8 min read

The Tyrant Custom

The Tyrant Custom
Frontispiece of Leviathan (Abraham Bosse, 1651)

Last week's missive on progress concluded with two remaining natural explanations for stagnation. These were the demographic and resource depletion arguments, which are decidedly more pessimistic than the low-hanging fruit argument. Low-hanging fruit may invoke fate, but it is not lacking in hope. Demographic and depletion arguments, while also fateful, are far more cynical. Hand wringing about demographics and environmental degradation appears well intentioned, but as the ending of last week's piece indicated, they disguise more sinister cultural issues.

The economic and natural causes we have previously discussed have charts, tables, formulas and metrics to support their arguments, but cultural causes can't usually be arrived at by deduction or even induction (that is, formal proof or causal inference). This leaves us with abduction (the simplest explanation capable of explaining the most), a far less convincing approach. Still, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, and since our exploration of manmade and natural causes of stagnation have been unsatisfying, we will turn to cultural explanations.

A productive analysis of cultural causes must begin by comparing this set of arguments with the arguments for manmade and natural causes. The piece on manmade causes ended with a Shakespearian warning. Hamlet's pondering of the human condition devolves from wonder to despair, and it is this overthinking – this lack of will – that is his greatest flaw. Any wrong perpetrated by man may be corrected by man. Natural causes, by contrast, remove the option of free will altogether. Low-hanging fruit, demographic trends and natural limits will either course correct themselves or not, but as we observed at the end of last week's piece, the arguments for demographic and natural limits are rooted in deeper social causes.

The obvious question raised by demographic and natural limits is, "If we have overcome great challenges in the past, why is society so pessimistic about the future?" The four social explanations most often put forward are: (1) Meritocracy is breaking down (2) It is the measurement that is broken, not progress itself (3) Society is becoming more risk averse (4) The paradox of the free market and democracy is being fulfilled. These are deep and complex phenomenon that are interwoven throughout our culture and society, two terms that we must define before venturing into the examination of merit.

Auguste Comte made a cameo in last week's piece as the French philosopher who did not turn the phrase "demography is destiny," but he did coin the term "sociology." Comte lived during the early 19th century and was a contemporary of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, the two main originators of communism and classical liberalism, respectively. Following the French Revolution, Comte endeavored to establish a scientific approach to group behavior regarding beliefs, morals and institutions, what we know as society. These three features of society we may call customs and it is a set of customs that comprise culture.

Got Without Merit and Lost Without Deserving

While "sociology" and "culture" are modern words, not appearing as we currently understand them until the 19th century, "merit" and "custom" are medieval words with relatively the same meaning as their ancient Latin roots. It is the collision of the ancient with the modern that created our concept of meritocracy. The Founding Fathers of the United States were thoroughly modern, but steeped in Ancient Greek and Roman ideals. There is another, older concept of meritocracy that has seen continuous practice in the East, a Confucian meritocracy, but this undemocratic version is better left discussed in our examination of the free market and democracy. For now, we will address the unique form of meritocracy that arose in the West, particularly American meritocracy.

In The Rise of the Meritocracy, British author Michael Young satirizes the tripartite system, a postwar educational scheme in Britain that sorted children into grammar, technical and secondary schools run by the state, alongside the existing public (tuition-based) school system. Admission to grammar schools' and the few technical schools and the few technical schools was based on an exam taken at age 11, and admission could greatly advantage or disadvantage one's access to higher education and eventually elite jobs. Young coined the term "meritocracy" in 1958 as a sort of wry British irony, mashing the Latin "mereō" with the Greek "cracy" to poke fun at the idea of rule by merit through such a system.

Americans being sincere, naïve and unaware of upper-class British classics jokes, embraced both the word and meaning of meritocracy. The concept has been one that Americans took seriously from the beginning, imbuing John Stewart Mill's writings on representative democracy in the Constitution. Immediately, Thomas Jefferson's "natural aristocracy" of virtue came under assault by John Adams, who believed that the distinction between natural (by merit) and artificial (by birth) aristocracy was not possible to determine. From its earliest days, the existence of an American meritocracy has been attacked first on the basis of its dependence on class, then on race and on gender and ultimately on many other traits.

It's impossible to discuss meritocracy in America without confronting these obstacles to justice. That Adams, who defended aristocracy, was ardently opposed to slavery while Jefferson, who called for rule by merit, had an abominable record on slavery only serves to demonstrate how willfully ignorant Americans can be about our system of rewarding merit. Yet, this same willful ignorance may be the difference between America's successful record of progress and the rest of the world.

As each attack on meritocracy surfaced fresh horrors, America slowly and haltingly progressed morally and economically. In George Washington's first year in office as president he wrote to his nephew:

You cannot doubt my wishes to see you appointed to any office of honor or emolument in the new government, to the duties of which you are competent—but however deserving you may be of the one you have suggested, your standing at the bar would not justify my nomination of you as attorney to the Federal district Court in preference of some of the oldest, and most esteemed General Court Lawyers in your own State, who are desirous of this appointment[.] My political conduct in nominations, even if I was uninfluenced by principle, must be exceedingly circumspect and proof against just criticism, for the eyes of Argus are upon me, and no slip will pass unnoticed that can be improved into a supposed partiality for friends or relations.

Following the Civil War, the short-lived reforms of Reconstruction saw record levels of black officeholders elected to federal positions and the creation of the U.S. Office of Education. In 1883 the civil service was reformed to prohibit the spoils system. The Progressive Era ushered in yet more reforms, educational opportunities and the Women's Suffrage movement. The Quiet Revolution, stretching from the late 19th century until today, encompasses the progress we have made (and have yet to make) in privileging merit over gender. It is true that race continues to be a fraught subject, particularly in elite universities in America, and this piece cannot contain the multitude of remaining challenges to a more meritocratic society.

This is all to say that regardless of your views on meritocracy, the American ideal of a meritocracy was as innate as it was imperfect. Up until the 1960s it was almost unthinkable to criticize merit based selection. Then something changed. America adopted Michael Young's skeptical critique, particularly in universities, the very garden in which the seeds of meritocracy are planted. The Columbia University student protests, Kent State shootings and ROTC expulsions exposed the cracks in young Americans' faith in customs and beliefs. Merit, one of those sacrosanct American customs, was also under assault from inside academia.

The philosophical fashions of the 1960s were critical theory and post-structuralism, products of French thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu and Germans from the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse. Critical theory opposed both materialist socioeconomic theories like Marxism and rationalist theories like classical liberalism, by seeing all relations as formed by power games. While structuralists held that all social systems had an unrevealed understructure based on observable relations, post-structuralists contested the idea of any objective understructure. It is Bourdieu whose ideas undermined much of academic meritocracy by arguing that all judgment is attempted social positioning. Marcuse already in 1965 published Repressive Tolerance, an essay positing that intolerance of status quo repression is necessary for true tolerance to emerge. In the essay he takes aim at the educational establishment's relationship to concrete truth:

Education offers still another example of spurious, abstract tolerance in the guise of concreteness and truth: it is epitomized in the concept of self-actualization. From the permissiveness of all sorts of license to the child, to the constant psychological concern with the personal problems of the student, a large-scale movement is under way against the evils of repression and the need for being oneself.

Ultimately, he concludes that society must be intolerant of right-wing politics, but permissive of left-wing politics.

Returning to more down-to-earth arguments about whether a breakdown in meritocracy can explain stagnation, we must establish three premises. First, that meritocracy existed and was contributing to growth prior to 1970. Second, that something went wrong with meritocracy in the 1970s. Third, that this has contributed to the slowing of growth.

The long historical analysis up to this point should convince any reader that enfranchised Americans at least believed meritocracy was working until the 1970s, particularly as more Americans became enfranchised. There are those who argue that meritocracy was always a myth or that merit is itself tyrannical. And lest you think that all these attacks are from from the political left, there are right-leaning arguments against singular meritocratic pathways that concentrate power.

In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Chris Hayes, he invokes the inequality argument to demonstrate how meritocracies can impede social mobility, if the elite tilt the scales in favor of their children. Similarly, Daniel Markovits in The Meritocracy Trap, points out that meritocracies have monopoly-like dynamics that skew the returns to a small percentage of winners at the top. Furthermore, the gains from women entering the workforce as claimed in this paper are likely to be unrepeatable low-hanging fruit. Are we now just rehashing economic and natural causes of stagnation wrapped in meritocratic arguments?

What else does the discussion of meritocracy have to contribute to the conversation, and how do we know it is not the lack of growth that is weakening meritocracy, rather than the other way around? The mountain of coincidental evidence shared above does point towards a slowly improving meritocracy for 200+ years with an abrupt shift in the 1970s, but the arrow of causality is often challenging to determine. Absent a controlled trial, the best we can do is the following thought experiment.

Can we construct a scenario in which a crumbling meritocracy improves growth? If we believe the post-structuralists, we can. In Venkatesh Rao's series on The Gervais Principle, he outlines a theory of management that is summed up by a story told by legendary author on management, Peter Drucker:

A favorite story at management meetings is that of the three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, “I am building a cathedral.” The third man is, of course, the true “manager”
The first man knows what he wants to get out of the work and manages to do so. He is likely to give a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”… It is the second man who is a problem… there is always a danger that the true workman, the true professional, will believe that he is accomplishing something when in effect he is just polishing stones or collecting footnotes.

David Graeber observes in an excerpt from Utopia of Rules that "as whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than as systems of predatory extraction, we bustle about, trying to curry favor by pretending we actually believe it to be true." The seminal moment in American history when it became clear that the emperor had no clothes was the Watergate scandal in 1972. Meritocracy has always been a much loftier ideal than anything achieved in practice, but that Americans could plausibly believe it to be ever improving may have been enough. The incontrovertible evidence that the highest office in our country was occupied by a crook, and a clumsy one at that, broke the mythology of meritocracy, if not the custom's contribution to growth. This explanation, however, relies on a deeper, more personal argument about ethics, corruption and leadership, that is best suited for the future section on psychological and spiritual causes of stagnation.