Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ruminations on Merit

This dark week at the brink of time is for rumination. So I have decided. I don't have to put in hooks on my fishing rod to catch you, my sweet readers. I can just write about anything I wish! Mostly because people are busy doing other stuff, sigh.

So it's going to be about the concept of "merit," the way the conservatives use it to argue that the rich deserve their wealth because they have a) unusual talents of the super-star kind and b) because they work, whereas the rest of us just suck on the many teats of the evil government sow.

It is an appealing philosophy of life. A comforting one, if you count among the winners. Because you have earned it, both by being special, and also for having worked so hard. You Have Merit. Life Rewards Merit. God Rewards Merit.

The backside of that philosophy is the troubling kind. It means that if you are not rich you do not have special talents and you did not work hard. So that rules out Jesus, for instance, from the group of the deserving few. But it also means that the successful people don't have to feel empathy towards the losers in this life. The losers deserved to lose. The winners deserved to win.

Now take this basic framework to the conservative policies. How does one use this to justify no "death taxes?" The demand that large inheritances should not be taxed at all? The recipients don't have to prove that they have special rare talents and neither do they have to prove many years of hard toil. They get the money even if they are total slobs with one brain molecule.

And of course one can get quite rich by winning the lottery or by marrying someone with money or by robbing, oh, say, the financial market. Are we going to redefine "merit" to include the ability to do those kinds of things, too?

Which brings me to the question of how one does define "merit." It's not always an easy thing to spot, because many define it pretty subjectively, as in "I have merit, you do not." But more seriously, "merit" is meaningless if it is determined by a hundred-meter dash where some people have their legs cuffed together, some people arrive at the starting line after a ten mile run to get there and some people are told to run in the opposite direction from the finish line.

That was a parable about the many unfairnesses the society brings to us. They serve to stifle potential merit in many and to nurture even small merit in others.

It's still true that the society does reward merit, sometimes, and that trying to work hard and to use your talents is a very good thing. But not being among the "winners" does not mean that you don't have merit, that you did not work hard, and being among the "winners" does not mean that you have merit or that you worked hard.

The mythology of "Merit Always Gets Its Rewards" is strengthened by those stories of individuals who started out poor and destitute, then worked very hard and now are billionaires or famous dead presidents or whatever. The problem with this mythology is that it begins from one end (the billionaire or the dead president end) and then works backwards. It doesn't begin from the other end. If it did, we might hear of all the millions of people who had great talent and worked hard and got exactly nowhere.