What Meritocracy?

I do find it odd how people have great faith in their own free will. Not that we don’t have free will, but that people rarely stop and think how heavily circumscribed it is by history and circumstance.

For example, The Habsburg Empire was quite a good empire. It operated a relatively uncorrupt, effective administration. But that empire started disintegrating over a century ago and yet it can still effect someone’s life.

Nearly a century after its demise, the Habsburg Empire lives on in the people living within its former borders – in their attitudes towards and interactions with local state institutions. Comparing individuals living on either side of the long-gone Habsburg border within the same modern-day country, we find that respondents in a current household survey who live on former Habsburg territory have higher levels of trust in courts and police. They are also less likely to pay bribes for these local public services, demonstrating that the institutional heritage influences not only preferences and unilateral decisions but also bilateral bargaining situations in citizen-state interactions.

Trust is good in itself as the basis for personal relationships. But it also helps make people richer. Fukuyama, not my favourite thinker admittedly, has highlighted the cost of a lack of trust.

People who do not trust one another will end up cooperating only under a system of formal rules and regulations, which have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated, and enforced, sometimes by coercive means. This legal apparatus, serving as a substitute for trust, entails what economists call “transaction costs.” Widespread distrust in a society, in other words, imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.

An honest entrepreneur, bureaucrat or worker can mean the difference between a business succeeding or failing, independent of its merits. The extra costs of patrolling honesty can make viable innovation, businesses or government initiative unviable, given the increased cost of monitoring people in a low-trust organisation.

Put the above two things together and you have a small measure of success or failure being determined by the structures of a long-gone empire. There is no escaping that a major determinant of your wellbeing is based on random historical events.


6 thoughts on “What Meritocracy?

  1. People have faith in their own free will because the cognitive behaviour of having faith in your own free will is (generally) strongly positively reinforced in our society. ;)

    Homework assignment: define free will in some non-trivial way that actually makes any fucking sense and doesn’t involve some kind of Cartesian homunculus.

    1. Hard one…

      All actions are heavily circumscribed. I can’t answer in French for obvious reasons, neither can I answer using thought as the technology to thinktype hasn’t been developed yet.

      I have free will in that most important decisions are made by my conscious mind, and that mind is aware of the constraints under which it operates. I have free will because I am aware I might not.

      1. That’s the trivial sense of “free will”, not the philosophical sense. Is your “conscious mind” free? Really? Could you, for example, simply choose to have different preferences? Does it even make sense to speak of “my concious mind”, as if it were some other entity which makes decisions on your behalf? Does your “concious mind” have free will? It’s turtles all the way down…

        Anyway, the so-called “concious mind” is the Cartesian homunculus. There’s plenty of solid evidence from modern neuroscience that it’s the last to the decision-making party, and its role is simply to observe the rationalisation of decisions already made by other “modules”.

        So, trivial and an invocation of the homunculus. Still, I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything better from an economist… ;)

        1. One paper I heard about theorised that rationality developed only as a conflict avoidance measure.

          The idea is that you act on impulse and if somebody takes umbrage rather than fighting you explain why you did it.

          The truth finding aspect of rationality is purely coincidental.

  2. Of course, if one were being mischievous, one could conclude from the Fukuyama’s paragraph that the excessive managerialism of the last Labour Government implied that at its heart it didn’t trust the public sector to do its job. Amusingly, it’s now trying to avoid the label of being the party of the public sector. All this proves is that it’s possible to be perceived as being in favour of the public sector while not trusting it one bit. I think this might be Blairism.

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