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Merit and meritocracy, a secular debate: between the dystopian perspective of Young and the utopian vision of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon

Recognising, evaluating, and rewarding merit, choosing the parameters to measure it as objectively and transparently as possible, should now be clearly regarded as ‘a deal’ that is far from easy and less close to definitive or at least long-term solutions.

Suffice it to say that the topic has been the subject of study and reflection for centuries by authoritative scholars.

In this respect, it is shared in the doctrine that the term meritocracyfirst appeared in the pages of the work of the British sociologist Michael Young (1915-2002): The rise of the Meritocracy (1870-2033) of 1958, who, among other things, wrote: Men, after all, distinguish themselves not by equality but by the inequality of their skills. If we valued people not only for their intelligence or efficiency, but also for their courage, for their imagination, sensitivity, and generosity, who would feel more to argue that the scientist is superior to the porter who has admirable qualities of a father, or that the extraordinarily efficient employee is superior to the truck driver extraordinarily good at growing roses?” He also emphasized the difference from the past: At that time no class was homogeneous in terms of intelligence: the intelligent members of the upper classes had as much in common with the intelligent members of the lower classes as they had with the stupid members of their own class. Now that individuals are classified according to intelligence, the distance between classes has inevitably become greater. On the one hand, the upper classes are no longer weakened by self- doubts and self-criticism.Today, people know that success is the right reward for their ability, their efforts, and their undeniable achievements. They deserve to belong to a higher class. Moreover, they know not only that their value is high at the start, but that a first-rate education has been built on top of their natural skills.

The illustrious author coined the term meritocracy in his essay/novel on education and equality (applying it to an imaginary sociologist of 2034, who will die during a mass revolt), in the name of dystopia/anti-utopia, in which he outlines a future society of the 1930s of the 21st century marked by the crisis of the educational and social system fruit of the school laws adopted from the end of the 800 and the half of the 900 in England, that it has aggravated the class divisions and that it is aimed to overcome with a new social structure, that is why it is born, “The advent of meritocracy”.

So one imagines the social class of the most intelligent and capable people, selected by schools, who lead the entire community. So the merit, rewarded with being recognized as a nec plus ultra ruling class, is linked to the tangible criterion of the tests for the measurement of the IQ-Intelligence Quotient (which detect the potential of each individual), together with the commitment, which can be summarised in the term individual talent. Some see the definition of meritocracy devised by Young, as a balanced synthesis of intellectual talent and social commitment.

But soon this system also shows its pathological side: the social class of the intelligent turns into a real oligarchy without so many scruples and not even the moral and political values of the supplanted noble aristocracy. This leads to the exacerbation of social discontent, to the exasperation and uproar of the subordinate classes (to that of the intelligent, considered the best possible) who feel oppressed, on the margins of the new social system and, therefore, excluded from the desired social rise. Young, in this regard, points out that Even stupid people can give life to an intelligent progeny who should have the chance to climb the ladder of the success of careers shaped largely by the administration of the state.

As the narrative develops, it is believed that the scholar has associated meritocracy with a negative connotation of it, but part of the literature is keen to persevere in the general-positivist view and to evaluate the book as prophetic, as it addresses the complex and never dormant problem of the ambiguity of meritocracy, the political position towards this issue and the reflection of their decisions on the management of public administration, of the pathos linked to the merit and of the inequalities of pay, in England as elsewhere, at those times as in later times.

Young starts from the decline of the aristocracy of birth/nobility that identifies with power, transmitted by succession: … society was dominated by nepotism. In the agrarian world that prevailed for much of the nineteenth century, the rank was awarded by birth and not by merit. Class by class, position by position, occupation by occupation, the children faithfully kept in the footsteps of the fathers, as the fathers had faithfully followed those of their grandparents … Almost always the occupations were accessed not by selection but according to the rule of hereditary succession.” This context is contrasted by those who have merit, exponents of a c.d. aristocracy of ingenuity, highlighting the relationship between the two paths to socio-economic ancestry: the first based on the class, transmitted by right of birth, the other on the exaltation of individual talent: … not an aristocracy of blood, not a plutocracy of rich, but a true meritocracy of ingenuity”.

This is one of the most significant passages of Young’s criticism, which could be an excellent starting point to reflect on the concept of merit/meritocracy today, in these years many close to those in which the futuristic and dystopian vision of that English sociologist who lives in 2034 and to whom he lends his pen is set, to denounce a QI-centric society and a worrying meritocracy, crushed on an elite result of intellectual tenets and educational selection, as it had been reformed. The elitist aristocracy, and its social privileges and beyond, will soon become hereditary and will sustain a new regime in which “the division between classes has become clearer, the position of the upper classes higher and that of the lower classes lower.” Therefore, the children of the most intelligent, who are also already advantaged and well started from birth, will be trained in the best schools (and no longer single school), they will live in an environment full of stimuli and will maintain the privileged socio-economic position. Young wrote in his mentioned work: The best of today give birth to the best of tomorrow to an extent that is unprecedented in the past. The elite is about to become hereditary; the principles of inheritance and merit tend to merge.” Well, for all this, as adults they will tend to be carriers of an IQ, which corresponds to a certain percentile, on average higher than those who belong to the lower classes.

So, it would seem that merit, or rather a meritocratic society does not work.

However, it must be said, that Young, of course, exaggerates in satirical language and narrates in a hyperbolic style, this is because in his novel he describes an imaginary undesirable and frightening society, similar to those told by Aldous Huxley in The New World” and The Island” and by George Orwell in “1984” and The Animal Farm”, considered masterpieces of the dystopian genre.

But in truth, it is not revocable in doubt, that the merit, which is clear from an effective, efficient and talented work, which represents the result of previous work experience which has produced professional and personal enrichment, cannot represent that objective criterion accepted by all, as may be the different assessments of individuals that derive from the measurement of the same if this is done in the utmost transparency and fairness. Moreover, to avoid the drift feared and proposed by Young, mature democratic societies have created, over time and not without social battles, antidotes to the elite domination of the wealthy classes, one of all is indicated in our Constitutional Charter in Article 34, paragraph 3: The capable and deserving, even if without means, have the right to achieve the highest degrees of studies, which is expressed concretely in many institutions and subsidies that help people in difficulty not to be forced to abandon their professional attitudes and personal ambitions.

It must be said, however, that in addition to Young’s important contribution, the criterion of merit/meritocracy, as an objective pillar of the evaluative mechanism applicable to the most varied sectors, based on justice and social equality, is even traced back to Confucius (551-479 BC). Although the principles of Confucianism are such and many that make its doctrine very articulated, but one of the founding principles, introduced by the most eminent master and influential philosopher of Chinese history, is precisely that of the imminence based exclusively on merit.

So much so that in line with the general vision of Confucius, which was based on the principles of ethics – both individual and social – based on a sense of righteousness and justice, harmony in social relations, crystallized according to precise ethical and ritual norms handed down by the cultural tradition of antiquity, it is indeed the personal abilities and skills, acquired over time, and not the rights/privileges associated with being born into a wealthy family, to see the success of a man in command. According to Confucius, merit cannot be separated from learning and study, which for centuries remained linked to the Confucian texts. In fact, except for some higher offices which were a prerogative of the members of the imperial family, access to the roles of the bureaucratic apparatus of the time was only on merit.

In addition, another ancient and well-known Chinese author, Han Feizi (280-233 BC), philosopher, intellectual and scholar of the political life of the time, also dwelt on the merits, whose ideas are collected in the work of the same name composed of fifty-five chapters, in which his thought about the eternal problems of political dynamics is enclosed. Han Feizi expresses himself, among other things, on the political function of the sovereign and his relationship with the law, considering the latter to be the primary solution to the problems of the former, as it has no feelings. Precisely in the meantime, he explains this relationship, he gives mention to the merit that he must guide the choices of the sovereign, whose neutrality is guaranteed by the application of general and abstract law which, for this reason alone, shows himself devoid of any individuality. In fact, Feizi also states that recognition and punishments must be applied exclusively for objective merits, referring to a regulation that is insensitive to any other consideration other than the meritocratic one: Intelligent sovereigns would apply the law and not their own personal tastes to choose their subordinates, leaving out any subjectivity and using objective rules that clarify who has acquired real merits for the good of Nations”. And in this last regard, he wrote: Clarifying laws and statutes by prohibiting literary learning and focusing on meritorious services by suppressing private benefits, are public benefits. But Feizi also wondered what method to assess merit, so he devised the first system of civil service examinations for officials called upon to be part of the bureaucratic apparatus.

Another authoritative reference to meritocracy is found in the fifth book of Aristotles work Nicomachea Ethics(385-323 BC), in which the famous Greek philosopher recalls the notion of merit within the treatment of the dikaiosyne, the virtue of justice, and in particular, by debating distributive justice: The relationship between things must be the same as that between people. If these, in fact, are not equal, they will not have equal things; but struggles and recriminations are then that they arise: either when equal people have or receive things that are not equal, or when people who are not equal have or receive equal things. This is also clear from the principle of distribution according to merit. Everyone agrees that the right in distributions must be by a certain merit, but then not everyone means merit in the same way.” Although Aristotle, discussing the causes of the stasis (the civil conflict) in the principle of book V of his work “The Politics”, believed that the meritocracy” feeds a regime that tends to be oligarchic because it gives authority to those who already enjoy an advantage. The concept Prof. Zamagni on the pages of “Il Corriere della sera”; he writes: In good essence, the serious danger inherent in the uncritical acceptance of meritocracy is the slip – as Aristotle had clearly glimpsed – towards more or less veiled forms of oligarchic technocracy. A meritocratic policy contains in itself the germs that lead, in the long run, to the euthanasia of the democratic principle”.

But we want to dwell, lastly, on merit as an important part of the utopian vision of society as outlined in the enlightened statute governing the life of the population of the Royal Bourbon site of San Leucio (Caserta) dating back to 1773 and directly to an idea, a project of the Sovereign Ferdinand IV. San Leucio, a Bourbon site born as a place of rest and royal hunting colony (like the other Real site of Carditello), in 1789 (and following the death of Crown Prince Charles Titus there in 1778, which led the royals to no longer want to stay there), was by Ferdinand IV the subject of a radical change that led him to the expansion and transformation into a re

A true revolutionary socio-economic institution, a small City-State, is considered one of the first attempts at Enlightenment/utopian socialism, although the spirit that moved Ferdinand was his royal paternalism and the will to spread equality among men.

Leaving aside the rules dictated to regulate all the events of the life of the workers, from marriage to the education of the children, the many rights granted to the settlers, such as that housing, work, and free education, the free choice of the spouse (guaranteed by the Sovereign), we dwell on a distinctive aspect of work, to which all men and women had to devote themselves with dignity in order not to fall into idleness, the merit and the relative provisions provided for in the statute/ code of laws, composed of 5 chapters and 24 short paragraphs, written by intellectual Antonio Planelli; although the King was its creator and co-author.

In paragraph II – Merit alone distinguishes between the individuals of S. Leucio. Perfect equality in dressing. An absolute ban against the luxury, of Cap. II – Positive Duties – of the General Duties, of the aforementioned Statute, reads: As you are therefore all Artists, the law that I impose on you, is that of perfect equality. I know, that every man is led to distinguish himself from others; and that this equality seems not to be hoped for in times so contrary to simplicity, and to nature. But I also know, how vain and harmful that distinction, which proceeds from luxury, and pomp; and that the real distinction is that, which derives from merit.” Therefore, merit is the only basis for distinguishing oneself from each other, in that in the community there is an unusual equality of the sexes and social equality between individuals, as read in the book written by Ferdinand IV himself in 1789 entitled Origin of the population of S. Leucio and his progress to this day with the laws corresponding to the good governance of it.”

And so we continue in paragraph VI – Laws for the good education of the Children of the Cap. II – Positive Duties – of the Particular Duties: The prices of the work of every manufacture will be fixed; but the young man, or the young apprentice, will rise step by step, and how he will be perfecting in the art, up to the price, that he enjoys by the best artists, national and foreign. Arrived at this state, if they have the talent to bring their work to another degree of greater beauty, and perfection, they will be held competitions; and the one, or that, of which the work will be more beautiful, more accurate, and more perfect, will have as a prize the badge of a Silver Medal, and in some cases also of gold, which he can carry in his chest;  and in the Church will have the right to sit by order of seniority in the Bank, which will be called Of Merit, which will be located only for young people of this made to the left of the Altar”.

The social creature Ferdinandea, innovative, valiant, and marked by the nobility of intent, of San Leucio, was never fully realized, because, first, of the arrival of Napoleon in Italy, then of the birth of the Pst Notoan Republic in 1799, until the complete abandonment of the project with the arrival of the Savoy, who sold the entire complex to private individuals.

But what is certainly what is concerned here is the daring and pre-runner of a society based on work, in which social discrimination and inequalities based on race, origins, and class is eliminated, precisely through the recognition and evaluation of commitment to work and related merit, at times, however, more linked to a recognizable and collective social appreciation (a medal to be worn on the chest, seat in the Church) that, as today, to a prize that positively reverberates on a higher income.

In conclusion, it seems indisputable, despite Young’s disastrous projections on meritocratic society with alarming implications – among other things, according to what is highlighted, not so interpreted by all – a reasonable enhancement of merit, understood as personal skill, proven professionalism, and qualified competence can only lead to dissemination of greater efficiency and effectiveness of every action that uses it and, making it extended application to society, as a whole, better performing in all the various fields that animate it (social, administrative, political).

But if it is true that we are currently inclined to recognize the term meritocracy as a positive meaning, even today we are indeed looking for a meritocratic method’ to be used to arrive at a partnership, a system, based exclusively on individual merits, after having gone through equal opportunities, detectable and therefore traceable.

We understand, therefore, the reasons why much has been said about it and, of course, we will continue to talk about it more and more. This, in particular, is if merit is conceived as the means and not the end, if the same is recognized that role as a buffer of collective well-being, of social and public improvement, and not only of private and individual satisfaction. But it has been, therefore, in the past difficult to observe, delineate, realize and recognize and it seems to be so even today, in totally changed social, economic, political, institutional, cultural, and administrative contexts, and after millennia, from the first thinkers who ventured along the impervious aspects of what for centuries is tried to cloak in a shell of concreteness to which it would seem to escape, to rise to a symbolic function, agitation and ideological, to flaunt to the masses to show them that there is the intention, most deserving, to put all on merit and meritocracy.

(A cura di Silvio Quinzone – Traduzione di Francesca D’Ingillo)

Rivista scientifica digitale mensile (e-magazine) pubblicata in Legnano dal 2013 – Direttore: Claudio Melillo – Direttore Responsabile: Serena Giglio – Coordinatore: Pierpaolo Grignani – Responsabile di Redazione: Marco Schiariti
a cura del Centro Studi di Economia e Diritto – Ce.S.E.D. Via Padova, 5 – 20025 Legnano (MI) – C.F. 92044830153 – ISSN 2282-3964 Testata registrata presso il Tribunale di Milano al n. 92 del 26 marzo 2013
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