Monday 28 April 2014

The Merits of Meritocracy and the Just World Belief

If Singapore (and by inference, the PAP) were to have any sacred cows (or core principles), Meritocracy would be one of them.

There is much to recommend Meritocracy. Only a weasel would say that selecting candidates based on their ability is a terrible idea - "We should select them based on their popularity. You know, DEMOCRATICALLY!" Ok, maybe not "weasel"... American? Greek?

The point of my previous post is not that Meritocracy trumps Democracy every time. If you got that impression, my apologies for being unclear.

No, the point is that there are realms where meritocracy is the way to go, and realms where democracy is the way to go.

For example, in parts of the US, the post of Sheriff is an elected post. (Or may be all Sheriffs are elected posts, I do not know.) But I always wondered if that was such a good idea. A Sheriff is a law enforcement officer. There are professional skills, as well as technical skills that one should have to do the job well. So shouldn't that the post of Sheriff be decided meritocratically? You know, so that the most qualified person gets the job?

Anyway, this post is about the Merits of Meritocracy. What's so good about it, and is it so bad that the Education Minister has to defend it?

Actually, all he said was, "don't make it a dirty word". Not much by way of defending it actually.

There has been a few articles in the news about Meritocracy. I am usually disappointed in them because, Meritocracy is just the fad word of the day or the season.

What is "compassionate meritocracy"? There is an article on 26 August 2013 in TODAY. You can read, it, but it doesn't have a clear definition or illustration of it. It was a "finding" from a Singapore Conversation, and it was, to use a very technical term, "very woolly".

So let's be clear - Meritocracy is the selection of candidates for a job or a position based solely on merit - the candidate's ability, skills, demonstrated expertise, and overall suitability for the job. In other words, you earn your place by merit. (So what's "compassionate meritocracy" then? Selection of candidates by merit, with a "sob story" as a tie breaker?)

However, there are several assumptions about meritocracy when we assume that Meritocracy is the best way to select candidates.

The first is that the candidates had the same starting point. The second is that they ran the same race.

These are pertinent questions, but there is a more insidious effect of Meritocracy.

If meritocracy is the selection of "winners" by their ability, then the corollary is that losers lack ability. And that is an insidious assumption, and that is based on an assumption or belief in a "Just World".

Just World Belief

A "Just World Belief" in brief is the belief that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people."

Why do people believe in a Just World?
“The belief that the world is just enables the individual to confront his physical and social environment as though they were stable and orderly. Without such a belief it would be difficult for the individual to commit himself to the pursuit of long-range goals or even to the socially regulated behavior of day-to-day life.” (Lerner & Miller, 1978)
A "Just World Belief" enables one to believe that one has some control over one's environment, that one is not at the mercy of fate. A Just World Belief (probably) correlates to an "Internal Locus of Control". That is, we believe we have control over our lives, that we can ensure that good things happen to us, because we do good things.

Meritocracy in a sense, supports the Just World Belief. And if the world truly is just, and meritocracy merely reinforces and supports the just world belief, and the world and people are appropriately and justly treated, then all would be well.

But, we do not live in a Just world. The rain falls on good and evil alike, just as the sun shines on innocent and guilty alike. Success is not just a matter of ability, but often has a huge component of luck (see video - Michael Lewis speaks about luck in his success story - below, and gives an example of Fortune's Cookie - start at 10:20).

It is not a Just World we live in.

But at the same time we do not live in a perfectly random world, where Luck determines the fortunes and misfortunes that comes your way.

Nor do we live is an unjust world where lies, corruption, and dishonesty throws obstacles in your way and the only way for you to succeed is to be unscrupulously corrupt, and buy your success, and every success you buy improves your ability to buy the next success.

Well, at least not in Singapore.

Meritocracy and the Just World Belief

So that is the problem with Meritocracy and the Just World Belief - it shapes our worldview, and the way we see people.

To subscribe to meritocracy, we need to believe that if we work hard, and become the best at what we do, we will be recognised and rewarded. Conversely if we are not rewarded, it is because we are not the best, we have not worked hard enough, and we lost because we were not meritorious enough.

And this belief in a just world has insidiously shaped our worldview and made us less "forgiving" of failure, less forgiving of mistakes.

And there is evidence that perhaps the government realises this, realises that meritocracy engenders a hard-hearted worldview, that is anathema to compassion, to kindness, to a more forgiving spirit.

So when the government tries to be "forgiving" within the context of a "meritocratic worldview", they are called on the implied hypocrisy - that "honest mistakes" are forgivable, and the principles of meritocracy can be suspended for "honest mistakes". The public's disbelief hinges on this question: "What mistakes are not honest mistakes? If 'mistakes' were dishonest, there should be prosecution under the law. If not, all mistakes are by definition, honest mistakes. What you called an 'honest mistake' is a mistake, a misjudgement, that caused the govt considerable loss, made by one you have deemed to be competent and capable. But his error you write off as an honest mistake? Under the principle of meritocracy, if you did right, you are rewarded. Consequently if you misjudged the situation and acted incorrectly, even honestly, you should get held accountable for your error."

The explanation of "honest mistake" was not accepted by the public, not forgiven by the public, and repeated derisively either as examples of hypocrisy, inconsistency, double standards, elitism, etc.

Same for the error of Mas Selamat's escape.

That is the other edge of the double edged sword of meritocracy. If you reward correct action, you must punish incorrect action. That is in line with the principle of Meritocracy, and the Just World view.

The Just World view/belief began with Modern/Independent Singapore's founding. S. Rajaratnam is quoted as having said:
"We want to disabuse people of the notion that in a good society the rich must pay for the poor. We want to reduce welfare to the minimum, restricted only to those who are handicapped or old. To the others we offer equal opportunities and it is up to them what they make of [them]. Everyone can be rich if they try hard."
(S Rajaratnam quoted in Vasil, 1984, p. 168).

"Everyone can be rich if they try hard."

With that, S. Rajaratnam condemned all the poor - obviously, if they are not rich, they did not try hard enough.

To be fair to the man, I have tried to find a more direct attribution of the quote to him. Personally, my impression of the man leads me to question if he did indeed say those words. But I have only one source and maybe he said it. Maybe he did not.

BUT, unspoken or otherwise, meritocracy, and the just world belief assures Singaporeans that the competent and capable are rewarded and enriched. The corollary to that is, the poor did not try hard enough, are incompetent, or incapable.

And this obviously unjust and unreasonable worldview is being rejected by Singaporeans.

And that is why when Anton Casey made fun of poor people, insulted poor people, implied that poor people should be scorned, we got angry. We got angry not because his values were different from us. But because we secretly shared those same shameful values.

Meritocracy may have brought Singapore to this stage, but it is insufficient as a basis for a socially mature community.

And with Thomas Pikettys' Capital in the 21st Century, it is beginning to be clear that Capitalist Meritocracy may not be the path to success.

In short, Meritocracy has the following flaws or negative effects:

First it engenders a Just World Belief. It leads people to judge "failures" or "unsuccessful" people as "meriting" their lower status, their poorer status. Regardless of whether Rajaratnam said it or not, if you subscribe to meritocracy, you implicitly believe that "Everyone can be rich if they try hard." And the corollary to that is, "if you're not rich, you did not try hard enough". Or is not good enough. And so you deserved to be poor, to be unsuccessful.

Secondly, it justifies class differences. Singaporeans then become a "stratified" society that justifies Social Strata with meritocracy, and the Just World Belief. That is, not only are there "high-class" and "low-class" people in Singapore, but these classes were determined not by some unfair caste system or hereditary status, but by the VERY FAIR meritocratic system.

Thirdly, Singaporeans become very hardhearted, judgmental, punitive, unsympathetic, and justifies their attitude with Meritocracy and their Just World Belief.

There is a story or quote, about the social mobility and class difference between the US and the old country: In the old country, you see the Man in the Big House on the Hill and you say, "One day, we'll GET him!" In the US, you see the Man in the Big House on the Hill, and you say, "One day, I'll BE him!"

The US accepts inequality, because they also subscribe the the idea of Meritocracy, and that one day, if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded.

We are beginning to question Meritocracy (in the US as well as here in SG) as a means to social mobility. Here in SG, we should also question its effects on our attitude, psychology, conscience, and consciousness.

[Addendum 2015

"Compassionate Meritocracy"

I had wondered about the definition of "Compassionate Meritocracy" and have not read a clear definition of this term. Re-reading what I wrote, I would proposed that Compassionate Meritocracy is the de-linking of Meritocracy and the Just World Belief.

That is, believing that "If you work hard and try hard, you will get the job" but holding back on believing the corollary, "that if you did not get the job, you didn't try hard enough or work hard enough".

Compassionate Meritocracy is the more realistic perspective that Success is one percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration, and 9 percent luck, or some combination of skill and luck.

Compassionate Meritocracy is the belief that "if you work hard, and you are a little bit lucky, you can be rich", or "With a bit of luck, everyone can be rich if they try hard", and "If you're not rich, you might have had some bad luck".

That is compassionate meritocracy.]

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