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.

12 thoughts on “Meritocrats and Egalitarians”

  1. So, for them, the greatest injustice is that certain groups are underrepresented in high levels of the social hierarchy.

    No, it’s about what TNC pointed out here. But that’s the problem with you and the Jacobin Set – such a situation just does not fit your worldview of Class Before All, so it never sinks in.

  2. That is pretty much Israel in a nutshell that Zionist Attitude. In the US Republicans also would seem to fit into this but for a different reason, fear. They are afraid of losing their perceived status even if they really have none.

  3. If you read Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution you’ll find the non-intuitive proposition that meritocrats start revolutions. It’s never the blue collar workers. The leading force in revolutions are upper middle class to lower-upper class strivers who bump up against an entrenched aristocracy. That aristocracy is generally a combination of hereditary, political and economic forces.

    The problem with meritocratic thinking is that it assumes a level of power and agency in the individual that society does not allow. The zip code of your birth and the income of your parents decide your destiny more than anything else.

  4. “But for leftist egalitarians, unfairness exists where some people have more respect, authority, and wealth than others.”

    Surely this is an oversimplification, yes? I mean, egalitarians don’t tend to go around complaining that teachers have more authority in their classrooms than students do, or that doctors have more authority than nurses, etc.

    So I just want to make sure: you were intentionally giving a thumbnail sketch here, right? And not trying to pin down the exact, precise beliefs in question?

  5. That’s a hard truth for me to swallow, but history bears it out.

    The inimitable danah boyd, way back in 2008, wrote of something that demonstrates that particular anatomy almost empirically:

    The second workshop on status was structured as a game where we were given gems that we had to trade to work our way up the status latter. It quickly became clear that some were born wealthier than others. I was a member of the poverty class. Realizing we would never win by getting money and realizing that whenever a member of our group did well, they were shipped off to another group, our group decided to aim for bottom, maximize happiness and conversation, and laugh at the other groups going crazy. The wealthier classes were much more invested in succeeding and one of the members from the upper-middle class nearly went ballistic over how the game was rigged and she wasn’t able to win. Gotta love a room full of Type A personalities. Anyhow, this provoked a fun conversation and my table got to talking about the status structures of badges (not unlike those at tech companies where there are permanents and contractors and temps and whatnot).

  6. Another way of expressing it is to ensure that forms of power or authority are limited. So respect for a doctor means letting him do his or her job, but it does not mean letting him cut in front of you at Trader Joe’s. On the other hand, racial or gender or extreme wealth power is almost universally applied with very few limits.

  7. What about people (like me) who, in addition to being a liberal meritocrat, also thinks that, while some inequality is unavoidable and healthy, the range from top to bottom shouldn’t be too high; i.e. regardless of who is in the top 1%, they shouldn’t make several orders of magnitude more money than the bottom 80% – a couple of orders of magnitude seems entirely sufficient.

  8. Seems sufficient to me, but I’d make one order of magnitude (a factor of 10 between very top and very bottom) my starting point for negotiation…

  9. More important even than the spread, I think, is the “zone.” People grow when the level of challenge is 110% of their capabilities, break down and collapse when it’s 1000%. There should be at least a few “low hanging fruits.” In particular, economic self support should be a realistic aspiration for the vast majority, if not universal. Reaching for brass rings or chasing mechanical rabbits or what have you should be understood to be a thing for special people who aspire well above and beyond mere livelihood.

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