Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘environmental determinism

Against Meritocracy

with 6 comments

I’m far from a fan of Matt Yglesias, but this piece seems useful to me for its succinct recognition of the central paradox of liberalism:

Needless to say, children under the age of 6 do not exercise a great deal of choice over where they live or what level of soil testing is done. Nor is it an accident that low-income parents are more likely to be inhabiting the kind of dwellings where their kids are likely to be exposed to toxic levels of lead. I think it takes a fairly perverse outlook on life to believe that a person deserves lifelong economic hardship as a consequence of his parents’ having lived in an old house near a freeway when he was a toddler. But the name for that social system is “meritocracy.” The non-poisoned infants really will grow up to be adults who really are smarter and really do have better impulse control and ability to do long time-horizon planning. They have more “merit” than the poisoned kids just like Dwight Howard is very genuinely taller and stronger than you or I.

Of course this should all be much more cautious–you’d need to substitute “by certain measurements” and “in certain circumstances” after “smarter,” “better impulse control,” “ability to do long-term planning,” etc. But the central proposition is right and, I think, the decisive disproof of liberal meritocracy, as I’ve been ranting about on Twitter for the last hour or so. The crucial tweet is the last one, the recognition that class is a miracle solvent for “merit”: it boosts the abilities of the rich while muting their disadvantages, while doing the exact opposite for the poor.

@_EdwardK_ also brought to my attention an interesting paper I’ll have to follow up on: