On Meritocracy and “Experts”

https://uanews.arizona.edu/sites/default/files/styles/blog_image_large_600px_w/public/story-images/erasumus.jpg?itok=oUDa-9_2The word “meritocracy” is one which we’ve seen thrown around a lot in recent years.  In theory, the word would describe the rule by those with the most “merit” (which would, on its face, seem to make it a synonym for aristocracy, but in practice this is most certainly not the case).  As it is popularly used in the media and other outlets, it tends to take on a very narrow definition, with “merit” appearing to be used synonymously with “bureaucrat” or “public policy wonk.”  In other words, those which our society considers to have merit are those who would more properly be classified as “experts.”

The problem with this is that being “an expert” (however this is defined) is not the same as being a meritorious person.

Indeed, “experts” tend to be those whose range of knowledge and experience are very narrowly circumscribed, focusing intently on one extremely restricted area of study to the exclusion of most everything else.  John Glanton provided a very good example of this in his discussion of meritocracy and gameability, when he noted the difference between students who are good spellers because they are widely read versus students in the national spelling bee competitions who are good spellers only because of their, frankly, aberrant devotion to memorising pre-determined lists of words,

But the national spelling bee is a different animal altogether. Success at that level doesn’t mean you’re an “avid reader” or the kind of student who writes little short stories and poems in her spare time. It doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily got a knack for pleasant turns of phrase. Not at all. What it means is that you’ve got a freakishly capacious memory. And reliable recall under pressure, too. It means you’re willing to forego in large measure normal childhood entertainments. It means you’re willing to grind out hour after hour of tedious rote learning, inscribing obscure etymologies and variant spellings and all manner of curious linguistic fauna in careful runes upon your young heart.”

In other words, the kids who compete in these spelling bees are kids who consume their childhoods with memorising lists of words provided to them by Scripps or some other organisation. (As an aside, it’s not surprising that Indian kids tend to dominate in these – Indians seem to be especially adapted to grinding through hours upon hours of tedious labour.)  They didn’t learn these words by reading three books a week.  In other words, these kids are “experts,” but without any real or genuine rhetorical merit.

Likewise, “experts” are often simply informational mercenaries, hired guns whose purpose is to give added weight to one political position or the other in a public policy battle.  This is why on any given political issue, both sides can trot out their “experts” and the associated “studies” purporting to support their position, and which are designed to sway public opinion because “people trust experts.”  Will Trump’s proposed wall along the southern American border be easily doable or prohibitively impossible?  Depends on which “expert” you talk to.  Is global warming an imminent danger or it is nothing at all?  Your opinion likely depends more on which experts and studies you are predisposed to give credence to, rather than any intimate acquaintance with the actual science in question.  As such, it is very easy for experts to use their perceived proficiency to shift perceptions in the direction which they or their associated organisations desire, and the media and the government make ready use of this fact to influence the public to support progressive policies, even when the “experts” may be intentionally omitting important information.

This helps to explain why Tradition and neoreaction are so suspicious of “meritocracy.”  “Experts” in our society seem to exist for the purpose of swaying public opinion, whereas we in neoreaction would like to return to the sort of situation in which public opinion is largely irrelevant.  Meritocracy has become intimately associated with democracy and those with “merit” are those experts who have spent their adult lives focusing so narrowly on one particular area of study that they exercise undue influence in that area, while simultaneously lacking any sort of intellectual equipment necessary to provide any greater context to their field of expertise.  As a result, these experts tend to be the ones who inhabit the bureaucratic deep state, thus they are able to grossly influence (nearly always in a detrimental way) the lives of those who genuinely have more real merit than the bureaucrats themselves.  Further, the democratic system develops its own oligarchy at the top – but it’s an oligarchy built around the ability to speak glibly about public policy issues and which exists to occupy “departments” and “think tanks,” while conning the masses into supporting it through promises to bankrupt the treasury and destroy the livelihoods of those who really are superior in society (though it’s not generally couched in those terms, of course).

Yet, we in the Really Olde Right should not be afraid of the concept of meritocracy – we should simply seek to recapture the word for more realistic use.  Most aristocratic and monarchical systems (and these are not effectively that different – after all, what is the monarch but the “first aristocrat,” the primus inter pares) at least initially begin as meritocratic systems.  The lords and kings are those who have risen to the top in their societies through a combination of daring, initiative, intelligence, charisma, and wisdom.  A healthy aristocratic system resists democratisation while yet leaving the door open for entry by exceptional specimens from the lower classes.  In other words, a healthy aristocracy is one which consists of the natural aristocracy.

A carefulness should be entertained when proposing the bases for an aristocratic system.  We see daily the failings of the bureaucratic system as proposed aristocracy.  But there are many other systems which would also have the same sort of failings such as technocracy (rule by scientists and engineers), plutocracy (rule by the rich), timocracy (rule by property owners), kritocracy (rule by judges), theocracy (rule by the priesthood), etc.  In each of these, the basis of the claim to being “the best” rests on a narrowly defined competency, and sometimes even rejects the value of a broad-based knowledge base.

In each of these cases, the critical factor of holistic excellence is missing.  A natural aristocrat, as we have seen, is one who doesn’t simply focus on making money, amassing material goods, or dedicating himself to one specialised branch of knowledge.  Instead, he is one who dedicates his time to improving himself spiritually, intellectually, and physically.  He takes religion seriously, he is studious across a wide range of subjects, he is industrious and active in his business, and he participates in manly and vigourous diversions.  When these traits are present, then a man will exhibit genuine merit, and the rule by such men would be a “meritocracy” – the real thing, not the pale adumbration presented by today’s democratic morass.

As such, we shouldn’t fear or despise meritocratic endeavour.  We should, however, seek to  ensure that what is going under the label of “merit” really fits the bill.  Our western societies need far more Chateaubriands and far fewer Nate Silvers than we currently have.  It is incumbent upon those of us in Tradition and neoreaction to be the excellence we wish to see.


8 thoughts on “On Meritocracy and “Experts”

  1. A suprisingly high fraction of national spelling bee contenders are also homeschooled. Which seems like an advertisement for homeschooling until you realize the causation is reversed: They aren’t great spellers because they’re homeschooled, but homeschooled because they study the dictionary 12 hours a day and don’t have time for normal schooling.

    Also kudos for recalling that old Glanton article. He was a very talented author. Were you reading us way back then, Titus?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for dropping by!

      Exactly. We homeschool our son, but we’re not going to have him sitting around memorising lists for twelve hours a day. One huge advantage I see to homeschooling, from a merely educational perspective, is that it allows the student to “independently study” to a greater degree than one in a rigidly structured (i.e. Prussian) environment. Memorising a list of words (or geographical facts, or _fill in the blank_) all day long defeats that whole purpose.

      I hadn’t found SM yet when Mr. Glanton’s article went up. I think I found SM maybe seven months ago or so. I worked my way back through all the archives however.


    1. Hi Infowarrior,

      I don’t think I’d refer to the Mongols as a meritocracy. They were only really good at one thing, which was destroying the labour of other people. Indeed, that’d be the opposite of merit. Merit involves building civilisation, not destroying it.


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