This quote on meritocracy from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made the rounds yesterday, from a Baccalaureate Address to Princeton, and for good reason:
The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.
Bernanke actually brings up an aspect that when speaking about the inherent limitations to fairness in meritocracy is often left out; genetics, or ‘natural’ talents and disadvantages. I assume this part, as opposed to the oft-mentioned ‘social origins,’ receives less attention because it’s more difficult to imagine what to do about it. Nevertheless, there are some that have considered both and one of them is the 20th century political philosopher John Rawls, who wrote that while:
[…] no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society … it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way of dealing with them. The basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate. Thus we are led to the difference principle if we wish to set up the social system so that no one gains or loses from his arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assists or his initial position in society without giving or receiving compensating advantages in return.
The “difference principle” is probably what Rawls is most known for; an idea that Will Kymlicka in his introduction to contemporary political philosophy describes as the ability to claim “a greater share of resources if they can show that it benefits those who have lesser shares” (p 57).
I’ve only recently delved into contemporary political philosophy, so I could entirely be wrong, but Bernanke’s words don’t strike me as entirely satisfying the difference principle. That those who the prevailing meritocratic view would shine greatest upon should have the “greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others” is close, but not quite. A responsibility isn’t the same as the claim to legitimacy over resources. If Jonny Jetpack graduates from Princeton and becomes a billionaire, but fails to fulfill his responsibility to share his good fortune, Bernanke wouldn’t claim his wealth is ill-deserved or invalid. If the alternative to living up to the Chairman’s ideals is the equivalent to being a rich jerk then Rawls would probably disapprove.
It’s a nice sentiment to be sure; unoriginal but simple and said effectively towards a group graduating from an elite university. The intended audience is important here, if we’re to assume that these folks will feature prominently in society and it’s institutions. We have normative expectations for people to be thankful to their faith, friends and family for individual achievements — the standard acceptance that one “I couldn’t have done this without…” — but rarely for being born with a silver spoon, for the everyday freak luck of nothing getting hit by a car or born with a debilitating disease. What does a just society provide for these folks, whose unequal outcomes were influenced or dictated by circumstances outside their control? That’s a question being answered all along the ideological spectrum, in one form or another, when we talk about many public and private policies. Bernanke may only go ‘half-Rawlsian’ in his answer, but it’s also not half-bad.