Home > Uncategorized > “Meritocracy” Undercuts “Equal Opportunity” Just as “Access to Health Care” Undercuts “Guaranteed Health Care”

“Meritocracy” Undercuts “Equal Opportunity” Just as “Access to Health Care” Undercuts “Guaranteed Health Care”

March 3, 2017

I just started reading Matt Stoller’s latest Nation article, “Twilight of the Meritocrats” after listening to several pundits discussing the proposed repeal of Obamacare and it struck me that in both cases the general public’s fundamental needs are being overlooked.

Stoller’s article opens with a description of the premise of a recent book by Thomas Frank titled Listen, Liberal or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. Stoller opens the book with a description of the flaws inherent in meritocracy, the

…the ideology that the Democrats have used to justify their abandonment of class politics. This is the ideology of meritocracy, a “progressive” view of social hierarchy in which talent and ability are the natural arbiters of who should rule in a society. Meritocracy, Franks argues, is the ideology that allowed Democrats to self-consciously claim the mantle of social justice and egalitarianism while subverting both. In this framework, one’s race, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation shouldn’t matter when it comes to achieving success in America; what does matter is having the talent and ability to graduate from a place like Harvard Law. But at the same time, meritocracy demands inequality—not everyone, after all, can go to Harvard Law or become a doctor or a high-tech executive. In fetishizing meritocracy, therefore, the Democratic Party has embraced an ideology based on inequality.

This embrace of meritocracy has resulted in the creation of “the liberal class” (to use the journalist Chris Hedges’s term) a group that came “… to ignore the interests of working-class people and reproduced structures of extreme racism, particularly in the prison system.” 

The meritocratic system appealed to educators on one level, because it insisted that more education was the best means of advancing into what economist Robert Reich dubbed “the fortunate fifth” who would justifiably earn ever higher wages as a result of their hard work and qualifications. Bill Clinton was the first member of “the liberal class” to be elected President, and he was the first member of the Democratic party to begin the abandonment of the working class.

 Early in his first term, Clinton was making these meritocratic arguments to blue-collar workers (“what you earn depends on what you can learn”); he believed that education, rather than solidarity, was the key to a better life. In short, if you had problems, such as a foreclosure or a medical bankruptcy, the best way to solve them was to go to school.

But in a meritocratic world teachers found themselves in a no-man’s land. Their unions had gained them decent wages and benefits, but unions were innately un-meritocratic and, therefore, not supported by “the liberal class” that was setting the agenda on the national level. Moreover, as factories shifted out of the country or to “right-to-work” states and factory workers no longer experienced the kinds of wages, job security, benefits and pensions as public employees, there resentment against these “government workers” increased… and the “liberal class”, eager to get elected, did not support the teachers, instead embracing “free market” solutions that were based on meritocratic frameworks.

In a meritocratic world disadvantaged students found themselves on the short end of the stick. If climbing up the social ladder was a matter of applying oneself, of assuming personal responsibility for one’s well-being, then the fact that any student who possessed the ability to get into an elite school despite their social status could be accepted as evidence that every student in a similar situation could do so if they chose to and assumed the personal responsibility to do so. In the meritocratic worldview, then, students only needed ACCESS to the best education possible, not the GUARANTEE that the school they attended offered the best education possible… and EVERY child had access to, say, Harvard because Bill Clinton got there from a hardscrabble upbringing in Arkansas and Barack Obama made it after being raised by a single mom and devoted grandparents.

And, after listening to pundits this morning, it struck me that the replacement for Obamacare will provide access to health care in the same way that our public education system provides access to education. If someone wants to get health coverage they can if they assume the personal responsibility of setting aside some of their earnings into a “health savings account” or if they take care of themselves…. and this public health argument is not markedly different from “the liberal class'” argument on public education.

Here’s what I believe to be true: some individuals will inevitably work harder, be more qualified, and earn more than others. Education, training and experience will be a determining factor in defining who those higher wage earners are. But unless every child in the country has an equal opportunity to gain the fundamental skills needed to earn more, our faith in the current governmental system and economic system will vanish.

Near the outset of his article, Stoller quotes Thomas Frank as follows:

“There are consequences to excessive hope, just as there are to other forms of intemperance.”

The current economic system is based on excessive hope or, stated differently, wishful thinking. We hope there is a fast, cheap and easy solution to the intractable inequality in our economic system, We hope that giving huge tax cuts to the most affluent wage earners will result in some kind of “trickle down” benefit to the less fortunate. But we have this gnawing sense that some kind of sacrifices will be needed to solve these problems and that is unsettling.

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