Meritocrats and Egalitarians

When it comes to discussions about economic and social fairness among liberals and leftists, there seems to be a great deal of people talking past one another. This is because a lot of liberals think that they are egalitarians even though they are really just meritocrats. Liberal meritocrats believe they are a different breed from conservatives, but in reality, the two agree on the fundamental nature of fairness. They just disagree on whether the current system reflects that fairness.

For liberal meritocrats, unfairness exists where people do not get to rise to the level of respect, authority, and wealth that is fitting their characteristics. So, for them, the greatest injustice is that certain groups are underrepresented in high levels of the social hierarchy. And the remedy is to fix the institutions that they believe account for that underrepresentation. This leads to a heavy emphasis on school and on cultural movements centered on respect and recognition.

But for leftist egalitarians, unfairness exists where some people have more respect, authority, and wealth than others. For them, the greatest injustice is that some people are richer, more powerful, and afforded more respect than other people. Their complaint is not about the composition of the higher levels of the social hierarchy, but rather about the existence of such a social hierarchy in the first place. This leads to a heavy emphasis on leveling the distribution of resources and power and on cultural movements that encourage treating people the same regardless of who they are and what they have accomplished.

These two general orientations are very much in tension with one another. The liberal meritocrat worries about who gets to be in the 1%. The leftist egalitarian wants nobody to be in it (or, I guess, for all of us to be in it). The liberal meritocrat implicitly accepts the social positions that exist in the current order, but is mad about how people are distributed across those positions. The leftist egalitarian thinks that the unequal social positions generated by the current order are problematic regardless of who happens to fill them.