Thursday, May 05, 2011

What is wrong with a meritocracy?

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Notwithstanding my positive views of Ayn Rand, and the acknowledgement I make to the impact she has had on my life, there were some negatives, and she also displays her share of blunders. Among them are sweeping statements and dubious reasoning.
Someone referred me to her conception of 'meritocracy', offered at the Ayn Rand Institute:
“Meritocracy” is an old anti-concept and one of the most contemptible package deals. By means of nothing more than its last five letters, that word obliterates the difference between mind and force: it equates the men of ability with political rulers, and the power of their creative achievements with political power. There is no difference, the word suggests, between freedom and tyranny: an “aristocracy” is tyranny by a politically established elite, a “democracy” is tyranny by the majority—and when a government protects individual rights, the result is tyranny by talent or “merit” (and since “to merit” means “to deserve,” a free society is ruled by the tyranny of justice).
Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp.105; sourced from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.
The problem I have with this definition is that its too sweeping in its implications. There is a lot of truth in it. A majority of people having authority over the balance is even more threatening than an autocracy because it holds a sanction of being morally legitimate by virtue of embodying the majority. Who could reasonably hold that the majority is a proxy for the truth. I would take the opposite position, that the minority is more likely to comprise discerning thinkers.
Rand assumes that there is a need in a meritocracy to unconditionally sanction the views of some 'meritocrats'. I don't see this as necessarily entailed, and its occurrence will ultimately depend on the underlying theory of values. This of course Rand understood, since her theory of values was her greatest insight. So if meritocrats do not enjoy the unconditional sanction of others, we have a situation where people need to be convinced. This conditionality is a basis for a new respect or empathy for others; and when you have that, the conditions are reciprocated.

The smallest minority is of course the individual. That does not mean to say that any one person should dictate the affairs of others. It means that every individual should have the sovereign right to represent their own interests or assign or withdrawal a proxy at any time, and on any issue.
Rand assumes here that 'merit' is a standard of value merely by assuming it. This of course raises the question of who embodies rational values. The answer is: The person who can withstand critical review. The problem with the world is not that we cannot find the truth; the problem is that people can too easily shirk accountability. The consequence is a great many 'schools of thought', with no inclination among those schools to reconcile their ideas, nor any provision for them to differentiate them from the 'functional society' such that they can prove the practicality of their philosophy or values. The problem for a great many of these 'schools of thought', and the individualist philosophies like Rand's are the exception, is that they depend upon the sanctioning of victims, i.e. They need to extort advantages from people. i.e. Collectivists have to plunder the wealth of the rich in order to sustain themselves. Of course any school needs raw land at the least, and access to resources.
Clearly making your own society makes little sense. It would be a tremendous diseconomy for people to go off and do their own thing. And yet a great many people do exactly that. Western societies are increasingly confronting low workforce participation rates. Some of these people are wealthy and think they don't need to work. Some however are so pissed off by governments and the rest of our 'unthinking society', that they decide to go off into the wilderness and grow dope or raise vegetables. They embrace the 'simple life'. Some of them just immigrate to a simpler place like NZ, others shack up with some girl in Thailand or the Philippines and life off investment income. There are many Westerners doing this. I stumble upon them all the time. Society does not talk about these people. Most of them are men, but then women can always find respite by depending on women. That is not so easy for men to justify, or women to accept.
I know a lawyer who did that. He was running a successful business, and he got into drugs, and gave the business to his son. He went off to live in an isolated area of Australia. He came back decades later saying sorry to his children, and regretting his decision. The reality however is that he came back with no greater mental clarity. He was engaging in escapism, as these 'schools of thought' are prone to do. I understood his disdain for his society, but unlike him, I retained a respect for facts, and I sought intellectual coherence and correspondence of facts. It has taken me a long time, but it was not time wasted. It was a source of pride 'in discovery' as well as efficacy, knowing that I could out-debate all takers. The next stage of course is to educate and achieve some practical effect. This is not easy. How do you convince people who are convinced that there is no answer, and that humanity is this way by nature. They don't need to talk to me. They have discounted humanity, so their conception of the 'reasonable', whilst more tragic than mine, serves long as humanity continues to disappoint them.
This leaves little respect for objectivity. Some even proclaim to embody it, but they don't have a causative or intellectual framework for thinking...just a rough correlation between their values and their experience. They don't need causation; they each have their support group of vested interests. This support group is pitted against counterparts of course in our democratic society, and each remains entrenched in conflict, attempting to extort some concession through alliances; not underpin by reasons, but 'numbers'. This does not work intellectually of course, but extortion does achieve 'practical' concrete goals.. Little surprise that people start to find NOT thinking very practical. Whether they are pragmatic, or even evasive/repressed: two things happen:
1. People lose respect for facts - they become sceptical
2. People lose respect for people - they become morally relativists - they start to think humanity is screwed up by nature, they start to dismiss the significance or importance of any one individual, and they start to think that the only way to change the world is by forcing policy down people's throats. So we get police officers saying 'if you don't want a fine, then stop breaking the law'. "You will learn one day!". This is nonsense. The law does not teach anything but obedience, and unless we are prepared to move towards fascism, then this is not the way to go. The reality is that its the police and politicians who don't need to think because either party is accountable. The police protect each other. If they are caught for something, they are simply dismissed, but more commonly given the opportunity to resign.
Its the same for politicians. If the electorate cannot 'tolerate' some indiscretion, they will be given the opportunity to resign, and will probably avoid investigation, so they can keep their lifetime pension. Standards are already pretty low. Politicians right around the globe have been engaged in corruption scandals, from the US, UK, Australia, NZ, Japan, India, the Philippines. What makes it possible is - the governments unconditional right to your money (i.e. taxation). This is why you should simply stop paying tax. Withdrawal your sanction for poor administration and declare this a 'failed state'. All democracies are failed states.
Andrew Sheldon

ConvinceMe.Net - Anyone up for a debate?