Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Myth of Merit

What would Monday [ed.: OK -- I guess it's Tuesday now. Sue me.] be without a little David Brooks bashing? Well, no Monday at all!

According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven't made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision - that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

The G.O.P. succeeds because it is seen as the party of optimistic individualism.
Is it just me, or has someone just hit David with the nonsequitur-stick? Honestly, if I hadn't seen these two paragraphs one right after the other with my own eyes, I would have sworn that they had been taken out of context. Don't get me wrong -- a portion of Republican success can be attributed to their ability to market themselves as optimistic individualists. But, let's not kid ourselves. Their ability to exploit fear, xenophobia, and religious intolerance has been at least as important, if not more so.

However, this overreaching claim aside, David is within spitting distance of an important insight. The study that he uses to buttress his "optimistic individualism" assertion is, in fact, identifying a significant distinction between liberal and conservative worldviews. In short, conservatives believe that upward mobility is primarily driven by merit, while liberals do not.

The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated, as it influences an individual's perception of nearly every policy initiative. George Bush's call for an "ownership society" would fail to resonate with his supporters if they did not first believe that the rewards of ownership would be distributed fairly. Progressive tax policy is resisted by those who see it as punishment for the hard-working and industrious and a payoff to slackers. And, of course, affirmative action is seen as the ultimate insult, as it reshuffles opportunity against supposedly objective measures of performance. In each of these issues, and many others, it is the perceived rejection of merit-based advancement that fuels conservative ire.

The interesting thing about this phenomenon is how it seemingly manifests at all levels of economic experience. It's easy to see why the wealthy and successful buy into this theory; for them, it is merely the expression of the gospel of wealth. But for those who have failed to achieve economic success, it would appear to be a rather devastating personal indictment. If you have failed to rise up in a true meritocracy, what does that say about you?

I suspect that there are a few factors that support lower class enthusiasm for the American meritocracy. First among these is its promise of economic mobility. As Brooks would say, it is an ideology of hope -- and here he is half right. But, there is a missing half that is just as important: control. No one is comfortable with the idea that they are completely at the mercy of their environment. Every single day we blithely ignore the role that chance plays in our lives. Despite the fact that tragedy strikes someone every day, we are surprised when we are the victim. Randomness is simply too disconcerting to be constantly connected with it; it must be suppressed for us to function in our daily lives. Abandoning the notion of merit-based advancement is an acceptance of the reality of chaos. Many would prefer to accept responsibility for their failure to achieve than acknowledge that there is nothing that they can do to guarantee success.

Once an individual is completely entrenched in his belief that he controls his destiny, his hopes for success are further buoyed by the self-serving bias we all exhibit.
The self-serving bias, for example, dictates that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us: national surveys show that most business people believe they are more moral than other business people. In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, 0 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” while 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent. This is also called the “ Lake Wobegon effect,” after the mythical town where everyone is above average. Lake Wobegon exists in the spiritual realm as well. According to a 1997 U.S. News and World Report study on who Americans believe are most likely to go to heaven, for example, 60 percent chose Princess Diana, 65 percent thought Michael Jordan, 79 percent selected Mother Teresa, and, at 87 percent, the person most likely to go to heaven was the survey taker!
Belief in control doesn't lead to hope unless we believe that we are capable of exerting that control in a way that will lead to positive results. For better or worse, we tend to have an extremely optimistic opinion of our own capacity. Therefore, it is the confluence of these two factors, the desire for control and our self-serving bias, that leads many to accept merit as an explanation for one's station in life -- even when it reflects poorly on the individual. The alternative, acceptance of randomness and objective self-evaluation, is a pill too bitter for many to swallow.

To circle back, Brooks is close to the truth. The concept of merit is attractive because it offers hope to many who would otherwise be left despondent by their economic standing. Unfortunately, the hope it provides has little rational basis. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but he might as well have said the same thing about the myth of meritocracy. As long as the myth is in place, few will be motivated to agitate against the current system. If all that stands between me and fantastical wealth is some hard work, why rock the boat?

Democrats agonize over this population of poor Republicans who seemingly vote against their own economic best interests. Many point to the social/cultural issues as the key to this voting bloc. Of course, I agree -- but, I do not believe that these issues are limited to items like gay-marriage and Hollywood smut. The myth of meritocracy lives in this realm as well. However, unlike the traditional issues of the culture war, disabusing voters of this myth would not require that we abandon our core values. Quite the opposite. And it doesn't require that they give up hope. It merely means that hope lies in a different direction. We just have to lead them there.
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