Wednesday, July 11, 2012
A very well written article entitled "Why Elites Fail" by Christopher Hayes was recently published in The Nation. You don't need to have read it for the purposes of this post, but it is definitely worth the read when you have time. It spoke very strongly and persuasively about 2 points (which I completely agree with):
1. The "Iron Law of Meritocracy". This essentially dictates that in societies centered around the appreciation of merit, the 'meritorious' start protecting and defending their elite turf so as to keep it within their own circles if not their own progeny. This naturally results not only in growing inequality but more importantly in reducing social mobility. Very clear examples of this are all around us all the time. Take a look at our education system - it is common place now for a range of tuition services to exist for getting into the top universities. So, once a poor student manages to finish his basic education despite whatever odds he has to face, he also has to then compete with much richer, tuition-ed, well connected kids for a spot on the same 'competitive' admission exam. Now expand that to a pool of 100 rich kids versus a pool of 100 poor kids. Doesn't take a professional gambler to know which to lay bets on. And that's just one particular level of the chain.
2. How are we 'meriting' anything in the first place? Intelligence. We like to think our society places a huge amount of importance on ability and intelligence. And ability is usually measured by intelligence (outside of sports, etc of course). He puts it best:
"While smartness is necessary for competent elites, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes. More important, it intimidates. When a group of powerful people get together to make a group decision, conflict and argumentation ensue, and more often than not the decision that emerges is that which is articulated most forcefully by those parties perceived to be the “smartest.” "
Indeed why aren't ethical rigour and empathy valued as much?! In our world obsessed with success, money, power.. why are we not as jubilant of our humane triumphs? Why do they go mostly unnoticed or unreported even they do occur? (And they certainly do: here is at least one forum which aims to bring focus to such activities)
Indeed, if empathy and compassion were equal factors of being meritorious along with intelligence, the so called "Iron law of Meritocracy" would no longer hold true. (Can you imagine Mother Teresa pulling up the ladder after herself?). The problem of reducing social mobility would not occur.
But instead, success and merit have become defining factors of themselves. Roles in society have become warped by our lack of understanding of what success should mean. What Lawrence Lessig terms as 'institutional corruption and improper dependence' (relationships that are legal, even currently ethical, but that weaken public trust in institutions) have become rampant. Do you know anyone who would be confident of at least 50% of his country's leaders passing an empathy exam?
I've coined the term Plebnorance to describe the most common result of this warped path we are walking on. The ignorance and/or apathy of issues relating to common people - by those who are not supposed to ignore them - most often by governmental leaders and policy makers and of course, by people themselves.
In this blog, given my educational background of law and intellectual property policy in particular, I'm likely to focus on issues of Information and Access, as requirements for our freedoms, as well as Innovation and Technology, as drivers of our civilizational progress. Having said that, I'll still consider any topic open game. If nothing else, I hope this process of writing and analysing such issues helps me attain some clarity in my own head regarding changes that can be pushed for and issues that can be raised more widely. To end, I'll leave you with Lessig's talk on institutional corruption - a longish 17 minute watch but a highly recommended one.