What “Meritocracy” Gets Wrong
A lot has been written lately in the media about meritocracy, what it has become, and its value to society. Traditionally, Americans assumed that intelligence, education, hard work and a willingness to accept – and overcome – risk was the definition of meritocracy. But what recent studies find is that a true meritocracy does not exist.
A majority of Americans now believe that wealth equals meritocratic value…that those at the top of the economic ladder earned their wealth because of their superior talents. Just look at the dramatic rise in the number of evangelical mega-churches preaching prosperity theology. From Wikipedia,”a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one’s material wealth.”
But the actual truth is the US does not have a meritocratic society. It has a society in which those who are born into wealth have a much better chance of succeeding than those born of middle or lower income groups, not because of their inherent abilities but because of the superior opportunities wealth gave them.
Yes, there are people who grew up in the ghetto and against all odds achieved great wealth and prestige, but those examples are few and far between by comparison. Nevertheless, as a society, particularly in this economic climate, we choose to denigrate those who have not succeeded to wealth and ridicule those who don’t even want great wealth: those who see family and friends and charity and community as far more important values.
However, the Abrahamic tradition says something entirely different.
Judge for yourself what is righteous according to Abrahamic tradition:
- JD Rockefeller: To those who have been given so much, so much is owed.
- Paraphrasing Old Testament Prophets: God demands that you take care of the sick, the old, the widows and orphans, and the poor. If you do not, God will send his wrath upon you, and send you into slavery. (Leaning from their windows, the wealthy laughed and ridiculed the prophets. But God executed his promise. In 555 BCE, Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, fell to the Assyrians, and the Kingdom of Israel came to an end. Scores of thousands of the conquered people were led into captivity and disappeared from history as the lost tribes of Israel. Then in 434 BCE, the Kingdom of Judah tried to form an alliance with Egypt. The Jews thought, despite Jeremiah’s prophecies, that this would keep them safe. But instead, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, marched on Judah. He pillaged Jerusalem and deported tens of thousands of Jews to his capital in Babylon; all the deportees were drawn from the upper classes, the wealthy, and craftsmen. Ordinary people were allowed to stay in Judah, and Nebuchadnezzar appointed a puppet king over Judah, Zedekiah.)
- Paraphrasing Jesus: God said if you do not care about the least among my people, you will not have a place in the kingdom of heaven.
- Judaic Law commands that the poor are to be respected and protected. According to Jacobs and Greer, “the overarching Jewish attitude toward the poor can be best summed up in a single word: achikha (your brother). Jews are enjoined by the Torah to resist any temptation to view the poor as somehow different from themselves. The Tanakh sets forth numerous protections of the poor. As an example of such protections, Perotta points out that the poor were protected from being exploited when in debt. Perrotta asserts that the goal of these commandments was “not only to protect the poor but also to prevent the excessive accumulation of wealth in a few hands.” In essence, the poor man is “protected by God”. Kravitz and Olitzky cite the Jubilee (yoveil) and the sh’mitah as examples of commandments in the Torah designed to protect the poor. – Wikipedia I’ve heard tell that every 50 years each Jewish family must donate 50% of its wealth to the poor to prevent too much wealth accumulation in any one family.
- Modern Catholic Popes continue to preach of the need to care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, saying it is the will of God that most fortunate care for the least of God’s people.
- The Qur’an demands that no interest (interest amounts to usury) be charged on loans as it harms those least able to pay their debts. (And worship Allah and associate naught with Him, and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful. (Ch4:V.37) And it is not your riches nor your children that will bring you near Us in rank, but those who believe and do good works, will have a double reward for what they did… (Ch.34:V.38))
The Ayn Rand ideology of selfishness that perhaps affects so many among our wealthy class and many politicians fails to understand or accept the Abrahamic requirement to take care of the least among us. It ignores the Abrahamic tradition and laws. It ignores that meritocracy, as practiced, ignores the laws of Abraham’s God and the many barriers erected to prevent intellectually worthy individuals from succeeding.
If the US were really a meritocratic society, everyone would start out on the same level and have the same opportunities. Only their own native abilities and intelligence would determine how high on the ladder of wealth and success they climb. But that is not really the case…and Americans should really face the truth and figure out how to deal with it.