The danger of meritocracy

David Bromwich’s recent LRB article on Obama is one of several I’ve read recently that have convinced me that Obama’s main weakness is that he is the product of the meritocracy. He came to power at a time when virtually all American institutions had shown themselves to be dysfunctional — neither our economic nor our political institutions are promoting anything even vaguely reminiscent of the public good. But the product of meritocracy is never going to fundamentally question or reform the system, because the system is what endorsed him as “the best.” Obviously it made the right choice in him, and so the others it has recognized as “the best” must be equally worthy — hence you listen to whatever Larry Summers says, for example.

That’s what’s so insidious about meritocracy: it provides individuals with “advancement” at the cost of rendering them blind to the fundamental injustice of the system. In that perspective, the worst thing about the addition of affirmative action to the equation is not that it gives people an “unfair advantage,” but that it essentially plucks out the most promising members of disadvantaged groups, depriving them of the very people who might have become effective leaders creating benefit for the group as a whole — instead of just ascending the ladder themselves.

17 thoughts on “The danger of meritocracy

  1. IDK, that Dickinson article seems to amount to “Obama advisors say Obama’s policies are good,” which isn’t much of an argument – it doesn’t really investigate these claims (the most outlandish of which seems to me to be Van Jones saying that the Recovery Act amounts to a serious reorganization of the economy), address the criticisms of Obama’s policies, or consider whether a strategy less oriented towards compromise might have produced better results.

    I’m wondering about the relationship between meritocracy and technocracy. That Rolling Stone article quotes Axelrod saying: “We’re focused on trying to build a better country for the future. The president’s attitude is that the politics will ultimately take care of itself.” Perhaps this is where technocracy and meritocracy combine, in the idea that there is one understanding of “best” which is transparent and agreed upon – just a Obama was recognized as “the best” without having to struggle to impose his own understanding of what is best, so, he seems to think, everyone will recognize it if he pursues the (objectively, rationally) “best” policies.

  2. Plus, even if the Rolling Stone article is 100% true, doesn’t it amount to a massive political failure for them to do all this stuff and then so quickly lose control of the House that all of it is put in danger? How brilliant of a president is he going to turn out to be if the Republicans can gut a lot of what he’s done?

  3. Who then do you suggest would be a suitable USA president in the future?

    Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio?

    Back to the imagined (retaking our country) past with righteous fury/vengeance. The politics of binary exclusions and the thus inevitable search for scapegoat victims.

  4. this and the previous post are so excellent. and i like the dovetail of meritocracy and the critique of individualism / “the society of looting”! thanks, for this!

  5. Adam:

    This made me think of the scene in Office Space when Peter tells the consultants (“the Bobs”) that he basically does nothing at work, and that most other people do nothing as well. “The Bobs” promote him! He is promoted (he is “the best”) and yet he cares nothing for the values of those who put him in his managerial position. What would it look like for an elected official to abandon all thought of re-election (I think this would be huge), and simply go for broke trying to enact change, or speak truth to power? (Sure, as “only one person” he or she could probably not accomplish much, but…) It might take a misunderstanding analogous to Peter and “the Bobs” to get someone like that in office, but who is not an agent of those who chose him or her. Would this not be a move that may overcome the problem of meritocracy? Yoder entertains this idea (with reference to being a nonviolent person working for the government, without compromise): “Not only the voter but, in fact, even the legislator if he has no concern for his re-election or for developing a power bloc, could without compromise conceive of his office more a an occasion to speak to the authorities than as being an agent of the government” (The Christian Witness to the State , 27-8) . The key, it seems, would be resisting the temptation to be an agent of those who chose you (assuming that the people who “chose” you are really those who purchased ads for you, etc. not “the people” as such)

  6. Daniel:

    You are right in the obvious sense, but with a president in second term we are talking about a person who has been working in a different mode for so long that we are unlikely to see a radical shift in policies or any drastic change. When one has been an agent of certain powers for so long, how can one change so quickly? It seems to me that a person in second term is often still acting for the future of his or her “party,” or does things he would not have done in first term, e.g., pardon certain criminals, but this is more like the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8) who forgives debt because he knows he is on his way out. (Please correct me if I am wrong, if there is some example of a U.S. President who went abandoned all pursuit of securing a post-presidential future for himself in his second term).

  7. I’m saying that the American social structure is “fundamentally unjust.” Taken in isolation, meritocracy certainly seems more fair than alternatives like hereditary aristocracy — but even then, it’s not obvious why someone with more innate talent “deserves” more money and social status than someone without. I understand why they can demand more money and social status and why it makes sense to give it to them, but it’s not clear why it’s a matter of “deserving.”

  8. This essay seems to overly psychologize Obama. Who truly cares whether he craves fame or wants to be accepted the ruling elite. None of this would matter if he had recognized the depth of the crisis and had surrounded himself with people who could devise and implement policies to deal with it. He has failed by any conceivable measure and it may in fact be worse than we think – if the Republicans succeed in slashing social spending during a recession, he in fact may be remembered as the second coming of Herbert Hoover. God help us all.

  9. (1) The over-psychologization charge is misguided. First, the term “psychology” brings in a lot of baggage that doesn’t fit what Bromwich is doing here. From the behavior, choices and language of Obama and his administration, he draws inferences about motives and reasons. If that’s “psychology,” I’m not sure what isn’t psychology; nor am I sure why this sort of “psychology” isn’t useful. Don’t we want to know why he hasn’t “recognized the depth of the crisis … and surrounded himself” with the right people? Anyway, motives and reasons–excuse me, psychology–aren’t exactly autonomous from the systemic forces that shape them. Bromwich isn’t going into Obama’s family romance, no?

    (2) I can’t tell whether Tim Morton’s comment is dead-pan humor or one of the stupidest things I’ve read in weeks.

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