(Warning: Rant Ahead)
We are so smug, so secure in our privilege. The clever ones. We understand the world, and we smirk at people who don’t. “How could they be so dumb as to vote for that?” “What on earth were they thinking?” “I could do a better job than that half asleep.”
And you know what? We’re right. We are the clever ones. It doesn’t matter what your skin colour is, or your gender, or your sexuality. You can be a black lesbian in a wheelchair and if you’re smart, you’re still a member of the most privileged group of all. You can whine about how society oppresses you, but frankly if you live in any advanced society you have no idea what a society designed to oppress you looks like.
Sceptical? So wedded to your “liberal” identity that you can’t accept that you are one of the oppressors?
Meritocracy. Giving the job to the person best qualified for it. The rallying cry for “liberals”, for people who want to overthrow the structures that have oppressed women, people of colour, and LGBTQIA people for so long.
“Meritocracy” is the explicit claim that people in the bottom 25% of the population do not deserve to have well-paid, high status jobs, because of how they were born. In the wonderful world of flexible working and the high-skill workforce, it is the claim that they have no right to have any job at all. If they can’t make themselves cleverer, they can go and starve. This is the stick that “liberals” use to beat “privilege”. And they can’t even see the irony.
Let’s be up front about this. If your ideal systematically excludes 25% of the population from high status positions because of how they were born, your ideal is bad. If this is the explicit basis of your ideal, then it is indefensible. Meritocracy is an indefensible tool of oppression of a large chunk of the population.
So, you’re black. Woop-de-doo. So is the president of the USA. No-one has argued that he should not be president because he is black, whatever the “real motivations” of the birthers might be. People did argue that George W. Bush was too stupid to be president. They did this quite explicitly. Even though it was patently untrue. Yes, sure, there are systemic factors that disadvantage women, people of colour, the disabled. If you look at the statistics, you can see them.
You can see the factors excluding the less able by looking at the hiring criteria.
Nor is that all. I know a few lawyers. I know people who’ve worked in the criminal justice system. Most of the people who end up in the dock are at the low end of intellectual ability. They can’t juggle their lives, and completely fail to come up with good solutions to their problems. Then, when they get arrested, they can’t talk their way out of it, because they aren’t smart enough. They aren’t even smart enough to keep their mouths shut when the police ask them what they did. Because, you know, that’s what “less able” means.
I don’t think anyone collects the statistics. Anecdotally, however, the prisons are full of people of low intelligence, while the smart people get rich in ways that aren’t actually illegal. Because, you know, smart people can understand rules and find the loopholes. Anecdotally, the overrepresentation of people of colour has nothing on the overrepresentation of the unintelligent.
So, what am I suggesting? Should we let dumb people take on important positions? What about the consequences when they make bad decisions? You wouldn’t want someone that stupid doing your taxes for you, after all.
Well, no. The whole of society is structured to make life as difficult as possible for the unintelligent. And then we blame them when they fail and fall apart. They reply to phishing emails, they don’t write in to cancel subscriptions, they don’t read the small print on the contracts. Lawyers and courts prioritise writing those contracts and licenses in legal terminology, to make them “precise”, when most of the population can’t understand it. Tech firms assign many problems to “user error”. Tax law legally obliges you to understand the whole tax code and how it applies to your situation. Even social security will stop your benefits if you make a mistake on the form, and assume fraud if you can’t remember what you were earning a couple of months ago. Because, of course, everyone can remember that sort of thing clearly.
And anyone can climb stairs if they try hard enough.
The privilege of the intellectual elite is the explicit ideology of western society. Failing to enforce that privilege, by failing to hire “the best person for the job”, is grounds for censure at least, and legal action in many cases. Any job with status must be offered to the privileged group. Allowing someone outside the privileged group, or even at a lower level of the privileged group, to gain status over time is deeply dubious, and a sign of nepotism and corruption within the organisation. And, after we’ve restricted the less able to the menial jobs, the ones with low pay and no security, we set up the society they live in as an impossible obstacle course, and then say that it’s their fault when they fall.
And, you know what makes this really unfair? Smart people don’t need any help to enforce their privilege. Put a really smart person in a group with half a dozen people with low ability who have been doing a job for years, and in a few days or weeks she will understand it better than they do. We have the good hands. Being a white heterosexual man might mean that the video game is set to “easy”, but being smart means that you have the cheat codes. If society did nothing to enforce male privilege, it would not exist. Smart people have an advantage in almost any situation. Indeed, even if you explicitly designed society to suppress smart people, they would end up running it. Smart people are smart enough to hide their ability, and dumb people are too dumb to see that they’re being played until the smart people hold the power â€” and maybe not even then. Other groups might have claimed to be inherently intellectually superior, but smart people are, by definition.
So, what should we do?
First, recognise that meritocracy is morally bankrupt. It is even worse than racism or sexism, because it picks on people who are in a weak position before society does anything. Being good at a job no more entitles you to that job than being a white man does.
Second, completely redesign society so that people in the bottom 25% have a fair chance to get positions of wealth, status, and influence. “Fair chance” means that 25% of people with wealth, status, and influence are in the bottom 25% of ability. Yes, this will mean introducing criteria that are, at least, completely indifferent to how good you are at the job, and will almost certainly require positive discrimination in favour of people who are much less competent.
Of course, doing that in the current state of society would be a complete disaster. Society needs to be redesigned so that people can make stupid mistakes in important jobs without causing major problems.
Is that actually possible?
I have no idea. We could make a start by removing all legal requirements to enforce the privilege of smart people, and reforming some of the more gratuitous burdens, like software licenses and credit card agreements, but that would not be enough to solve the problem.
The final irony? If the problem is ever fixed, it will be smart people who fix it.