Friday, December 30, 2011

Mitt Romney's Delusion of Meritocracy

I always find myself inching towards a breaking point in my patience for political double-talk when I hear someone who has benefited from extraordinary material and social advantages preaching about the evils of “entitlement society” and how they undercut the meritocracy in which we are supposedly now living. And so it is with Mitt Romney’s stump speech. Much of his campaign rhetoric has sought to paint him as the ideological opposite to an Obama presidency that advances entitlement and discourages hard work and education.

You may disagree with the effectiveness of Democratic policies, but it seems asinine to fail to acknowledge that the initiatives of people like President Obama are precisely aimed at providing opportunities for work and education to all Americans. But Mitt Romney apparently identifies these efforts as aspects of “a society where government takes from some and gives to others; tries to make everybody the same.”

Nobody who isn’t a robot strives to make everybody the same. No Democrats that I know of think that is either possible or desirable. The goal is to prevent an unfair disparity in the opportunities that are available to different kinds of people from cradle to grave. And I suppose that only a person who has never been on the bottom half of that divide, or who has forgotten what it was like, would fail to understand that.

As such a person, Romney says:

“I believe in something I'll call an opportunity society, a merit society where people, based upon their education and their hard work and their risk-taking, are able to earn rewards.”

And looking closely at those words, I see a significant indication of the inability of people like Mitt Romney to so much as perceive the effects of existent inequality. I believe that virtually everybody shares the ideal of a society in which hard work and education lead a person to success and prosperity. It just happens that those of us who have put forth earnest and constant efforts, and obtained the fullest education available to us have found the reality to be far from that ideal.

Meanwhile, people who have never wanted for anything tend to believe that they were competing on a level playing field and that their own hard work and education and risk-taking provided them with the fruits that they have enjoyed throughout life. But that phrase “risk-taking” points to the cognitive dissonance implicit in believing both that personal investment is foundational and that preexisting advantages are irrelevant.

If risk-taking is part of a trifecta of personal behaviors that define an individual’s success, it requires some rather fuzzy logic to conclude that everybody has an equal shot at earning the rewards that Romney speaks of. Taking a risk for the sake of success means gambling with resources, and if you don’t have sufficient resources to start with, the prospect of taking a material risk means either venturing less for the sake of a more modest reward or pursuing the irrational course of action by putting more on the table than you can afford to pay should the risk fail.

After all, the term “risk” presupposes the possibility of failure. That’s well and good if your father was the CEO of American Motors by the time you were seven, and you therefore have the means to cover your losses. But if you were born working class, have the support only of working class people, or of no one at all, and are starting your education, career, and all else from scratch, a risk that fails can doom your life. If you’re on the bottom, you can work harder than anyone you know, and educate yourself to the utmost, but if you’re not presented with an actual opportunity to ascend, the bottom is where you stay.

Romney evidently thinks that hard work and education are not enough, and that risk-taking is the third requirement of meritocracy, and perhaps the very thing that creates those opportunities for ascent. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” they say. Fine, but what if you have nothing to venture – nothing, that is, but your hard work and education? It seems to me that the only response to such a person’s hardship that still maintains a belief in meritocracy is to fault them for either choosing not to gamble more than they own or for gambling so much and losing.

But in point of fact, I think the actual response to such people is to avoid looking down the cracks through which they’ve fallen, and to simply pretend that they never existed.

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