Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Case for Meritocracy over Egalitarianism

America is becoming ever more egalitarian: Make things more equal: from health care to education, money to media accolades. That has obvious appeal but in the end, is it a net good for America?

Will America get better because of our new practice of reallocating education resources from average-and-above kids to low achievers? That policy is now being taken to such extremes that even when parents in middle-class schools donate additional money to their kids' school, it's viewed as unfair--It's argued that that money should be distributed equally to low-performing schools. Despite what politicians and the media disingenuously assert, not everyone has the same potential to profit from instruction and to abet society. So reallocating resources away from those with the greatest potential to cure our diseases, start new businesses, and run government wisely can only accelerate America's decline. 

Will America get better by further taxing the top 20 percent, which already pay 70 percent of the taxes while the bottom 20 percent pay just 0.3 percent, even though the top 20 percent is far more likely to use the money to create jobs or to invest it so others can create jobs. For example, when middle-income people get to keep more of what they earn, they are likely to invest it, perhaps in a stock, which enables the company to invest more in research and development. Or a person might put the money in a bank, which then has more funds to lend to home buyers which, in turn, creates jobs for home builders. Far less ripple effect accrues from taking money from the middle class to give to the poor. At best, that redistribution results in basic purchases. At worst, some of it goes for drugs, guns, etc., not to mention junk food, smartphones, and $150 sneakers, not exactly inspiring uses of your tax dollars. 

Will America get better if able-bodied welfare recipients, for not working, get more money than does someone earns for working 40 hours a week at a $15 an hour job. That is the case in 35 states.

Will America get better when--per the egalitarian goal of single-payer health care--a person who has paid into the system all his life and has otherwise contributed to society should get the same level of health care as someone who hasn't? Should short wait times for non-emergency appointments, choosing your own doctor and hospital, a semi-private room, and electing to have expensive unclear-benefit treatments be equally available for both groups of people? Even though that will result in excess morbidity and mortality to the contributory group? Or will that, along with the egalitarian dream of making education and money more equally distributed, create major disincentive for people to work hard?

Will America get better when the culture demands that the accomplisher give credit to everyone but himself--Think Academy Award speeches, political candidate acceptance speeches, etc.  "It was a team effort. Without a lot of other people and especially my family, it would have been impossible."

Will America get better for its colleges having opened its doors to virtually all comers? As stated in the New York Times, "nearly everyone gets accepted by a worthy institution." In fact, our nearly open-admissions policy has resulted in dumbing-down higher education to the lowest common denominator, resulting in such frightening authoritative findings as that 36 percent of today's college graduates grow not at all in college in writing and critical thinking. Pity not the weak student but the strong one who could have profited from a not dumbed-down college education. Sure, you can get a rigorous education at the relative handful of highly selective colleges but only the tiniest percentage of even strong students can attend there. What counts is what goes on at the majority of our colleges. And let's remember that only half of students graduate even if given six years.  Again, not a great use of our tax dollars, which heavily subsidize even so-called private colleges.

Meritocracy yields more good--including for society's have-nots--than our Alice-in-Wonderland redistributing to and excuse-making for the have-nots. Alas, even if you agree, I'd predict you don't dare speak up or even Tweet or Facebook like this article. And that does not bode well for America.


Maria Lopez said...

I would never expect a Cato study to say that welfare is insufficient. Also, it is supposed to be temporary. I do think payments to poor individuals can serve useful purposes, it prevents them from dying in the streets and also, though they might misuse the money, can pay for useful things such as eye glasses, medicine, and dental work as well as flashy sneakers and guns.

Colleges to me are a bigger issue. I don't see why the humanities and all but the most advanced math should be learned in a special place. Art and music, for most people, can be mastered through individual practice. It's true that particular techniques in the visual arts and such things as music theory need some instruction but those can be studied ad hoc.

If much learning takes place outside of universities, whether or not the right folks are going becomes less of an issue.

Finally merit, in so far as it is connected to bodily function is temporary and fragile. Injury, aging, or disease can make people tired, stupid and weak.
Intelligence, for example, is reduced by such things as lead poisoning, infant anemia, and being hit on the head.

Marty Nemko said...

The post did say that welfare can be used for basic needs. I also said I was referring to able-bodied people, not sick people.

Re college, alas, most people don't have the self-discipline or efficacy to learn without the structure of school and guidance of a professor. I do think MOOCs will change how courses are delivered.

Maria Lopez said...

Curious, what is your definition of basic needs?
Eye glasses my contribute to employability and safe driving but are not necessary to live. Dental work can be necessary for life but usually is not.

More seriously, how do you determine if someone is able bodied. There are many problems that aren't immediately visible. For example, though she was employed, after being a car wreck that resulted in a four day coma one woman I know as in perpetual danger of losing her job due to bad judgement.

Also, I disagree with you about self-discipline. I think for the most part the function of professors, outside of lab science, is to help people avoid blind alleys.

Given social sanction or obsession people will learn an amazing amount of stuff. I'm basically agreeing with you that the idea that everybody should go to college is wrong but I feel that society errs in not provide more alternative learning opportunities.

Marty Nemko said...

OF course there are gray areas but I'd call basic health care, housing, transportation, food, and even a bit of discretionary spending money a right. But anything above that should not be paid by the taxpayer.

Again, there are gray-areas re able-bodied, which inevitably entail tough choices but the general concept that able-bodied people should be required to work I believe yields clear benefit to the cost.

Having taught in a wide range of K-12, college and graduate school classes, as well as attempted to help my career counseling clients gain needed skills, I can confidently assert that many people do need the structure of school to learn all but the most compelling and/or fun things.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with what you are saying here...

But politicians will be politicians...there's no better way to win votes than to maintain/promise more social spending...

I guess ultimately it really is a war of ideas...meritocracy vs. egalitarianism...very few benefit from the former in any direct, tangible way, while society as a whole benefits indirectly of course, but so many stand to gain directly from the latter, and not just money...

I don't think it's possible to put a stop to human greed...

We will have a larger and larger government in the future, but the US will probably decline more slowly than the rest of the world...Europe, China, India, Japan...

I actually think the most moral thing anyone can do with their life is not have children...just dedicate oneself to serving others in whatever way possible...there's just too many people, too few opportunities, the environment is crumbling...My views are extreme but 99.99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct...why not humans? At the end of the day, we're no better than other animals...

Dave said...


Most students are not interested in the humanities. They don't want to read the great literary works of the western world. The dead white men are, well, dead to them. Unlike older generations, the Baby Boomer generation, Generations X and Y, do not turn to a single book or canon of books for intellectual formation. Lady Gaga, The Daily Show, and Hollywood steer their thinking.

Today's college student is career-minded, not education-minded.


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