Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Meritocracy Of Dunces


"I thought this [the USA] was supposed to be a meritocracy!"

My friend said this at lunch, and it gave me pause. Is the US a meritocracy?

My conclusion was yes, and so is most of the world. It all depends on what you believe is worth merit.

My friend meant it in a way we usually think about it. He was a smart guy making contributions, both to his company, and to society. His contributions were in the realm of software, which both made his company lots of money, and made many people's lives better. So shouldn't he be rewarded for these contributions with more money and power than those who were less smart and contributed less good software to the world?

Not necessarily, I thought. What the US, and humans in general seem to value is sociability. People who are liked are rewarded. People with charisma, charm, mass appeal are rewarded. We grant merit (in the form of money and power) to those who are best at influencing and manipulating others. Those who can charm and influence those in their immediate sphere of contact are rewarded at that level with good paying jobs (usually in some management role) and local political positions. Entertainers, sports stars (which is just another form of entertainer), and politicians who have mass appeal are rewarded by those masses, and in our heavily leveraged mediums of influence (TV, Movies, National Elections) that can mean a lot of masses - and a commensurate amount of money and power.

So humans live in a meritocracy, and have into prehistory. The ability to charm and influence people must have some evolutionary biological advantage or it wouldn't be so entrenched in our culture (and probably a fair amount of hard coding in the brain as well). Probably those who could charm others got laid more often (and had more offspring). Probably those who could influence and rally others to their cause could protect those offspring better in a group than those who had to go it alone. Probably those communities that had strong leaders could dominate those that didn't. All of these are likely evolutionary tracks that selected for humans who could charm and influence others.

Is society better off if Madonna, Bruce Willis, or Julia Roberts get paid a bazillion dollars for having mass appeal? Or if GW Bush gets placed in the most powerful position in the world? I'm sure an argument could be made either way. But what cannot be disputed is that what we as human beings hold highest as worthy of merit is the ability to fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.

You don't have to be smart, just likable. All Hail the Meritocracy of Dunces...

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