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On Meritocracy

On Meritocracy
Photo by Florian Schmetz / Unsplash

Within the contemporary works of fiction in which the main character becomes a ruler, the most common trope is as follows – The country is run by hereditary nobles. They are greedy, unconcerned with the well-being of their subjects, and incompetent. They look down on commoners and discriminate against them. The main character decides to draw talents from the pool of commoners and makes the country prosperous.

I am not particularly interested in fiction. I am talking about this because this is what many of the opposition politicians are promising, and what a considerable number of voters support.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The rulers who lived within a system with hereditary nobility, knew very well that opening all doors to talented commoners quickly makes the country prosperous. Every sane ruler who is at war would have loved to have a higher income. And every new ruler was at least as sane as his people at the time he was crowned. So how come the system of hereditary nobility lasted for so long?

Well, the answer is surprisingly simple. Our conception of a monarch as someone who has the power to arbitrarily change laws comes from the period of early capitalism. That is, from the 16th century and after. In early capitalism, people still believed in the divine right of kings, meaning that the power that kings wield comes from God. In early capitalism, this was taken to mean that since God himself appointed kings to rule, a king could rule however he wanted.

Before early capitalism, in the Middle Ages, people did believe in the divine right of kings, but back then, that doctrine meant the exact opposite of the meaning it took later. Back in the Middle Ages, people reasoned that since the power of kings comes from God, it is merely a borrowed power. The divine right of kings meant that kings couldn’t rule however they wanted, but only how God wanted them to. In other words, the reason the system of hereditary nobility lasted for so long in the Middle Ages, is that monarchs couldn’t institute meritocracy. They simply had no power to arbitrarily change laws.

Now we understand why the system of hereditary nobility lasted for long, but how did it get established throughout Europe in the first place? If some groups of people had it, and other groups had meritocracy, how come those who had meritocracy, didn’t consistently outcompete the groups that had hereditary nobility? This is because meritocracies are short-lived.

  1. In a society that is poor or threatened by outside forces, people are incentivized to spend time and effort on improving their society. Meritocracy makes a society capable of easily neutralizing external dangers, and it makes a society prosperous. In a society that is safe from external forces and prosperous, there is no incentive to spend time and effort on improving society, beyond redistributing wealth within it. A society that has been meritocratic for a while is already more than good enough for those who are wealthy. To illustrate what I mean, I will quote one of the famous politicians who grew up in a society that is safe from external threats and prosperous, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Resources are basically unlimited”. In other words, the bigger the pie is, the less incentive there is to enlarge the pie, and the more incentive there is to fight for the bigger share of the already existing pie.
  2. Even if some people within a meritocratic society that is safe from external forces and prosperous, want to improve their society, there is little they can do. Meritocracy means a high amount of internal competition. If you don’t spend most of your time and effort competing for money and status, you fall behind. In a meritocracy, some of the people who spend all their time and effort on obtaining money and status for themselves will always outcompete for money and status the people who are spending a large portion of their time on trying to improve their society. Since money and status are power, the people who are trying to improve their society won’t have much of those things. In a meritocracy that already became safe from external threats and prosperous, people who spend their time and effort on trying to improve their society, don’t have the power to do so.
  3. Parents naturally want to secure a good life for their children. In a system of hereditary nobility, if people with power, money, and status want their children to have those things too, they have to ensure the continued existence of their own society. Members of hereditary nobility might be less competent, but they are more loyal to their own society than people who have power within a meritocracy. A person who obtained a high seat through heredity within his own society, can’t just pack his children’s bags and send them to sit on high seats in another society with the system of hereditary nobility. But a person who rose to a high seat within his own meritocratic society, can just pack his children’s bags and send them to sit on a high seat within another meritocratic society. The best thing powerful people within a meritocratic society can do for their children is amass personal wealth. Highly competent people who hold high seats within a formally meritocratic society are busy amassing personal wealth and competing against other competent people within their society who want their high seats. Less competent hereditary nobles are putting most of their time and effort into maintaining their own society.
  4. As competition in a formally meritocratic society gets more intense, those who are willing to trample on informal rules rise over time. Those who are unwilling to discard their traditions, the moral codes of their parents, or the residence in their hometown fall behind in the competition for money and status. Those who remain at the top are people who believe in nothing except winning the competition for money and status. Having such people on top causes the rest of the people within that society to become cynical towards it, to lose faith in its narratives and loyalty towards it. Once a society has lost its traditions, faith in its narratives, and loyalty of its members, that society is left with nothing but a lot of wealth and groups competing for that wealth. In a society in which people have nothing in common except wanting their group to win the internal competition, competing groups have no reason not to accept a helping hand from a foreign government. For a domestic group that believes only in winning the internal competition of power, giving up a small part of their society’s territory, a small portion of their society’s resources, or a few high seats to a foreign government, is a small price to pay for winning the internal competition. Thus, what starts as a formal meritocracy, inevitably turns into a battleground of various domestic groups that are aligned with different foreign powers.

  5. In conclusion, meritocracy should not be idealized, because making a society too meritocratic reduces its lifespan. A society must have some degree of meritocracy, to be able to fight off its external threats. But we should not try to make our society more meritocratic than necessary.