Why do we fetishise meritocracy when most success is down to luck?
Market forces are the basis of political liberty. Despite the biggest economic crisis for a generation, most of us still believe it. We might get slapped around the face by the system from time to time – by the increasing frequency of rough sleepers we encounter on the way to work, or when we read in the paper about pensioners who can no longer afford to heat their homes – but on the whole, as a society we seldom question the fundamental soundness of the free-market anymore.
A report on British social attitudes released by the National Centre for Social Research last December found that support for “individual responsibility” is also on the increase. The report found that only 35 per cent of people thought the Government should take steps to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, and over half (54 per cent) believed that benefits were too high. The report also found that the public were increasingly at ease with high earners buying private education for their offspring.
In his book Ill Fares the Land, the late Tony Judt astutely summed up the process by which fierce competition – the law of the jungle, if you like – had imperceptibly replaced empathy in our grossly unequal societies (Britain and the US) as the ultimate personal virtue (to put this into some kind of context, in 2012 the lowest-paid people in Britain have incomes less than one-third of one per cent of the highest-paid, according to the Equality Trust.):
“The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked.”
One of the things that effectively props up our continuing faith in capitalism is the idea of meritocracy; or more specifically, the notion that if a person wants something, with hard work and determination they, alas anyone, can get it. The American writer John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in the United States because the poor saw themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. To put it only slightly differently, the American poor had willingly swallowed the idea – the meritocratic one – that, as self-help pioneer James Allen put it, “circumstances do not make a man, they reveal him”.
A belief that you can do anything you put your mind to can, on an individual level, be incredibly empowering. Anyone who sits at home all day blaming “the rich” or “the government” for their misfortune is, in most instances, engaging in a nonsensical waste of time. Someone or something may very well be holding you back, but recognising the fact is not particularly clever or empowering if it comes with no corresponding action to try and change things.
As an idea of how capitalism works, however, meritocracy is little more than a contrivance.
Most of us, whether we like it or not, will remain in the same social class as our parents, and probably the same social class as our grandparents before them. The more unequal a society is, the more wealthy parents pass on this advantage to their offspring. The statistics spell it out clearly enough. A 2007 report by the London School of Economics (LSE) and Surrey University found that children in England and Wales from poorer backgrounds were less likely to escape their upbringing than their counterparts in any other advanced country apart from the US. As to why this happened, the study found that poor but bright children were often overtaken by less intelligent classmates from wealthier backgrounds in the early years of schooling. The impact of this initial disadvantage is magnified as children pass through the education system and become teenagers. Around 10 per cent of young people at the bottom rung of the social ladder go on to university, compared with over 80 per cent of those from professional or managerial backgrounds. And as David Willetts never tires of pointing out, graduates will earn on average £100,000 more over a lifetime than non-graduates.
Broadly speaking, the idea that a child born on a council estate can “be whatever they want to be” is a bit like the assertion that a 30 stone man can out-run Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. As Karl Marx put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.
Anyone, technically speaking, can go from “rags to riches” and make something of their life. Anyone can also, as it happens, win the lottery. The point, however, is to live in the real world, and consider how many actually do go from “rags” to “riches”. The answer is very few. The single biggest indicator of how a person will do in life is still their parents’ bank balance.Tagged in: benefits, capitalism, class, Ill Fares the Land, meritocracy, private education, socialism, society, wealth
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