How meritocracy simplifies inequality

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The rags-to-riches story epitomizes the American Dream. This story inspires the reader or listener to work harder, for only effort separates them from success in the struggle to meet their goals. This story is used as an objection to redistributive justice via taxation and as a justification of wealth inequality. Hardworking individuals earned their fortunes, so why should they be taken away? Why should they sacrifice their wealth to benefit those who have not experienced such success? These questions produce another: did these individuals actually earn their success?

Those in favor of meritocratic institutions argue that individuals deserve the wealth they have attained as long as they did so fairly. If they did not steal from or cheat others, they deserve their earnings. However, these people fail to account for the luck behind the wealthy’s success.

For instance, a business owner might attribute his success to his ability to comprehend economics, an ability which enabled him to make smart decisions. His actions, therefore, resulted in his success. However, the businessman’s success was only a result of chance. His success in business over others resulted in a similar fashion to the way one man might best another in a foot race. One individual had the luck to possess the right attributes for the environment in which they were born. Surely one cannot maintain that by their own doing they received traits that would benefit them in a specific time or space. No skill is inherently better than another; it may only be better suited to the environment at hand. The skill of perseverance is no different than any other. One individual may be better suited to persevere, be it mentally or physically. Thus the argument that the wealthy earned their wealth by virtue of their hard work is not applicable; evolution did not grace everyone with the ability to work hard.

Such logic should not totally dismiss the benefits of competition. If society meant to equalize its members’ attributes, it would not be better off.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” presents a dystopian society with this mindset. In his story, the smarter and stronger individuals are handicapped by noises in their ears to disrupt thought and weights to weaken them, thus achieving an equal society. Harrison Bergeron, a particularly gifted individual, attempts to defy the system and declare himself emperor. The story identifies the dangers of ‘leveling,’ in which individuals’ unique properties are rendered meaningless.

However, applying handicaps to the gifted is not the intention of taxing wealthy people; higher taxes are not an attempt to equalize through enforcing mediocrity. Taxes and distributive justice as a whole aim to support the lower class who have no doubt been wronged by both historical circumstance and disability. People have been born into a society still feeling the effects of slavery and racism. By no means do individuals control their race. People with mental disorders, too, did not determine their genetics. Public programs could support marginalized populations, and even if the wealthy worked hard for their wealth, they should still provide for those whose circumstances did not provide such possibilities.

Under the philosophy of John Rawls’ difference principle, the success of an individual is owned by the community. Their skills, too, are community assets. They have the duty to aspire for the community’s common good. Rawls accepts wealth inequality only when it serves the poorer of society. Claiming that those with wealth did not will their talent nor the ability to cultivate it into being, Rawls dismisses the principle of moral desert, which claims an individual earned something by virtue of their hard work. If American society embraced the belief that its individuals’ owed the community their skills, which would deeply contrast the individualism on which the country was founded, it would be closer to an ideal society.

Meritocracy is by no means a total evil. By and large, meritocratic institutions represent liberty and, albeit superficially, equal opportunity. However, these institutions pose a risk to society. They establish merit as a basis for success and often discount the other factors at play. When meritocratic themes are used instinctively to rationalize the impoverished, society abandons logic.