Meritocracy isn’t fair

This originally was published on March 31, 2011

I live in Ohio, and though it hasn’t gotten as much coverage as Wisconsin, the state government here is also trying to undermine collective bargaining rights of public workers.  These efforts seem to be driven by the an idea that taxes are too high even though tax burdens for most Americans are at record low levels.  What really puzzles me is why people, who themsleves were the beneficiaries of public investment, especially for education, are so loath to provide those same benefits for their own children.  Where does this come from?

I have a feeling that this might be an unintended consequence of our desire to create a more meritocratic society.  The dark side of meritocracy is that too many of the people who come out on top believe themselves to be deserving of their success.  And more, they come to believe that their success was due solely to their own effort and fail to see all of the institutional and cultural support that got them their.  It’s like being out on a bike ride where you’re making great time and you don’t notice that you’re riding downhill with a tailwind.  If you come to believe that everything you have is due solely to your own effort it isn’t too far a leap to begin to see those who have less than you as deserve less because they didn’t work hard enough.

From my experience as a manager at a corporation that pushed meritocracy like it was that old time religion, I saw that what meritocracy created in practice was a system where a key few reaped great rewards and the great mass of people received relatively less and less.  This just so happens to be exactly what has happened to income distribution in America.

When we did reviews we ranked people from best to worst, and we were required to make sure that we met a standard bell curve distribution.  Say, I had an employee who was say 20% better than the rest of the group.  Well, that employee got a raise that was at least twice and sometime thrice as great, percentagewise as the average employee.  Usually, that same person was the ‘best’ employee year after year and so in time that person would be making 100% more than his average peer even though his value was still only 20% better than the rest.  Heaven help you if you were the #2 person because even if you were 19% better than the group, that 1% difference in contribution still meant #1 would soon far outearn you.

I don’t have any policy solutions.  I do think that the impulse of rewarding merit isn’t in itself bad, but like any human designed system it can be prone to excess.  I am pretty sure that the fear that is behind the attacks on middle class workers is based on a sense that we are in a period of decline, a period of scarcity.  That in a globalized economic order, we engage the conomy as a zero sum game where if any other people or nation succeeds that must mean we fail.  But if fairness is our goal, then there’s nothing fair about bankers getting multi-million dollar rewards while garbagemen live in hovels.  We have enough, we should learn to share.

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