Is Meritocracy the new Aristocracy? And the 11 Tricks that Elites use to capture Politics.

My Oxfam colleague and regular FP2P contributor Max Lawson (right) sends out a weekly summary of his reading on inequality (he leads Oxfam’s advocacy work on it). They’re great, and Max has opened his mailing list up to the anyone who’s interested – just email, with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line.

Here’s his latest effort, covering two issues: a reflection on meritocracy and a new analysis from Latin America of the 11 ways that elites use to capture politics.

‘When I was 19 on holiday from University, I worked nights in a factory. One of my fellow workers, Denzel, was 17 and he had recently been expelled from his school for violent behaviour.  We had attended different schools, but they were both public schools with a mix of students from many different backgrounds. Even at that young age he had a string of convictions for various crimes.  We became friends over that summer, and at one point he had got a new mobile phone (at that time very rare and expensive) and he called me over one night and asked me to read the instructions for him as he could not read.

This brilliant essay by Peter Adamson, who for many years’ wrote Unicef’s State of the World’s Children report, starts with a very similar story.  His argument is a powerful and interesting one.  What if meritocracy is simply another form of class oppression, and in some ways an even more dangerous one? It is an excellent, subtle yet powerfully argued paper, and I would really recommend reading the whole thing. He points out that the word meritocracy was originally conceived as negative. It was intended as a warning that the ‘re-stratification of society based on ‘intelligence + application = merit’  would produce a society of arrogant, insensitive winners, and angry desperate losers.

The philosopher john Rawls was very clear on this too: ‘meritocracy still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents.  It is therefore arbitrary from a moral perspective’.

Basically, just because you are clever why should you have more money, more wealth and a better life, any more than someone who has inherited a fortune from their parents?

Firstly we know that a huge amount of what we call merit is based on our upbringing, our parents and our home background.  Denzel had a troubled family background, I had supportive parents and a house full of books.

But secondly, we also know, although it remains contentious, that some intelligence is genetic.  It remains contentious as it is used by defenders of inequality- people are rich because they are cleverer- that genetic differences in intelligence explain why certain people are in charge.  But Adamson’s point is that even if this is true in some instances, it does not make it morally right.

He points out how in some societies, particularly rich ones, instead of the pyramid of income, there is a diamond, with some extremely rich people at the top, and then a large, relatively educated middle class.  Underneath that are a large group of poor people, who become angry at the educated elites who are not interested in their lives and blame them for their own problems.  I think many in France would recognise the power of this analysis in the face of the recent dramatic protests – the latest in the wave of popular anger erupting across the world.  He worries that politicians in democracies can now rule with the support of those at the top and at the middle, and that this is powerfully legitimised by the notion of meritocracy.

It is also internalised by those at the bottom.  At least with class or feudalism, the injustice of the system was very clear and based on obviously flimsy foundations like inherited wealth that did not stand up to scrutiny. With meritocracy, the poor are devalued because they are less clever and less able.

‘In summary, we should accept that high levels of intelligence and ability are needed to fulfil certain positions in society, but not that those who possess these abilities are more valuable as human beings.  Ultimately this is the notion that must be dethroned- the idea that the attributes of intelligence and ability are the sum and measure of human worth. Instead we should revive the idea that all people are of equal value, and that a fair society is one that opens up the possibility of life-satisfaction, in all of its varieties, to all of its members’.

Analysing how elites have influenced policy in their favour in Latin America

This week our team in Latin America and the Caribbean published a great paper, which looks at 13 instances of pro-rich tax and spending policy and political action in the region and dissects the way in which the state has been ‘captured’ by elite interests.

They break down the process of state capture into 11 different methods deployed by elites, and then look at how many of the 13 cases employed these methods.

In almost all cases, a hugely biased and concentrated media was deployed to make the case for these policy changes, as was the revolving door where those from the private sector work in government.  In the

Argentina case study, 40% of high-ranking officials in the treasury and finance ministry were former CEOs or managers in the private sector.

Most cases also involved a very rapid passage of legislation, using extraordinary extra-parliamentary powers, like executive orders. They also involved capturing the judicial process – in a quarter of cases business leaders successfully used constitutional courts to stop progressive tax measures.

In a third of cases, elites used what the paper calls a ‘technical smokescreen’, which I thought was a great concept.  Deeply political and distributive tax changes are dressed up as boring and technical, so that no one notices.  This is particularly possible with tax changes that reduce tax on the rich, as the impact on the poor is indirect.

Interestingly, outright bribes were only identified in two of the cases- but of course this is one of the hardest things to ascertain, so the actual number is probably higher.  In one case the Brazilian firm Odebrecht, which used bribes to secure government contracts all over the continent even had a designated office for bribery and corruption operations included in its organogram.

Finally, public protest was identified in two cases, where large protests were mobilised in favour of tax changes that would only benefit a very rich elite, e.g. opposing inheritance taxes in Ecuador.  This of course has echoes of the tea party in the United States.  For me this final one tips over also into the capture of ideas rather than the capture of the state. The use of resources by elites to change the way people think is perhaps the most powerful tool at their disposal.

We all can see the undue power of elites in everyday life, but this level of analysis of methods and dissection of the levers of influence is rare, and very practical if we want to change things for the better. An excellent paper, and well worth reading.’

And here (if you can read it) are the 11 ways and 13 case studies. There’s also a background paper on the methodology.

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8 Responses to “Is Meritocracy the new Aristocracy? And the 11 Tricks that Elites use to capture Politics.”
  1. Joe

    ‘Basically, just because you are clever why should you have more money, more wealth and a better life, any more than someone who has inherited a fortune from their parents?’

    Intelligence is a social construction, just as meritocracy is. Meritocracy will disappear once we are able to stop judging some some people as clever and some people as not clever. The people who perpetuate ideas of cleverness are, of course, people like us!

  2. Steve Prior

    I don’t know enough about the situation in Latin America, but at the risk of starting a depressingly common thread of comments (for which I apologise in advance) . . .

    I am increasingly convinced that this was one of the driving factors behind the election of Trump and the Brexit vote.

    There are many people who have watched for decades as governments of both left and right came and went, watching the overall wealth of the country increase but not seeing it reflected in their own standards of living which have been persistently eroded.
    Then someone comes along like Trump or Farage and (rather ironically) taps into the anger against the “elites” – basically a broad group who aren’t in locations, jobs or trades that have been devalued – giving them a way of protesting.

    If the Democrat and Republican parties had taken notice of this previously silent group; if the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties had realised it was there; if the EU had recognised the risk of their policy which essentially says, “It’s OK if there’s no work in Greece because free movement means you can all move to Germany”, these systemic shocks might have been avoided. For the UK you can substitute “much of the country” and “London”. For the US you can substitute “Washington, New York and the tech sector” versus “the Mid-West”.
    (Incidentally, the EU might want to try and be more responsive to the many nationalist or independence groups coming to the fore in a number of EU countries and ask themselves why that might be happening).

    Even the touted solutions have the same ring to them. I am tired of hearing the term “social mobility” without anyone telling me what happens to all the people who aren’t socially mobile. Are we saying that even if you are conscientious and work hard you don’t deserve the basic necessities of life? I’m not talking about massive “success” here, just simple things like being able to pay your bills.

    I see countless comments telling Trump and Brexit supporters that they are stupid, racist, selfish and many other things. These may or may not be true in some or many cases but those people have finally realised that their vote doesn’t depend on these qualities.
    If Brexit is overturned, however sensible that would be for so many reasons, we will once again have said to this group, “Your voice, your opinion and even your very existence is of no importance”.

  3. Elena McCollim

    All I can say is, “Welcome to the party.” The hollowness of the meritocracy’s claim to virtue has been evident for some time. It’s evident in the exaltation of cleverness that swirls through the culture in seemingly never-ending clouds of gases that we breathe in daily and have been breathing in for years. Steve Prior, let me be the second (?) to conclude that yes, of course this must have been a driving factor behind both the Trump and Brexit phenomena. We who criticized globalization and neoliberalism starting decades ago (I include of course Oxfam) could perhaps see it but seemingly could not stop it. For decades I heard my fellow people on the left dismiss non-elites in rural red states with impunity (I too was guilty of not challenging this). More recently I caught glimpses of elites chuckling smugly about “the best and the brightest.” Then both groups were surprised, first by Brexit, then again by Trump. Have we learned our lesson? I’m not sure. Even while working for racial justice (and refusing to be drawn into a renunciation of doing so for fear that it will be labeled “identity politics”), as we emphatically should, we can’t ignore the workings of what Oxfam describes above.

    In an effort to shed more light than heat, I did a quick (i.e., not systematic) search for articles looking into the empirical question of whether and to what extent meritocracy fostered the anger and resentments that led to and are leading to right-wing populist backlash. Of course, this led to a rabbit hole (answers to the question are welcome, though – will someone kindly point me to a lit review on this?  ). But ultimately it’s not an empirical question, is it? – it’s a moral one. Questioning the meritocracy is a moral project, one made more urgent by the realities of Trump and Brexit, but no less important in its own right.

    Shifting gears from the white heat of the moral question above, to the empirical research conducted by the authors of the paper on the 11 levers: it was very interesting, and the comment at the end (of the summary) about tax policies in Ecuador particularly so. Granting that we’re talking about a different region of the world, there’s still a linkage inasmuch as in both cases we’re talking about elite capture, about ideas and also resources. Well, when it comes to both, I’m currently under the spell of Giridharadas’s Winners Take All and also the work of Page, Seawright and Lacombe. Anyway, today’s was a compelling blog post. This conversation could go on for a while – here’s hoping it does.

  4. Diana Cammack

    Wow! This has all the marks of a Trumpian argument… I appreciate that we sh/not hold on a pedestal people who are super intelligent (I was a post doc at Oxford for 2 years and found those – mostly Brits – who felt deserving of being there insufferable), but there is a danger here of being anti-intellectual, which is not far removed from being anti-scientific, and anti-rational.

    We need to ensure that people who are smart are given a way to strive and succeed and feel good, not ashamed of achieving and leading. And in this day and age we need to tell people who without knowledge, still spout off, that we need not listen to them, however equal they are.

    • Steve Prior

      > there is a danger here of being anti-intellectual, which is not far removed from being anti-scientific, and anti-rational.
      I’m sure that is a danger but it doesn’t mean that the argument is wrong.

      With power comes a responsibility towards those who don’t have any. The Latin American examples ignore that more overtly; the US and European ones more subtly (in my opinion).

      > We need to ensure that people who are smart are given a way to strive and succeed and feel good, not ashamed of achieving and leading.
      A respect for learning doesn’t have to mean ignoring those without it, even if their opinions are just plain wrong.
      I want to see all people strive and succeed and feel good, not just the smart ones. The latter are likely to see greater reward but I don’t think it should mean the non-smart ones are driven into destitution. Even those who don’t strive shouldn’t be considered worthless. (And democracy says they still deserve a vote).

      > in this day and age we need to tell people who without knowledge, still spout off, that we need not listen to them
      Which I think is why we are where we are. Perhaps we should ask them why they feel a need to spout nonsense. (Politely, of course).

      > however equal they are
      You might have to define “equal” here. This almost makes it feel pejorative.

    Despite many African are doing awesomely educationally and well skilled to do any professional jobs or carry on managerial tasks, their chances of being an employers under the template designed multiculturalism systems remains dark, some may be highly skilled and professional to carry on any bureaucratic functions, but the systems focus is to determined who is empower.
    The barriers to migrant employments :
    – Lack of education or qualification
    _ Lack of job experience and ascent and language barriers
    -specious or intimidation appearance , these key barriers are outlined to justify the denial of migrants job seekers , migrants finds it extremely difficult to overcome job racism in many countries .
    These discriminatory factors are used to measure the credibility of potential migrant employees within the designed multicultural regime , even though unskilled and skilled migrant are vetted under the same process .
    During recruitment process every educated migrants are de-skilled or link with the concept of being over qualify for the Job , the question is why someone should be denied being qualify when he is the right person for the jobs ?
    In Australia African migrants are concomitantly associated with food processing jobs , disability worker, taxi driver, cleaning , laboring and delivery jobs .the reason is that many employers wants to underpay certain people regardless their qualifications and skills .
    These type of manipulation and systematic racism serves as a caveat to create economic inequality , while the idea of multiculturalism continued to be used as a milk to dilute the problems affecting migrants , solution is needed to fix the problems. .
    while African continued to be affected by real economic racism or exclusions ,the systems will try the quick fix solutions , underemployment without job experience which eventually leads to cultural misappropriation and disadvantaging of Cross sections of communities ,notably, multiculturalism is designed to keep migrants invisible on the job markets due their none employers status .
    African who already have qualifications or acquired qualification overseas their qualification and skills do not commensurate with employers satisfactions ,while these stagnated economic conditions will forcibly drag migrants to accept any jobs .
    Meanwhile ,the role of multiculturalism in migrant employment is strategic , .
    Jobs agency closely worked with multicultural offices to prepare a migrants job seekers for Job readiness , even without qualification one can be qualified once he or she is alive as a requirements for certain jobs , it is incumbent the quest for economic empowerment for African community instead of just pushing everything on multiculturalism which is used as a tools to promotes the symptoms of economic racial discrimination which is covertly considered as prejudices , sentiments and segregation.
    African continue to face these debilitating economic manipulation under the watchful existence of multiculturalism, while some victims of job marginalization will think multiculturalism is fake , it is a cosmetic axiom used to cement economic racism pretentiously by migrant workers ,these manipulative incidents result into total injustices and job segregation against certain people who are forced to integrate .
    Notwithstanding , Multiculturalism is not working to empower African migrants, African want to be economically independent , free from manipulation , not subscribing to system that supports racial profiling under multiculturalism, these processes are categorized by identifying people by religions and countries , on this backdrop ,these tactics are adopted to keep migrants day dreaming and futuristic..
    Multiculturalism should focus on permanent solution and find an approach to draw a bench mark for migrant empowerment by playing key roles ,
    At least strengthening capacity building and improving incomes rather than promoting welfare dependency , public housing , teenage pregnancy and destroying the dreams of young Africans from learning,
    African want an expeditious approaches to mechanism their plights free from hypocrisy, that will not be used to blame migrants for the problems created by the fake systems , and establishing red lights on the systems failure which adequately address the needs of the people and support migrants income generating capacity.
    In conclusion, African migrant do not really wants to integrate into a systems that is favored owned by certain people which is creating spectators systems for migrants , notably , African also wants to be an employer to make their own decisions free from being white washing , free from suggested manipulation concepts imbibed to keep migrants economically inferiors and subordinated .