To Kill a Mockingbird of Merit

“Meritocracy has flourished in the West since the advent of capitalism and particularly since the 1960s in the form of ‘equality of opportunity and before the law’… Recent books, such as those mentioned above, voice concerns about the ethical failures and corrosive individualism of meritocracy…. But certainly, the abolition of the merit principle is not the way to go either as it invites mediocrity as a new norm.” Sophie Dulesh looks at meritocracy’s long history and the challenges it faces in today’s world of ‘equity.’

“Meritocracy has flourished in the West since the advent of capitalism and particularly since the 1960s in the form of ‘equality of opportunity and before the law’… Recent books, such as those mentioned above, voice concerns about the ethical failures and corrosive individualism of meritocracy…. But certainly, the abolition of the merit principle is not the way to go either as it invites mediocrity as a new norm.” Sophie Dulesh looks at meritocracy’s long history and the challenges it faces in today’s world of ‘equity.’

Western society seems to be in trouble and our intellectuals are up in arms. New book titles thunder the alarm: The Tyranny of Merit (Michael Sandel, 2020), The Meritocracy Trap (Daniel Markovits, 2019), The Tyranny of Meritocracy (Lani Guinier, 2015). Is merit our newfound public enemy? Is this panic justified?

Part I

What is meritocracy? Amartya Sen defined it as a system for “rewarding good (or right) deeds for their incentive effects” (in K.J. Arrow et al., Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, 2000). It’s striving for perfection, something that is inherent in, unique to, and inalienable from humanity. 

Meritocracy has flourished in the West since the advent of capitalism and particularly since the 1960s in the form of “equality of opportunity and before the law.”

Meritocracy has flourished in the West since the advent of capitalism and particularly since the 1960s in the form of “equality of opportunity and before the law.” However, the near equality of outcome currently in vogue is unachievable as people are far too diverse genetically and hence in their capabilities (Charles Murray, Human Diversity, 2020). This short period of meritocracy has delivered an unimaginable rise in global prosperity but also (and particularly since the 1980s) of income inequality, leading to growing resentment and rising populism. In China, meritocracy was operational for thirteen centuries in the form of the Imperial examinations for positions in the state bureaucracy.

Recent books, such as those mentioned above, voice concerns about the ethical failures and corrosive individualism of meritocracy. For example, competition at prestigious universities could overinflate a winner’s sense of self-worth. “The old elite recognized that it had been privileged by the accident of birth, so the message to those who were out of luck was that… it was through no defect of [their] own. The new elite… feels that it has earned its privileges based on intrinsic, individual merit,” says Guinier. “The populist backlash of recent years has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit, as it has been experienced by those who feel humiliated by meritocracy… This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem,” says Sandel.

Sounds good. But how far should we go? Should “feeling humiliated” automatically justify any revolt – including by those who may “feel humiliated” by, say, law-and-order? As Isaiah Berlin says, “The fulfilment of some of our ideas may in principle make the fulfilment of others impossible …the notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimera” (Four Essays on Liberty, 1992). Humiliation is rooted in breath-taking discrepancies in compensation as reflected in the paycheck of a CEO or rapper versus that of a caregiver. Prejudices disappear with a fairer redistribution of wealth (perhaps a universal basic income, which was tested for two years in Finland) and perhaps with the eventual use of robots for less prestigious jobs. In the USSR, medical workers, particularly nurses, had dismally low salaries, and hence were held in low esteem. A popular anecdote referred to a girl in nursing school who lies to her boyfriend about her occupation for fear of losing his respect.

In Murray’s view, “…we live in a world where certain kinds of abilities tend to be rewarded with affluence and professional prestige… [Those abilities] have a substantial genetic component [which is] a matter of luck…The implication is that advanced societies have replaced one form of unfairness with another.” However, Murray thinks that our current society is advanced enough so that even though “…we can’t all become rich and famous, just about all of us… live satisfying lives, and we have many degrees of freedom in reaching that goal.”

The concept of meritocracy mirrors the socialist principle: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution.” When humanity reaches the level of material productivity allowing the next step: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” (the communist principle), the craving for equality will be largely satisfied. But it won’t disappear because the quest for prestige, for respect, dignity, is second nature to us. This is lightheartedly illustrated in Russian folklore, where addressing random passers-by or the occasional lamppost with, “D’you res… (belch), uh… D’you respect me?!” in a half-begging-half-threatening way is shorthand for a habitual drunkard. If someone says, “He? But he is… y’know… ‘D’you respect me?’,” people nod knowingly.

However, at least inequality of outcome may then finally cease to be a major engine of social frustration. It is imperative to reach this material level ASAP as it may be the only way to calm social turmoil: people are too different by nature; it is hard to believe that any relief (let alone a consensus) can be found by other means.  “[Righteous] morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say,” writes Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (2012).

And perhaps we are not far off from achieving it with artificial intelligence (AI) and scientific progress. But with current population growth (thanks to the material progress delivered by capitalism), the suggestion to abolish merit sounds as ominous as the panic sown against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), our major resource to stave off worldwide starvation. Abolition of either would deliver much suffering through material deprivation worldwide. There is very much truth in Sandel’s concern about the “tyranny of merit” – and much that would lead to social dysfunction. Uncontrolled reliance on collectivism, the “dependency, humility” that Sandel advocates, undermines our most precious social values such as personal responsibility, the ability and willingness to “take upon self,” including self-sacrifice for the common good, self-reliance, and valour – all qualities vital to the functioning of a healthy society. Why go to such extremes?

Markovits’ accusation that “The meritocratic achievement commonly celebrated today, no less than the aristocratic virtue acclaimed in the ancien regime, is a sham” sounds grave too. He would like to see meritocracy abolished as detrimental to both “the rich and the rest,” because it advances inequality of outcome, inhibits social mobility thereby stirring unrest, and forces the minority of super-achievers to accept an inhumane workload while idling the less skillful majority and depriving them of an income and the concomitant prestige. The rich super-achievers form a new semi-hereditary ‘aristocracy’ based not on talent but on money: they buy their children’s academic excellence with impunity, through advantageous tax policies, handsomely paid top-of-the-line tutors, and even bribery. Some experts, however, blame culprits other than meritocracy for soaring income inequality. In Supreme Inequality (2020), Adam Cohen writes:

For 50 years, the conservative majority had waged an unrelenting war on the poor and the middle class and enthusiastically championed wealthy individuals and corporations – and changed the law dramatically to suit its vision of society… The past 50 years of conservative rulings from the Supreme Court have coincided almost exactly with a period in which economic inequality in the US soared to near-historic levels… A major reason… is the choices that the government has made over the past half century… such as the tax cuts for the rich… [and] the welfare reform law of 1996… The Supreme Court… has been one of the most powerful drivers of income inequality of the past half century… The Court’s campaign finance decisions… are a major reason tax policy is so slanted in favor of the rich.

The “tyranny” and the “trap” of the Supreme Court? Should we abolish it too, if abolition is the only or even best way to control inequality? But if this were the case, what we’d really need to abolish is capitalism, the most powerful social force in promoting inequality, but at the same time the mighty force that has single-handedly propelled humans up from the equality of the short, brutish, subsistence-level lives that defined the medieval period. It is the tide that lifts all boats, although by no means equally. Yet almost nobody (aside from Luddites and far-left Marxists) advocates abolishing the private interest that is foundational to capitalism. Why? In 2019, the per capita GDP was $65,111.60 in the US, $12,011.50 in Russia, and $8,254.30 in China; in Iran it is merely projected to reach $6,500 in 2021 ( from ourworldindata.org/grapher/gdp-per-capita-worldbank). Comparative GDP data are shown in the map below.

Here is a thought experiment: what happens if some natural cataclysm, say, the gravitational pull of a passing asteroid, leads to a giant earthquake in the bowels of our planet? And by suddenly obstructing the existing underground passageways, it forces the flow of oil to permanently change its route away from Russia and Iran. Their entire extractive economies would collapse instantly. Compared to the American economy, they are colossuses with feet of clay. It is trivial to say that this is our capitalist meritocracy at work. The world may experience an entire gamut of emotions toward the U.S. (down to barefaced envy and hatred) – yet people everywhere crave American goods, services, and culture (from nanotechnology to rap) and “Made in America” goods are its best ambassadors.

The USSR unwittingly conducted a sociology experiment when it rejected en masse all the old tsarist era-educated specialists as untrustworthy and replaced them with fast-tracked new specialists of proletarian origin, most with middling skills at best.

This again is the merit principle (however much it falls short in practice) at work. Every effort to level inequality is welcome. But not at the cost of merit: this would imply that we lower the bar and adopt a norm of mediocrity rather than excellence. We’d all lose: nobody wants a mediocre surgeon, plumber, dentist, or lawyer – and who can blame them?

I have personal experience of the effect of mediocre services on recipients. The USSR unwittingly conducted a sociology experiment when it rejected en masse all the old tsarist era-educated specialists as untrustworthy and replaced them with fast-tracked new specialists of proletarian origin, most with middling skills at best. The bar of professional excellence was dropped dramatically in every sphere and became the new standard for at least two generations. My experience relates to dentistry. The first time I went to see a dentist after immigrating to Canada, he looked into my mouth and immediately called in all his colleagues and students to show them an example of the spectacularly poor dental work that in this country is found only among immigrants. To be fair, Soviet dentists had to work with substandard equipment and materials. Yet a bigger problem was the low bar of professional excellence that had become an accepted norm as long as dentists were of proletarian origin. This Soviet-style meritocracy “replaces all first-rate talents…with those…whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 2017). So my teeth benefitted from my emigration, an unforeseen bonus.

What about all those who remained behind? Most probably lost their teeth about ten years earlier than they would have with better care and had to endure living without teeth, a demeaning experience. Poor food processing in a toothless mouth can result in lifelong digestive problems that may even shorten one’s life and certainly make it less comfortable. Does that sound like a desirable norm to accept for the sake of the “social justice of income equality”? In the USSR where we lived it, everyone was equally hopelessly pauperized for at least two generations. There was no income inequality except for the tiny cluster of top party functionaries about whose deeply secret privileges the general population knew nothing.

The innate quest for perfection that evolution has endowed humans with is the foundation of our creativity and what makes us unique in the animal kingdom. This creativity is consistently revealed from the cave paintings and shell necklaces found in archeological digs to Homer, Beethoven, and AI. Ominously, “cancel culture” wants to “cancel Beethoven” as an “elitist” and call his symphony # 5 a symbol of “exclusion” (Daniel Lelchuk, Then They Came for Beethoven, Quillette, September 19, 2020). Must we hypocritically call this new attitude “diversity”?

When our remote ancestors used rocks to crush the bones of their prey for the marrow, they were still non-human primates. Only those who worked on perfecting their rocks by sharpening their edges or making them pointed crossed to the level of proto-humans who developed crafted tools.

Both common sense and psychology reveal that emotional well-being, joie de vivre, are inseparable from our striving for excellence, for merit. “People [unlike robots] generally enjoy the things they are good at. They also like the experience of being good at what they do – a fundamental truth about the nature of human enjoyment that goes back to Aristotle,” says Murray. Can it be abolished?

Part II

In her book The Tyranny of Meritocracy distinguished educator Lani Guinier passionately advocates an anti-meritocratic “collective” education, where studying is done in diverse groups and the smarter invest their time and talent in pulling up the weaker “to their mutual advantage.”

In her book The Tyranny of Meritocracy distinguished educator Lani Guinier passionately advocates an anti-meritocratic “collective” education, where studying is done in diverse groups and the smarter invest their time and talent in pulling up the weaker “to their mutual advantage.” Individual learning is “antidemocratic, anti-diversity.” There is an irredeemable contradiction here: true diversity, not the nominal diversity of political correctness, is a feature of the individualistic world; in the collectivist setting, conformity rules.

The “Jeffersonian ideal of a ‘natural aristocracy of talents and virtue’ [is] a forerunner of the 20th-century idea of meritocracy,”says Guinier. This ideal survived from Plato to Jefferson to our times. In his book Republic, Plato’s Socrates argues that democracy is dangerous due to excessive freedom: it risks elevating the unskilled to become governing tyrants and demagogues. Plato advocates for philosopher-kings, for the wisest and most virtuous to be meritocratically selected for their excellence. There must be something profoundly true in this idea for it to have persisted for over 25 centuries.

Guinier notwithstanding, I have the feeling that many of our intellectual leaders would not have tolerated and certainly would not have liked a “collective” education. This is not unlike promoting a blend of the Olympic and Paralympic games, where our biggest sports stars would give up their personal training for the sake of exercising with Paralympians.

In the words of Walter Williams, African American Distinguished Professor of Economics:

What explains the fact that over 80% of professional basketball players are black, as are about 70% of professional football players? Only an idiot would chalk it up to diversity and inclusion. Instead, it is excellence that explains the disproportionate numbers. Jewish Americans, who are just 3% of our population, win over 35% of the Nobel prizes in science that are awarded to Americans. Again, it is excellence that explains the disproportionality, not diversity and inclusion. (http://walterewilliams.com/diversity,-equity-and-inclusion-nonsense/, 2 September 2020).

An affirmative action policy is currently accepted in employment as well as in education. Canadian policy follows the American one (but lacks the legal recourse available to Americans) and is practiced mostly by the government with the support of the unions. It is also burdened with the same concerns about merit and “proportion representation” in determining who is entitled to which privileges. In the words of Max Hyams (Affirmative Action in a Multiethnic Nation, Quillette, July 3, 2020):

As the white share of the population declines, the ‘racial ratio’—that is, the number of whites bearing the costs of quotas compared to the number of minorities benefiting—becomes increasingly skewed. If the ratio is allowed to become too unbalanced, it will do violence to the Court’s promise that ‘Under the Constitution there can be no such thing as either a creditor or a debtor race’…

In The Age of Entitlement: America since the Sixties (2020), Christopher Caldwell writes: Truth was among the first casualties of the affirmative action regime… Just half a decade into the civil rights revolution, America had…something the overwhelming majority of its citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference… Americans who felt that civil rights were justified by an especially shameful history also thought it was limited by that history. They would not have consented to it otherwise…

Hyams (2020) observes that “few proponents of affirmative action are prepared to consider the dangers of quotas in a multiethnic society…

Political correctness was a name for the cultural effect of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights law. In 2003, US Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor wrote, “We expect that twenty-five years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

Hyams (2020) observes that “few proponents of affirmative action are prepared to consider the dangers of quotas in a multiethnic society… At best: social strife, inefficiency, endemic public corruption, and nepotism. At worst: tribalized violence and warfare.” And violence spreads like wildfire. After the national media upheaval about ‘racist police killings’ following the death of Michael Brown in 2014, proactive policing was reduced in minority neighborhoods. The result: an additional 2,000 black homicides in 2015 and 2016. No country is immune. “[I]n Sri Lanka [racial preference] contributed to a bloody civil war between Tamil and Sinhalese. Similarly, in Nigeria, state-backed ethnic privileges propelled civil war and the short-lived state of Biafra,” says Hyams.

Yet, affirmative action leading to discrimination in reverse has its ecstatic supporters, a phenomenon grounded in the burning centuries-long injustice of slavery. In How to be an Antiracist (2019), Ibram X. Kendi, an African American professor, insists:

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Emotionally understandable, yet unacceptable: to succeed people must apply reason rather than raw emotions. We ought to prioritize real-life lessons ahead of our passions.

One life lesson is that far too often affirmative action is just a simulation of a remedy, as in India, where spots reserved for the Dalits routinely benefit the narrowest, most advantaged layer of untouchables. Same problem in America: “Right now, affirmative action simply mirrors the values of the current view of meritocracy. Students at elite colleges, for example, who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action tend to be either the children of rich immigrants or the children of upper-middle-class parents of color who have been sent to fine prep schools just like the upper-middle-class white students,” says Guinier.

Another life lesson comes from Clarence Thomas, the African American Supreme Court Justice who himself benefited from affirmative action but claims that an affirmative action policy always equals racial discrimination and is as unconstitutional and morally wrong as slavery. Any naming of race is tantamount to racial bigotry: a colour-blind merit-based attitude is needed. And he, if anyone, is best qualified for insight on the issue.

Polls that specifically ask whether employers and colleges should take race into account when making decisions find that most Americans say no. When forced to choose, most Americans evidently think that the affirmative action policy is unfair and unlikely to benefit them. The option is to look for ideas that are both progressive and popular. Medicaid expansion is one example, “baby bonds” — federal grants for children — are another. A high minimum wage is a third.

Guinier is opposed to “testology” as an objective measure of merit (such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test “SAT” used to identify high-IQ students regardless of their former income-dependent schooling). However, according to Murray:

IQ tests are not biased against minorities… IQ meets higher standards of reliability and validity… than any psychological measure of personality or temperament… Life is an IQ test… It is not [only] that IQ predicts job performance for people with cognitively demanding jobs [but] to some degree for people across the entire range of jobs.

Besides, as Guinier says, before the advent of standardized testing in 1926, “America’s elite colleges were closed off to immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. …The result was that WASP boys with C averages from prominent families were admitted to Harvard while overachieving Jewish boys from Brooklyn were kept out.” SAT may need some amendments but as an objective measure it was clearly an improvement.

The history of discrimination of the Jews may be instructive. Murray writes:

Why was European Jewish achievement in the arts and sciences so rare from the Middle Ages until the 19th century? Because Jews… [restricted to pauperized ghettos (1555-1848) or the Pale of Settlement (1791-1917), denigrated as inferior and perennial scapegoats for plagues and disasters] were prohibited by law from entering universities or engaging in scientific professions. Within two generations of their legal emancipation, Jews were disproportionately represented among the leading figures in both the arts and science.

In the 20th century, the admission ban was replaced with quotas (in place at McGill University from 1920-1960). In 1935, Dean Milton Winternitz of Yale University issued these instructions: “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.” Jonas Salk, Richard Feynman, and other Nobel Prize winners were all initially denied college admission as Jews. When finally admitted, Jews, including the poorest, burst disproportionately into the universities, notwithstanding the lack of legal or material support in the form of affirmative action or allocated money.

How did they manage? Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, describes one way. As soon as the oldest sibling started working upon graduation, s(he) would materially support sibling #2 through university, who, in turn, would support #3, and so on, gender-neutral, until the youngest was through. Weizmann had 14 siblings and all but one made it through, while their father was a humble logger in a Polish shtetl. When a crib that had already raised some ten babies became too rickety, the older siblings bought their mother a new one – a gift for which they had to make a collection (Trial and Error: The Autobiography, 1949). This attitude was a matter of habit and determination. And within one to two generations, it bore fruit.

Whatever may or may not be learned from this experience, groups who were long discriminated against may need effective help in overcoming historic injustice. But clearly not the kind of help that led to the infamous case in 1973 of Allan Bakke, a veteran ex-Marine with outstanding credentials (his exam scores were in the 90s) who was denied admission to twelve consecutive medical schools that were implementing affirmative action (for non-white applicants with exam scores of 18). Nor the kind of help provided in Brazil. As described by Hyams:

…in Brazil: applicants for university and government jobs are boosted by Afro-Brazilian or pardo (brown) status. Inspection boards use detailed guidelines—including fine gradations of skin-tone and measurements of lip size, hair texture, skull shape, and nose width—to ferret out Europeans from those of genuine Indigenous and African descent… Desperate strivers blacken their skin or otherwise modify their appearance to gain an edge.

That kind of help is socially calamitous, and no past injustice can justify it. How would it feel if, say, Jews and Roma today demanded affirmative action and privileges in college admissions, employment, housing, and subsidies because, during the Holocaust, one out of three Jews and one out of four Roma globally were murdered? It is well known that two wrongs don’t make a right, regardless of the enormity of the past wrongs.

There is less economic mobility in the US than in Denmark.

What is to be done? Progressive taxation has been successful. Joshua Angrist and coauthors found that “The gains were largest among nonwhite students, poor students and students whose parents had not attended college” (Early Results from a Randomized Evaluation of Post-Secondary Aid. NBER Working Paper 20800, 2017).

There is less economic mobility in the US than in Denmark.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (2015) found that roughly one-half or even more of inequality is passed on to children in the US, which is often compared with Denmark, where a 2006 IZA Institute of Labor Economics study found that less than one-fifth of income inequality is transmitted between generations.

Miles Corak (2019) found the Canadian rate of social mobility to be roughly twice that of the American. The only parallel in Canada for the very low mobility rates of children from the American south is the experience of some indigenous communities, a group that represents a much smaller fraction of the Canadian population.

What, broadly speaking, are our goals in educating?  According to Guinier: The first goal, ‘democratic equality’, reflects society’s interest both in creating an informed and engaged citizenry and in promoting relative equality. The second goal, ‘social efficiency’, emphasizes the necessity in a market-based economy of having productive and innovative laborers. The third goal, ‘social mobility’, treats education as a commodity whose sole purpose is to advance individual standing in the hierarchy of societal order.

What, overall, has been achieved? According to Christopher Hayes in Twilight of the Elites (2012):

It is important to recognize that the history of America over the last seven decades is a story of remarkable, improbable even transcendent progress toward equality. Since WWII, we’ve seen two distinct eras of equality in which a whole host of deeply embedded, overwhelmingly powerful systems of inequality were dramatically weakened, and in some cases all but destroyed. The first era of equality, from the end of the WWII to the early 1970s, represented a period of historically unprecedented growth, mass affluence, and middle-class expansion that has not been duplicated since. Income inequality markedly declined, even as the economy posted a nearly unmatched level of annual GDP growth. Union density rose as high as 34 percent (the highest it’s ever been), while the ratio between average CEO compensation and average production worker compensation hovered around 25 (by 2009 it was 185), and people up and down the income scale saw remarkable material gains. Between 1947 and 1979 real family income grew for everyone but it grew the most for the poorest 20 percent of the population.

Notably, by 1979, the meritocracy policy had been fully operational in the US for at least two decades – yet had obviously in no way been an obstacle (on the contrary!) for the “remarkable, improbable… progress toward equality.” Does that look like a public enemy activity? Hayes continues:

The second era of equality has dismantled many… of the legal and cultural structures that regulated and enforced the brutal inequalities of race, gender, and sexual orientation. …In 1975, only 1.4% of black households made more than $100,000. By 2006, it was more than six times that, a considerably faster rate of growth than that of white households… As of 2011, gays and lesbians can serve openly for the first time in the history of the United States military. So, the first era of equality produced an unprecedented reduction in economic inequality, a reduction that did not last, but that was, in some senses, replaced by a dramatic, if patchy and incomplete, reduction in inequality along the lines of gender, race and sexual orientation.”

Remarkable achievements, all acquired against the backdrop of widespread meritocracy. As Hayes points out:

The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress – gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination – are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality – are those that fall outside the meritocracy purview…There are ample historical examples of societies ideologically committed to equality of outcomes that resulted in a small, corrupt, and morally bankrupt ruling class and widespread penury and immiseration – the societies following the infamous adage of Mao: “The tall stalk gets cut down.”

What can be learned from others who have walked this path? With the exception of Britain, every industrialized democracy has higher income equality than the US. The Gini Index rates income or wealth inequality from 0%, representing perfect equality, to 100%, representing perfect inequality. Both extremes are harmful as perfect equality, as shown by the example of the USSR, paralyzes activity. The optimal Gini index for a society is between 25 to 32.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed one general principle: the higher the taxes, the less inequality. Yet as Hayes points out, “If there is one single trend identifiable in the second era of equality it is the sharp decline in the rate that the very rich pay in income taxes.” Total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in the US is at 24.8%, down from 29.5% in 2000…Denmark has the highest level of tax revenue as a percentage of GDP (48.2%) and the most equality out of any OECD country. And, says Hayes, “Public opinion shows that there is a surprising amount of support for exactly the one policy that most quickly reduces inequality: higher taxes… Because the meritocratic winners are reluctant to part with their power, they must be convinced that the current status quo is unsustainable…The experience of Brazil…shows that with a political leadership committed to reducing inequality, it is possible to produce high levels of growth while simultaneously shrinking the gap between rich and poor, even as inequality expands across the globe.” Between 2003 and 2008, the top 10% of Brazilians got 11% richer, while the bottom tenth saw their earnings jump 72%. Awesome…

Rather than calling for the abolition of meritocracy, wouldn’t it make more sense to seek ways to better coordinate meritocracy with democracy to get the best of both?

Part III

The relationship between meritocracy and democracy in politics has been thoroughly analyzed recently, particularly for the case of China. “Democracy has had a good track record over the past few decades: rich, stable, and free countries are all democratic,” says Daniel Bell in The China Model (2015), noting the arguments that “famines do not occur in democracies” and “democracies do not go to war against one another.”…

But certainly, the abolition of the merit principle is not the way to go either as it invites mediocrity as a new norm.

But Bell points out that both “also hold true in two non-democratic countries – Singapore and China – since they have consciously implemented meritocratic reforms (starting from the mid-1960s in Singapore and the early 1980s in China).”

China presents another unwittingly staged social experiment that helps to sort out the benefits versus the failures of the merit principle: In Bell’s words:

Since the early 1990s, China’s [meritocratic] political system has evolved into a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political talent that seems to have underpinned China’s stunning economic success. …In the early 1990s, nobody predicted that China’s economy would rise so fast to become the world’s second largest economy… [in] what a UN human development report called the most sustained development miracle of the 20th century, perhaps, all history… In 20 years’ time, perhaps, we will be debating Chinese-style political meritocracy as an alternative model – and a challenge – to Western-style democracy… there may be morally desirable and politically feasible alternatives [e.g., political meritocracy] to electoral democracy… The China model – democracy at the bottom, meritocracy at the top, with room for experimentation in between – is both an ideal and a reality.

Is this the roadmap to follow? Perhaps not exactly– few who have experienced democratic freedoms would willingly give them up. But certainly, the abolition of the merit principle is not the way to go either as it invites mediocrity as a new norm. Over and over, the pursuit of “viva mediocrity, away with excellence” would be to our own detriment. ♦