Last Sunday while I was mentally preparing myself for the message and working through some of the implications of what I’ve been studying lately I had an interesting thought. What does Meekonomics have to say to the notion of Meritocracy?
The way I see it there are two over riding systems of governance in this world; a class based, elitist, hierarchy in which moving from one “band” to another is extremely difficult or an egalitarian and pragmatic meritocracy in which the mobility if individuals is based solely on their ability to perform specified tasks or “merit”. The problem is that as I work through the implications of what it means to take a Jesus centered approach to economics neither system can stand up for very long.
I have long held that meekonomics is a “third way” and nothing illustrates that point better than they way in which meritocracy and meekonomics diverge.
I’m a huge baseball fan and professional sports teams are the ultimate example of meritocracy at work. The best pitcher, strikes out the most batters, wins the most games and generally ends up the end of the year with the Cy Young award. The best hitter has the highest average, ends up on base the most, scores the most runs and generally ends up the MVP. The best defender commits the least number of errors and ends up with a Gold Glove. You get the picture. These numbers are obvious, easy to measure and not open for debate.
In theory, meritocracy is supposed to work the same way in the economy. The brightest and best are supposed to rise to the top. However we all know that isn’t always the case. There is something else at play here that needs to be explored and understood.
Before there was meritocracy there was feudal society. In a feudal society, there are levels or bands of opportunity. You are born into a band; you are either, royalty, nobility or peasant. Except in extreme circumstances it is next to impossible to move from one band to another. Aesop’s fairy tales are full of examples of peasants becoming noblemen through extreme acts of valor and bravery but fairy tales are fairy tales and the actual documented cases of such things happening are practically non-existent.
As much as we like to think otherwise in the democratic west, much of the developing world is still very feudal in nature and if you dig a little deeper into our own society we notice that the bands that separate the uber wealthy from the middle and lower classes are extremely difficult to cut through. We don’t use outmoded language to describe it but really, is our system of economics that much different?
The United States was arguably the first fully merit based society. The Declaration of Independence begins with the famous lines – “We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident; That All Men Are Created Equal…” What could be more merit based than that? And on the surface it appears as though society does work well when opportunities are handed out based solely on merit. But dig a little deeper and it becomes painfully apparent that many opportunities aren’t even offered to huge segments on society, based solely on some other socio-economic criteria. The Declaration of Independence itself was written by an elitist group of men at a time when Women did not have the right to vote and slavery was legal in all 13 colonies.
Meritocracy says in essence, work hard, get a good education and the opportunities will come. But education costs money and what if you can’t afford it? You may be the smartest kid in the room but without the money to go to school and get an education you may never have the opportunities that some wealthier families can give their children.
At the end of the day it is simply not possible for mankind to set up and operate a true meritocracy. There are too many other things at play here for it to even begin to work. Meritocracy is thwarted by jealousy, greed, lust for power and a desire to see one’s own children better off than the rest.
Nothing illustrates the failings of meritocracy more than a look at the public and private school systems. The public school system is funded by tax payers and made available free for everyone but it is human nature to pay as little tax as possible so the system is chronically underfunded, teachers who aren’t paid enough are apathetic, buildings are crumbling, the newest and most innovative technology is simply not available and the quality of education suffers. The private school system is funded by user fees and tuition that only the wealthier members of society can afford. The teachers are paid better and therefore more engaged, the buildings are kept in top condition and everything is kept up to date, it’s no question then that the quality of education is better and children coming out of private schools have a leg up on the competition when they hit the work force.
So what is a meekonomist to do?
With everyone in a meritocracy obsessed with getting ahead, a meekonomist must be willing to pause and look behind. The question on the lips of every meekonomist is not, “what can I do to get further up the ladder?” but “how can I help you to catch up?” If you slip back as a result of laziness or some preventable action of your own doing, that’s meritocracy at work but if you can’t even get on the ladder through no fault of your own then every one of us should be ashamed and pause long enough to make sure you have an equal shot.
Even though the authors of The Declaration of Independence themselves didn’t really get it, “all men (and women) are created equal.”