Recently, I’ve been pondering about the concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy. Some people passionately tell me that the world is a meritocracy, whereas others fervently argue that the world is an aristocracy.
When people talk about a meritocracy, they mean a society in which those who have the highest “merit,” a combination of inborn talents and self-cultivated motivation to work, succeed, or, in other words, attain the highest levels of some combination of fame, money, and power. An aristocracy, on the other hand, is defined, in the modern day, as a society in which the elite, those born with the most money and belong to a family that has the longest history of power, succeed.
But, in reality, what exactly are we?
What we think we are and when
From my observations, I’ve noticed that, in general, what we think our society is–that is whether or not we buy into the idea of a meritocracy or view the world as an aristocracy– relies heavily on our levels of success, as exemplified by the following story of two men–Jim and Joe.
Jim grew up in a middle class family with loving but strict parents and had access to good public education. After graduating high school, he is admitted to a good university and completes it with the help of financial aid and student loans.
Joe grew up in a rich family with very relaxed parents and had access to the best private schools, starting from pre-school. After graduating high school, he matriculates into the same university as Jim did, with his tuition fully covered by his parents.
When Joe and Jim graduate, they enter the work force in search of jobs. Both men start off feeling enthusiastic about their job prospects. However, Jim slowly becomes disillusioned when he sees that he is consistently getting significantly fewer job offers than his equally qualified classmate, Joe. Jim complains about the obviously unjust favoritism of the elite and the aristocratic nature of our society. On the other hand, Joe, who gets into nearly every job he applies to, thinks it is because of his hard work on perfecting his resumes and his high intelligence– in short: his merit.
Fast forward thirty years.
Jim has a high-paying managerial position at a well-known technology firm and considers himself successful. He has lots of money, a bit of power, and a pinch of fame. Consequentially, Jim’s perception of the world has shifted significantly. Jim more readily believes that success is a consequence of merit than he used to.
Incidentally, he now buys into the idea that our world is a meritocracy. Sure, Jim thinks he credits his success due to other factors, but on a deeper level he doesn’t really believe that these other factors made nearly as much of a difference as did his hard work and inherent talents. Although Jim was once middle class, he is now part of the upper-middle class and argues against giving away so much of his tax money to help the needy because he thinks that he was once ‘only middle class’ and was able to make it out.
Like Jim, the vast majority of us have heard the argument against the existence of the “good ole American Dream” of going from rags to riches through hard work and have observed situations in which there is blatant abuse of power by the country’s richest. However, we only actively believe that there are fallacies in the equation- success is equal to hard work times innate talent when we don’t perform well.
In other words, many of us perceive the world as a meritocracy when we succeed, but as an aristocracy when we fail.
Why is this so?
I think an explanation for this phenomenon lies in the culture in which the majority of us were raised. Children are often praised by both authority figures: parents, teachers, and coaches, and by peers: friends, classmates, and siblings when they excel in academics and win awards. And on the reverse side, children are reprimanded when they fail, either by explicit expressions of disapproval by others or by feeling left out when the successful children are given more attention and praise than them.
Thus, we grow up believing that our self worth is tied to our intelligence, performance, and work ethic. Furthermore, because humans are group animals and care about attention from and opinions of others, this reward-punishment system conditions children to associate doing well with positive emotions and doing poorly with negative emotions.
As a result, when things don’t go well, we elect to blame something outside of our control for dashing our chances at success; in doing so, we can evade dips in self-confidence and overwhelmingly undesirable emotions of sorrow and worthlessness that go hand-in-hand with them. However, when we fail too often, we eventually do doubt our senses of self-worth and descend into depression. Although we react differently in those times and look down on ourselves, our perception of the world as tipped against our favor still holds true.
On the other hand, due to the same reason, when things do go well, we often attribute it to our “merits” because we yearn to feel a sense of pride in ourselves and relish in the glory of being the object of others’ envies.
If I had to use the meritocracy and aristocracy terms to describe our world, I’d say it is a meristocracy, a mixture of both.
However, a better way to think about it is to think of our world as a combination of a traditional aristocracy and an aristocracy of genes and psychological wellbeing, for a meritocracy of the traditional sense is not really as fair as it is commonly perceived to be.
Many factors of one’s ability to have high success are either genetically determined or determined by the environment’s impact on personality and psychological wellbeing. Also, these environmental factors are inseparable from the idea of traditional aristocracy because the role models that one is exposed to in real life and in the media, the education that one is presented with, etc. are largely based on the socioeconomic class in which one is born and affect people in not only a commonly-known-about, quantifiable sense but also in a psychological manner.
For instance, it is a well-known fact that people’s aspirations in life are swayed by their role models. As such, someone who grows up in a poor place, regardless of race, will see success as much more unattainable than someone from a richer place because he/she don’t know anyone in real life who made it out and also feels discouraged by the culture of the region that is centered around hand-to-mouth existence. This phenomenon is, of course, true to different degrees depending on the particular region’s levels of crimes, strength in education, etc. and the parental upbringing that is afforded to the child. Generally, if the parents convince the child that getting out is truly possible and push the child to strive for education than maybe the child will have a larger chance to succeed than one that doesn’t have that structure and support. Also, if the child is fortunate enough not to have friends or family members in drug dealing or in gangs, they will also have, in general, a larger chance to not be sucked into a cycle of failure and poverty.
Troubles with a meristocracy
A meristocracy generates feelings of inadequacy in lots of people and gives some an unfair advantage over others. It also is very self-sufficient as it conditions the next generation to believe in it and perpetuate the cycle.
Currently, I know of no good solution to this way our world works, but I feel that one way to lessen the negative feelings and people’s propensity to get depression is through revolutionizing the education system to get rid of rankings and grades and the like, and to instead have students focus on discovery and experimentation. I really like some of Einstein’s ideas on this point–cultivate fascination rather than a necessity to work just for traditional ideals of success.