September 13, 2015

Meritocracy, yes, but…

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:37 pm

without the sparkling clean conscience. I certainly agree with Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle that the emergent post-victimary tendencies, indeed, any post-victimary tendency, would have to re-privilege “performative criteria” over “ascriptive” ones. Indeed, that is the point of Vox Day’s, in my view irrefutable, axiom: “The more an institution converges towards the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice, the less it is able to perform its primary function.” But what I am seeing, and what I think we must expect to see, is quite a bit rougher, and more raw, than the hopefulness with which Martin Luther King Jr. asked for us all to be judged on the “content of our character.”

For those urging the meritocracy in the emergent post-WW II American order, the argument for meritocracy was completely consistent with the argument against using ascriptive categories to judge people. It was possible to believe (bliss it was to be alive in that dawn, but to be young was very heaven!) that once all the legal restrictions and inherited prejudices were eliminated, everyone would, indeed, be judged on the content of their character and—most importantly—everyone would be happy with the results. Good intentions seemed perfectly aligned with good outcomes—and with historical “momentum.”

We can no longer hold to such naïve Enlightenment blank slatism. We know to a logical certainty, that even in a completely free system, with no external restrictions on anyone’s mobility, we will not have an equal mixture of all ethnic and sex groups in all occupations. Some ethnicities will be more heavily represented in brain surgery, others in street cleaning, still others in organized crime. And we already have a pretty good empirical sense of how the proportions fall out. It matters very little whether the asymmetries are the result of biological or cultural differences, as cultural differences are equally beyond the power of government to transform. We can even say that the more free the social order, the more those differences will increase the asymmetrical outcomes of different groups. Even more: these differences will be transmitted from generation to generation: on average, it will be easier for a child of a doctor to become a doctor than it will be for the child of a janitor, no matter how many medical school scholarships we set up for children of janitors.

Now, if we add to all this the greater comfort people have with others of the same group, and their greater ability to notice merit in those more similar and familiar to themselves, and, finally, add in the inevitable nepotism that would ensure that certain professions are, if not dominated by, weighted heavily in favor of, some groups over others, we can conclude that two things. First, that a free society is a highly stratified one; second, it is impossible to prove that a society is really free. The very disproportions that must emerge provide prima facie evidence for the belief (and it will be a very comforting belief for many) that the “so-called” meritocracy in fact veils the domination of society by privileged minorities. Even more: disproportion in the professions in a modern society means more than some groups benefiting more than others, or at the expense of others—it gives the appearance (irrefutable, even if false) of disproportionate influence, control and domination by those groups over others. And, of course, this means more in some areas than others. Can anyone really believe that a particular minority could represent, say, 60% of the teaching profession and professoriate, the entertainment industry, and the financial sector, without distorting those institutions so as to serve their own interests?

I repeat: when someone comes along and does the math (and livens it up with a vivid collection of anecdotes and stereotypes) and accuses groups a, b, and c of using their controlling share of crucial institutions to screw over, economically, culturally and even spiritually, groups x, y and z, there will be no way of proving them wrong—not to the satisfaction of an objective observer, much less to the satisfaction of members of groups x, y, and z. And the same will be true of members of groups a, b, and c telling the others to stop whining, get off their fat posteriors, and engage in some self-reliance—or speculating on the bad habits, cultural backwardness or deficient gene pools of x, y, and z. The greatest attractive force holding people within the gravitational sphere of the victimocracy is precisely the intuition that this stratification and the consequent acrimony would be the result of its abolition, and we can’t be sure that things won’t be much worse.

That’s why another faith will have to replace the cult of the victim. There’s no way to predict the details of this faith—most likely, it will be a convergence of several, old and new—much less “produce” it. But of one thing we can certain: for this faith to be genuinely post-victimary, it must be centered on a belief in the possibility of what I have elsewhere called the “third person,” i.e., the person who can set aside his own interests and decide impartially between contending positions. Regardless of how we see the reality, a large majority would have to believe that it is possible for a boss to promote the best person, for a university to hire the most promising researcher, for a Hollywood studio to “green light” the best movie, etc. In other words, that all these figures are capable of acting in the best interests of the institutions they are responsible for. I think this faith has declined dramatically in the West, so much so that it has become impossible to say what the “best” is, or that there is a “best.” Still, anyone who is good at anything must have such a faith, otherwise how could they practice and hone their skills? But the victimocracy has successfully squeezed this faith out of the public arena. As with any faith, there is always counter-evidence for the faithless to draw upon in the indictment they draw up.

If we are to be avatars of such a faith, we must be prepared to make a case for the “better,” if not the “best.” But I don’t think we can rely on inherited judgments here—it’s not a question of defending the classics, because if it was, there would still be better and worse defenses of the classics, and most of those defenses that take received cultural hierarchies for granted are pretty feeble. Even if Shakespeare is the best, the one injecting Shakespeare into the cultural bloodstream has to be better than the one doing the same for Jay-Z. In the sciences and technological fields, hierarchies of value are still preserved, if for no other reason than that poor countries like China and India are in such a rush to exploit them. But in the moral, esthetic and political spheres, the ability to reason is in free fall (try sometime to get a 20-something “marriage equality” fanatic to explain why there should be an institution like marriage in the first place and you’ll see what I mean), and those arguments (through environmentalism, in particular) impinge directly and disastrously upon the science and technological institutions.

This is where I think originary thinking can make an unparalleled contribution to human flourishing. Originary thinkers are the only ones who can know that what is really the “better” is whatever defers the most immediate threat of violence (or violence indicating disruption) while preserving and enhancing our capacity for deferring potentially greater violence in the future. Appeasing those who threaten violence now may work, for now, but makes things worse by depleting our “stock” of discipline; retreating into the certainty of “eternal” principles may preserve a cultural heritage but only until the violence overwhelms the few who still remember it. Deferring violence now while/by enhancing disciplinary reserves is the source of cultural creativity and civilization. There’s no formula for doing this, but thinking of how to do it is what will actualize our commitment to and manifest our faith in the better.


  1. Let me, if you would, pick a few nits with your comments.
    ‘… cultural differences are equally beyond the power of government to transform’
    Not at all, though not immediately, but over time. Take for example the welfare culture developed after decades of ‘Family Assistance’. A government sponsored culture transformation.

    ‘… it is impossible to prove that a society is really free.’
    Few features are more dangerous than freedom, so it is a safe bet that if you have a society that is even marginally stable, it is not free. Iraq as an example of liberation from a despot. It takes a great deal of self imposed restraint across the population to manage in the absence of a domineering government.

    ‘… the ability to reason is in free fall’.
    Reasoning is a lot of work with limited payback. It has always been the case where only a minority could trouble themselves with such diversions. (ditto for those who argue to the support of science and technology).

    Now, if I may take a somewhat more sober look at marriage equality. Marriage is a ritual bound institution foundational to the human species, probably our most fundamental ritual supporting an institution likely two million years in practice by the time of GA’s event. Anyone schooled in GA should appreciate the value of ritual. Nearly universal among successful, stable modern societies, marriage represents a bond between two adults which represents the foundation of the family. Humans can achieve a synergy from this bond that makes it the most productive of social institutions. Young males in particular, who are outside of a marriage engage in more risky, antisocial and violent behaviors. Society gains in tranquility and productivity the more that its adults are bound in two person marriages.

    Comment by Alan — September 15, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

  2. Yes, the government can easily effect cultural changes for the worse–I’ll grant that.

    I’m not sure I have anything new to say about freedom, subsequent to our previous discussion. If you think, for example, that 19th century American was not both free and stable, I don’t know what to say.

    What you say about reasoning may be true, but is true for people who make a point of participating regularly in public discussions? I think something more than “the government establishes it so we want in” used to be expected. Still, you have a point–it’s too easy to grouse about such things.

    Regarding marriage, I’m not sure who you’re being more sober than. Perhaps my parenthetical phrasing was unclear–my point is that there are reasons for the longstanding existence of marriage, but you can’t get same sex marriage advocates interested in them–or, at least, the younger ones.

    Comment by adam — September 15, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

  3. Change is change, not stasis. While change for the worse is always easier than for the better, if change is possible, change for the better is possible.

    The deal with 19th century American ‘freedom’ that allowed what stability there was (between all manner of violent protests, uprisings and wars) was an underlying sense of citizenship – variously of state or nation, which elicited self restraint. I see stability only where the general public thinks of themselves first as citizens, only secondarily as ‘free’.

    Regardless of what does or doesn’t interest younger advocates, marriage equality is the right move.

    Comment by Alan — September 16, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  4. I will stipulate that the government can, very rarely, most likely accidentally, bring about very minimal improvements to the culture: improvements almost invariably mostly hidden amidst the massive destruction wrought by government.

    Yes, freedom (no need for the scare quotes–it’s real!) requires self-restraint. Certainly shared citizenship can be one cause and effect of such restraint; there can be others, most obviously the economic exchange relation. But “self-restraint” just means that the problem of intra-communal violence has been solved, at least to a sufficient degree. Anyway, there was enough stability for the US to emerge as the world’s greatest economic power by century’s end. Russia had far fewer violent protests and uprisings–and much smaller wars–during the 19th century; indeed, the elemental freedom to pick up and move from (say) Connecticut to Ohio and then (the horror!) from Ohio to Nevada, was completely unthinkable for most in 19th century Russia. And that worked out great.

    We’ll have to set aside our disagreement about marriage to another time, as it wasn’t the topic of this post.

    Comment by adam — September 16, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  5. In the late eighteenth century, France won it’s freedom from king and pope only to embrace an emperor to escape the bloodbath of freedom. Russia’s freedom from Czar was won in 1917, as was Germany’s from Kaiser – followed quickly by Lenin and Hitler respectively. Freedom is a powerful desire, a powerfully addictive dream. Freedom is a drive that has killed more than Heroin and all other drugs combined. Freedom is dangerous to pursue and does not exist in practice. You work at a University. Walk into their Law Library. You will find no shortage of laws documented. Every law, every statute is a denial of freedom. Every policeman is there to protect you from excesses of freedom.

    Comment by Alan — September 18, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

  6. I must say I find your overt anti-freedom position fascinating. It is really unique–plenty of people are opposed to freedom, of course, but I can’t think of any who have done so in such an explicit and blanket form. Your position is rich in paradoxes. Should you be free to assert it? What if a general belief in freedom “drugs” the people sufficiently to keep them from demanding “real” freedom–should the anti-freedom position then be forbidden? (By whom should it be forbidden–who should be free to write the laws?) Someone must be free to restrict the freedom of others.

    Unfortunately, you spoil it in your final line–policemen protect us from the “excesses” of freedom. How in the world can excess come into it if freedom is a dangerous drug/instinct that doesn’t really exist anyway? What could this non-excessive freedom be?

    Comment by adam — September 18, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

  7. This non-excessive freedom, I thought obvious from context, is the rule of law.
    I’ve never suggested that freedom did not exist in principal, just not in fact. Much like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, freedoms by nature interfere one with others – all too often destructively. Freedom, as a word, appears to come to us straight through Alice’s looking glass, as everyone who wields it packs it with their own set of assumptions. Absent full disclosure, save for comprehensive enunciation of the underlying assumptions, propounding freedom is another traveling salesman hawking snake oil. Freedom promises everything, but in truth delivers reigns of terror.
    No one became free upon the American Revolution, but rather switched their allegiance from King to Continental Congress – a relatively local administration which could more effectively tailor laws and regulations for the benefit of the states and citizens.

    Comment by Alan — September 21, 2015 @ 7:36 am

  8. But then what has this whole argument been about? The use of “free” in my post that you used to launch this parlay was a reference to a “society” being “free,” with “free society” being used, virtually universally, with the exception, perhaps, of a few anarchists, to mean “rule of law/free market” social order. So you have just cancelled the comment that got all this started.

    Comment by adam — September 21, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  9. My initial comment was tongue in cheek, hence my opening disclaimer of nit-picking. Your reaction demonstrates my point of just how emotional the topic of freedom is, and how misunderstood it is as well. I get to deal with anarchists and arm-chair revolutionaries every week. I also come from a large family very vocal of small government Republicans and libertarians. The only consistency in their use of ‘freedom’ is as a war cry.
    My larger point in returning (repeatedly) to the topic, is that I think it time to abandon this word that only the anarchist are using correctly and choose more accurate descriptions of a society we support and are trying to build.

    Comment by Alan — September 21, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

  10. Well, you’ve said the same thing quite a few times, and say it again here, without any tongue-in-cheek disclaimers, so I’ll forgive myself for taking it literally.

    One response to a commonly used and highly conflicted term is, I suppose, to stop using it–to assert, I suppose, that its use represents an “excess” of freedom. The other possibility is to explore the various uses of it, to try and understand why human self-understanding seems impossible without it, and to refine its use. The first approach represents an attempt to create a private language, in which you declare the true and false meanings of words and “correct” anyone who thinks words may mean a range of different things. The second approach allows you to speak to a lot of different people. There are, in fact a lot of different things one can be free of–sin, despair, slavery, government, bosses, tradition, physical limitations, etc. Why the anarchist’s use must be more true than the Christian’s I don’t know. The first sign was liberating, and to some extent must be every sign thereafter. No one is obliged to share your equation of freedom with rampage.

    Anyway, why argue in this way? Eric Gans’s Science and Faith has just been reissued by Davies Press, and is available for the bargain price of 18$. It’s got a few things to say about the forms of freedom generated by the Jewish and Christian revelations. We can argue about the uses of “freedom” in that context.

    Comment by adam — September 21, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

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