Meritocracy, Urban Design, and Culture: Observations from a Friend



PHOENIX, ARIZONA. (Note: this post has two pages, thanks to webmaster Lundy’s new-and-improved FPR technology.) I am gratified by the many responses, here and elsewhere in the sphere, that were provoked by my piece on “The Decline of Middle America and the Problem of Meritocracy.” The comments and reactions have helped me clarify some of my thinking on the matter and have raised some good questions.

Many of the comments also helped to illustrate the very problem I was talking about. I mean the comments — and they were not uncommon — that went like this: “I’d like to move back to my small town, but the people there are so close-minded and uninteresting and unsophisticated, etc., that it would be hell on earth. No thanks.”

Now, for the record, I never said that everyone was obligated to “move back” to his or her “small town,” should he or she even be lucky enough to be from such a place. I’m not in the advice business. And besides, for myriad very good reasons, I’m sure that making such a move would not be wise or even possible for many, many people. I was elaborating a systemic critique: how to apply that critique (if you find it persuasive) to your own life is a problem that no one can solve, or even really adequately assess, but you. This is not a bow to relativism, but simply a recognition that for any one person’s life, it’s the particulars that matter, not the theory.

In any case, the frequently voiced “ugh, I hated my small town” reaction managed simultaneously to miss and make the point of my article: (1) Part of the reason you hated your small town is because all the people like you have been leaving for generations; (2) Besides, you just might need something those “narrow-minded” (and some of them really are narrow-minded — almost as much as many folks in the big city) people have to offer; and (3) Most importantly, they might need something you have to offer — although you’ll have to fix that snotty, superior, meritocracy-installed attitude of yours first, mister.

The most thoughtful reaction I received was in an e-mail from a friend, Ken Bickford, who is a developer in Louisiana and, probably, the most philosophically astute and thoughtful developer in the whole wide world. Ken has kindly given me permission to reprint below an edited version of his astute reflections, which extend, and sometimes challenge, my meritocracy critique while also advancing some answers to Patrick’s practical “what is to be done?” question. From Ken:

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I had not stopped to consider how rank by merit might debilitate place, how it might demand that all other allegiances be foresworn — including the allegiances of blood and earth — so that its singular end might be realized. After thinking about it and rereading your essay, I have five general observations, as well as a few questions:


First, I wonder whether there is another ill which we might lay at unfettered meritocracy’s feet: Our collective forfeiture of leisure. If Josef Pieper is right, that leisure is indeed the basis of culture, that culture itself is contingent upon leisure, and that the loss of the first is the certain loss of both, then meritocracy will have much to answer for.

Your definition of meritocracy, that “one’s place in society should be determined solely by one’s ‘merit’ — by which is meant the tangible evidence of one’s talents, capabilities, intelligence, and, of course, will” (emphasis added) suggests that meritocracies are results-based. Their demand for tangibility suggests that only those who “do” can be labeled “meritable.”

No such society could have a place for the concept of leisure.

Pieper spent some time attempting to help his readers recover the meaning of leisure. Today we speak of work and “free time” whereas the ancients spoke of un-leisure and leisure. For them, leisure was the thing with a positive existence while work was the absence of leisure. The ancient understanding stood in stark contrast to that of Pieper’s ca. 1948 readership. For them, work was the thing while leisure was the absence of the thing.

How much more so is man-of-1948’s understanding the standard for today? Would you say that meritocracy conflates being with doing? If so, would it not also be the case that human need for regeneration — a regeneration which is only possible under conditions of genuine leisure — would be discouraged as yet another form of laziness?

In 1948, Pieper wrote words which seem prophetic: “Now, the very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of ‘leisure,’ will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of ‘work’ has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole; when we realize, as well, how ready we are to grant all claims made for the person who ‘works.‘” (emphasis added)

It seems to me that a genuine meritocracy would elevate those who “work” to a place where all claims are granted. This might explain why colleges for business and engineering have succeeded in gutting the liberal arts — those who “do” make the rules in a meritocracy.

It also lays bare the dangers to thinking minds — minds engaged with ratio and intellectus –– presented by relentless accomplishment and strident, never-ending, dogmatic doing.


I also wonder whether your critique of meritocracy is not so much the idea of it as it is the scale of it. Many things, including capitalism and socialism, tend to work fine on a human scale — say, a couple of hundred people — and all tend to weaken as the sorts of institutions to which their members can pledge allegiance when they become overlarge. In other words, wouldn’t merit have a place in the local setting? I recognize that what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “practice” and the place in which a practice takes place — town, craft, guild — are not tied exclusively to merit. One may be a member of the goldsmith’s guild without being the best goldsmith in town. Indeed, you may not even be the best goldsmith on the street, and yet you would be guaranteed some business because of your practice — even if you “merited” less business than the uncle to whom you were once apprenticed. But isn’t merit intertwined with MacIntyre’s understanding of practice? Consider MacIntyre’s definition of a practice:

By a “practice” I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (emphasis added)

This is a complex — and to modern ears, foreign — definition of the word practice. But in all of its many qualifiers, would the word merit not logically fit? In the sense in which MacIntyre uses it, merit is constitutive of, but not exclusively constitutive of, a practice. It is an excellence which is inextricably bound to “socially established cooperative human activity,” which I take to include — among many other things — merit. This is a far cry from a meritocracy, where merit is indeed the only consideration. But merit does, in this sense, have a legitimate place at the table. Within this definition of a practice, however, to speak of merit as a separate excellence would be rather like speaking of the excellence of your friend’s heart apart from your friend. What would be the use of praising the excellence of your friend’s heart if your friend were not inextricably attached to it?

A genuine practice cannot be disentangled from a physical place or a physical social setting without destroying its very status as a practice.

Perhaps the hallmark of modernity is its undiluted faith in severability — what Adam Smith would have called specialization. We sever religion from the public square, work life from social life, education from teaching, and in the case of meritocracy, excellence is severed from “socially established cooperative human activity.” Even as recently as my grandparents’ generation it would have been considered nonsensical to think that excellence in a craft was separable from an excellence stitched into “socially established cooperative human activity.” A cabinet maker, no matter how outstandingly skillful his work with wood, could not have received the appellation “excellent” if he was also the abusive town bully. His excellence as a cabinet maker would have always been subject to a long — and undoubtedly profane — string of qualifiers.

The question is this: Does living locally encourage a practice, with at least some merit-based excellences? Conversely, does dispersed living encourage a fantasy, specifically that the various threads in a human life are separable without becoming meaningless? Can merit alone be considered as a reliable and coherent approach to human thriving? Can one look at a pile of yarn and still see the tapestry?

I think that you and I would answer yes, yes, no and “not without a better imagination than most of us have” to these questions.

And if you agree with the foregoing, does this not also suggest that one’s choice between living “placed” versus living “dispersed” is structural to both practices and meritocracies? Is it not the scale of things that is structural with regard to merit?

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