Causes: Meritocracy (Notes from Status Anxiety)

Notes from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004). This is the fourth post on this topic; the first is here.


Explanations for why one might be poor and what one’s value to society is have grown “notably more punitive and emotionally awkward in the modern era.”

From AD 30 to the latter part of the 20th century, there have been three stories for the “lowest in Western societies” that were consoling:

(1) The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful members of society.  This is the medieval and pre-modern story. God and/or the natural order are responsible for societal position. In this story, there’s a sense of mutual dependence among the classes, and the lowest classes are acknowledged for making life easier for the upper classes.

(2) Low status has no moral connotation. Per Scripture. Neither wealth nor poverty are an accurate index of moral worth. Jesus was poor and good. If anything, poverty was good because it led to the recognition of one’s dependence on God.

(3) The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to the robbery of the poor. 1754-1989. Rousseau, Marx (1887), Engels (1845)

These weren’t the only stories, but they were widely credited.

Beginning around the middle of the 18th century, 3 more troubling stories (if you were poor) began to form:

(1) The rich are the useful ones. Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1723) is the written origin of this story, which says that the rich contribute more to society because their spending provides employment for everyone under them. The impact of the rich on others is the most beneficial even if their intentions and motivations are not beneficent. (To those of us in the 21st century, this ‘fable’ seems to have been always with us, but it’s a relatively new take on things!)  Hume repeats this idea in 1752, and Adam Smith seals the deal in 1759: “The whole of civilisation, and the welfare of all societies” depended on people’s desire and ability to accumulate unneeded capital and show off their wealth. The greedier they are, the better for all.

(2) Status does have moral connotations. Seen in Thomas Paine (The Rights of Man), Napoleon, Carlyle — all against hereditary aristocracy and for meritocracy, i.e., an aristocracy of talent. Inequality is OK so long as there is equality of opportunity (e.g., in education). This led to public schools, SAT tests (scientifically proven meritocratic standard – could rank people by their “real worth”), and the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which required compulsory education in the countries that signed on. Also led to equal opportunity in the workplace (1961, Kennedy) and competitive entrance exams (1870, Britain).

Now worldly position was obviously related to inner qualities: “Faith in an increasingly reliable connection between merit and worldly success in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.” The rich were not only wealthier; they were plain better.

Christianity in the U.S. revised its thinking: now to possess riches in this world was evidence that one was deserving. The Rev. Thomas P. Hunt’s The Book of Wealth: In Which it is Proved from the Bible that it is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich (1836), was a bestseller.  More on this connection between moral goodness and prosperity here at Talking Pentecostalism.

(3) The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity. The poor were no longer seen as unfortunate. Now they were seen as undeserving failures. Poverty became a matter of shame.

Social Darwinism — the weak are nature’s mistakes and should be allowed to perish. Herbert Spencer in Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1851) argued that biology is opposed to charity. Andrew Carnegie, in his autobiography, said that “Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do.”

— * — * — *

Current Events Tie-In: Extremely wealthy Americans evoke sense of awe in their wealthy psychiatrists: “Dr. [Byram] Karasu acknowledged that he was not immune from taking satisfaction in the success and fame of his patients. ‘Wealthy people bring about a degree of awe, even in their therapists sometimes,’ he said. ‘This is the biggest problem I see in the doctors I supervise. And these are fully practicing doctors, doctors making $400, $500 an hour.'”


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