Merit represents an individual as having personal agency to improve or reduce his or her own fortune. The criticism of meritocracy is that it moves too slowly and is indifferent to differences between groups. A broad upside is often stated that it allows for the truest expression of competence due to its insistence that, own the whole, an individual test his metal in the battlefield of market competition.
It is not clear what to call a system that increasingly seeks to emphasize group identity in pursuit of “equity.” For those who have been living under a rock for the last several years, equity means equality of outcome across groups, period. There shall be no group differences and if there are such differences are to be seen as outcomes of discrimination or more broadly an unfair power-disadvantage that keeps individuals of particular groups from expressing their true abilities. This is the view that context is everything and that the individual is not prime in her own existence. I think we could call this “groupism.”
A psychological and existential problem exists in the tension between meritocracy and groupism. On the one hand, meritocracy holds that it is wise to err on the side of denying context and emphasizing the belief that an individual can fight against the fray and make something of himself. Meritocracy is a belief that if one is to lean into the notion that context has limited one’s abilities, one’s abilities are then truly limited in a self-imposed paradox. In short, meritocracy is a system that warns us that an individual should not view her own limitations and disappointments as relying solely on context because doing so will greatly hamper motivation and morale, which will then truly limit individual capacity.
On the level of the individual, the downside of meritocracy is that it can cause people to be too hard on themselves in the absence of recognition of context and disparate origins. Some people do come into the world with much greater levels of assets, health, and well-being than others. The person then may succumb to low morale and motivation from this vantage point by way of expecting too much in an environment that does now allow hope to manifest materially.
As far as groupism you can imagine the upsides and downsides as contradistinctions of the above. The positive element involves a recognition of context as informative in understanding personal economic standing. The negatives of groupism are obviously that it allows the individual to lean into an infantile view of the world as wholly context-driven. Infantilism is in a developmental sense a denial of agency and a reliance entirely on ecology as is literally the case for a post-natal human.
The question is whether we can strike some sort of balance between these poles. Can we recognize that context and imbalance are inherent aspects of life without moving to create systemic corrections to the imbalances that empirically harm the very groups who are the targets of the “help?”
As a case in point, groupism as embodied in welfare programs in America has been a failed experiment. Being a recipient of high levels of means-tested programs has been measurably harmful; belonging to a family who receives welfare moneys consistently likely destines an individual to such a life himself. This is a folly on a macro level that can’t ignored. As a measurement point, medicaid spending dwarfs military spending by nearly three to one. Sit with that for a moment. Our methods of correcting context have failed and require reinvention or dismantling.
Is it possible to encourage people to uphold what we might call a partial illusion of agency so that they can claim what part of truth exists in it? Can we all form together a protective social value around the essential individual ingredient of merit-based identity? If one sets merit aside as a driving value, the action of setting it aside ironically sets him off in a downtrodden direction with less potential for success.
Here’s to striving as long as we call can. Here’s even more to encouraging others to do so.
The Real Clear Podcast with Dr Lucas Klein is the in-depth analysis and commentary on current political events through a psychological lens. The Real Clear podcast covers a wide range of topics, from the latest election results to policy debates, to exploring the impact of current events on the political landscape.