Social Mobility and Meritocracy

A fable from Rabbi Nachman.

At the same time there existed in the sphere of the world a land that was called the country of wealth after the nature of its inhabitants. They saw in money alone the goal of their life and would recognise no other profit and no other perfection than possession. Thus all posts of honour and all ranks among them were regulated by this valuation. It was necessary to own a certain amount in order merely to be a man; he who did not possess this much stood lower and occupied in their esteem the rank of a manlike animal, and was called such. He owned more than that minimum amount occupied a higher position, and a very rich man stood near the stars; for he had, so they believed, the power of the stars, which cause gold to grow in the bowels of the earth. But the richest of all, who could never grasp all that was theirs or even merely survey it, these they exalted to gods above them and served them in the dust. It was ordered that each show his possessions every year so that he could maintain his station, rise, or fall, and it was then possible at times that from a man, an animal would come into being, and from an animal, a man.

From ‘The Master of Prayer’ by Rabbi Nachman, as told by Martin Buber.

Rabbi Nachman's fable captures brilliantly the interwoven madness of two contemporary obsessions:

Meritocracy involves the crazy desire to equate wealth and power with merit (today often equated to academic excellence). Once we think this through we can see that there is no merit in meritocracy - in fact we might say that as those with merit are already blessed perhaps we should be happy to see those without merit get the distinct benefits of power or money. Meritocracy is greed.

But meritocracy also invites the craziness of social mobility. On one reading social mobility - if we can abandon the notion of up and down - is harmless or good. It is certainly bad if a natural footballer is forced to play cricket, a natural comedian runs a funeral parlour or a natural gardner becomes an accountant. However the idea that there is any virtue in people getting much richer than their parents and (and by logical necessity that there is virtue in seeing people become much poorer than their parents) is nonsense. It is an illusion that is only credible if we also believe in meritocracy.