Meritocracy

I finally got smart enough to leave a book in the cab of the truck, for those inevitable times when I am waiting for someone to either load or unload. The downside is that the book sits in the cab of the truck, and when I have a two-week spell of not driving (like the one that just passed) then the book doesn’t get read. The upside is that if there’s lots of waiting, there’s lots of reading.

Yesterday was a long one. There was the usual morning delivery to Good Foods in Lexington, but there were other things to follow, so I was out the door at 5am. This time a Mennonite friend was along for the ride; he needed to see a chiropractor in Danville, about halfway to Lexington, so I dropped him off at 7:30am and told him I hoped to be driving back through at 10am. But a wreck along the way stopped traffic for 30 minutes, and so I wasn’t back in Danville until 10:45am. We made our way back to South Fork, I dropped him off, and then went to 501 Produce for a full load of apples to deliver to western Kentucky. And then there was a Mennonite in western Kentucky relocating to South Fork who wanted a load of household furniture to ride back with me. I made it back home at 11pm, left again at 8am to drop the furniture in South Fork, and was home at 10:30am.

That made for lots of reading time: 30 minutes to load the apples, 45 minutes to unload them, 2 hours to unload the furniture, and 1 hour to unload it. I used it all. And the book I had with me was just the right sort, Wendell Berry: Life and Work, a collection of short essays about, well, both the life and the work of the man. The essays aren’t uniformly interesting to me—a few are too academic, or discuss aspects of Berry’s poetry or fiction that I don’t understand very well—but most of them are very good, and a few have taught me some important things about Berry’s thinking.

One essay I read this morning was a stunner, entitled “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy.” This one almost got written off as overly academic, and I still think that the writer could benefit from a close study of Berry’s spare style, but the thesis of the essay had me riveted, namely that in recent history there have been a woefully small group of traditionalist writers—mainly Edmund Burke, Wilhelm Roepke, Christopher Lasch, and Berry himself—who have questioned the idea of meritocracy, where society distributes rewards and benefits on the basis of individual merit. The surprising thought here, one which is nearly heretical to think in modern times, is that not only are there other ways for society to distribute resources, but those other ways might be preferable, even more humane.

Edmund Burke wrote about this issue (and many others) in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a copy of which is somewhere on the bookshelves; I might dig it out, though I doubt I have time to read through the whole thing for the sake of this one idea. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find out that Christopher Lasch had also written on this, in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. I read that book when it came out many years ago, and don’t remember much except that I was impressed by Lasch’s thinking. It was right at hand on a nearby shelf, and so I’ve started in on re-reading it.

For those of you following the economics of my truck driving, Friday was a good day. I drove Jerome’s truck to Lexington, for which he pays me $50 for the morning’s work. Last time I delivered apples to Christian County the truck was only 3/4 full, and I decided to charge $1 per bushel, or $216. This time the truck was full, making 288 bushels, but $288 dollars seemed high to me, so I asked for $1.60 per loaded mile, assuming 150 miles. Leroy Burkholder told me that he had made the trip many times and figured it at 180 miles, which at $1.60/mi would have been $288. Which still seemed high, so I told him I was happy to take $240, and he countered with $250, which I accepted. The fellow who wanted household goods taken to South Fork had said he didn’t want to pay more than $125, which I agreed to. So, figuring about $90 for fuel, I was left with $285 for the truck driving (some of which needs to go to maintenance) plus the $50 for the morning delivery, making $345 for a long day’s work.

I also did well with packing my own food. Since I had advance notice I was able to take a half gallon of orange juice, some block cheese cut into cubes, some summer sausage sliced into pieces, a ziploc bag of Triscuits, a ziploc bag of Wheat Thins, some grapes, and two apples. I also made coffee and a cream cheese bagel which I took for breakfast. The food, though less expensive than a single drive-through meal, was more than enough. My only mistake was to forget my water bottle. I didn’t have a chance to buy one until 8pm, and after a day of drinking orange juice it tasted really, really good.

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2 thoughts on “Meritocracy

  1. I have often wondered if their wasn’t a more equitable way for society to distribute merit and needs. I think free markets work well on a local scale, but when blown up to large, or global scales, capitalism is often very unfair to the poor, workers etc. I honestly don’t know how you fix these things, but when some good people struggle just to eat, and others, often nearby, can make unbelievable amounts of money, by the interest they earn by tricky investments schemes, etc, moving stocks around, etc, not by really creating, or making anything, etc. The situation of the people in both situations often has nothing to do with merit, often sheer good, or bad luck, is involved. Sometimes thru merit, people earn these things. But often they don’t. G.K Chesterton had interesting things to say along these lines, along with other writers like you mentioned. All I know, is that the system in place now, isn’t really equitable to everyone. it benefits the noisiest, the most outrageous, the most beautiful, and the most well connected. Not actually the most worthy, or needy.

  2. I think that both systems have flaws. Meritocracy rewards hard work in most cases , but also rewards those who were born into money, or those born with beauty who capitalize on it. Left out are those who were born into poverty, those with major disabilities, and the working poor.

    On the other hand, socialism, which is an alternative, is also wrought with issues. Socialism gives to those with the greatest need, even if they do nothing to fill their own needs. It cares for those born into poverty, the working poor, and those with disabilities but it also penalizes those who want to work hard and are very sucessful. Ideally, if everyone valued hard work as a moral standard, socialism would succeed, but unfortunately people are generally lazy, and only so many will follow Biblical direction to do otherwise.

    So I guess the question is, who do we step on when we distribute wealth, those who earn it or those who need it?

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