05 February 2012

Meritocracy versus Loyalty



This has been sitting in my drafts directory for three months, since I read this Ross Douthat column on Corazine. But it goes with some of what I was writing yesterday, so I've dusted it off.

Douthat points out, I think rightly, that the defining features of our modern elite are its arrogance and its recklessness.

Arrogance is perhaps an inevitable weakness of any elite, but I think he is right to identify the recklessness as something new since the days of a hereditary upper class.

For one thing, someone who has been elevated from a humble background wholly or mostly by their own efforts and ability is likely to have a very high opinion of that ability. that again seems almost an inevitable side-effect of having the most able people in positions of power.

I think it's more significant that a large number of people in positions of serious power have absolutely no-one above them.  If you are Governor of a state, or CEO of a company, you are theoretically responsible to voters or shareholders, but they do not play the role of a superior in a social or psychological sense, they are more the material a politician or manager works with than the patron he works for.

If the most significant person you know of is yourself, then the brutal one-sided logic of excessive risk-taking kicks in. You're already successful, you've got a well-upholstered safety net, so when you take a big gamble, if it comes off you're a hero and move up to the next level of achievement, and if it doesn't you take a break for a bit to play golf and then try something new.

That unbalanced incentive is widely recognised now, but in itself it is not what's new. Limited Liability has been around a good while, as have the country houses of disastrous politicians. What is new is the end of loyalty. In the past, the bulk of those wielding power were tied not just by their rolling contacts but by bonds of loyalty to superiors. A failed gamble would impact not merely a crowd of insignficiant peasants, voters or shareholders, but would hit the status and reputation of those whose approval or disapproval actually matters.

Obviously there were always a few who were beyond any such limitations, but think about how many there are now who have no practical superiors. It would have been hard to have made a list that would have included "CEO of MF Global".

Nor is the concept limited to business. To whom does Hillary Clinton, or the head of an agency, look up as a superior? To the President who appointed them? I don't think so. He's just another punter. What about Paul Krugman, or some pressure-group head?

The distinction I'm getting at, between a technical superior and a psychological superior, is whether the superior's opinion matters beyond the immediate game being played. If you're a department head in a company or a government agency, your boss can fire you. But that's all he can do, and that's the only risk you're taking. Once he's done that, he's not your boss any more. On the other hand, if your boss is your lifelong mentor, then he's a psychological superior. Even if he fires you, he doesn't stop being your superior; you still need his approval at some level. I think such relationships were once the norm, and have been becoming steadily less common for a few hundred years.

A response has been to try to build up abstracts to which powerful people feel loyalty. Many companies try hard to impress on their people the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves, but that's a tall order for an institution which itself is required to operate by cold logic.

The replacement of mentor-protégé relationships by meritocracy has had two drivers: first, modern communications, record-keeping, and the broadening of trust up to recent times have meant that positions are being filled from much wider pools of candidates than before, while at the same time, as I described yesterday, the concepts of personal loyalty and rewards for loyalty have become seen as suspect, even corrupt.

I therefore propose a two-pronged response to the problem of meritocratic recklessness: First, personal loyalty to a mentor should be recognised as something moral and admirable, and secondly, the most senior positions should be held by individuals on a longer-term schedule, to encourage the maintenance of such relationships.


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