Thanks to a reader — it’s not clear to me whether he/she wishes to remain anonymous, so I’ll leave it at that — I was directed to an article in Wired.com titled The secret of successful entrepreneurs. It makes reference to a blogpost by Ross Douthat in the New York Times titled The trouble with meritocracy which, although written about the elite in the United States, has resonance with other countries as well.
Part of the problem with meritocracy is that it homogenizes in the name of diversity: It skims the cream from every race and class and population, puts all of the best and brightest through the same educational conveyor belt, and comes out with a ruling class that’s cosmetically diverse but intellectually conformist, and that tends to huddle together rather than spreading out to enrich the country as a whole.
I thought this point of his particularly insightful:
meritocracy co-opts people who might otherwise become its critics
The Singapore government has ballyhooed for decades its commitment to meritocracy. Leaving aside the question how sincere it is and how genuine are the results, I think we also need to question how right or useful is such a credo.
To begin with, what do we mean by merit? It can only have meaning within priorly defined parameters. For example, what do we mean by beautiful? Can we compare a ballet performance with a sunset, or a tapestry with an elegant mathematical solution and say one is more beautiful than the other? To compare or measure demands selectivity in what you’re trying to rank or rate. Those who rise through a “meritocratic system” are those who do well according to certain metrics. No doubt a long discussion can ensure as to what are the metrics applied in Singapore, but I think it is enough to just sketch a few:
- Academic excellence
- Aptitude for command (e.g. in how those who rise through uniformed organisations are considered “leadership” material)
- Aptitude for running large commercial organisations (as opposed to driving successful start-ups)
- Track record in working within a bureaucratic culture (this may include qualities such as not rocking the boat, intuiting what the boss wants and being assiduous in carrying out orders)
What’s missing? So many other attributes, among which imagination, fearlessness, aesthetic genius, compassion, ethical consciousness, spirituality and creative criminality come quickly to my mind — not that I’m recommending some of these. The point I want to make is simply how narrowly selective are the parameters within which we speak of meritocracy.
The result is plain to see: An obvious homogeneity among Singapore’s elite, especially in government, statutory boards and government-related companies. Quite often in the professions and academia too.
Even worse, however, is the conveyor belt effect. Precisely because, in the unquestioned name of meritocracy, a certain type is rewarded in our society, there is immense pressure to churn out more of the same. Parents shape their children with these goals and young adults remake themselves to fit into the straitjacket. Alternative types and outliers are left to wither, sometimes actively pruned away.
Anybody taking the long view, especially one with a grasp of the biological sciences, from evolution to infectious diseases, will be able to sense a looming risk of disaster. The in-type may be successful within conditions that breed the in-type — it’s typically the result of a positive feedback loop — but the moment external conditions change, it often takes an outlier to save the day.
I think we can anticipate the government’s defence of its credo. It will probably say that running a country, or its major institutions, public and private, will never be much different from running a complex, large organisation. Therefore the metrics associated with the ability to run such things will always be pertinent. Secondly, organisational skill and intelligence — a highly contentious word, that! — are flexible virtues that can cope with changing circumstances.
Yes and no, and in fact, the defence will likely suggest its own weaknesses. Is running a country and its institutions like running a large, complex organisation? The very comparison is loaded with assumptions. Are society and state inherently hierarchical bodies with clear boundaries? They might have been in days past; will they be so going forward? Or will they be much flatter, fuzzier things (i.e. more cloud than corporation) that are far less amenable to organisational skills as we know them?
Intelligence and organisational skills may well always be useful, but beware how we define either of them. It does not take much to see that in this “meritocratic” society, we define intelligence very narrowly. Less obvious, but equally dangerous is how we define organisational skill as one that relates to bureaucratic organisations. Someone else who can enthuse a mass of free-spirited people and convince them to come together voluntarily for a shared aim can also be said to have great organisational skills, but of a different kind. Yet we don’t normally think of this as an attribute our meritocracy selects for.
Conformity to beliefs
Moreover, the selection process that underlies any meritocracy not only selects for attributes and skills sets, it also selects for conformity to beliefs. My guess would be that this is almost an inevitable trajectory of all ruling elites. They may start off with the best intentions to only select for attributes and skills sets, but invariably in the nature of human social behaviour, those within the in-group so formed then re-segregate themselves by belief systems. The ones who share the dominant belief system will tend to freeze out those who do not, even if they all have the same skill sets. So gradually, meritocracy gets to mean both attribute selection and beliefs conformity. The longer an elite remains the ruling class, the more inbred it becomes.
As for coping and adapting to changes in external conditions, beware what we mean by external. I know I used the term “external conditions” above, and readers may think I mean external to Singapore. That was not what I meant. What counts as a challenge to any prevailing social or political system is anything that is external to the elite. Domestic mass discontent is as threatening as geostrategic shifts abroad, perhaps more so. Local culture change subverts the operating paradigm more than global climate change. Changes to the conditions that favour the aptitudes and beliefs selected for will render the selection much less than optimal.
Surely an elite that commends intelligence should be able to cope and adapt? I seriously doubt that “intelligence” as defined for the purposes of merit selection in Singapore is that much help in coping and adapting when these tectonic shifts occur. As mentioned in a Boston Globe article which another reader drew my attention to, and which I will dissert upon in an upcoming essay, there is a human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance by resisting rather than reconciling with unwelcome facts and situations. In other words, instead of dealing constructively with external changes, those who find them most unwelcome would react least appropriately to them. The more in-bred the elite — and it is meritocracy that delivers inbreeding — the less psychologically equipped they are to adapt, intelligence notwithstanding, and when the elite fail, they tend to take the country down with them. This is especially if they have spent much energy eliminating alternative attributes and ideas from the population.
What is the solution? There is no panacea. It’s utopian to imagine a society or state without an elite. But what we can do is to be watchful of selective pressures and inbreeding, and to do something to prevent the withering or pruning of society’s most valuable resource in times of crisis: the outliers. We need to bend over backwards to ensure they not only survive, but they thrive as well as they can. In practical terms, it means deploying the common resources disproportionately to protecting and even nurturing them.
For a society and state to be healthy in the long term, we must be watchful that the powers and the resources at hand do not primarily serve the dominant and the popular, for in normal times these can take care of themselves. State powers and resources should be deployed to protect unpopular speech and marginalised persons and to nurture talents and ideas that may seem totally useless today, but should be valued as an insurance policy for the day the dominant paradigm, honed to perfection by a self-selecting elite, fails. When the meritocrats are all at sea, it may well be the outliers who will save the day.