When questions of civil rights, or inequality, or discrimination arise, we are often reminded that we are supposed to be striving for an ideal: the ideal of meritocracy, where everyone rises and falls on their own merits. Take a moment to consider the problems with our ideal.

First, it is necessary to say that nowhere in the world today—and certainly not the USA—is a true meritocracy. Obviously! Human judgment is prone to all sorts of conscious and unconscious prejudices; economic systems are designed to favor the rich; political systems are tilted in favor of the powerful. Even the artificial arenas we design as imaginary meritocratic bubbles—standardized tests, professional sports, Miss America—are all rife with their own flaws and inherent biases. Meritocracy is an ideal only. Until the robots take over, it will remain an ideal.

Ideals, though, can be far more powerful than reality. Ideals determine what we are driving for. Ideals set the direction towards which our entire system of life is supposed to be striving. Ideals are the instructions we (claim to) use to build institutions. Meritocracy is the ideal trotted out to support criticisms of many of the injustices that plague our society today. And it's a piss poor one.

Well; I should say that a meritocracy would absolutely be better than the system we have now, which is crony capitalism overseen by an oligarchy of elected officials who largely protect the powerful forces who fund them. We are a nation hurtling backwards in time at top speed on measures of economic inequality. Half a century after the civil rights movement, we are still rioting over racist police shootings. Compared to what we have, a true meritocracy would be great. Or at least a step in the right direction.

In fact, all that meritocracy can be is a step in the right direction. A perfect meritocracy is not the endpoint of social, political, and economic evolution. A perfect meritocracy is just a system in which the winners are selected by personal merit, rather than by birthright or bank account. It is still a system of winners and losers. In fact, a meritocracy contains its own implicit justification for neglecting the losers of society: they lost fair and square. They deserve nothing.

A true meritocracy is a cold-blooded world. The smartest, fittest, and most capable eat and kill everyone else. It is little wonder that people who think of themselves as the smartest, fittest, most capable people are often the most voracious backers of what they believe to be meritocratic policies. Silicon Valley types, in particular, are fond of advocating for a certain form of meritocracy—one that funnels all available brainpower into Silicon Valley firms. For people who are already rich and powerful, the beauty of a meritocracy is that it need not spell doom for the current social order. All it means is that the most rich and powerful institutions will be better stocked with employees even more capable of enlarging their own share of the pie.

The goal of "meritocracy for all" leads, unfortunately, to small thinking. After Silicon Valley venture capital firm partner Ellen Pao sued her firm over sexual harassment and discrimination, talk turned to the larger problem of the lack of female representation in Silicon Valley. What we need are more female-run venture capital firms! This argument supposes that if we keep the exact same system we have now, but make it a meritocracy, all of our problems are solved. It fails to explore the question of whether Silicon Valley, and venture capital firms, and our entire system of funneling money from enterprise to enterprise while skimming off huge portions of it for a tiny super-wealthy cabal of financiers has some flaws of its own.

In a meritocracy, it can be very difficult to recognize that some aspects of unfair systesms should just be blown up altogether.

Is a meritocracy a more fair system than one in which dynastic wealth and privilege is handed down from father to son, and sexism and racism and WASP tribalism exclude the vast majority of people from having access to the gates of power? Yes it is. Is a meritocracy the best and highest ideal that we should seek to achieve? No it's not. A meritocracy, like the system we already have, is good for some people and not good for others. If you believe in human rights—in the idea that all are created equal—then you're obligated to seek out a system in which everyone is afforded at least a basic level of dignity, and in which everyone's needs are met. A system, in other words, that transcends winners in losers and reaches some semblance of hope for everyone. We all know that some people are better at some things than others. That is an unremarkable observation. The moral sleight-of-hand of the idea of meritocracy is to suppose that because some people are more capable, they are therefore more deserving of what life has to offer. Our current system is the domination by the elites. A meritocracy runs the risk of being domination by the skilled. We can do better.

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