Killing the American Meritocracy

The American Dream is under attack like never before—not just the ability to fulfill the dream—but its very concept and history. At the core of the American Dream is the idea of meritocracy. There is no royalty in America, no titles of nobility, no entrenched caste system. You could be born anywhere, to anyone, and still achieve success. It was not just a story. Many real-world examples show exactly this trajectory. Poor children, and sometimes even penniless immigrants, grew up to achieve great success. Some even become titans of industry.

Why then is there such an effort underway to denigrate the idea of meritocracy? It is my belief that those who prefer a centrally planned society to one based on freedom, liberty, and personal achievement are intentionally rewriting history so as to make people believe that so-called “privilege” rather than merit has been the primary factor in achieving success throughout American history. This lie is then combined with the fallacies of communism (such as the labor theory of value and the fixed pie fallacy) in order to bolster the argument for central planning and massive government.

In order to understand the nature of the attacks on our meritocracy, we should start by understanding what a meritocracy is—and what it is not. Some definitions of the word smuggle in the concept of central planning: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” Others try to divorce the concepts of wealth from success: The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a social system, society, or organization in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position.” Neither of these definitions fully explains what meritocracy is as it relates to the American Dream, however, so perhaps a new term is required. I propose we call this the American Meritocracy.

Unlike what some of these other definitions imply, no one is necessarily being selected or moved ahead nor are wealth or social position irrelevant to success. In the American Meritocracy, a free market allows individuals to leverage all of their intelligence, talents, knowledge, wealth, connections, and even luck to get ahead. Those who are successful are correctly regarded as having earned their success, while those who are not successful are rightly considered less ambitious… or worse.

One of the most pernicious fallacies in public discourse today is that someone having wealth represents “inequality” in some meaningful manner. This idea ties in directly with the myth of “privilege” which expands the possible sources of “inequality” to include race, sex, religion, education, and any number of other things depending on who is defining it. The purveyors of the “privilege” doctrine conspicuously fail to explain the myriad success stories involving un-privileged members of society, however; it is as if these achievers do not merit their consideration. They will happily prattle on with anecdotes of the single mother working three jobs while accumulating more credit card debt each month, yet fail to mention the single mothers who save money, start businesses, win awards, and send their kids on to college. If confronted with these inconvenient tales of success, they will hand-wave them away as irrelevant outliers, falling back on statistics that prove little more than that people who are successful tend to be exceptional in many ways.

Behind the fallacy of “privilege” are two fundamental communist doctrines. The first is the labor theory of value, which posits a direct correlation between the value of a good or service and the labor required to produce it. The irrationality of this concept is easily seen in comparing two works of art. Both could be the same size, use the same materials, and take the same amount of time to complete, yet one could be worth millions while the other might be worth little or indeed be judged as truly worthless. The only difference between them is the perceived talent of the artist.

I say “perceived talent” because value is not actually an inherent quality of a good or service. Utility and scarcity may be inherent qualities in some cases, but value is always externally ascribed. Both pieces of art may be one-of-a-kind creations, so they would theoretically have equal scarcity, and both would fill an empty wall with equal aplomb, so again, their utility should be equal. Why then is one worth a million dollars and the other unsold? Because their value (like their beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. Be it because of the identity of the artist or certain ineffable qualities in his work, prospective buyers will ascribe far more value to one piece than to another with little or no regard to the quantity of labor involved in its production.

One could labor for a great many hours digging an unwanted ditch and then labor for hours more refilling it without ever having created any value for anyone. Likewise, one can spend their life in a dead-end job asking if folks “want fries with that?” without ever producing $15 worth of value in an hour. Indeed, with the proliferation of self-serve kiosks with flawless knowledge of ingredients and prices combined with perfect memories and increasing speeds, we may soon see a day when the ability to mumble about the availability of supplemental fries has no marketable value at all.

The second fundamental communist canard that underpins the delusion of “privilege” is the fixed-pie fallacy. Economist Milton Friedman summed up this pervasive error well when we said, “Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” We hear this daily rhetoric expressed as concerns about “income inequality” and the supposedly unfair achievements of the “top 1% wealthy” who are nearly universally regarded with suspicion and envy thanks to the prevalence of this particular fallacy.

Skewed statistics suggest that these “Monopoly Man” caricatures have achieved their wealth by plundering the poor, yet these one-sided figures conveniently ignore that “the poor” are richer than ever before, enjoying far more luxuries and longer lives than their historical counterparts. Yes, the “rich” may enjoy a larger percentage of the pie today, but the pie itself is many times larger—and here’s the kicker—it has grown so much larger primarily because of the investments and contributions of those supposedly “evil” rich folks.

Look at it using simple math. If there is a 10-inch pie and you have two slices, how much pie would you have? Now imagine a 10-foot pie of which you have only one slice. To some people, this would be a tragedy, an unconscionable increase in “pie inequality” because you have just one-eighth of a total pie rather than the one-fourth you had before. But is this a reasonable way to measure things? (For the record, if you had 2 of 8 slices of a 10-inch pie, you would have approximately 19.6 square inches of pie. If you had 1 of 8 slices of a 10-foot pie, you would have 1,413.7 square inches of pie, an increase of 721%.)

While it is certainly true that state intervention has made the free market far less free than it could be, the American Meritocracy is still alive and well. Yes, due to taxes, regulations, and occupational licenses, it is more difficult to achieve success than it would be in a fully free market, but there are still virtually limitless opportunities for anyone who is willing to put in the necessary effort and to make the necessary sacrifices.

It is okay to be poor. Some people do not prioritize wealth creation, and that is their right. The problem is when they start blaming their poverty on other people or on “the rich” or “privilege” or some other external force that they claim is keeping them down. If you are poor in America, it is because you have not put in the effort necessary to become wealthy. This may seem harsh and judgmental, but that does not make it untrue. You can achieve success in the American Meritocracy, and if you do not, it is almost certainly your own fault.

Those whose ultimate goal is the eradication of the free market point to the existence of poverty as evidence that the free market has “failed.” They suggest replacing it with “universal” handouts in the form of fully subsidized education, healthcare, family leave, and even income itself. They imagine that these subsidies can be funded indefinitely by plundering the rich—ignoring that even at its current size, the government would blow through the net worth of the rich in a matter of months. In short, they want to kill the American Meritocracy and replace it with a one-size-fits-all communist utopia where the state controls everything and all the little people live in perfect equality.

Quite the fairy tale, is it not? Without “the rich” to keep growing the pie, the pie will naturally begin to shrink and each person’s “equal share” will shrink too. Add in an ever-expanding population, and the predictable economic contractions will guarantee worse outcomes across the board. Instead of some people living in poverty, everyone will live in poverty, and there will be no system in place to facilitate escaping it.

The American Meritocracy is not perfect due to government intervention, but it is still far superior to the abject failure of central planning that is on full display in Venezuela right now. After all, no one is eating zoo animals to stay alive in America.

The American Dream has always been that anyone could achieve success with enough effort and perseverance. This is still true for almost everyone who lives here. The fact that other people may achieve even more success than you does not diminish your success. Despite the fabricated doctrine of “privilege,” there is no ceiling through which you must break or systemic inequality you must overcome. If you can provide quality goods and services to which buyers ascribe value, you too can achieve success in the American Meritocracy. If you fail, you can blame your parents’ wealth (or lack thereof) your race, your sex, your religion, your education, or your astrological sign, and many people will accept your excuses—I will not.

Success in America is not a lottery, it is earned; and if you do not make the effort necessary to earn it, you do not deserve it. I am sure that holding these views makes me a heretic to the church of statism and a disbeliever in the gospel of privilege, but I make no apologies. Your life is of your own making—now go make it better!

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We Need a Substitute for the Word ‘Support’

I support good things because I’m good!

Almost every time someone uses the word ‘support’ it sounds nice but means something nasty.

When people say they support something, it usually means they want governments to make laws that will advance that thing. Legislation is not like business, or family, or society. Those institutions require persuasion and value creation to get the thing you support to win. Legislation is a different beast. The single feature that distinguishes governments from every other institution is that they initiate violence to back everything they do.

So when someone supports something by wishing there were government action, ‘support’ has a very different meaning from the nice one we give it. The nice kind of support might mean you invest your money in or say nice things about something. ‘Support’ as most often used, however, means desire for government action.

To bring clarity and prudence, we should use a more accurate phrase. Try this out with yourself and others, and see if it changes the way you think about things.

Every time you see the word ‘support’, replace it with the phrase, ‘advocate violence on behalf of’. That’s what it usually means.

That’s why supporters of things tend to be regressive and uncivilized. To advocate violence on behalf of something is the approach of very bad children and animals. Humans can do better in 99 out of 100 situations.

In fact, if you modified the statement to ‘advocate the initiation of violence on behalf of’, you could do better 100 times out of 100. Violence sucks, but as a defense against violence may be the least bad approach. Initiating violence never is.

It’s also interesting when you consider the fact that most ‘supporters’ – of wars, drug bans, wage mandates, border walls, land use restrictions, etc. – would find it unthinkable to initiate violence directly on behalf of these things. How many, when they say they support bans on fossil fuels, head to their neighbor’s house with a gun and promise to cage or kill them if they don’t destroy their car and buy a Prius?

But those same people happily vote for people to vote for bills to fund other people to hire others to order others to send threats to their neighbors, the ultimate end of which is the same should they refuse to comply.

The state is that great obfuscating abstraction where we hide our violence in a fog of procedure and collectivism.

It is the most dangerous institution in human history.

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Many Different “Problems,” Identical “Solution” in Every Case

Terrible working conditions
Lots of poor people
Industrial and financial instability
Economic depressions that won’t self-correct
Inadequate supplies of “affordable” housing
Widening economic inequality
Racial and ethnic discrimination
“Market failures” of many kinds
Environmental degradation
Threatened or disappearing species of animals and plants
Global cooling
Global warming
Climate change

These are among the many problems that people have perceived as plaguing economically advanced societies during the past century or so. They differ greatly and involve different causes, mechanisms, and consequences.

Yet in every case the solution has been widely seen as the same: vastly enlarging the power of government. It’s almost enough to make a skeptic wonder whether each perceived or proclaimed problem has been intended from the start to serve as a pretext for a government power grab—especially when one appreciates that somehow the problems that enhanced government power is supposed to solve never get solved to the satisfaction of those who sought the power, but only cry out in their view for even greater augmentation of government power.

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With Wilson in the Wilderness

I’ve mentioned the business “Wilson” had which was shut down by government meddling. Well, due to our similar interests in that area he and I used to hike in the wilderness area outside of town. He wore a camo army jacket with cargo pants and army boots and I wore my buckskin clothes and mocassins– in other words, I didn’t dress any differently than normal for the hike, although I did carry extra gear.

Most people find me a frustrating person to hike with– one former wife said I don’t hike, I wander aimlessly from spot to spot. But Wilson seemed OK with it.

Those hikes gave us chances to hone some of our less-critical survival skills. We had to cross racing, ice-cold rivers on foot going in and coming out– during the spring melt that was pretty exciting. We sometimes encountered serious mud traps. We nibbled on various plants, tracked animals, watched game, and met whatever other necessity cropped up for us to tackle.

Until we’d get a long ways down the trail, when we used the trails, we would also encounter the occasional hiker or two. When I’m out wandering like that, I tend to go a bit psychologically feral. When that happens I usually don’t like encountering other people, so when we’d hear someone crashing noisily down the trail– and that’s what they all did– we would step off the trail, sit and wait for them to pass.

When we did this we were never noticed. Not once. We especially enjoyed seeing the female hikers pass, but we never spoke to them. We didn’t want to get pepper sprayed as a result of trying to be polite.

We were never more than a few feet off the path. Not hidden. Just sitting still and silent. I suspect people don’t like to suddenly notice you under those circumstances.

Once, however, I was in the open, sitting on a boulder in an open area in plain sight, and still just about scared a hiker’s dog to death when I said “Hi” as he came to sniff the rock. That time I was seen, but I wasn’t trying to not be.

Needless to say, Wilson and I were not very impressed with people’s observational skills. Of course, who’s to say we didn’t miss people doing the same as we hiked past. We were a lot quieter than others, though; while most of them never stopped talking, we rarely spoke. And we saw a lot of deer quietly watching us pass. But who knows.

Of all the Wilson stories, these were the times I enjoyed hanging out with him the most. It was always hard for me to turn around and come back to “civilization”. But that’s always been the hardest part for me.

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A History of a Human Being – In Toys

Today I went to a warehouse after work to help sort toys from a charitable toy drive. It was a fun afternoon challenge – I got to help a good cause, spend time with coworkers, and learn a lot about what toys are popular with the kids these days.

The whole experience brought back childhood memories of my own toys (I found a boxed up exact version of a toy I received for Christmas in 2002). And after talking with a coworker, I started to think about how much our toys impact the course our lives.

As I looked at piles of toys sorted for toddlers, for 5-7 year olds, for 8-12 year olds, and so on, I started to realize that I was seeing a timeline of human development. You could tell a history of a human’s formative years in terms of the toys they played with the most.

Put another way, toys determine a child’s destiny (at least a little).
As smarter men and women than me have noted, play itself seems to be behavior evolved to (safely) teach the essential skills of life to young animals. Through the safe mimicry of play, animals and humans learn how to perform the tasks of adults. Just as baby lions might engage in play fighting, so small children in play may already have taken up the tasks of building or fighting or hunting or cooking or making or taking care of babies.
My own history with toys was with a series of construction and farming equipment toys, NASCAR matchbox cars (youngest), Star Wars LEGO, toy swords, and toy warriors of various varieties (G.I. Joe, Playmobil, green plastic army men). While I didn’t turn out to be a farmer, a construction worker, a racecar driver, a starship pilot, or a soldier, all of these toys “trained” me in their own ways. I spent countless hours in imaginary worlds with them, in playtime that shaped my imagination and creativity and instincts as an adult.
How different would I be if I had played more with dinosaurs, or chemistry sets? How different would boys and girls be if people started to “branch out” and give more traditionally masculine gifts to girls? Would our world be more or less violent if soldiery got left out of our toys for kids? These are all fascinating questions. We can be sure those hundreds and thousands of hours of play add up to something in every human, so the core question of “what toys made you who you are?” is all the more interesting.
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“Is It Political?”

When I mention what I’m writing, my dad often suspiciously asks me, “Is it political?”

Here’s how I always want to respond.

If by “political,” you mean “emotional, innumerate, dogmatic, tribal, unfair, and dishonest” then the answer is, “Of course not.”  These negative adjectives are a fair description of virtually all popular media – including popular media that agrees with my conclusions.  But where popular media go low, I go high.  If you want to know what good thinking looks like, start with Superforecasting.

On the other hand, if by “political” you mean “discusses government and society, and evaluates the desirability of government policies and social practices,” then the answer is, “Of course.”  That’s what I do for a living, after all.

In a world where almost all political discourse in the second sense is also political in the first sense, it’s easy to see why people would tend to conflate the two.  Logically, however, they’re two different animals.  And conflating them reinforces this sad intellectual state of affairs.

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