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

by Jeremy Beer on May 21, 2009 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Region & Place

agritopia

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:

* * * * *

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:

LEISURE

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.

SCALE

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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jason Peters May 21, 2009 at 6:36 am

JB–

I can believe that Ken Bickford is, as you say, the most philosophically astute developer out there. Would that there were more of them able–and maybe even courageous enough–to say:

It is culture which saves its money, cleans and trims the landscape, washes and paints the clapboard, or fixes the broken shingles. It only does this when it cares about place, and it must be browbeaten to pick up the smallest gum wrapper when it doesn’t care. I am not aware of any real estate management company which could match culture’s “particular devotions, loves, relationships, and knowledge.”

You get the sense that most developers and real estate managers are governed more by this: “I flush the hopper here and someone downstream gets a rash? Not my problem.”

Which means, of course, that they’re not “within three miles of all previous transects” and therefore unable to honor “the distance at which direct knowledge meets the Earth’s curvature”–principles that could certainly do the trick of reintroducing something like moral vision to our ways and ideas about inhabiting the land. They articulate well the propriety of scale.

They also put me to thinking about one of Kunstler’s gags–something to the effect that you can’t see the Wal-mart from the Target parking lot across the street “because of the curvature of the earth.” It’s nature’s way, says JHK, of telling you that you’re doing a bad job.

Deneen put up a link here to the TED talk in which Kunstler crack’s this fine joke.

Ken, if you’re out there, thanks for this. Of course I said all this to Jeremy when he was here giving the original talk, but the hour was late, and his brain cells few, so not much stuck.

avatar Katherine Dalton May 21, 2009 at 7:28 am

A development named after a local creek? When one could call one’s main drag Mt. Rainer Drive (as occurs in a Louisville subdivision, a mere three-days’ drive from the original) or my favorite, KenCarla Way (after Mr. and Mrs. Developer–though perhaps I should not complain about this one, as they were themselves local products)?

It’s a start. It gives such a community a thread of a tie to the place it sits, so that while you are starting from scratch there, as any spanking new township must, you have little root. I’ll take it.

Still, living as I do on the outskirts of an ever-spreading city, and seeing the attempts to develop farmland here, I have mixed feelings about even new urbanism. In eastern Jefferson County (that’s Louisville’s county) the much-touted new urbanist mixed used community complete with twice weekly farmers’ market is going up on what had been, of course, a farm. I will take thoughtful development gladly, because I must take development, but I will say, with respect to all here, that I wish half the mindfulness and work that has gone into new urbanism was going into old agrarianism.

Caveats aside, thanks to Mr. Bickford for his excellent comments.

avatar Thomas G. May 21, 2009 at 9:54 am

Jeremy,

Thank you for sharing the email from Mr. Bickford. In reading your original post I had failed to understand the role meritocracy plays in destroying both the “Urban Transect” and “Social Transect”. Mr. Bickford’s email was correct in explaining how the values of meritocracy lead ultimately to a forced separation of social classes, and an in-humanely scaled place. The end result of this deconstruction of society is that the culture withers away. It is a good reminder that there are concrete, natural limits that support humanity in both the physical, and social world. Modernity, by deconstructing society into a mass of individuals, has destroyed the intermediary social organizations that support true community by creating the social capital that holds a culture together.

This leads me to wondering, now that we know how we got here, how the devil do we get back? New Urbanism is a part of the solution. Human scaled places play a role, but they will need human scaled economy to avoid the trap of becoming a “stage set” of Mayberry, inhabited by individuals who still work, and live in the meritocracy. Alternative business models like CSA, Fair Trade, and the Economy of Communion are promising, but cannot be applied to the Stockholder Corporation model. What is needed to ultimately break the stranglehold of the transnational corporation is an alternative business model that is human scaled, but economically competitive with the current corporate model. It has been hoped that the rise of new information technologies could ultimately lead to such a disruption of the current corporate model, but experience to date has shown that the transnational corporation has used these tools to strengthen their hold on economic life.

avatar Empedocles May 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm

It seems to me that meritocracy is bound to destroy itself because there will be more of those lacking merit and those with it, more losers than winners. Eventually and inevitably the losers will come to feel (rightly or wrongly) that it is the standards of merit that are wrong. See how “emotional intelligence” became the rallying cry of those losing out in the intellectual intelligence meritocracy.

As for social capital, I’d like to plug my post “Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital” here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html

avatar Empedocles May 21, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Thomas G.,
It has been argued by some, most notably Kunstler, that energy scarcity with break the stranglehold of the transnational corporation and force a re-localizing and re-scaling of productive activity.

avatar Thomas G. May 21, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Empedocles,

Thanks for the comment, and the link to your post on Putnam’s research.

I’m aware of the scarcity argument, and was remiss in not mentioning it in my comment. The one problem that I have with the scarcity argument is the inherent fatalism of it. While I am not familiar with Kunstler’s argument for it, I have been concerned about the sense of glee I detect from some commentators who argue for the benefits of oil scarcity. It seems to me that if society waits for oil scarcity to tackle the inherent cultural destruction of globalization it will be to late. At that point we would be looking at worldwide social-political turmoil of a scale far greater than anything experienced in world history. If that happens I’m afraid most of us will be too busy stocking up on “canned goods and ammo” to bother with any of this.
Perhaps that is our fate, but I have more hope for us than that.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Bickford’s account of MacIntyre’s theory of “practice” as either an explanation of or a challenge to meritocracy is right on. In the early pages of “After Virtue” — pages that do not always seem to “merit” much attention, actually — MacIntyre defines the Weberian manager as one of the central characters of our day. The manager is one who does not have to ask questions about the Good, but can assume without question the good he must seek (bureaucratic efficiency) and pursue it more or less well; depending on how well he pursues this effectiveness, he will be either a better or worse manager.

The importance of the manager character in our culture is both obvious and telling. It is obvious insofar as all of us have in our stock imaginations such a figure; we all can envision the caricature manager, and we all know that we can imagine such a caricature precisely because we understand the societal drive to respect and envy them. Such persons “do” “real things” in the “real world.” They get results. They are effective. No one would question that the manager (the executive or the bureaucrat) is to our age something like what a warrior-king was to Homer’s.

No wonder then that the manager character “tells” us much about our culture. Such a character is the one sort to which we can comfortably attach impersonal standards of excellence that do not require an appeal (naturally) to personal or moral sentiment. Almost all of us, from time to time, imagine what a relief it would be to be such a character, and many of us live in just such a state of relief. For, the manager does not by definition have to ask questions about the Good. His good is that assigned him in virtue of his role, his position, in a large bureaucratic-financial structure. A society that feels with pain and confusion the absence of other kinds of social structure besides this one, and therefore, a society that lacks a secure sense that non-managerial or non-bureaucratic activities are “worth” anything, will instinctively cling to the figure of the manager as, at once, an ideal, a cause of envy, and a cause of satire.

In sum, the manager is the only figure in modern society who seems to have a secure purpose (a definite good) beyond his or our questioning, and therefore an objective criterion by which his excellence, his practice-derived virtue, can be measured. The reason for this is that our society is utterly lacking in communities, that is to say, in places where people can confer and agree on the Good — goods other and perhaps more substantial than bureaucratic efficacy. Our lack of a community that can outfit us with a consensus vision of the Good and a vision of what a good person looks like (one who lives to conform to that good), leaves us lacking for the kind of objective standards of a good life that all of us require. Without community, no vision of the Good; no vision of the Good, no vision of what a good life objectively looks like; lacking a vision of a good life, one flails and seeks the security of a verifiable, measurable mode of life attached to an uninterrogated conception of goodness, bureaucratic efficiency.

The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life or — more likely — had they not already and long ago imported into themselves doubts about any good appart from procedural, bureaucratic power in pursuit of financially lucrative efficiency.

We mock managers, because they seem to lack any kind of “higher” sense of good. But we also envy them, because by their nature they do not have to ask any questions at all about the ends they pursue; they only have to pursue them effectively. There is great security in that — even more security than can be discovered in the lucre that often accompanies the managerial life.

avatar OrthodoxAgrarian May 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm

BRAVO!

avatar Ken Bickford May 22, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I want to begin by saying a sincere thanks to those who have responded so thoughtfully to my musings.

To Thomas G., who asked “how the devil do we get back?” and then thought aloud—quite correctly, I think—that human scaled economy is the uncrackable nut standing between us and real community: There are few places left in America—and almost no New Urbanist places at all—which have anything more than the thinnest slice of a local economy within them, and without such an economy it will be impossible to live within a humanly scaled space. I might respectfully disagree, however, that what is needed is an “alternative business model that is human scaled, but economically competitive with the current corporate model,” if only because I doubt whether any humanly scaled business model will ever be price competitive with a global business model.

I’m not suggesting that small business should completely cede price point to big business, but as long as transportation costs and labor are cheap relative to disposable income it is doubtful whether small business can find an advantage there. Having said that, I fully support exploring any restructuring which would allow local business to compete—and I have suggestions for the same.

But all is not necessarily lost. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a fine example of how one very small part of our economy—even the most important part—has reconnected production with consumption. As a general thing, it has not accomplished this by being economically competitive, but rather because of a conscious effort on the part of its customers to live locally. I’m not sure whether this exercise of public will can be pushed to reconnect all of a place’s consumption with local production, but it’s a start.

There’s no getting around the fact, though, that real community will require local production paired with local consumption.

Katherine Dalton raises a good point, that much of New Urbanist development is replacing farmland with farmers’ markets—an unsustainable trajectory if ever there was one. However, when New Urbanism is found in a rural area, it tends to promote the preservation of farmland and wilderness. (For a good, graphical view of New Urbanism in this respect, go to http://www.dpz.com, click on “Research,” and then click on the link to “diagrams.”)

In the end, James Matthew Wilson’s insight says it all: “The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life.”

I don’t know whether or not it’s possible to restore a shared conception of the good life, but by God, we’re going to give it a try at Chappapeela. This much I do know: People want community. They want it so much than when they smell even a whiff of it they will start vowing to fall off of the meritocracy wagon and commence living right. Whether or not they will accept the sacrifices which must be made—and most importantly, the boundaries which must be set—in order to get community remains to be seen.

The Quest for Community continues…

avatar Casey Khan May 23, 2009 at 6:02 pm

“The lure of meritocracy would never have been so effective had communities not already lost shared conceptions of a good life.”

There is much to say here, but I’m thinking the crux of returning to a shared conception of the good life comes in a unified religous faith. One wonders if the reason American communities were vulnerable to the rise of meritocracy was due to the fractured nature of its Protestant majority. Sorry to bring up such a contentious subject, but I think the nature of American Christianity is a substantial factor in why these conceptions of a good life no longer were “shared.”

avatar kurt9 May 26, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Speaking of scale, is it not likely that the artificially cheap money that came from the bubble is now shut off, that many of the large corporations that grew at the expense of everyone else will now shrink and go away?

http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_essay

Also, the rise of DIY technology should also fuel the kind of decentralization that you guys favor:

http://makezine.com/

http://ginkgobioworks.com/

It also seems to me that open source technology should work in your favor as well:

http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism

avatar kurt9 May 28, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Guys,

Middle America is coming back!

http://blogs.forbes.com/digitalrules/2009/05/an-american-heartland-renaissance.html

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124329530359452757.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

I told you that this problem of meritocracy and middle America would resolve itself on its own and that is exactly what is happening. You guys really need to bone up on current events.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 29, 2009 at 9:59 am

Neither of “kurt9′s” articles say “Middle America is coming back.” One says conditions are sufficiently poor that they approximate to the 1970s, when certain “start up” companies appeared in the Midwest (how many of them are still there? Not many). Jeremy observed on FPR that a small “renaissance” was in fact taking place in terms of a sprout of micro-farms — an empirical observation to which this Forbes article adds little.

Taxation incentives and “renaissance zones” (as touched on in the WSJ article) are a chancy and bold initiative that I have watched work initially and subsequently fail in several Midwest towns and cities. I would not want to abandon this sort of scheme; it seems it could work. However,there hasn’t been any (that I’m aware of) lasting decisive success for these practices, though they do slow the bleeding in some places and they do help areas that are already doing fairly well. Ireland, as WSJ notes, is the great recent nation-level instance of a tax renaissance zone. The Celtic Tiger has fallen, and fallen hard, for reasons well worth exploring.

avatar kurt9 May 30, 2009 at 9:43 pm

James Matthew Wilson,

I think you would agree that what is discussed in the articles I linked to is at least a start on dealing with the brain drain problem. Unlike the articles here in FPR, at least the WSJ and Forbe’s articles suggest concrete approaches to dealing with this problem. The article writers here in FPR seem to just complain about competent people living their hometowns to seek opportunity elsewhere.

Well, gee guys. If the opportunities aren’t at home, of course such people are going else where. I mean, what do you expect? If you don’t want Mohammad going to the mountain, you’ve got to bring the mountain to Mohammad, but there’s no point in even talking about the problem if you’re not willing to bring the mountain to Mohammad. Maybe what the two articles I linked two will not work. If so, FPR needs to come up with something better. So far, you haven’t.

Caleb Stegall talks about how he was so successful as a lawyer in fighting the abortion battle on the national level. If he was this kind of lawyer, perhaps he has the high level connections, connections that could be used to promote venture capital and other investment in the “heartland” he claims is so dear to him. It seems to me that he (and others) would rather complain about people seeking opportunity, in general, than to actually create opportunity for these people.

In actuality, most young people today are growing up in the suburbs of major metro areas anyways. To someone growing up in the burbs of Chicago or in Chandler, Arizona, the “heartland” that is much discussed in FPR is as alien to them as Kaoshiung, Taiwan.

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