paces, but so long as they are putting forth the effort to put one foot in front of the other, they generally gain altitude.
Yet, what do we see? The first time, the Leader, his son and I were clearly the best physically prepared to climb the mountain to the peak. Yet, while we were the best in our group, we still failed to reach the peak because there was a lack of overall group support. The second time, catastrophic accident that made it irresponsible to continue on, risking death. The third, ignorance, social pressure, and plowing ahead made the Deaf son and I end up on the wrong peak. Success, as defined by reaching the peak of the mountain, was not achieved.
I know it isn’t a clean metaphor (they rarely are). As I’ve continued working on this little blog series I’ve realized that there are plenty of holes in it. I could re-define success, I was at the head of the group so technically I was the best, and meritocracy carried me to the top. Another argument, just because I couldn’t make it to the top of the mountain doesn’t mean other people have made it to mountain tops, so it is easy for me to criticize a system where I am simply the looser.
Let me be clear. I believe that meritocracy is a macro-economic trend that doesn’t reflect the very real variables that fall outside of personal effort, such as accident, peer group, race, gender, etc… I still believe in it, but I don’t believe in using the meritocratic narrative to stomp on the face of the poor. There may be so many more reasons the poor person is poor than that they are lazy.
We live in a complex and emergent world and I am generally hesitant to jump on board simplistic narratives to explain patterns of human interaction. The way I see things going, I am a bit pessimistic. I believe things are going to get a lot worse, the trends i’ve noticed are not necessarily working toward peace, harmony and equity for all. The first thing I would suggest is to lay off the judgement of the poor, the misfortunate, and the disenfranchised of our society.
P.S. looks like the bot army has slowed down its subscription to me. Thank goodness.