Egalitarianism vs. Meritocracy

This weekend was a literary festival, South African style. There were three days worth of discussions among those who are most likely to sell books in this country; which mostly meant political commentators, crime writers, comedians and a few token school administrators and the like. Some were representing minority niche markets, some were looking for big new trends, some were networking with other members of the academic and intellectual elite of the country, some were practicing intellectual self-gratification. It’s sort of hard to say what I was doing there.

The town hall clock of Franschhoek, home of the literary festival. Notice anything slightly odd about this picture?

In talking with some of the country’s more respected political thinkers though I came away with the following basic realization regarding politics in South Africa and around the world really: they need to be driven by an idealistic vision backed up by competent basic management and accountability to the population being served; and that vision needs to involve a balance of egalitarianism and meritocracy. The fundamental questions then are how to build a more direct system of public accountability into our democratic processes, how to limit the various forms of corruption that keep creeping into politics, how to improve respect for human rights in general, and how to achieve the necessary balance of ideals.

On the left side of the political spectrum we have the social ideal of egalitarianism: the basic concept of justice based on a fundamental equality between humans of all colors, sizes shapes and sexes. White people shouldn’t be allowed to get away with things that black people automatically get punished for. What is wrong for women needs to be recognized as wrong for men as well. No one is to be excluded from (public) education, housing or basic employment on the grounds that they don’t go to the right sort of church, or their grandparents spoke the wrong language, or they don’t show the right sort of attraction to the opposite sex. These ideals are nearly universally held by responsible politicians of all sorts around the world. They are the basis of the US constitution, the ideals of the French Revolution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the moderate forms of major monotheistic religions that these are drawn from. Yes, there are radical Muslim clerics and neo-Nazis that deny basic principles of racial and gender equality, but I would not consider them to be “responsible politicians”. Accuse me of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here if you’d like, but I believe the point stands.

On the right side of the political spectrum you have the ideal of meritocracy: the ideal that everyone should have equal possibilities of becoming unequal. The chance to become a president, a business millionaire, a great artist, a high ranking military commander or a respected intellectual should be open to everyone; and rewards should be given to those that achieve such statuses accordingly. Our societies should encourage excellence from all their members, and they should focus on mobility rather than mediocrity. This has been the functional basis of American society in particular throughout its history; and with the collapse of rigid class systems in Western European societies over the past few generations it has become a matter of ideological consensus there as well. It has been a long time since anyone has made a strong public argument that members of the traditional aristocracies are simply “more evolved” than other members of society, and that the maintenance of their privileges is justified on such a basis. The furthest right responsible thinkers tend to go these days (There I go again!) is to claim that by and large rich people got that way by working harder and smarter than others, and thus they deserve to keep everything that they have earned.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. One can believe in both social justice and free markets. The question is more a matter of how to go about balancing these concerns. If a society becomes too focused on the egalitarian concerns it loses track of the pursuit of excellence. Ayn Rand’s style of dystopia might remain an impossibility, but the sort of stagnation seen in the final days of the Soviet Union, and in Cuba still today, is real enough. An assumption that no one should rise up above his brothers and sisters in terms of power and influence can easily lead to a form of anti-intellectualism –– an idea that no one should be too capable of outsmarting everyone else, and that competition is ultimately a bad thing. Thus we need to avoid getting stuck in a belief that we can and should achieve ultimate happiness and social stability by finding ways to completely equalize everyone.

Yet on the other side of the spectrum if we become entirely preoccupied with “letting the cream rise to the top” we can end up accidentally ignoring and even belittling the humanity of the “dregs” or “curds” at the bottom. Meritocracy in some senses becomes a bit of an abstraction when there are millions of people who never get any chance to show what they are capable of because of the circumstances they were born into. Even in a prosperous and largely homogeneous state like Finland it is rather unfair to say that everyone who is poor or socially disadvantaged got that way entirely through their own fault; to make such a charge against the poor of Mexico, the United States or South Africa shows a patently absurd level of bigotry. In the process of encouraging competition then we need to take the human rights of everyone seriously, even (or perhaps especially) the losers.

So the challenge for the political future –– in South Africa and in all functional democracies –– is to find a balance between these ideals, and then to find honest and competent functionaries to carry out the practical side of them. Ideally speaking then there needs to be an education system which creates mutual understanding between all parties involved in the democratic process; which instills an ethic of honesty, trust and cooperation in the population at large; which equips workers at all levels to carry out their tasks dependably and efficiently; and which makes people aware of the potential unintended consequences of their actions. From there we need leaders with enough charisma to inspire the population to reach towards a better future –– where resource holders, innovative thinkers and basic workers to can come together and cooperate in ways that benefit all involved; and where no human beings are treated as disposable commodities. Then we need government officials who carry out their jobs as a matter of honor –– thinking of their work as a sacred trust rather than as a means of extorting personal advantage from the system. Then there needs to be a level of authentic choice available to the voters, where through electoral participation reasonable and well informed individuals can have a say in both keeping their representatives honest and influencing the ideological balance on the basis of which the government operates. Alas, we’re a long ways from things working that way in practice.

In South Africa the political elite is divided into fractions that represent the followers of Apartheid era (white) liberalism, Apartheid era revolutionary African nationalism, and Apartheid era revolutionary socialism. Effectively the ANC party (which has just celebrated its hundredth anniversary as an organization) tries to bring together all of these fractions under its rainbow colored umbrella, enabling it to govern as a strong single party majority in virtually all levels of government, albeit with a smaller and smaller majority in every election cycle. Yet this form of political organization is rather problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it tends to prioritize the maintenance of party control over any coherent ideological direction for the party and the country.

From the discussions I listened to over the weekend it seems I am not alone in believing that the presence of a loyal opposition party –– or two, or three –– and regular changeovers of power between ruling parties would make the system far healthier and more responsible to the needs of the people. Each party could/would/should represent one particular emphasis within the overall necessary political balancing act: one representing the ideals of meritocracy; another, the ideals of egalitarianism; yet another, concern for the importance of a sustainable relationship with the environment; yet another, the importance of active participation in a global economy, and so on. By voting for competent and inspiring members of particular parties citizens could then influence the overall balance of ideology in terms of which issues the government should be prioritizing. This would enable citizens to have some other means of expressing their will than holding protest marches. This sort of functional representative democracy may be a distant utopian dream, but it is still a dream worth dreaming.

A protest march in Durban recently, though none of the bystanders seemed to know what they were protesting about this time.

Comparing this to the American situation, we can only hope that the two party system is in a bit of a crisis and some stronger, more sensible system will arise in the years to come. The dialectics on which American politics have been based are business (trade, investment banking and industry) vs. agriculture, isolationist vs. internationalist, empire building vs. cohesion building and Cold Warrior vs. peacemaker. Since the “Reagan Revolution” it could be said that the primary party dialectic there as been between a coalition of conservative religious moralizers and promoters of big business interests on the right vs. a coalition of civil rights activists and environmental protection campaigners on the left. Along the way plenty of sleazy tactics and stock insults have been developed, and a great deal of idealism has been lost. At no point has the debate evolved to the point of looking for a balance between egalitarianism and meritocracy as the “founding fathers” might have envisioned. (The problem of idealized visions of the American founding fathers is of course a blog unto itself.)

In theory the two party system there could be developed in the direction of the sort of dialectic I am hoping for –– the Democrats taking the role of the Egalitarians: pushing for the rights of the poor and middle class to have greater dignity and opportunities in life, and for the rich to be taxed to the extent that the country can afford to give all children the sorts of opportunities that they had; and then the Republicans taking the role of the meritocracy promoters: insisting on excellence being encouraged at all levels of education, R&D, production and artistic expression, with the understanding that these programs are not necessarily going to benefit everyone equally, but that they will nevertheless provide opportunities that are open to everyone, at all levels of society. In practice it isn’t going to work that way though. The Republican Party has actually shown little interest in promoting excellence in education or anything else. On the contrary, it wishes to belittle the Ivy League academic elite of the country as “liberals” (enunciated with distain) who “think too much” and are out of touch with “hard working normal people”. Thus the pursuit of excellence is really the last thing on their agenda. Far more important to their identity and strategy is the fear of change, growth, innovation and “otherness” in general. Their party slogan could well be, “Let those who have traditionally been in authority remain in authority, and then everyone will be happy.” The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has built an identity based on a bit of a hodge-podge of those interested in social change in general without a particularly strong sense of core direction or identity.

Hope for both countries –– for all democratic nations really –– I believe lies in education in “the humanities subjects” (and philosophy in particular –– my own bias) going forward, regardless of what US Republicans and other anti-meritocratic interests have to say about the matter. This could, in the long term, lead to the development of a generation of politicians with integrity, competence and ideals worth believing in –– egalitarians willing to fight against abusive greed and meritocrats willing to fight against sloth and mediocrity. That in turn could lead to politics once again becoming the sort of business that decent people (a tip of my hat to Jonathan Jansen [] here) can feel comfortable getting involved in.


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