Sun. May 26th, 2024

In a meritocratic society, individuals are rewarded based on the value of their talents and skills. When compared to a system of inheritance, i.e., where property is bequeathed from parent to offspring, meritocracy seems the more civilized system. Heredity is purely a matter of luck (or the lack thereof,) tantamount to winning some sort of genetic lottery. You do not merit wealth by simply being born into a landowning family as opposed to being born into a family of peasants or slaves. It is ostensibly much more virtuous to prefer a system that rewards individuals based on their merits as opposed to their genetic lineage. However, meritocracy without the façade of cliches such as “work hard and you will succeed” bears a striking resemblance to a system of inheritance. Why? Because it too is a system of inheritance.

The more meritocracy is critically examined, the more apparent its pernicious effects become. Just like a system of property inheritance, it, too, is a system in which wealth is conferred to individuals based on the arbitrariness of nature.

No one chooses whether they are born to rich or poor parents, but nor do they get to pick their genes, their talents or any single trait that they possess. It is rare to find any objections against the assertion that “it is unfair for one person to be born into the wealthy Walton family while others are born under the crushing weight of abject poverty.” However, it is equally unfair that some people are born with lucrative talents which enable them to produce vast amounts of wealth for themselves, while others are born with talents not valued by society. Do Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lebron James deserve to be born with their alien-like athleticism? Does Taylor Swift deserve to be born with her extraordinary musical talents? Do geniuses like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein deserve to be born with unparalleled intelligence? Of course not. The stars simply aligned for them. Few people would care for Messi’s ability to dribble a soccer ball had he been born during the Medieval Era. Whether someone inherits rich parents, valuable talents or neither is purely contingent upon luck. Some people win the genetic lottery, while most lose out. No one deserves their talents over someone else.

 This is why equity is preferable to equality. Equality treats everyone the same irrespective of what they are capable of. Equality fails to solve the issue of the unfair allocation of traits. A track and field race in which everyone starts from the same position may be considered fair, but only speciously so after consideration of the fact that some people are merely lucky to be born faster than others. The race is purportedly fair because the runners are all starting from the same physical starting line, but it is in fact an unfair race because the runners are not starting from the same starting line in terms of the running abilities they were born with. Wherever there are winners and losers, there is injustice. The same insidious reward and punishment system permeates throughout our economy and society. Those who are born with valuable traits enjoy many benefits, while those born with less profitable talents find themselves trudging through life with bleak, limited opportunities.

On the other hand, in a system of equity, everyone is provided with sufficient resources to compensate for their deficiencies. Those born with abundance have few needs, but those born with insufficiency are in need of more resources. The ultimate purpose of human society is to rectify the inequities nature has foisted on humans. A system of wealth redistribution is justified under these unfair conditions.

But how much wealth redistribution is reasonable? In a perfect world, wealth would be redistributed so that everyone possesses an equal amount. Of course, however, we live in a world of many flaws. In general, people fail to see how everyone’s outcome is merely the product of luck. The Lionel Messis, Taylor Swifts or even the average Joes of the world will not relinquish their wealth for the purpose of redistribution because they are under the illusion of being self-made and deserving of their wealth. And if the forceful route in the form of high tax rates is imposed, there would be few incentives to work hard. This is precisely why meritocracy is the best of a bad bunch. It is not ideal, but there’s no better system compatible with human nature. In order to motivate individuals to be innovative, produce good art and work hard, they need to be incentivized to do so. While meritocracy may not be more ethical than a system of property inheritance, it is more practical (despite meritocracy being culpable for wealth inequality and a contracting American middle class, according to Daniel Markovitz).

I do not know what the perfect tax rate to simultaneously incentivize individuals to work hard while creating a fair society is, but convincing people of the comprehensive role that luck plays in determining our success is one giant leap for societal progress.


Sameh Sharoud is a third-year Psychology major with a minor in Biology.

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