In this article we analyze and address meritocracy and the false necessity of ranking people, answering the question "what do we deserve?".
This question may be as old as civilization, people of every epoch have struggled and experimented with their own answers.
During the Middle Ages, aristocracy was the dominant social arrangement. In that age the powerful made clear who deserved what: the king at the top gets most of it, nobles get the rest and to peasants all the drudgery and misery. Trickle-down economics at its best.
Even then people kept searching for a better answer. With the advent of the Age of Enlightenment things started to change once more, and changed even more after the great French Revolution in 1789, and all that followed.
Some would tell you that true, nobles are no more, but not all people are the same. There is the artisan and the thief, the hard-worker and the lazy, the smart and the stupid, the good and the evil. Thus the idea that a just and fair society have to reward more those with greater merit, greater morality and greater talents.
They'll say "Don't you see how many stupid people surround us? They must be guided by those who see farther and know better".
In the last century in particular, we have seen this idea more and more advertised around the world, especially where liberal values are upheld. No matter their political color, all agrees that we must organize our society based on merits and talents, hence the revival of meritocracy.
The promise of meritocracy is that no matter your initial conditions, if you are born poor or rich, black or white, in the south or in the north; society provides the tools to exert your full potential, so that "you can rise as far as your talents will take you".
It is an enticing thought, but is it the right answer to our inquiry?
A meritocratic society seems simple at first: the best suited gets the job, hence the best of the best seize the political power and the undisputed authority to govern us all.
The question arise: how do we find the best? Meritocracy's answer is to rank people according to education and credentials. We are put in fierce competition against each other since tender age. Swords and shields used in the Middle Ages are replaced by grades and certificates.
Soon, we lost the meaning of education, and what should be the quest for knowledge and truth became a quest for social acknowledgment.
If quality of life strictly depends on how far a person can rise, it's only natural people would do whatever it takes to improve their chances of survival. Those at the top are better equipped and always find a way to stay at the top.
Rich people soon found and established all the loopholes to ensure greater success to themselves and their children, such as heavy league colleges, the pressure on credentialism, and even straight-out purchase of college admissions and fake certificates. People aren't machines, relationships will always influence us.
Society should give you all the tools, but those who can pay more, will still get more.
"Surely", they say, "this must be an issue of our corrupted society rather than meritocracy, that's why people can buy their way to the top. We must make our ranking and selection processes even more meritocratic!"
Supposing that's true, even a perfect meritocracy wouldn't be much better. The worst issue isn't cheating, but rather the psychological effects caused by toxic competition and strict hierarchy.
It induces the belief that those who reached the top did it thanks to their own talents alone. They deserve to be at the top. They are better than everyone else. This way of thinking is even worse than justifying the power of kings. The peasants were well aware that they were born peasants, hence they could find solace in the awareness that their wretched fate wasn't their fault.
In meritocracy, if you can rise as far as your talents will take you, and you still end up at the bottom, then it means that it is all your fault. The message is clear: you are at the bottom due to your own inadequacy.
Even more so in a perfect meritocracy, this logic naturally breed arrogance in winners and docility in losers. It let winners patronize losers, creating a hierarchy even worse than in aristocracy: an unbreakable cage where all sentiments of improvements are drowned by resignation. If those who fail believe they are miserable by their own fault, that they deserve such misery, then nothing will improve.
The sharp increase in "death of despair" in the last 50 years is due to those who lost the meritocratic race, who felt left out, crushed by their own sense of inadequacy. As Michael Young said: "Every selection of one is a rejection of many".
Meritocracy doesn't spare anyone: those lucky enough to be born with talents are constantly under pressure of climbing higher, always busy in proving their merit to all, especially to themselves. This causes burnout and the psychological disorder called impostor syndrome. Toxic competition is toxic at every level, perhaps even more at the top.
Today more than ever depression permeate society and is yet another symptom of the heavy psychological burden we carry.
Nonetheless, we are told that if we want a just and fair society, this is the way. Let's further investigate if it really is.
Merit, meritocracy foundation, can be defined as "the quality of deserving something". In philosophy we could speak of moral desert, which claims that: X deserves Y in virtue of Z. Example: I deserve to be paid in virtue of the work I've done.
The concept of deserving is subjective to the society we live in. In the old ages, a thief would deserve to have their hand cut, but today we see things quite differently. It is no hard science, moral desert is a social concept and thus will always be shaped by people.
Let's use another example. Consider there are several woodcutters and we want to reward them in the most fair and just possible way. According to meritocracy, we must rank them up and then distribute rewards proportionally, giving more to the best woodcutter, then less to the second, even less to the third, and so on.
How should we rank them? Woodcutting is all about cutting trees, hence let's use number of trees cut as a measure. What if a man has a chainsaw while all others can only afford axes? He will surely cut more trees, but it wouldn't be just nor fair to reward him in value of his better tools.
Ok, then let's give axes to all of them, then those more talented will cut more trees. In this case, those who are stronger, well-fed and well-rested will surely cut more trees, but what merit there is in being born with a strong physic, to have a good environment were to rest and enough food to eat? Paradoxically, those who have enough food will have even more, while those who don't will eat even less.
Ok, then let's use effort, we will give more to those who spent more time cutting trees. Is it any better? Instead of the strong, we reward those with more stamina and more time at hand.
As you may see by now, meritocracy, and any other arrangement based on hierarchy, can never produce a fair and just society. This is what anarchist communists understood already by the end of the ninetieth century.
Once we start questioning the validity of moral desert, we conclude that everything is due to chances: be it the qualities we are born with, the environment we grow up in, the people who raise us and those we meet along the way.
External factors have great weight on who we are. The same person can turn out a saint or a devil based on their life experiences.
Enshrouded in the meritocratic hubris, we are quick to forget all the preconditions, all the help we received and used to achieve whatever we achieved. Even novel inventions aren't conjured from nothing, but rather stem from several lifetimes of discoveries and influences the inventor experienced thanks to our ability to transmit information through space and time. We can all reach new heights only when working together.
Once we abandon the remnants of aristocracy, once we stop ranking, categorizing and dividing people, we'll see that the most just and fair society is one that gives to each according to their needs. It's that simple.
We must recognize, and loudly proclaim, that everyone, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, THE RIGHT TO LIVE, and that society is bound to share amongst all, without exception, the means of existence at its disposal. We must acknowledge this, and proclaim it aloud, and act up to it.
We understand that each person is born differently and experience life in their own unique way. Undoubtedly, there are people of great talents, we are grateful and want to maximize their contribution to society, but this isn't a valid reason to materially or politically reward them more.
Our answer to "what do we deserve?" follows the same philosophy outlined by anarchist communism: we deserve nothing and all at the same time. There is no special virtue by which we can pretend more than what is already given, as there is no fault by which we should have less. Every person should have what they need to live a fulfilling life, limited only by what is available and the respect among people.
This idea and its implications are what shaped Babel's economic model in particular.
In Babel, other than social recognition and the intrinsic satisfaction typical of any achievement, the talented will experience the full benefits of their contributions, but same will do society as a whole. Nobody is penalized.
Talents should be nurtured and successes celebrated, but nobody should be slave to either their or others' talents.