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. 


  1. Let's play basketball

  2. At the apex of the pyramid, psychopathic traits are considered 'adaptive strategy' rather than pathology. They were considered effective only if exhibited by a small proportion of the population. With the internet in the mix, I wonder if that still holds good.

  3. Hi Tarun,
    In other words, you're saying that the internet increases the amount of information that's spread regarding such behaviour and thus the spread of this information will likely lead to protests against such types of behaviour.
    I agree. We also have a nature vs nurture thing happening. As you point out, perhaps it is 'nature' which pushes us to pick up psychopathic traits and it might also be 'nature' which pushes us to stop using these traits (since they will no longer be tolerated and more likely harm the person). But nurture also plays a role. And given that we consider ourselves 'evolved', I don't see why that nurturing shouldn't focus on emphasising the importance of other values (empathy, compassion, etc).
    Eg: Middle/upper class Indians are told to study study study.. become a doctor/engineer. And despite how lacklustre our education system is.. Indians have done relatively well in these spheres whenever they've gone outside. The 'study study study' is of course a proxy for 'become successful and rich'. We all appreciate, at some level at least, empathy and compassion, but we don't place nearly the same amounts of importance on them as we do on the 'become successful' bit. Imagine that 'care, care, care' were also throw in along with the 'study, study, study'. But this won't happen of course, because being 'successful' is viewed (by most) better than being 'good/caring/dutiful'. Except in cases of spousal affiliation - where the ideal wife is constituted by these traits. (stating what seems to be mass opinion - not mine)

  4. Two other comments I received off the blog:

    Pr.An. : Nice blog esp. the part about iron law of meritocracy, which by the way can be explained by assuming that the rich / successful / meritocratic will behave in rational ways since keeping the spoils within their own clique is more beneficial than spreading it thin by getting more inclusive. One other factor that contributes to this is population and the consequent demand-supply of any finite resource. So long as people feel that demand outstrips supply, such rational self-interest where each person acts in his/her own self interest that diminishes communal benefits (known in game theory as tragedy of the commons) will continue. Game theory proposes some elegant theoretical solutions to this particular problem. Quite keen to understand your proposed solution to break the iron law, if you have devised one.

    Me: Thanks. Though I can't say I have a practically applicable proposed solution. Dealing with IP policy, I've more often had to think about the issues relating to the tragedy of the anti-commons. I'll probably be writing about this in one of my next few posts.

    Pu.Na.: Nice article swaraj. In the context of Legal Education, this is in line with Madhava Menon's recommendation of moving to a system to based on justice education.

    Me: Thanks.. I've heard a bit here and there about his recommendations. Will check them out.

  5. @Swaraj:
    I meant that these traits give an individual a predatory advantage only when the majority of the population does not exhibit them.
    People with these traits could decide to collude rather than compete.
    In economic terms, the internet could increase the size of their target population and the scope for exploitation by such groups (corporations?). It doesn't seem likely that technology will be a decisive factor, given that both sides are equally equipped.