By Tim Bearly
One of the top contenders in the rankings for the most pervasive fallacies of our time is the delusion of meritocracy. It becomes perhaps the pound-for-pound champion of modern myths when we consider how those in power contrive to perpetuate the deception and use it to maintain the status quo.
Throughout history those who hold the reins of power have desperately attempted to convince their subjects that they — the aristocrats — deserve to be high up in their chateaus, sipping fine wine and overindulging in hedonistic pleasures while the plebeians toil away.
The fallacy continues today, but in a different form. We no longer believe in the myth of “the divine right of kings,” nor do we (at least in the United States) accept the notion of “noble blood”. Many of us, however, are still seduced by the enchanting spell of the meritocracy.
It is comforting, especially to the wealthy, to believe that the labor market results in everyone getting what they deserve and that the amount of money we posses is in complete accordance with our talent and work ethic. But is it really true? And does this contention — that if one is rich he must’ve worked hard, and if one is poor he must be lazy — have any detrimental effects on our society?
Belief in the labor market as a meritocracy can lead to insensitivity, or even a vehement disgust, of the impoverished and glorification, even deification, of the affluent (who must have only became rich because they possess many sterling qualities the rest of us don’t have). Moreover, why bother helping the so called “downtrodden” if they have only themselves to blame? Why bother with a progressive tax system when it would merely be tantamount to stealing one’s “hard-earned” capital just to pay for the food or healthcare for some “freeloader?” Why bother doing anything at all? A suspiciously convenient sentiment for those who don’t want to do anything in the first place (this can also be a useful tool to diminish cognitive dissonance).
When one family — the heirs to the Walmart fortune — can own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans, can we really consider the marketplace to be merit based? If we could quantify everyones work ethic and skill, would these modern dukes and duchesses (fewer than 10 members of the Walton family) actually have more money than over 100 million people combined? When a prince inherits a kingdom we consider him to be lucky, but if a real estate scion inherits billions — the modern equivalent of a kingdom — we consider him to a skilled entrepreneur. Indeed, it does not take much effort to deconstruct this manifest fiction.
No doubt there are certain institutions and industries that are more merit based than others. Professional sports is one example. Nepotism and cronyism are virtually non-existent on the gridiron. You don’t drafted into the NFL just because your parents own the league; you make the team because you are the best quarterback, receiver, lineman, etc. The military is another example. You don’t become a pilot just because your daddy was a pilot. But typically, notwithstanding few exceptions, the notion that we live in a meritocracy is so absurd it’s almost laughable. And yet many of us still believe it. Indeed, it often feels better to believe it. Heck, maybe if you keep slaving away at the factory you too can become rich someday!
The political arena is a stark contrast to the sports arena. Here the most despicable, dishonest and corrupt behavior is required, and ultimately rewarded. On this field cronyism is the rule, not the exception. Those that seemingly shoot their way to the top of the political sphere don’t do so because of their honesty and integrity. Money, of course, is the most essential component. If you didn’t inherit loads of it, then you need to convince those who did to give it to you by writing whatever legislation they tell you to write. Maybe a bill that cuts social programs? Yeah, because remember, poor people are just indolent parasites anyway.
Strip away the veneer of any self-made-man story (Congress is replete with them), and you will often discover a trust-fund inheritance, a life insurance payout, nepotism, a lawsuit, rich parents, or some other fortuitous circumstances which are conveniently ignored. But, understandably, people don’t want others to think they are merely “lucky” or “privileged.” This is why most anecdotes about “self-made” fortunes leave out the “good fortune.”
At this point the skeptic may chime in: “Even if we concede that we don’t live in a fair and equal society, what is this crypto-Marxian author suggesting as a viable solution? We do away with capitalism? Is this some kind of disguised battle cry for a dictatorship of the proletariat? ‘Workers of the world unite,’ blah blah blah? Is this another hackneyed ‘eat the rich’ kind of diatribe? Are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party?”
Nay. Take a Xanax, McCarthy. This is not a call for revolution but simply a call for us to stop believing in meritocracy and laissez-fairy tales. Because once people stop believing in these myths there will be no need for a call for revolution.