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Meritocracy: A New Class, With the Old Breed

Building a positive meritocracy: It's harder t...

The cultural and intellectual philosophy that ushered in the campaign of deregulation America has experienced in the last several decades is a set of beliefs that I refer to, and quite accurately so, as libertarian capitalism (marketism, is perhaps a better moniker). This new mysticism has a basic set of tenets that its adherents, though many are not aware of their faith, are militant in their defense of. The belief is that markets are the apex of global development and they do not require external calibration. Markets do not need regulation because they are the economic instantiation of survival of the fittest (death of the least fit, more accurately); they regulate themselves. Capitalism, the combination of personal freedom, private property, markets, fiat money and double entry bookkeeping, is largely responsible for the modern world. Yet these developments have created fault lines in society; fault lines that continue to expand.

Our modern social arrangement predates modern capitalism, and its growth has its roots in the Black Death and the demographic changes caused by reaching the maximum of agricultural output that the technology of the 14th century was capable of. As the peasant uprisings spread across Europe the powers that be at the time had to cede some of their power and grant the individual a higher degree of personal autonomy; freedom to labor as one freely chose. Freedom is the seed of capitalism, trade is the nourishment of markets, and markets are the soil of capitalism. Now free to labor solely in pursuit of their private interests, enterprising types set off on a venture, a journey, an experiment that led to secular government and personal and economic independence. Thus the monarchs and lords, those formerly assumed to have the right to govern, have been supplanted by the industrious and enterprising. Indeed we have exchanged a heritage of blood rights for a bloodline of merit.

Libertarian capitalist reasoning contends that this is not only natural, but indeed just and fair. Now I concur with regard to the point of the phenomenon’s organic nature but I do question the notion that it’s just or confers merit. In their libertarian capitalist conception, fairness and justice are expressed as ‘you get what you deserve.’ I contend that this is an inevitable consequence of libertarian capitalist thinking because I too think markets are not rigged as it were, they follow a set of rules – they are objective. Libertarian capitalism asserts that this renders markets reliable arbiters of justice and fairness; I contend that the objectivity of markets precludes them from acting justly. The boom and bust cycle of capitalism alone is evidence enough of the fickle and fortuitous nature of the market system; some work hard and make it, and some work hard and don’t make it. There is no justice to be found in this process; the happenstances of causality are not justice.

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Nonetheless, the less well-off are indicted on charges of sloth and ignorance. (Who could be charged with bad luck?) Meritocratic thinking has created a sentiment of apathetic disrespect among the successful with regard to anyone who, it is assumed, is not as enterprising or industrious as themselves. Industry and a propensity for enterprise are good but they alone are not capable of conferring merit. Instead we use industriousness as a placeholder for that which we lack; a universal and realistic measure of a person’s positive contributions to society and accordingly, it is assumed, the generousness of the endowment to which they are entitled from the stock of availability. The market has no concern for who it promotes, good natured or foul; and power corrupts because it blunts empathy and fosters a sense of entitlement, of right, of merit. The market has no method to check the corrupting influence of power. This fact and the equating of industriousness with merit, render libertarian capitalism an unjust substitute for an ideal whose day has not yet come: a fair society.

Corporations, the wealthy and technocrats are the priests at the wedding of industriousness and merit; the birth of meritocracy – a supposedly fair system of just reward and punishment. I contend that meritocracy is nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes; the new face of aristocracy. The rise of the meritocracy signifies the complete institutionalization of division of labor, the source of alienation arising from capitalist exploitation. The beneficiaries of meritocracy are the new Lords and Ladies – a new class, with the old breed.



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"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." - Christopher Hitchens

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