Monday, January 30, 2006

Antidisestablishmentarianism; Anti-antidisestablishmentarianism

I'm closing some tabs while I draft a column on NHPD brutality, but here are couple of beatings, er, links that I didn't want to forget.

First, it appears that the text adventure is not a dead art form. Some creative talent (that girl, I'm thinking of you) ought to pick this up and run with it. (Link via Jim Henley probably, but I'm not 100% on where I first saw this.)

Second, I'm frankly baffled by Matt Yglesias's knock against the concept of meritocracy. (No, I haven't read Michael Young, but I don't think I need to if Yglesias's argument is essentially his.) When Yglesias claims that meritocracy unfairly privileges intelligence, he is flat out wrong. Meritocracy privileges merit; neither here at Yale nor at Yglesias's alma mater in Cambridge could there possibly be a single student who is not at least acquainted with a superlatively bright flame-out. Of course intelligence is a factor in determining merit, but there are other necessary conditions of attaining merit that are purely volitional [at least if we table the paradoxes of free will-ed.]. It's no more fair that some people are smarter than others than it is that some people are prettier than others; now, from the viewpoint of the scarcity of economic resources, A's meritocratic achievement imposes a cost on B. But happiness, unlike money, is not a scarce resource. A's greater achievement relative to B has no bearing on B's potential to live a fulfilling life. Does Yglesias consider it unfair that he has managed to become a journalistic wunderkind while less talented scribblers toil away anonymously? I don't; he might; but even if he does, that unfairness tells us nothing about whether or not Yglesias has earned his present position. Would he consider his success to have greater justification if it is due to his Harvard connections? or his skills as a writer?

(My complaint, just to be absolutely clear, is not that Yglesias is a hypocrite for attacking meritocracy since he has plainly been the beneficiary of it. One of the most annoying habits of argument on the left is to belittle black conservatives who are against affirmative action. Such arguments are straightforward genetic fallacy. To take the example you're never supposed to take, Nazi racial theory isn't wrong because Nazis uphold it; it's wrong because it fails on its own terms. To be sure, the left has no monopoly on argument by genetic fallacy -- in addition to my citizen's revulsion at the right's reliance on treason-baiting, I have nearly as deep philosopher's outrage at the supposedly liberal MSM for not calling unambiguous fallacy what it is, and having done with -- but what seems to me exclusive to at least a segment of the left is a kind of euphoria over sniffing out hypocrisy and declaring argumentative victory on no other grounds. The justice of affirmative action is not partly, let alone wholly, a function of the moral worth of its proponents or opponents.)

Back to Yglesias's argument. Under meritocracy, society rewards individuals on the basis of what they freely achieve with the skills the genetic roulette wheel has given them. Under any non-meritocracy, society rewards individuals on the basis of nothing but a roulette spin. Clearly, our society is a mix; the question for Yglesias is whether political justice consists in moving in one direction or the other, or staying still. Frankly, I don't think the question is difficult.

Or, to give it an alternative framing that the libis will appreciate, any non-meritocracy will entail coercing individuals against achieving what their unachieved skills enable them to. A free society is meritocratic.


At 1:21 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Preach on, Brother Finnegan. We need MORE meritocracy if anything, not less. Also, no Feingold material?

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous ricklevinhaha said...

Your argument doesn't address the most problematic aspect of Ignatius's statement (which Yglesias brings out but leaves half-buried): that merit is measurable, if not perfectly, by some determinate means. There is a real question, particularly in reference to the SAT, about if and how just measurements of merit are even possible. There is a tendency to understand and idealize merit not so much as intelligence, but like intelligence, to view talents and skills, once enacted, as a kind of a fait accompli that entitles an individual to recognition. You yourself seem to view merit in just this way: as a reward for "unachieved skills" that individuals unproblematically possess. But that assumption is not at all obvious: why should we believe that talent and skill are so transparent? Why should we think that a reward reflects something meaningful about oneself or one's actions? That not only obscures or precludes multiple forms of talent and skill, it leads us to believe that talent or skill is a kind of singular quantity that individuals possess to greater or lesser degrees. It also obscures the ways in which talents and skills develop and change through time, often in interaction with others. One needn't be a postmodernist or a nihilist or a hippie to ask these questions: the idea is that merit tends to promote (often in the name of realism or expedience or clarity) simplified modes of recognition at the expense of more complex, and indeed rigorous, forms of self-enactment.


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