Last week Jim Geraghty “griped” about Chelsea Clinton and her declaration that she enjoyed working in the “incredibly, fiercely meritocratic” environment of a hedge fund. Geraghty’s gripe is, essentially, that someone as connected as Chelsea Clinton would not know a meritocracy if it slapped her across the face. I get it, it is unlikely that Clinton got her hedge fund position based on her financial acumen, but it did make me wonder about what constitutes ‘merit.” After all, is not obtaining and maintaining all those high powered connections an ability worthy of merit in itself?
Some of us will remember an 80’s song by Dire Straits, with back up vocals from Sting, called “Money for Nothing.” The song is a working stiff decrying how much fame and fortune music performers get for what he considers little or no work while he has to:
We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TV’s
Clearly the guy in the song finds no merit in writing and performing songs, particularly as compared to hard physical labor. The song kind of encapsulates the basis of most labor/management disputes. Everybody seems to agree we are a meritocracy, the problem is from where do we derive merit?
One of the reasons the nation is so polarized right now and our disagreements have become increasingly vehement is because we have less and less agreement on the source of merit. Mike Rowe has dedicated his life to returning a sense of merit to hard work, and while we do have a major problem with our youth in that regard, I wonder if that represents the best approach to the issue. Such can only increase the the debate over what is meritorious.
Last week I wrote about our inherent corruptibility and how recognition and acknowledgement of that trait would greatly improve our civil discourse. Such recognition carries with it the realization that no matter how meritorious we may be on one basis or another, ultimately we lack merit simply because of our corruptibility. Rather than argue about whether merit derived from hours of labor is worth more than merit derived from academic performance or financial acumen, we can understand that on the most fundamental of levels none of us have any merit.
This is one of those concepts that flows from Christianity, but without being overtly religious is fundamental to having our nation work well. America has always been a stratified culture, stratified by money, by education, and sadly historically by race. Certainly stratification based on race is inherently unjust, but on things that can be reasonably considered as source of merit we will always stratify because regardless of the source of merit someone will always be better at it than someone else. Christianity has never denied this fact, hence Biblical writers noted the distinctions between men and women, slaves and masters, Roman citizens and the conquered/occupied and did not advise doing away with these stratifications.
The great notion of Christianity, the unifying notion of Christianity, is not that stratification disappears, but that such stratification is a secondary concern – that the merit that matters most of the merit of character; a merit where we all fall short and thus are all equal.
This is a moral question and despite efforts to grant it some, the government has no moral authority – at least no lasting such authority for it has no basis for such authority. The best we can hope for from government when it comes to moral questions is that it will be like, “…children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
Christianity is intended to be the moral authority in our nation even if not all of its citizens ascribe to Christian theology. We have largely abandoned this role for a whole host of reasons and it is to the church’s and our nation’s detriment. As the peaceful revolution continues in Washington we should be reclaiming our role with the same vigor and energy. Yet we seem mired in internal dispute and scandal.
In the end, the nation will not improve until the church improves – it is simple really.