Without wasting too much time, I’d like to jump straight into the main argument that my opponent has put forward. What we have just been led to
believe is that we live in a meritocracy; where people are treated fairly and are rewarded according to their skills. How can this be though? How can
we really know what a person is worth?
Must of us tend to judge ones ability by taking a look at their past level of success. Yet those of us who have worked in the business world realize
that much of what we experience is subject to random factors of which we have little or no control. Some of these factors include decisions made by
vendors, competitors and politicians. Because of this, what we believe to be reality is not truly an accurate reflection of someone’s ability, but a
random image of external forces.
In the business world, the meritocracy tells us that merit should determine pay. In the real world though, it seems to be just the opposite. In
controlled studies in which people were given random jobs with random pay, psychologists found that people tend to act as if the higher paid workers
are somehow superior. This holds true even though they know that the pay scale was random.
In the world today, success not only depends on perceived ability, but also on other factors such as social connections, education, gender, race and
even appearance. Given these troubling factors, how could we possibly live in this utopian-like meritocracy?
What we have been told not only by my opponent, but by society in general, is that we get out of life what we put in. Does this really hold true
While merit does indeed affect who can get where in life, the impact of merit is quite overestimated. One of the main issues we need to look at is the
amount of available income that we are even able to compete for.
As of 2003, the top 20 percent of American homes received a very large portion of total available income. (Around 49%) At the same time, the lowest 20
percent of American homes only received about 3.5% of the total available income in the country. The top 5% of homes alone received almost 22% of
available income. So what can we tell from this information? Well, we can see that despite the perception that we live in a “middle-class”
society; most of the money is skewed very highly towards the top of the system.
Now, if we put aside the information I have provided thus far, what other factors might hold someone down into the economic state in which they were
First we can look at the effect of someone’s placement at birth. As much as we may not want to agree with it, there are those who are given unequal
starting points from the very beginning. Where we are born and who we are born to can give us numerous advantages or disadvantages. Some of these
advantages are a high standard of living at birth, gifts of cash and property from parents to children, safety nets that can prevent downward mobility
from an early age, as well as access to educational opportunities which many of us are not afforded.
Even if we were to discount placement at birth as a factor, we could look at the fluid state of the job market. For the last few decades, the job
growth in America has been unevenly skewed to the low wage service sector. At the same time this is happening, more and more of us here are getting
higher education. What we can tell from this is that while the economy is not producing as many high paying jobs, we are producing more and more
highly skilled people to fill them. This itself also leads us to uneven advantages.
Taking a closer look at the job market, we can also determine that the location of jobs can produce a barrier for many individuals as well. Take for
instance an electrician who works in New York may receive a much larger salary than an electrician who works in my home state of Kentucky doing
basically the same job. Differences in wages between jobs can often be quite large and can mean the difference between wealth and poverty.
Another factor to consider is one I have already touched upon in my opening; education. Quite obviously, those with more education have higher income
and wealth. For this reason, education can be viewed as the primary reason for growth and wealth.
The disparity in our educational system is very real. We can see by taking a look at any area of the country that education is tied closely with
environment. For example, higher class children tend to attend higher class schools, whether it be private prep schools or Ivy League colleges. Middle
class children tend to attend middle class schools, such as public schools and universities. Lower class people tend to get lower class education,
such as public schools and community and technical colleges. Poor people tend to get poor education, such as inner city schools were drop out rates
are higher than graduation rates.
The reason for this is because most public schools are supported by local taxes. This is why we see better educational opportunities in the wealthier
areas. So while some, such as my opponent, are able to work hard and beat the system, it is important to remember that individual success does occur
within unequal opportunities.
A final area I would to touch on for now is that of discrimination. Discrimination on the grounds of race and sex have been the most troubling in
recent years. While we can rest a little better knowing that discrimination is declining, we almost must not fool ourselves into believing that it
does not still exist. The debate in American over affirmative action in America is an example of the continuing effects of these issues and how they
should be dealt with.
You will be hard pressed to find many Americans who don’t agree that race and sex discrimination are wrong. In fact, many of them would strongly
agree that they should be eliminated so that we can all be on an equal and level playing field. However, even if discrimination based on race and sex
was eliminated, we would still not have this level playing field that they seek. Discrimination in the job market is based on many more issues. Among
them are sexual orientation, religion, age, physical ability, appearance and even region. Just because some of these things are not as prevalent, does
not make them any less of an issue for many.
My opponent has made the argument that we live in a meritocracy. I would argue though, the meritocracy of which my opponent speaks, is merely a myth.
This is due to the issues I have outlined here; placement at birth, unequal education opportunities, the changing job market and discrimination in all
of its forms.
Not only do I believe this meritocracy to be a myth, it is widely thought that a pure meritocracy is impossible. Furthermore, I would argue that a
system such as that would not even be desirable.
British sociologist Michael Young outlines a fear such as this in his 1961 novel, “The Rise of Meritocracy.” In this novel, Young describes a
society in which those at the top ruled with a sense of entitlement whole those at the bottom were incapable of protecting themselves. Instead of a
fair society, the meritocracy became cruel. The meritocracy itself can be harmful because it discounts the most important causes of inequality.
No matter how much we don’t want to see it, the fact remains that for a vast majority of people, our success can be directly linked to the economic
state in which we are born.
Answers to Socratic Questions
Do you correlate western society to a caste system?
I do not. The caste system is a much more harsh and defined system that we currently have today. We also do not have a meritocracy has you have
described though. While we do not live within the extreme confines of a caste system, there are still many barriers that can hold us into the economic
state we are born into.
Does the face that we reside in a capitalist state contradict your position?
Absolutely not. The barriers I have described have less to do with our capitalist society than they do with simple social and economic barriers we
have erected ourselves.
Can poor people become rich and rich people become poor?
They absolutely can. From what I have shown you though, the odds are highly stacked against them. The debate topic is that success will “roughly
mirror” what a person is born into, and does not rule out that some people are able to rise above their circumstances.
Do you believe that meritocracy exists in western society?
As I have shown quite extensively here, I believe that perhaps some aspects of this may come into play, but for the most part I find the idea of a
meritocracy to be nothing more than a myth.
Socratic Questions Posed to my Opponent
1. Do you not agree that the problems I have outlined, (placement at birth, unequal education opportunities, the changing job market and
discrimination) do indeed have an effect on the ability of an individual to achieve success?
2. How do you explain the vast disparity in the distribution of available income as I have outlined, if indeed we live in a meritocracy?