on meritocracy.

Some time ago, a prof of mine mentioned in passing during lecture that she didn’t believe in meritocracy. In a “which I don’t”-and-chuckle way, then “it’s ridiculous to reward people based on intelligence and hard work”. It probably was nothing anyone would pay attention to. But I had been dozing off and that very teeny remark made me sit up. Love how my brain works.

Believing in meritocracy is something I’ve never examined my whole life. It was kind of a taken for me and until now, I thought, everyone else too. And now that my attention has been called to that, I feel ashamed because that belief was, at its core, merely hegemonic. It bugged me for hours until I decided to email her to ask why and more importantly, what alternative there is.

I told her I could somewhat see a reasoning behind objecting a system that rewards based on intelligence, but hard work?

Her answer was that “meritocracy claims to reward people who ‘work hard’, but in practice, hierarchizes according to intelligence and cultural capital”. Plainly, that it is not purely by hard work that a bunch of social ‘elites’ like us are toiling away in University, looking forward to a whole life of ‘toiling away’ in a cushy office (most of us, anyway). We are here because our parents are relatively more affluent than an appalling percentage of society who cannot even afford their children bread and water. Next, we possess a serendipitous amount of intelligence that allowed us to benefit more from our early education than a percentage of society who had to be eliminated.

She posed me a question: “Wouldn’t you agree that construction workers work very hard indeed?”

“Then why do we only pay them 8% the salary of a starting bank employee? Why do we think brain work deserves more money than physical work?”

At this point, I felt humbled because of my imperviousness.

Further prompting revealed an idea she might be partial to that truthfully shocked my sensibilities. She referred to a possible system where everyone is given a basic salary with the option to earn extra, but upon reaching an upper limit with that extra, that person would have to hand over that excess money to the community. This would, hopefully, create a more equal society in terms of income.

I remember thinking at that point, “Oh my God, she’s basically communist!”

But that’s not my point today. My point is why did I feel so uncomfortable about a system that could possibly eliminate the rich-poor divide? Of course, besides real-life problems that actually result from Communism that we’ve all studied in History. Because I’m sitting on this side of the world, as much as it breaks my heart that children on the other side are scraping for that piece of bread that I don’t even care to eat at home, deep down inside, I am unwilling to give up what I think is rightfully my share of the pie. It isn’t. Rightfully, that is. It’s just that I’m so used to having a warm bed, clean bathroom and glorious food.

(This actually reminds me of the episode of Southpark where they addressed music piracy by illegal downloading and they showed the big-time celebrities moping because they couldn’t get ridiculously extravagant stuff anymore and had to settle for slightly less ridiculously extravagant stuff. – Season 7 Episode 9)

I don’t know why I’m still thinking about this when I’ve got like 12 readings sitting on my lap.

**Oh and this was my reply (lazy to rephrase):
“After thinking through, I would be partial to a reward system that works somewhat by the laws of demand and supply, perhaps eg. unpleasant work = less applicants = demand for applicants = award higher pay to attract people to apply. Therefore, if no one wants to be a cleaner, employers would have to raise the salary of a cleaner to increase the attractiveness of the job. But of course, this wouldn’t be a solution to an ’employers’ market’.”

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