Friday, June 18, 2004

Thoughts from Status Anxiety: America's pathological meritocracy

If you skipped Status Anxiety tonight, you shouldn't have. Alain de Botton - of Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness fame - is taking a look at one of the major sources of unhappiness in modern society: "status anxiety". This week he used America (and Grover Norquist!) as a stalking horse to look at meritocracy, and how it affects people's views of others, and their happiness.

The basic idea is this: under the Ancien Regime, social mobility was limited - if you were born a peasant, you would in all likelihood die a peasant. This decreased expectations, because your social status was not under your control - and if its not under your control, you're less likely to be unhappy at it not changing. Unhappy at the fact that Marie Antoinette is telling you to eat cake while you're starving, but not unhappy at the idea that you're not a noble living in a fancy castle per se.

Of course, the American and French Revolutions put paid to all that, and now in the West, we generally live in meritocracies. Social status depends less on birth and more on talent. How much more is a question of how cynical you are, but I think most of us would agree that there's at least some correlation (living fossils like the English monarchy notwithstanding). This has led to a rise in expectations - if just anyone (well, anyone with appropriate talent) can be a rockstar or corporate CEO, then why not you? It has also led to a corresponding rise in unhappiness as those expectations are not fulfilled.

Enter America. The United States thinks of itself as the most meritocratic society on earth, where anyone can grow up to be President ("your father doesn't have to be President first, but it helps!") Success is therefore seen as a result of effort, talent and hard work. The flip side of this is that failure is seen as a result of the reverse - of laziness and stupidity - or, as Grover Norquist put it between calling taxation theft and yelling at his office boy, of "choice". In America, the poor have "chosen" to be that way; simple bad luck - illness, your employer going bankrupt, being born in a shit neighbourhood with shit schools to shit parents - doesn't enter into it. As a result, they don't do welfare to any real extent, and the poor lead squalid, desperate lives.

It's an extreme example, and clearly pathological - and it doesn't need to be this way. Other western countries (NZ, for example) manage to be meritocratic, without descending into either a caste-system or the toxic "blame the poor" behaviour as practiced in the US. This is because, unlike the US, we do acknowledge some element of luck, and take steps to correct it. So here in New Zealand we try to ensure that everybody gets a decent start in life - decent healthcare, a good education - so that they have a chance to make the most of their abilities. And we try to ensure that there is a level beneath which you cannot fall, so that even those who then fail (or who fell through the cracks) can try again, or at least have a roof over their heads.

Americans (and ACT weenies) would call that "communism". I call it having some sense of fairness and decency.

The other solution to the problem of meritocracy (and one not mentioned by de Bottan) is self-knowledge. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, what you can achieve and what you can't, will hopefully lead to a better alignment of expectations with ability, and therefore less unhappiness. Unfortunately, people have a significant capacity for self-delusion (Stephen Pinker thinks its evolutionarily adaptive to believe your own bullshit, at least some of the time), and so at least some of us are doomed to frustration as we chase dreams we can never attain. Such is the human condition, I guess.

De Botton also touched on religion, but apart from some laughing at twisted American churches who believe that worldly success is a sign of divine favour, it was all opium of the people stuff. And as a confirmed abstainer from that memetic drug, I'll leave it for someone who cares.