Saturday, March 05, 2005

Meritocracy and dystopia

Reading this very interesting dystopia: Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033 (1958, rp. 1994). The author had an interview with the Guardian (June 29, 2001) in which he gave a precis of the argument in his book, lamenting that the warnings given in his book were not heeded. (Tony Blair was then making a big deal of meritocracy in his speeches.) I checked out the title after noting it's appearance in a footnote to John Rawls' own discussion of meritocracy in his Theory of Justice (1971, Rev. ed. 1999). The topic comes up briefly in my own research on the political philosophy of the ancient Chinese thinker Mozi 墨子, who (as with the case of Socrates and Plato) has often been taken to advocate some form of meritocracy.

Leaving Young and Rawls (and Mozi) aside for the moment, the term "meritocracy" as it is used appears to take on two distinct even if related complexions. The basic idea is straightforward enough: a system of government in which the distribution of power and responsibility (and consequently, the rewards that go with them--wealth and honor) among individuals correlates with individual ability or achievement (with achievement, presumably, being an indication of ability). But two slightly different interpretations come out if we ask for the point of such a correlation between power, responsibility, ability and achievement.

One interpretation is strictly in terms of expedience: if we want a job done, it makes perfect sense to get the best person for the job, the one most capably of doing it. So, for example, from the point of view of the economic efficiency of society as a whole, it makes sense to give resources to those who could make the most of it, and to encouraging them to do so by a corresponding system of honor. Another interpretation construes the connection as a principle of justice. The more able or the one with the achievement merits or deserves his position of power and responsibility. The second interpretation also entails that in a fully functioning meritocratic society, an individual's social position is something that he deserves or is merited by his ability and achievements.

It is possible for the two to come together, given further assumptions about how social efficiency connects with justice; but they can also come apart.

And the distinction would still stand even if in practice, it is extremely difficult to tell who are the ones with the abilities and thus, who are the ones who merit the elevation. The deeper question concerns the underlying point or principle: if it were possible to distribute power, responsibility, wealth and honor perfectly according to individual ability and achievement, would we (assuming that we are meritocrats) do so in order to satisfy a demand of efficiency, or of justice (or perhaps both)? And given that some society fails to to be meritocratic, is the failing one of inefficiency, or injustice (or both)?

Some thoughts that I have to chew through...

...continuing: why go through the trouble of distinguishing meritocracy understood in the two ways sketched out above? The reason is this: while there are very plausible and commonsensical arguments as to why meritocracy-as-expedience is a good thing; I am much less sanguine concerning meritocracy-as-principle of justice (or desert). And most importantly, arguments for the former cannot be used to support the latter without appealing to other, controversial, premises.

Probably more to come...

UPDATE (Mar 5): found this quote by David Ben-Gurion when reading, Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command (last mentioned here):
In military matters, as in all other matters of substance, experts knowledgeable in technique don't decide, even though their advice and guidence is vital; rather, an open mind and a common sense are essential. And these qualities are possessed--to a greater or lesser degree--by any normal man.
UPDATE 2 (Mar 5): An example to tell the two interpretations of meritocracy apart. Say that we are part of a town community, and the day comes when we want a bridge built spanning the river that runs beside the town. The job at hand obviously requires a group of people to work in concert, and directed by an overseer who is able to direct them in their individual tasks. Lets say that three persons A, B and C applied for the job of overseer. A is an excellent engineer, in fact, the best in the land. B is a decent engineer who would probably get the job done, though not as efficiently. C is a terrible engineer, the likelihood is that he will not be able to get the job done. Question: now suppose we, as the community, voted to award the contract to C--have we acted idiotically, or unjustly? Only if we think that we have acted unjustly (i.e., not just idiotically) are we meritocracts according to the second interpretation. That is, we believe that the capable merits or deserves power and responsibility (and their rewards). And if we also think that an injustice has been committed if the job is awarded to A instead of B, then we are definitely meritocrats according to the second interpretation.

My gut feeling: most Singaporeans are at least half-minded meritocrats on the second interpretation.

UPDATE (Mar 6): Found a very nuanced discussion: Norman Daniels, "Merit and Meritocracy" in Philosophy and Public Affairs 4 (1978)...digesting.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home