meritocracy paradox

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Meritocracy does not exist for liberalism itself

What is meritocracy? We exclude all variables related to meritocracy and seek to understand it only through the liberal understanding of effort. Therefore, let us list just one variable, the only one openly defended by liberalism: individual effort.

Suppose that a city, under exogenous force (external to the individual), manages to materially equalize all the children of a generation. All children would have the same material conditions and opportunities for knowledge and life. As adults, a part of this generation would be more capable and would assume the best jobs, and another part would be less capable and would assume the worst jobs.

The jobs reproduce different wages and incomes. By assuming the best jobs, the most capable generation would, on their own merits, have more material goods, passing on to their children a life with more opportunities. By having more access to these assets in life and, eventually, after the death of their parents, the children of the most capable would have more chances, before birth and in adult life, than children whose parents have shown themselves to be less capable, even if in power e in act could be more capable than the children of wealthier parents.

Thus, meritocracy would be undone in the next generation, as individuals would remain rich without dispute. They would no longer become rich; they would be rich, because they would be born rich. A system of inheritances and hereditary transmission would be forged and a generation crystallized in estates would be created, in which the poorest would find it more difficult to ascend, while the richest would never descend - this is, in part, the theory of hereditary transmission of capital and income by Thomas Picketty and the theory of capital transmission (economic capital, cultural capital and social capital) by Pierre Bourdieu.

For the next generation to structure itself under the same conditions as the previous generation, there would be a need for another exogenous force, equalizing material conditions and opportunities for knowledge and life. The same would happen in the third and fourth generations and in all the others that would follow. Thus, meritocracy can only approximate its ideal type if and only if an exogenous force acts as a continuous and perpetual intervention structure to enrich the children of unsuccessful parents and remove wealth from the children of successful parents, creating an objective average of material conditions, in order to assess the most capable among all. In other words, the idea of ​​meritocracy – in its ideal type – requires an intervention that social relations are not capable of producing.

More or less along these lines, Émile Durkheim considered inheritance an unnatural artifice, contrary to the “values” of “modern” society, as it would be nothing more than mere reproduction of class. That is, even Durkheim, in the XNUMXth century, with his functionalist structuralism, implicitly found the reproduction of class as a determining factor for “capabilities”.

Over time, the considerations of the father of sociology were lost with the advance of conservative liberalism, which took on two perspectives: the first was censorship of criticism of inheritance and/or its connection with the concept of meritocracy. This perspective is still prevalent in liberal circles. In this way, slave-owning families became entrepreneurs, such as the Moreira Salles, Setúbal, Villela and Bracher families, all owners of Itaú-Unibanco. The Moreira Salles family can play filmmaker and cultural activist, the Setúbal and Villela families philanthropists, and the Bracher family a “diversity” speaker. The past and origin are erased, even from generation to generation, as if it were a fetishism of meritocracy.

The second perspective is naturalization. Nobody did it better than neoliberalism, above all Milton Friedman, who was forced, in 1962, in the midst of civil rights struggles for North American blacks, to defend, in addition to segregated schools and the right of white employers not to employ blacks. , inheritance as a genetic factor.

Em capitalism and freedom, the economist invents a bizarre analogy with forceps. Let's get to it: “Suppose there are four Robinson Crusoes housed on four different islands, close to each other. One was lucky to arrive on a large and fertile island, which allows him to live well with ease. The others arrived on small and arid islands, where they can only survive with difficulty. One day, they become aware of each other's existence. Of course, it would be very generous of Big Island Robinson to invite others to move there and share in its wealth. But suppose you don't. Would the other three be justified in getting together and forcing him to share his wealth with them? Countless readers would be tempted to answer yes. But, before succumbing to this temptation, consider precisely the same situation under a different aspect” (FRIEDMAN, 1985, p. 150).[I]

He continues: “Suppose you, the reader, and three other friends are walking down the street and you notice a $20 bill on the ground and pick it up. It would be very generous of you, in fact, if you decided to share it with your three friends in equal parts or, at least, if you invited them for a drink. But suppose you don't. Would the other three be justified in getting together and forcing him to share his note with them? I have the impression that many readers would answer no” (FRIEDMAN, 1985, p. 150).

Logically, it is a fallacy of false analogy and a fallacy of accident.[ii] In one case, death awaits the liberal, in another, just one drink less – false analogy and accident fallacies are common in liberalism. But let's try to understand Friedman himself. According to the economist, his examples would express “most of the differences in status or position or wealth” that “can rarely be considered as the result of luck”, because “the hardworking and thrifty man is qualified as 'deserving'” – note that all examples depended on luck. However, “he largely owes his qualities to the genes he had the good fortune (or misfortune) to inherit” (FRIEDMAN, 1985, p. 151).

From the lucky-to-happiness examples of the inheritance of better genes, a triple-pike inductive jump has occurred. For Friedman, returning to our example of the second generation, the transmission of capital consists precisely in the transmission of the genes of those who were already better in the first generation. Thus, Friedman naturalizes and legitimizes the link between inheritance and meritocracy, as the child is necessarily as capable as the parents because the parents would already have been more capable, not requiring any proof in their children's lives. Therefore, the transmission of better genes to the children of the second generation, linking them to family success and failure, becomes genetic determinism – as an alternative to the divine determinism of the feudal mode of production and the racial and environmental determinism of the slave mode of production market, which were not only replaced, but appropriated and re-signified by liberalism in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

But what is the source of the false and pathetic Friedman debate? The origin is in previous pages when he asks himself if the inheritance is improper – it was a much debated point in the US of 1960. Here is the question: “The children of a Russian commissioner certainly have a higher expectation of income – perhaps also of liquidation – than the son of a peasant. Is this fact more or less justifiable than the higher income expectation of the son of an American millionaire?” (FRIEDMAN, 1985, p. 149). Not for him, because “it seems illogical” to him not to pass on to his son the “wealth he has accumulated”, as that would mean defending that “a man has the right to dissipate his fortune, but he cannot give it to his children”.

To give meaning to this sentence, he removes it from what he called “capitalist ethics” (agreeing with Durkheim) to consider inheritance “as an instrument or corollary of another principle, such as freedom” (FRIEDMAN, 1985, p. 150). Inheritance is part of capital freedom and, therefore, of the individual, even if this generates a paradox with what he called “capitalist ethics”, imploding the messianic idea of ​​meritocracy with an explicit analogy about medieval estates – that he sought typical classes of the feudal mode of production is not something fortuitous, but illuminating. That is, since the 1960s, the idea of ​​meritocracy has been abandoned by neoliberalism, creating a deification of wealth and millionaires. This explains the attachment of neoliberal movements and entities to the messianic figure of the “entrepreneur” billionaire.

Therefore, liberalism confronts the widespread idea of ​​meritocracy, to the extent that liberalism prides itself on demanding the maintenance of laissez-faire and the absence of state intervention, which contributes to the hereditary transmission of what liberalism itself understands by success and failure, whose model is structured in a state way, including analytically. When a rich man defends the non-existence of exogenous force, especially on himself and on the relationship between capital and work, he does nothing more than defend the continuum of hereditary transmission in conflict with the very idea of ​​meritocracy that it believes to defend and represent. Meritocracy does not exist for liberalism itself!

*Leonardo Sacramento is a teacher of basic education and pedagogue at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo. Book author The mercantile university: a study on the public university and private capital (apris).



[I] FRIEDMAN, Milton. capitalism and freedom. In collaboration with Rose D. Friedman. Presentation by Miguel Colasuonno. So Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1985.

[ii] “The fallacy by accident consists in applying a general rule to a particular case, the “accidental” circumstances of which make the rule inapplicable”. In: COPI, Irving Marmer. Introduction to Logic. Translation and Álvaro Cabral. São Paulo: Mestre Jou, 1978.

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