Individualism, Meritocracy, and Communalism: Some Perspectives
three decades, at least up to the time of the
was discussed, somewhat negatively, by Theodore Reich back in 1970 with The
Greening of America, as more or less an expression of “Consciousness
II.” To put it bluntly, meritocracy is
sometimes interpreted as meaning that one person is inherently “better” than
another. The implementation of student deferments during the
A key concept of this neo-individualism was the idea that one defines his own purposes before committing oneself to permanent intimate relationships with others, whether in the family or in community settings. Obviously this notion of self-ownership would appeal to lesbians and especially gay men, but also appealed in a much broader sense to women who preferred finishing professional education (like medical school) before starting families, and to maintaining a psychological balance between family and career or other forms of identity expression.
Neo-individualism would be accompanied by entrepreneurialism, an optimistic spirit that would encourage individuals, aided by technology to try their own ideas in areas like software, publishing, film making, and all different forms of artistic expression. This new emphasis on self-definition, outside of the expectations of others and particularly beyond lineage, grew in the later part of the Twentieth Century in western society because, to put it bluntly, society thought that it could finally afford it. Some of the ideas stemming from self-promotion would become silly, and turn into hyper-marketing “get rich quick” schemes that help characterize the Internet bubble. In the financial world, as in times past, people would become careless about ethical conflicts, and this development would exacerbate the financial, auditing and accounting scandals of the recent past. On the other hand, individuals could sometimes gain recognition for work of real artistic, scientific or scholarly value with little financial investment.
Neo-individualism would be resisted as harmful to the family, religious faith, and even dangerous to financial stability and even national security. But methods could be proposed to “fix” the concept by increasing the accountability of everyone for his own missteps. In this view, downturns may be regarded as a way to weed out less competitive persons form the open market.
In the information technology world, there would be a sudden evaporation of the career and job market as the looseness and lack of standardized ideas of professionalism (along with the availability of intellectual skills overseas where workers who have a lower standard of living and lower wages compete) would catch up with many people making lucrative livings in I.T. The idea would grow that anyone enjoying financial and public recognition for “success” should display increased commitment and accountability for his professional choices. Furthermore, failure should be faced squarely when it occurs as objective reality, regardless of extenuating circumstances. People could be driven out of professional lives, or forced to “pay their dues” by proving that they could do the 24-hour grunt work of those upon whom they depended. Students could be held responsible for “well-roundedness” and not allowed to hide behind academic excellence at the expense of practical skills, as I did. People could be held accountable personally if they made a living working for unethical employers or according to unethical business models. I believe that my own personal example is controversial because for me public recognition for writing provided an effective way to connect with people who interest me and, moreover, avoid commitments to people on their own terms.
One term used to describe this attitude is “social Darwinism,” although it (and the term “survival of the fittest”) was really proposed by 19th Century British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who saw meritocracy as fundamental to freedom and believed that government should maintain a hands-off attitude in remedying inequities.
imagine where such a road can lead. We could have a hyper-meritocratic society
of “winners” and “losers,” with the
losers tossed out of economic calculations as outliers. This reminds one of the
“winner take all” mentality become particularly troubling when one considers
global free trade and global competition. American workers, even very skilled
workers in information technology, for example, face competition from
overpopulated non-Western countries where people will do the same job for much
less money. The end result is a transfer of wealth and living standards to the
The polar opposite of all of this would, of course, be the communalism of the Left. The idea of competition and meritocracy is anathema to the ideological Left. Rather, people are born with certain natures that go with certain groups, and social justice issues should be resolved among groups, along with radical redistribution of wealth to help the poor. Authoritarian societies pose a moralistic version of communalism that denies any individual expression at all. But liberal versions of socialism imagine that, if many basic needs (transportation, medical care) can be met communally, people will be free to explore their own “natures,” although the idea that people should express “merit” is still offensive to this outlook. This sometimes makes certain sense. Single payor health care could be good for business, as can affirmative action preferences. The trouble is that many issues of a generally personal or private nature become politicized and become subject to public regulation. One paradox of the Left is that solving social justice problems just in groups may tend to keep the groups socially segregated.
Social conservatives have, then, tried to characterize liberty and freedom with a middle ground, a kind of individualized communalism. Religious faith, lineage, and nuclear family are important components of this outlook. Of course, in earlier times personal adequacy had been tied to ability to provide for a family, but now there is supposed to be the context of a supportive, homogeneous community. An adult is supposed to demonstrate the ability to function well in the family and community before striking out in life on his own. Homosexuality, in particular, is resisted or condemned, not just on religious grounds but because of an apparently deliberate narcissism that proposed the idea of “merit” associated with aesthetics, youth and beauty. Mormon society provides a characteristic example. Mormons generally believe that they are free as individuals but only because they play by a certain set of motivational rules necessary for their religious community as a whole. One advantage enjoyed by a community based around this moral concept is that it may be better able to ride out financial, political and social instability (caused by external sources like terrorism and war) than can an open society as a whole. The social conservative believes that a precarious male should still marry and have children (even if he believes his own family is biologically “inferior”) and find support in the community, rather than run to upward affiliation and attach himself (psychologically and in motivation) to the “genetic merit” of other males.
No one can fend for himself for a whole life, and it is clear that the accountability of individualism needs to be balanced with community values or at least with the idea that an individual should be able to take responsibility for others besides the self at different points in one’s life. One could say that for any person self-ownership needs authentication. Here, debates about gays in the military and especially gay marriage and parenting become relevant. An open society must, moreover, prepare for the possibility that extreme disruptions can occur, whether from terrorism, natural disasters, or even extraordinary breakdown of financial controls. In such case, those who have benefited most from society’s opportunities and openness should bear most of the burden.
But on the authentication idea, many traditional people see the ability to create and parent a family as an item of merit-worthiness, and regard homosexuality as a cheater’s escape. But rarely is this debated that way anymore; in the 1950s this was a common belief.
As the country (and western world) deals with recession and terrorism, a certain perspective on the role of individual merit as a public policy objective needs to remain in mind. Liberals (and for the most part moderate Democrats) correctly point out that extended unemployment benefits, for example, and even universal health care might stimulate the economy or remove some of its tensions. Furthermore, if Republican-style tax cuts are to work, they need to be designed in such a way as to provide an incentive for investors to create long-term jobs (as well as deal with deficits). A significant observation when it comes to social and health care programs is that older voters have more political clout, when a philosophy of meritocracy would suggest that public resources should be spent on the young so that everybody gets at least one “chance.” In fact, there have been arguments for extending Medicare to children, or even to giving families with children more votes (although that would require constitutional amending that make the anti-gay-marriage amendment proposals look tame by comparison.) All of this is sensible. However, America and other First World countries face stiff wage competition from parts of the world with a lower standard of living, and all of this, in a global economy with freer trade will, while helping consumers, tend to reduce the market value of many skills, especially now information technology skills, in the West, leading to outsourcing of jobs to less developed countries. Furthermore, the less developed world is growing impatient with the West’s energy consumption problems and willingness to acknowledge global warming (although the less developed countries actually contribute more to industrial pollution and deforestation). All of this tends to put some pressure on the “moral credibility” of the fallen American worker, especially any worker who has enjoyed a high wage and comfortable working conditions and then fallen off the truck in layoffs. The fact is, many workers have not been mentally able to maintain the skill levels required by their industries even while performing their jobs at particular employers. Furthermore, many workers have become used to making a good living in “bubble generated” work that has a morally questionable basis (such as Internet spamming). Integrity and accountability even of the middle class worker or home-based entrepreneur, as well as for their bosses or for large corporate CEO’s, becomes a major component of economic stability, even in a liberal democracy dedicated to protecting freedom and individualism without becoming overbearing upon those who cannot always compete. If some “exiled” workers take a real hit and have to learn to adjust to the low-wage life for a while and “pay their dues,” it could teach a lesson for everybody. So, again, what we are seeing is a free-market driven “cultural revolution” that even some Maoists might relish.
particularly distasteful speech in October 2003 by Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad at an Islamic
summit generates a chain of thought that rather summarizes the discussion. In
circular fashion, Mahatir accused the Jews of “ruling
the world by proxy” despite a small population, through political inventions
including democracy and human rights that will invalidate attacks against them
by much more numerous peoples (Muslims). He seemed to be applauded in the
Muslim world. Why does this work? It appeals to a kind of tribalism. Most
people do not have the opportunity or capability to achieve a lot on their own,
so they derive most of their self-concept through affiliations, first with
family roles and then with national or religious identities. A similar
principle can work with affirmative action preferences, where some African
Americans may feel grateful for opportunities that they could not earn on their
own just as individuals. We see it with labor unions, and with families. Family
is the ultimate safety net and within any community is usually the most
reliable protector of morality, yet it perpetuates inequities among groups that
only individuals can transcend. Homosexuals present a problem for people whose
sense of identity comes from their performance in creating biological or
familial lineage. In most cultures, anyone who is “different” presents a threat
to ordinary individuals who derive a sense of purpose and stability from
established social or familial roles; like Smallville’s
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