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Jewish World Review May 11, 2001 / 18, 5761

Paul Campos

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Nature defies advent of true meritocracy -- SEVERAL vaguely similar proposals are currently floating around the English-speaking world. What links these proposals is a shared goal: Each aims to help create something more closely resembling a true meritocracy.

English Prime Minister Tony Blair is pursuing the most modest. Blair wants to fund a program that will provide each British child with a sum of money equal to several thousand dollars when that child reaches 18. Upon achieving chronological adulthood, each child would be free to use this money to, for example, pay for a college education, or a down payment for a house, or to start a small business.

In their recent book The Stakeholder Society, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott describe a similar yet far more ambitious scheme. Upon reaching 18, every American would receive $80,000. Again, the idea would be to give everyone, whatever their economic and social background might be, a real opportunity to succeed in the world.

In a similar vein, JWR columnist Charles Krauthammer has surprisingly endorsed the idea of reparation payments for African-Americans. Krauthammer's argument runs as follows: Unlike the other beneficiaries of affirmative action, America owes a special debt to black Americans, because of the historic disgrace of slavery.

Yet affirmative action inevitably undercuts equal treatment under the law, and thus the idea of a true meritocracy. A one-time reparation payment from the American government to its black citizens is therefore preferable to open-ended programs employing racial preferences. Such a payment, in Krauthammer's view, would go far enough toward balancing the historical books to justify the elimination of affirmative action.

What drives all these proposals is the sense that a true meritocracy depends on something resembling genuine equality of opportunity. In America, in particular, it is part of our cultural mythology (in both a good and bad sense of the word "myth") that "anyone can grow up to be president of the United States."

Given that the last presidential election was a contest between a C student from Yale and a D student from Harvard who happened to be the sons of a president and of a senator, it shouldn't surprise us that at the moment this proverb seems even more unrealistic than usual.

In a nation as committed -- at least in theory -- to equality of opportunity as America, it is understandable that we long to make social judgments about success and failure without reference to accidents of birth and upbringing. For example, all but the most benighted reactionaries recognize how absurd it is to imagine that a child of a crack-addicted prostitute should be judged on the same scale of social achievement as we apply to the namesakes of George Herbert Walker Bush and Albert Gore Sr.

Yet any attempt to provide true equality of opportunity must, if it is intellectually honest, acknowledge that all such attempts are largely doomed to failure. Each of us is the sum of parts -- of genetics, of environment, and of sheer chance -- that we never chose, and that we can do little about.

On some level, to criticize someone for a lack of ambition is like criticizing him for the color of his eyes. What makes each of us ambitious or fatalistic, clever or dull, popular or pariahs and, ultimately, successful or unsuccessful, is mostly determined by things over which we never had any control.

Whatever merits any of us possess are reflected in the extent to which we overcome circumstances that, in and of themselves, will always be far more powerful factors in producing what the world recognizes as success than those merits themselves. Yet social rewards are handed out almost without regard to this uncomfortable fact.

A true social meritocracy could only exist in a world in which all men actually were created equal. It should be a self-evident truth that the world we inhabit will never fulfill that qualification.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos