From the Murdochs to the monarchy, blood ties remain important in our supposedly meritocratic society. Is this the natural order of things- essential for a cohesive culture? Or is inheritance of wealth and position an inequity that should be eradicated?
Constitutional monarchies vs. democracies
We know that class is a great factor in the causes of inequalities, and there’s undoubtedly a perception that if you’re on the right side of a class divide you get a hand up in life, you get those contacts that make a difference. Would abolishing the highest possible classes – royal families, for instance – really help with meritocracy in societies where they exist?
Some argue that the core issue with royal families revolves not just around their power but also around the symbolism that comes with it. Royals represent the acme of the class system, the epitome of an age of aristocracy that harks to a bygone feudal era. It’s difficult to imagine that any country can call itself a modern democratic society when the highest public office in the land – head of state – is inherited. You get this job by being the firstborn of a generation of the royal family, no matter how wise or stupid you are. Britain, for example, won’t be able to have an Obama or an Asian head of state for the foreseeable future because of that system which sustains the same old white family. The head of state is the symbol of the nation and it’s very important ethically that this position be open to everyone and be chosen by the people based on merit and character.
However, it does seem that as far as democracies go, constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Canada, Denmark, UK) are often more stable, meritocratic and freer countries. Take France, for example: Considering what the French did to their monarchy, we tend to forget how much Parisian politics – and to a certain extent the central power – is run by an elite. Likewise in the United States, the Bushes are dynastic and the same case could be made for the Kennedys. They are powerful families with inherited wealth, and position by extension.
In that sense, it’s a bit naïve to think that nepotism and blood ties would be worse in a constitutional monarchy. Nonetheless, while being a republic – as most Latin American and Southern European countries are – isn’t a guarantee for meritocracy, at least republics ensure that their democracy has mechanisms in place to replace leaders when there is a consensus that they haven’t done their job well. Although high levels of corruption may exist, the principle remains that the right person with the right solution can be chosen to improve the state’s performance.
Is meritocracy really desirable?
We can all agree that we’re reaching a point in history where it has become necessary to rethink the social system and try to move to a more egalitarian society where people are rewarded based on merit and character, rather than their parents’ net worth.
While an absolutely egalitarian society isn’t necessarily desirable either – we can’t deny that each of us has different aspirations, inclinations and ambitions in life – something has got to be done to improve the chances of people who are born into dysfunctional situations. The violence that poverty represents and generates can contribute to make one’s life much worse. Countries that offer assistance to parents to help them go through periods of unemployment, drug or alcohol addiction – or simply provide parenting support – also prevent issues such as domestic violence and child abuse, which often impact on children’s ability to perform well at school. In the end, dislike of inheritance is dislike of the unfairness of life and desire to make the universe more just.
However, when we consider personal inheritance, the hope of passing on something to your children – the fruit of your life’s work – is surely a very powerful motive to make a difference in this world. The roots of our contemporary tragedy begin when people realize that by the end of their lives, there won’t be much left for their children. This causes major social unrest worldwide and threatens innovation and productivity.
Is complete equality desirable at all? Parents wouldn’t be able to manifest preferences regarding education – and, if we push things further, we would all end up with the same pool of selected genes in the future. As such, complete equality would make us clones and cannot be a realistic goal.
At the moment, the only “advantage” of our system is that we can at least attribute some of our failures to our parents and to the environment. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily explain why we live in a society where 20% of children emerge from school barely able to read and write. That fact indicates that when it comes to social equality, there is still a lot that we can do.
Rather than focusing on equality per se, we should look at helping children reach their maximum potential, regardless of whether they wish to become artists, engineers or designers. The real problem in most countries remains inadequate social support systems exacerbated by deeply flawed education systems that leave children behind. Bringing about change that would allow each of us to become the most fully realized person we can be requires real motivation and courage – both conspicuously lacking in our political class most of the time.