You can’t inherit merit.


Educated elite parents are successfully raising more capable children creating a hereditary meritocracy

I don’t know who wrote this.  My Yahoo! News feed captured the above link from Next Big Future, which seems to include an attribution to the exceptionally prolific Brian Wang.  The source article at The Economist, however (link) displays no byline.  Reading the original, one gets a wholly different impression of the author’s view, than reading the excerpt.  Whereas the excerpt would appear as a paean to the elite, the original bears the subtitle, “The children of the rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves. That’s a problem.”  The original, unlike the excerpt, provides documentation that the gap in educational opportunities and attainments between rich and poor is, indeed, increasing.

“America’s elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit.”

When I say that the poor have worth also, please do not mistake me for being politically correct.  Political correctness denies merit.  It tells me working people don’t deserve anything they have.  It tells me they have earned nothing.  In effect, it denies that they work.

It denies that anyone works.

Related: Work

Rose, my boss at my last paying job, came from a background very different from my own.  She grew up in a high-rise public housing project in New York.  She was the youngest of nine children.  Her older sister April was the first member of the family ever to graduate from high school.  The father basically stayed in jail; he stayed out only long enough at any time to make a baby, and then it’s back to jail he went.  She tells of the morning she and her sisters had to step over a dead body at the bottom of the stairs to get to school.

Now she was pulling down, by our standards, big bucks as the manager of a dollar store.

She remarked to me once that everyone has an equal shot, equal opportunity, to succeed in life.  I disagreed.  I said life definitely deals different people different hands.  What matters is not the hand you’re dealt, but how you play the hand you’re dealt.

It ain’t whatcha got that matters, but whatcha do with it.

In my book, that‘s merit.

No one can inherit merit.

But whatcha got definitely varies between rich and poor.

I was surprised that the Economist piece didn’t go into more detail about intangible assets elite children “inherit.”

I grew up, and lived most of my adult life, in very comfortable circumstances.  Now, I’m homeless.  My inherited wealth consists of a single thing, and it’s not material: it’s the value system I chose to learn, from my parents, in my childhood home.  Foremost is the value of honesty; I’m surprised sometimes at things my brothers say about that, that indicate just how central it was to our upbringing.   A sense of right and wrong.  A worldview that says, “You can succeed.”   A sense of personal worth, and some resilience in one’s personality.

Many children grow up without such assets.  Poverty itself militates against them.  Children can’t learn right from wrong, from parents who have never learned right from wrong themselves.

Caleb is a neighbor of mine at the homeless shelter.  He’s 19 years old, mulatto, very tall, very skinny, very hyper, and talks constantly in a loud, shrill voice that’s an absolute annoyance.   His father left when he was born; his mother’s long since vanished.  He was bounced around from one foster home to the next, because “Nobody wanted me.”  He’s been in psychiatric institutions; he’s been in penal institutions.  He “aged out” of foster care, meaning he had nowhere to go.  Now he’s among us.

On some of the rare occasions when he’s calm, he talks about the “coping mechanisms” he learned in therapy and uses to manage his feelings, thoughts and actions.

Given the place where he began, it’s clear to me he’s come a long way.  He impresses me like Donald Trump:  a pain in the ass, but still a man of accomplishment.

Of merit.

Given life’s inherent difficulties and temptations, that affect rich and poor alike, I say the greatest achievement anyone can attain, the noblest goal anyone can aspire to, is just to be a decent person.  That’s accomplishment enough for anyone.

Related: A place to begin
Related: Why racism no longer matters to me
Related: Chaos overwhelms the poor

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2 thoughts on “You can’t inherit merit.

  1. The sentence about hereditary meritocracy appears almost verbatim in the conclusion of “The Bell Curve,” a 1994 book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who predicted (and seemed to advocate) the rise of a custodial state as solution to this conundrum. The idea behind it may be a product of British evolutionary utilitarian Herbert Spencer from 1850 or so. They’ve certainly gotten their wish as incarceration rates have risen eightfold over the last forty years; but I think they overrated Father Darwin while overlooking the question of whether we should be our brother’s keeper in case the biologically determined IQs fail us. Nor did Spencer himself, in “The Man Versus the State,” ever call for a government that doesn’t care about the welfare of its citizens. Heredity and merit stand at opposite poles of the ethical world, making any phrase that combines the two words an oxymoron.

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