Human capacities are both inherited and subject to genetic variance. Structuring an elite based on education alone is senseless. While, on average, the children of the capable will also be capable, in practice, there will be a lot of variance in the capacities, capabilities, and characters their offspring, not even considering illnesses and defects.
The democratic meritocracy theory holds that we should do what we can to make it possible for everyone to compete on a ‘level playing field,’ irrespective of the fact that no human starts off the same. Our civilization has been made possible by thousands of years of accumulated capital, knowledge, and acculturation. We don’t emerge into a nothingness that we build up from a state of nature.
The pretense of meritocracy tends to result in a deficit of appropriate humility. Rather than seeing people who are less fortunate as less fortunate, people tend to instead look down upon them as morally deficient in some way. The idea is that if they had only studied textbooks hard enough, they would all be masters of the universe or super-scientists.
This is both unrealistic and uncharitable. The impulse also results in mad quests to uplift populations of billions of people in the course of less than a generation. The high goals also set hundreds of millions of people up for inevitable failure to achieve their goals.
Given that there’s substantial human variance both within relatively homogeneous populations, and even more variance between foreign populations, it’s better to stop attempting to structure society in a way that denies productive social roles to people who aren’t fully capable or desirous of being independent.
The existence of the welfare state implicitly acknowledges that there are substantial numbers of people who are poorly suited to legal independence, and those people tend to be more than willing to sacrifice their independence for regular payments.
These people could be productive under closer supervision (a role currently played by social workers employed by the state), given productive service roles.
For example, many American cities are dirty, unadorned, and dingy. There are many areas where public landscaping is unattractive. There are few people who can’t be disciplined into being marginally effective janitors, cooks, and yard-workers. These jobs are even within the capacities of people who are mentally retarded, at least with some sympathy and close supervision.
People who are too criminal or erratic to be productive should be either reformed or removed from society. This is the moderate, normal political point of view. The radical, strange notion by historic standards is that everyone no matter their inclination or capacity can be reformed, except in extreme cases which require life imprisonment or execution. We know that this notion is false, from long experience attempting to implement it, after spending trillions of dollars on fruitless corrections and educational programs.
The same liberal cities that house so many bleeding hearts would lose most of their restaurants overnight if minimum wage laws were enforced upon line cooks. The police could go through the restaurant section in the phone book in a typical city and lock up every single owner over the course of a month. So, to some extent, employers already express a preference for unfree labor in certain situations — just think of the H1B Visa program — it’s just that everyone agrees to lie about it and look the other way.
There’s honor and dignity in being a loyal, friendly gardener or custodian. Instead, democratic society tends to shame such people for failing to chase the white collar brass ring, or becoming ‘great artists’ who slap labels onto cans of their own feces.
The notion that all people should be independent is a radical one. It’s failed in practice, and the welfare state is a glaring acknowledgment of that fact. The welfare state thrives on pity and a sense of mercy, but it expresses that in forms which degrade the same people that it claims to be helping. Instead of continuing this degradation, we should instead be willing to take more active responsibility for those people.
Freedom is a trade-off that many people are more than happy to give up. Instead of raging against that unchanging aspect of human nature, we should instead structure the laws to make room again for the free and the unfree.
Thorgeir Lawspeaker says
It is better to be a free man than to be a slave. It is also better to be musical than not, to be literate than not, to be healthy than not, to possess various virtues than not.
One can affirm all of the foregoing without concluding that all individuals are capable of realizing each of these “betters” individually, or that all individuals are capable of realizing each of the “betters” to the same degree. Yo-yo Ma is more musical than I shall ever be.
Outside intervention — medical treatment, schooling, discipline, etc. — can improve the lot of individuals with respect to these qualities in many cases. It doesn’t follow that intervention can bring everyone to an equal level of capacity, nor that such intervention will never reach a point of diminishing returns.
Peter Blood says
Speaking of elites, Greg Johnson had a good article at Counter Currents yesterday that is about building an elite, “The Smartest Guy in the Room”. One virtue he was promoting is magnanimity.
I didn’t see it (wrote this on Saturday with everything else). Yes, that’s a good piece, even if they have some different goals at CC.
The cult leader aspect is something to be wary of, in particular.
R. Wilbur says
“They do as they have done, as their ancestors did before them. The methods and reasons are assuredly complex — this is an agriculture of extraordinary craftsmanship and ecological intelligence — but they were worked out over a long time, long ago; learned so well, one might say, that they are forgotten. It seems to me that this is probably the only kind of culture that works: thought sufficiently complex, but submerged or embodied in traditional acts. It is at least as unconscious as it is conscious – and so is available to all levels of intelligence. Two people, one highly intelligent, the other unintelligent, will work fields on the same slope, and both will farm well, keeping the ways that keep the land. You can look at a whole mountainside covered with these little farms and not see anything egregiously wasteful or stupid. Not so with us. With us, it grows harder and harder even for intelligent people to behave intelligently, and the unintelligent are condemned to a stupidity probably unknown in traditional cultures.” —
This quote comes from Wendell Berry’s essay on Peruvian Farming from “The Gift of Good Land”.
I take it as quoted by Jeremy Beer in his essay “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy” from the collection “Wendell Berry: Life and Work” edited by Jason Peters.
Beer goes on to say:
“Berry recognizes that a primary function of a healthy culture is to make important knowledge widely available by “submerging” and “embodying” it in “traditional acts”. He has made the Chestertonian observation that tradition is democratic, humane, — fair. Conversely, to uproot, dislocate, or otherwise adversely disturb a traditional people and its culture is to injure most those with the fewest intellectual resources and to condemn them to survive more or less on their own. This, of course, is precisely the aim of a meritocracy. Its justifiying ideology, liberal individualism, seeks to remove the multiform barriers posed by traditional institutions and affections to the mobility of the intelligent.”
R. Wilbur says
I had meant to post the above on an older post on meritocracy you had put together, but couldn’t find the reference then. Fitting enough, here.
Best way to search this blog is to type “site:henrydampier.com [your search terms]” into Google. WordPress search is not very good.
I’ve seen some Peruvian farms in person, so it’s interesting to read another interpretation of it. At the time, when I was there, it confused me as to why they were all still living in what appeared to be primitive conditions.
Nonce de Leon says
Tradition as Chesterton knew it was democratic, humane, and fair: He was born into a culture with democratic, humane, and fair traditions.
Is that equally the case in China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or Venezuela?
I don’t see how you can argue that it is. The God of biomechanics has his own agenda.
Kate Minter says
“There’s honor and dignity in being a loyal, friendly gardener or custodian. Instead, democratic society tends to shame such people for failing to chase the white collar brass ring, or becoming ‘great artists’ who slap labels onto cans of their own feces.”
There’s honor and dignity in anything, depending on who you are. Mark and I inadvertently pulled into a McDonalds that is sort of a homeless hangout. A sign was up about loitering and people were being shuffled out every half hour. Two young college aged kids were connected to the free wifi to madly use the internet- looking for jobs, one would assume- and most of the others were just hanging about talking, a few eating.
It was a sobering meal once we realized who everybody was. I very often only have two one dollar bills in my wallet, but I happened to have a twenty because Mark had used my debit card to pay for our meal. He didn’t really want to stay to eat, but the crowd thinned a little, so we did. So, on our way out, one of the young men asked me for a quarter. I gave him fifty cents and squeezed his hand and told him “God bless you,” and it would be hard to say who was the real recipient of a gift in that moment, him or me. Touch and eye contact as so powerful. And when you treat people with the honor and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, they feel and respond to it.
So, the man I had wanted to give the twenty to had disappeared, Mark told me he went outside. So, I went to talk to him, looking him straight in the eyes (people need to feel seen) and shook hands with him to get the money in his hands. And ended with the words again, “God bless you.” And as I started to walk over to Mark and get in our car, the man suddenly lit up because he’d seen how much money it was. And he shouted over to Mark “thanks, man” or something, assuming from the kind of car we have that it all came from him.
I chose that particular man because he was the oldest man there. And he had asked a worker there about her sprained arm. He, like us, was mired in his own difficulties, yet still had an interest in the life of others. And there is a difference, to me, between being a young homeless man and an old homeless man. The young still have a chance, but, for the old, I doubt there are very few breaks. We know that there is very little separating Mark from homelessness. In fact, in the last ten years, that very little has been one other person and then me who love him dearly.
This man was happy I had given so much, but as I drove away, I was sad I had given so little.
Misty Rain says
“There’s honor and dignity in being a loyal, friendly gardener or custodian”. In other words… “Work will set you free” (Arbeit macht frei)
I’d rather say “It’s good to know one’s limitations.” Saves from pipe dreams.