Because it was on my mind, I started working on a list of what would be required for United States society (or really any society, I guess) to be a meritocracy. Partly I was inspired by an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates I read a while ago.
And partly I was inspired by the claims in some political discussions I’ve been having that we need to make sure there’s “equality of opportunity,” but that we mustn’t try to guarantee “equality of outcome.” (Which is a ridiculous straw man–no country/society has ever tried to enforce equality of outcome–the Soviet Union had people with different jobs and circumstances.)
But so the idea of “equality of opportunity” seems to me connected with the idea of meritocracy. Everyone starts the race at the same line, and then the outcome is fair, whatever it may be. Hiding somewhere behind or within this is the idea that what a given person has is theirs, that redistribution is never acceptable.
But that step is really a leap–because even putting aside the considerable problems* with meritocracy as a system, it is clear we do not live in one. And so this idea that what a given person has accumulated belongs to them based on merit is false even as it also wouldn’t be a good argument even if true.
Okay that’s a long introduction to explain why this is on my mind. Here’s the beginning of the list of steps we would need to follow to make the United States a real meritocracy:
- Every newborn would start with the same amount of money, no more, no less. Inheritance of any kind would become illegal. The money could be held by the federal government like Social Security; it could pay out in regular, equal installments for everyone.
- Every newborn would have received equivalent prenatal health care, and would receive equivalent postnatal health care. Obviously good quality healthcare would be preferable, but meritocracy would only require that the care be equivalent.
- Every child would receive the same educational foundation. Obviously there would be small differences, but the idea would be to give everyone an equivalent starting point. This would require federalizing the education system and equalizing the budget per student for all schools nationwide. Probably abolishing private schools or else folding them into the new system somehow.
- Every child would have the same early home/family environment. It would be best for this environment to be supportive and enriching, but meritocracy only requires that the situation be equal. Of course this would require some pretty heavy lifting on the part of the state to achieve anything close to the ideal, as there are many different kinds of families and many different challenges they face. For instance, the state would need to support single-parent families to such an extent that the children would have equivalent experiences to dual-parent families–or else all families would be required to be single-parent.
Now, that’s already an insane amount of societal change and expense. The money could really only come from either (1) substantially expanding the national debt or (2) instituting a wealth tax. And we’ve only talked about newborns and children.
Another interesting question is: When do we consider the “race” to begin? I don’t think it makes any sense to expect a 1-year-old to exhibit merit in the way we’re talking about. And, in today’s US, differences between 1-year-olds are pretty much all attributable to the health care they’ve received and the home/family environment.
I guess my point here is to underline how much we do not live in a meritocracy at the moment. Which is important because of the frequency with which I encounter the argument: Redistribution is bad, because I earned what I have–we need to guarantee equality of opportunity, but we mustn’t try to achieve equality of outcome. We are nowhere near equality of opportunity, and it would take a ton of redistribution to get there.
In Mr. Hayes’ rendition, we like to tell ourselves that we live in a world where entrance of the elite is earned by sheer merit — hard work and talent — when invisible hands play a larger role in social advancement than we would like to admit. Mr. Hayes argues that a pure, self-replicating meritocracy is a myth that must always devolve into oligarchy. Thus, allegedly non-biased, objective, presumably meritocratic systems devolve into a test of who can afford prep materials.