The planet Earth has many layers of rock that have accumulated over eons of time. Each new layer sits atop an older layer. One layer is called a stratum. We who live on the surface are not aware of the many strata that hold our land masses together. We simply know what we see at the surface and form expectations about the surface environment. Ideas have strata, too. Over human history many layers of ideas have formed and together support our expectations in this present time.
A stratum lies beneath and supports our expectations about fairness, our expectations about equality, and our expectations about justice. We expect American society to have a set of scruples and we expect, without explicit definition, everyone to live by these scruples. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution plus the Bill of Rights promote scruples and guarantee a system of jurisprudence that assures a set of scruples. The stratum that lies beneath our sense of fairness, equality, justice and cultural scruples has a name: meritocracy. In the current meritocracy, all citizens have the opportunity to be recognized and advanced in proportion to their abilities and accomplishments. But meritocracy is subject to reinterpretation.
Words like freedom, liberty, pursuit of happiness, be all you can be, anyone can be President – all are expressions supported by meritocracy. When we look back to the thirties and forties, when the Great Depression, World War II and the years that followed established the current definition of meritocracy, we realize that a new stratum is forming; a new layer that will support a different set of expectations about the scruples of our society. Aware that a new definition is forming raises serious questions. How will existing scruples, fairness, etc., be reinterpreted? Will a new meritocracy support the ‘opportunity to be recognized and advanced in proportion to their abilities and accomplishments’? Importantly, “What will happen to me?”
Meritocracy is very malleable. Meritocracy is the flour in baked goods of every type, flavor and texture. The analogy of flour is apropos even to the event of having to rise; just because meritocracy is proclaimed, as in the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t mean it exists. Unlike baked goods, there is no given recipe – spices and additives are endless and often do not bake well.
In a final colorful analogy, meritocracy is like a toy top spinning on the floor. Spinning is wobbly and unstable in its direction but the fact that it seems to defy imbalance and stay spinning provides a good feeling and provides a sensation of success. This analogy is apropos of any ideal. Ideals by their very nature are unachievable; once fallen, ideals must be rewound and thrown again – and again. Each new definition of meritocracy is a new stratum in history; meritocracy is the flour of society; meritocracy, in the end, never will be permanent.
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What follows are general waypoints in the emergence, practice and transition of meritocracy.
What do Caligula, Henry VIII, Harold Hardrada, Napoleon, Hitler, Yeltsin, Erdogan, and Donald have in common?
Each of them, more by the power of their personality disorders than anything else, are the final blow that brought an end to an old stratum; government and culture were weak; mores, scruples and social expectations were in disarray. External status quo, that is, the world in general had changed but old internal assumptions held on until international conflict occurred and provoked the rise of new sources of power through overthrow of government, populism, or in some cases, war.
What do rice, wheat, corn, barley, and potatoes have in common?
The first significant shift in meritocracy was when early man discovered farming. Each of these crops in their own circumstances around the world created a totally new social order. Any significant change in economy or how economy works will trigger a new stratum – a new definition of human rights. The same can be said for inventions, communication, chemical advances and, especially until the entire world was mapped, exploration. Expectations about economic fairness, opportunity and confidence are life-changing in any regard and dissatisfaction quickly will challenge current perceptions of meritocracy.
What do Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Moses and Muhammad have in common?
Obviously, each is the spiritual center of a major religion. Philosophical and theological contributions by each established codes of behavior and expectations which influenced all aspects of culture – even economics. Each religion straddles many strata and is an active force in changing the definition of meritocracy. Today, the impact of global economy, instant global information, and worldwide instant communication has brought various religions into conflict because global standardization does not mix well with the idiosyncrasies of different religious principles. This conflict in itself suggests a new definition of meritocracy is emerging.
Transition from one definition of human rights to another is messy and must pass through a hodgepodge of events and probabilities. No one can actually predict turns of events if one is living in the midst of stratum change. Below are some contemporary existential phenomena.
֎ Remember when . . . name any subject. If things are different today than they were a decade or two ago, meritocracy is undergoing redefinition.
֎ The economy is out of balance to the point that citizens are not sharing in the profits (remember the Luddites?). As alluded to earlier, nothing jumpstarts a new stratum like economic dissatisfaction.
֎ Populism emerges as a potent political force. The 2016 election was clear evidence that government was not meeting meritocracy’s expectations.
֎ New technology modifies cultural values and behavior. This began to accelerate when an individual could buy one’s own computer; then amplified by cellular phones and now aggravated by smartphones and social media to the point that normal interpersonal behavior is a matter of electronic potential instead of human potential. Need a spouse? Find them on the Internet; who wants to bother with socializing and honing one’s interpersonal skills?
֎ Those in power show signs of abuse when dealing with due process. We in the US certainly suffer this but virtually the whole of South America suffers big time.
֎ Allegiance to a common value disintegrates into partisan bickering; the big issue today is the one Russia is manipulating; Americans are not united in their expectations; the stratum of meritocracy is unstable.
֎ Compound all this by our knowledge that another significant change lies just a few years down the calendar: artificial intelligence. We have no idea what that will do to our human rights, our definition of meritocracy, our new stratum.
The point of all this is that we are living lives of unusual stress because our expectations about our role in society, our sense of fairness, our sense of protection, our sense of justice – all are without a stable foundation. Meritocracy, the foundation concept that provides order for these issues, is shifting.
One last analogy: we are sailing in stormy seas. We must take control of the helm to assure that what we still think is fair, equal and just will guide our course.
This is very interesting. I question the word meritocracy as it has overtones of elitism to me (because I would not rise very high in the ranks of a meritocracy!) I prefer equality of opportunity to a system that stratifies by ability. How does a meritocracy protect those with less merit but still have human needs? The bright and able will always manage somehow. Or have I totally missed the point!
The key sentence in your essay is “Importantly, what will happen to me!” That is my concern!
Mariner understands your concern. What if meritocracy were defined as the right to be cared for? What is outdated about the US experiment in meritocracy is that everyone can’t be free or enabled at the same time. The European stratum in the eighteenth century was very much like today – elitist, economically unfair, and had strident religious qualifications. The US sought to escape the old stratum by freeing every citizen to be and do whatever is best for each citizen. As the post referenced in the spinning top analogy, it is time to rewind and toss again.