06/10/2010 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Trouble With Meritocracy

The left/right divide in this country is predicated on some fundamental fault lines. In broad strokes, progressives tend to favor the interests of the many over the few; conservatives extol the primacy of the individual. On the left we consider freedom from want to be one of the measures of liberty; on the right America is seen as a place where nobody has to be poor if they only work hard enough.

In the conservative worldview, government, as the expression of majority will, is seen as the biggest threat to the capacity of the individual to flourish. They see the free market as the ultimate arbiter; it rewards wealth to the most enterprising, ergo the most deserving. They view any system that redistributes wealth as leveling the distinction between the mediocre and the remarkable. (I have yet to find anyone with money in this country who does not consider him or herself to be "remarkable.")

If you are born poor, in say, Appalachia, and your Dad dies young from black lung and your mother scrapes by as a waitress, you can absolutely still make it in this country. You can ignore the overcrowded classes and peer pressure to get high, you can go to the library and use their computer or encyclopedia because you don't have one at home. You can get that sports or academic scholarship and be the first in your family to go to college. Many individuals have precisely this kind of life story, and surely their exceptionalism should be rewarded. But what we have now is also a society that punishes the equally unexceptional for being unexceptional.

Most kids who grow up in poor communities, who go to overcrowded schools taught by under-trained teachers -- these kids don't rise above their circumstances. Girls are often sexually abused, gay kids bullied and ostracized. Parents are overwhelmed at best, in prison or addicted at worst. Middle class kids often have it marginally better from a material point of view, but they grow up on fast food and video games, terrified of the punishing, fundamentalist God of a church that encourages conformity over creativity. They find school uninspiring, and don't have the grades or the drive to make it through college. They just want to get a decent job, get married and raise a family, often with some degree of addiction to any number of substances or behaviors to ease the journey along.

Here's the problem with "meritocracy." You can't have the "excellent" and the "above average" unless you have the "average" and the "below average." Anyone can make it, but everybody can't. Most children born into poverty will live in poverty; most people born rich will remain rich. Human beings react with stunning consistency to consistent circumstances. Almost every man I knew in prison came from single parent, abusive households--only a tiny percentage had even made it past high school. (I was very much the exception that proved the rule.)

So here's the question society needs to ask itself: Do the "average" and "below average" have the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the "above average" and the "excellent?" Is it a crime to react unexceptionally to your circumstances? Shouldn't qualities like a willingness to do your best and kindness to your fellows be valued as much as traits like guile, enterprise and risk-taking? Do those born into money and a good education really "deserve" huge slices of the pie because they picked the right parents?

I don't deny the value of the profit motive. I agree that a free market is indispensable to a certain degree of economic efficiency. But there's an oil-slick close to the size of Pennsylvania that vividly illustrates the pitfalls of letting the smartest and meanest inherit the earth. It's time we question the premises of a system that equates worth with worthiness.