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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McCarthyism, Then and Now

Nobody asked but …

The stale whiff of McCarthyism stole across the venue of the State of the Union address last week.  POTUS played the “socialism” card, or rather he just showed the back of the card, allowing no peeks at the face of the card — not of its value, not of its suit.  He was deliberately vague and ambiguous.  He traded in his wall and immigration, in favor of an even more nebulous concept, gearing up for 2020.  Wonder why he didn’t go all in against communism?

I am all in against both communism and socialism.  I believe that nothing should be subjugated to state interests.  That is why I believe that when politicians use fear of these preposterous systems, they are playing with fire.

Let’s face it, immigration and the border wall had 6 years of exposure under Bush II, and now another two under POTUS (clown car edition).  That’s more than double the mileage that Joe McCarthy got out of the era of McCarthyism.

All adult Americans should consider it a mandatory educational chore to learn, in some depth, the who, what, why, when, where, and how of the fervor against communism that distracted us, to the benefit of exploitative politicians, in the 1950s.  Google “books, articles, and research on McCarthyism.”  Make your own choices — you are responsible for what you learn.  Further, you are responsible for what you make of that knowledge.  It may be instructive to note that POTUS has invoked the words “witch hunt,” it seems, I could be wrong, more than has been done by any politician since the era of McCarthyism.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Venezuela: None of Our Business

On January 23, the President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaido, was sworn in as “interim president.” In what was presumably a pre-coordinated move, Guaido’s administration was quickly recognized by the governments of the United States, Canada, and several countries in Latin America.

Guaido’s claim rests on a provision in Venezuela’s constitution which allows him to assume the office should it become vacant. The Assembly says that it is.  Nicolas Maduro, elected to a second term as president in 2018, begs to differ. A number of countries, including Russia and China, continue to recognize his government.

All of which seems either remarkably simple or incredibly complicated, depending on who you ask and which side they’re on.  From an American who’s on neither side, like me, it comes down to two simple facts:

First, Venezuela’s government does not and never has represented any kind of military threat to the United States. It has never invaded the United States. It has never attacked the United States. It has never threatened to do either, nor does it seem to be well-equipped to do so if it desired to.

Secondly, Venezuela is not and never has been either a state or territory of the United States. It achieved independence from Spain in 1821 as part of the Republic of Gran Colombia, and became a completely independent nation in 1830.

Taken together, these two facts lead inexorably to one conclusion:

How Venezuelans choose to conduct their political affairs never has been and is not now the business of the US government. One need support neither Maduro nor Guaido to reach this conclusion. It’s simply not up to Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, or any other American politician to run Venezuela.

Unfortunately, US administrations since the 1950s  seem to have lost or mis-filed the above memo. Usually in the name of anti-communism, though in reality mostly for the benefit of American oil companies, the US has continuously intervened to ensure “friendly” regimes in Caracas.

That began to backfire in 1998 with the election of Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez cultivated closer relations with communist (Cuba and China) and former communist (Russia) countries, while implementing socialist economic programs.

Two decades later, Venezuela is an economic and humanitarian wreck. American politicians blame Chavez/Maduro and socialism for the country’s decline. Maduro and his supporters blame US sanctions and secret support for the opposition.

Both sides are right, but on only one of those claims is the US rightfully positioned to act. It should lift all economic sanctions on Venezuela, withdraw diplomatic recognition of any claimant, close its embassy, and leave a note on the door: “Work this out yourselves; when you have, let us know if you’d like to resume relations.”

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Why I’m Optimistic About Venezuela

If there were mass protests against the government of Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. decided to recognize the opposition as the legitimate government of Saudi, I would expect disaster.  Why?  Because…

1. Supporters of the Saudi monarchy remain powerful and confident enough to aggressively fight back, plunging the country into hellish civil war.

2. If the monarchy loses, it’s most likely replacement will be a revolutionary Islamist dictatorship.

3. Even if the new Saudi government sticks to democracy, the median Saudi voter probably favors even worse policies than the Saudi monarchy now imposes.  In particular, government enforcement of Islamic fundamentalism would tighten, and economic policies would move even further toward socialism and populism.

And now you know why I am optimistic about the constitutional crisis in Venezuela.

1. Supporters of Maduro are too weak and demoralized to aggressively fight back, so I put the risk of hellish civil war below 10%.  (Indeed, since there’s a high base rate for civil wars in situations this dire, it’s quite possible that the risk of civil war has actually fallen due to the crisis).

2. If the Maduro regime loses, its most likely replacement will be a moderate pro-Western democracy.

3. If the new Venezuelan government sticks to democracy, the median Venezuelan almost certainly favors better policies than Maduro now imposes.  In particular, government enforcement of socialist ideology will crumble, and economic policies will move sharply away from socialism and populism.

If you’re too young to remember the collapse of Communism, this is a tiny taste of the sweetness of 1988-1991.  When’s the last time you had reasonable hope of dramatic peaceful pro-freedom change in the world?

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The Reformer’s Plight in The Great Idea

I’m a fan of dystopian fiction, but I overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December.  I feared a long-winded, clunky version of Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, but I gave it a chance, and my gamble paid off.  I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow.  People live in Stalinist fear and penury.  Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was.  However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society.  When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir.  The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it.  In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too.  But Hazlitt is a master of pacing.  It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work.  Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.  Here’s Peter arguing with Adams, a reform-minded Communist minister.

“…The hard fact is that some people simply have to do more unpleasant chores than others, and the only way we can get the unpleasant chores done is by compulsion. Not everybody can be a manager, or an actor or an artist or a violin player. Somebody has to dig the coal, collect the garbage, repair the sewers. Nobody will deliberately choose these smelly jobs. People will have to be assigned to them, forced to do them.”

“Well, perhaps we could compensate them in some way, Adams—say by letting them work shorter hours than the others.”

“We thought of that long ago, chief. It didn’t work. It unluckily turned out that it was only the pleasant jobs, like acting or violin playing, that could be reduced to short hours. But we simply can’t afford to have people work only a few hours on the nasty jobs. These are precisely the jobs that have to be done. We couldn’t afford to cut our coal production in half by cutting the hours in half, for example; and we just haven’t got the spare manpower to rotate. Besides, we found that on most such jobs a considerable loss of time and production was involved merely in changing shifts.”

“All right,” agreed Peter; “so under our socialist system we can’t have freedom in choice of work or occupation. But couldn’t we provide some freedom of initiative—at least for those who direct production? Our propaganda is always urging more initiative on the part of commissars or individual plant managers. Why don’t we get it?”

“Because a commissar or plant manager, chief, is invariably shot if his initiative goes wrong. The very fact that he was using his own initiative means that he was not following orders. How can you reconcile individual initiative with planning from the center? When we draw up our Five Year Plans, we allocate the production of hundreds of different commodities and services in accordance with what we assume to be the needs of the people. Now if every plant manager decided for himself what things his plant should produce or how much it should produce of them, our production would turn out to be completely unbalanced and chaotic.”

“Very well,” Peter said; “so we can’t permit the individual plant manager to decide what to produce or how much to produce of it. But this is certainly a big disadvantage. For if someone on the Central Planning Board doesn’t think of some new need to be satisfied, or some new way of satisfying an old need, then nobody thinks of it and nobody dares to supply it. But I have in mind something different from that. How can we encourage individual plant managers to devise more efficient ways of producing the things they are ordered to produce? If these plant managers can’t be encouraged to invent new or better consumption goods, at least they can be encouraged to invent new methods or machines to produce more economically the consumption goods they are ordered to produce, or to produce a higher quality of those consumption goods.”

“You’re just back to the same problem,” Adams said. “If I’m a plant manager, and I invent a new machine, I’ll have to ask the Central Planning Board to get somebody to build it, or to allocate the materials to me so that I can build it. In either case I’ll upset the preordained central plan. I’ll have a hard job convincing the Central Planning Board that my invention or experiment won’t fail. If my invention does fail, and it turns out that I have wasted scarce labor and materials, I will be removed and probably shot. The member of the Central Planning Board who approved my project will be lucky if he isn’t shot himself. Therefore, unless the success of my invention or experiment seems absolutely certain in advance, I will be well advised to do what everybody else does. Then if I fail, I can prove that I failed strictly according to the rules…”

Finally Peter settles on a seemingly simpler radical reform:

“Well, I can think of one more kind of freedom,” Peter said, “and I am determined to create it. That is the freedom to criticize the government.”

Adams started. He seemed to waver between incredulity and alarm. “You mean that you would permit people to criticize the actions of the government, and perhaps even denounce the government, and go unpunished?”

“Exactly!”

“Why, chief, you and I would be destroyed in a few weeks! If we allowed people to criticize us with impunity they would lose all fear of us—all respect for us. There would be an explosion of criticism that would blow us out of our seats—out of Wonworld. And what would we accomplish? Our successors would, of course, immediately suppress criticism again, for their own survival. “

What happens surprises them both.

Peter eagerly looked forward to the results of his reform. There weren’t any. None of the things happened that Adams had predicted. On the other hand, none of the consequences followed that Peter had hoped for. There was simply an intensification of the kind of criticism that had already been going on. People in superior positions continued to criticize people in subordinate positions; they continued to put the blame for failure on people who were not in a position to protect themselves; they continued to accuse people in minor positions of being deviationists and wreckers.

This was what had always been known as communist self-criticism. Peter put out still another proclamation. He ordered a stop to this sort of criticism. For a while it greatly diminished. But still no subordinate criticized his superior, and no one criticized the Politburo, the Party, or the government itself.

“What happened, Adams? Or rather, why didn’t anything happen?”

Adams smiled. “I should have foreseen this, chief. It should have been obvious. All that happened is that nobody trusted your proclamation. They thought it was a trick.”

“A trick?”

“Yes—a trick to smoke them out. A trick to find out who were the enemies of the government, and to liquidate them. Everybody waited for somebody else to stick his neck out, to see what would happen to him. Nobody wanted to be the first. So nobody was.”

Much the same happens when Peter orders free elections.  Later, he launches a seemingly plausible experiment in worker management:

“One of our great troubles, Adams, is that we are trying to plan more than any human mind can hold. We are trying to plan every industry—and all their interrelations—and all the rest. Why not let the workers of each industry control and police their own industry? That would decentralize control and break up the planning problem into manageable units.”

“The idea has possibilities, chief . . . but it might lead to results we couldn’t foresee.”

“Precisely,” said Peter; “and that is why we ought to try it out.”

[…]

“Why not try it out, then, only on a small scale? Why not apply the idea, Adams, in only one province—far away from Moscow? Why not throw a censorship around that district, so that no news could get in or out until we were certain that the experiment was a success?”

“Have you decided, chief, who our guinea pigs would be?”

“How about the Soviet Republic of Peru? That’s certainly remote enough!”

Here’s what goes down in Soviet Peru:

At the very start he found himself confronted in Peru by a problem of unexpected difficulty. He wanted each industry to be self-governing and independent. But what was an industry? Where did each industry begin and end?… At the end, when the Peruvian commissars he had appointed had finished their work, they had named fifty-seven different industries…

A temporary head was named for each industry. Someone jokingly nicknamed these heads the industry “czars.” Each industry was told to organize itself in any way it thought fit, provided each worker was allowed an equal vote. The industry could fix its own production, its own prices or terms of exchange, its own hours and conditions of work, its own entrance requirements.

Some Peruvians called the new system “syndicalism”; others called it “guild socialism”; and still others liked the name “corporativism.”

Peter returned to Moscow, promising to be back in Peru in six months to see how the new system was working. He left a secret cable code with the three top commissars to keep him informed.

Before two months had passed he received urgent cables begging for his return.

He came back to find a chaotic situation bordering on civil war. The first thing the workers in each industry had done had been to exclude anybody else from entering the industry. Each industry had quickly discovered that it could exact the best terms of exchange for its particular product by rendering it relatively scarce. There had then developed a competitive race for scarcity instead of for production. The workers in each industry voted themselves shorter and shorter hours. Each industry was either withholding goods or threatening to suspend production altogether until it got the prices it demanded for the particular kind of goods it had to supply.

Peter was indignant. He called in the various syndicates of workers representing each industry and denounced them in blistering terms for the selfish and shortsighted way in which they had “abused” the privileges he had conferred upon them. But as he studied the matter further he cooled off, and took a more objective view. He was forced to acknowledge to himself that the fault was his own. It was inherent in the system he had set up. He had allowed each industry to become an unrestrained monopoly. The more essential or irreplaceable the product that it made, therefore, the more it could and would squeeze everybody else…

He dismantled the new system entirely, and ordered the restoration of the old centralized socialism under the Central Planning Board at Moscow.

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers.  (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”)  What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused.  Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951.  Stalin was still alive.  Fifteen years ago, Hazlitt wrote a new introduction with a grim forecast:

The Communist rulers cannot permit private ownership of the means of production not merely because this would mean the surrender of the central principle of their system, but because it would mean the restoration of individual liberty and the end of their despotic power. So I confess that the hope that some day an idealistic Peter Uldanov, miraculously finding himself at the pinnacle of power, will voluntarily restore the right of property, is a dream likely to be fulfilled only in fiction. But it is certainly not altogether idle to hope that, with a growth of economic understanding among their own people, the hands of the Communist dictators may some day be forced, more violently than Lenin’s were when the mutiny at Kronstadt, though suppressed, forced him to adopt the New Economic Policy.

Hazlitt was, of course, thoroughly wrong.  As far as we can tell, Gorbachev never had any intention of restoring capitalism.  But Yeltsin – a career Communist – did just that.  And despite all the disappointment Putin has provoked, the former Soviet Union has seen nothing remotely approaching the horrors of the Russian Civil War.  The actually-existing dystopia of the Soviet Union practically died in its sleep, proving Hazlitt’s fiction to be the opposite of wishful thinking.

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On Income Inequality II

Those who fight for economic egalitarianism and against income inequality are attempting to do the impossible by government force. Not only do they want income levels coercively flattened, but they also hope that more and more of their fellow human beings will share their ideals. In essence, they hope to build a race of “New Men” and “New Women” and they aren’t opposed to using state violence to do it. Are these aspirations any different than Communism’s or Fascism’s “New Man” campaigns? What about Nazi Germany’s campaigns for racial hygiene? Distinctions without a difference, perhaps? While they may have slightly different ends, their means of choice are likewise predicated on the belief that government may be used to threaten or attack those who prefer to live their lives and use their property in their own chosen, peaceful ways. Think about it. And that’s today’s two cents.

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