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Patrick Luciani: The end of meritocracy and the beginning of administrative tyranny

Commentary

Review of: How Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty, Threatens Lives
Author: Heather Mac Donald
Publisher: DW Books, 2023

The last few years have seen a flurry of books on how merit has deepened the divide between the haves and have-nots, leading to political polarization, discontent, and the rise of populism. The latest is Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Sandel, who teaches political theory at Harvard, argues that society’s elites have come to believe they deserve their high incomes. This implies that those left behind have only themselves to blame for their failures. This odious notion rips at the fabric of a democratic society when markets alone determine the worth and value of human occupations regardless of their status. Sandel believes success also depends on chance and good fortune and not just effort and hard work, attributes that are randomly dispersed by nature and God, and, therefore, unearned.

Sandel argues for a shift in attitude that appreciates the dignity of all work, especially work that keeps our streets clean and comforts the sick. He reminds us that though education is available to all, elite schools continue to be dominated by the children of the wealthiest families, perpetuating a class of successful, highly educated workers that hand down their wealth and power from generation to generation. 

The conventional argument in defence of a meritocratic system is that even if markets don’t fairly distribute income, we end up with a more efficient economy and a more prosperous society if those with talent run things. In The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits, a legal scholar at Yale, questions this argument. Elites have produced a “super hypereducated class” that has bent the arc of innovation, favouring technology that uses their talents over less skilled but efficient labour. One example is in financial services. What was once considered a midlevel profession, such as loan officers, is now dominated by highly specialized professionals who know all about the complex world of derivatives and earn supercharged incomes for that knowledge. The financial crisis of 2008 dispelled us of their true worth. 

Since markets do a poor job of determining value, who should be in charge? Cultural and institutional administrative elites have taken up that task. Over the past few years, we are getting a better picture of the dangers that lie ahead. Since white privilege and racial discrimination are the problems, eliminating both is the solution. The objective is no longer to raise the educational standards of minorities—that has proven too hard to do—but to do away with testing altogether while blaming Western culture for persistent racism. 

That’s the message in a recent book, When Race Trumps Merit, by Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The death of George Floyd was so shocking that it transformed racial relations driven by a sense of “white guilt,” an idea articulated by the Black scholar Shelby Steele. After the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., many believed that affirmative action programs would be temporary and one day no longer necessary. That day never arrived. Leaders of elite and cultural institutions, including universities, scientific research centres, government agencies, art galleries, and major corporations—all encouraged by big media—no longer believe racism will diminish with time, especially given the stubborn wide disparities in test scores between the races. Administrative elites are determined to right the wrongs of history by rebalancing jobs based on race and gender. 

Mac Donald’s book is a horror story of examples of inferior candidates promoted over more qualified applicants. The highly respected journal Nature accused itself of being a “white institution responsible for bias in research and scholarship.” The goal now is to increase minority participation in science-based occupations, not the virtue of rewarding excellence. For its part, Queen’s University has reserved ten spots for Black and Indigenous students for medical school after two years of undergraduate work without writing the Medical College Admission Test. This is so that the faculty of medicine can “become a leader in cultural safety, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-oppression in health education.”

Even health disparities between the races are blamed on racism. While academic bureaucrats are watering down academic standards for the sake of racial parity, the Chinese are pouring out PhD STEM graduates. Even in the arts, any European influence is under attack as racist to the point that “not one leader” dare defend the canonical repertoire of Western classical music. Instead, Juilliard’s director of equity, diversity, and inclusion creates a Black-only Zoom “space for healing” while the school’s director of music writes, “It’s high time the whiteness of music theory is examined, critiqued and remedied.”

Critics of elitism are generally correct that a society based solely on merit moves society in the wrong direction. But when committees, or commissars, take over the central role of markets, the route for society takes an even more dangerous turn. Mac Donald’s book asks what happens to a culture that condemns its history, technology, and arts so completely. We are about to find out. 

Sean Speer: Far from ‘weaponizing’ gender identity issues, Premier Higgs’ reforms are good-faith policy proposals

Commentary

The New Brunswick government’s controversial changes to Policy 713 concerning sexual orientation and gender identity in the province’s schools have generated a ton of political and policy debate. At the point of writing it’s still unknown whether the government or its policy changes will ultimately survive. 

Today The Hub published an article by occasional contributor Rahim Mohamed that cautions Premier Blaine Higgs and his supporters from misinterpreting the polls on the issue. He points to instances in the U.S. where conservatives have overreached on so-called “cultural issues” and lost political support even when polls seemingly indicated public approval for their specific policy positions. As Mohamed puts it: “Even if they agree with him in principle, critical swing voters may still abandon Higgs if they sense that he is trying to ‘weaponize’ this issue at the expense of already vulnerable transgender communities.”

He’s right of course. It must be said that voters should indeed abandon the premier and his government if they were “weaponizing” an issue involving sexual minorities in general and children dealing with gender dysphoria in particular. 

But it’s far from obvious that’s what’s happening here. This seems to be a case of the government seeking to find its way on an evolving issue with moral, scientific, and public interest dimensions. Its proposed path forward—including new parental consent requirements for students aged 16 and younger on one hand and gender-neutral washrooms on the other hand—is one in search of a moderate middle ground rather than a deliberate act of political provocation. 

Just as we ought to be ready to condemn those who “weaponize” these sensitive issues, we should similarly be prepared to call out those who make such claims (I’m not referring to Mohamed here, who is merely warning about such a perception) in order to discredit opposing ideas and voices from standing in a highly-charged yet proper public debate. 

Assuming that the premier’s motives are solely political diminishes the substantive differences reflected in the competing positions at play. It implies that one side is virtuous and the other is crass. It’s a sort of political caricature that clarifies little about the contours of the debate itself.

The biggest differences actually transcend questions about gender and sexuality. No one has even challenged transgender rights in the main. The political argument is fundamentally about the relationship between children, parents, and the state. 

The two sides start with differing premises about parents themselves. In an exclusive interview with The Hub last week, Dominic Cardy, a former education minister in the Higgs government and the biggest critic of its changes to Policy 713, contended that while polls showed majority public support for the parental consent reforms, it would change if pollsters asked, “Do you think that parents should know what’s going on with their kids if they’re going to use that information to potentially harm their children?”

He’s probably right about the public’s response but he’s wrong that it’s a compelling argument. One suspects that the public would agree with virtually any statement if they believed that children were going to be put in harm. But it’s a bizarre basis for policymaking.

In what other instance does public policy begin with the presumption—essentially a reverse onus—that parents are dangerous and harmful to their children? Why should it be the default here rather than creating an alternative process (as the government sensibly proposes) for the rare cases in which teachers or school administrators have legitimate reasons to be concerned for students?

It’s entirely in keeping with normal policy practices and our own experiences and intuitions about parents to assume that most love their children and ultimately want what’s best for them. It doesn’t seem divisive or radical for the Higgs government to base its policy accordingly.

It’s also the case that there are plenty of instances when government laws or policies explicitly recognize children as less autonomous than adults. A high-profile example is the Youth Criminal Justice Act which treats children as old as aged 18 differently than adult offenders for the purposes of criminal sentencing on the basis that they have “have heightened vulnerability, less maturity and a reduced capacity for moral judgment.”

What makes it such a powerful comparison is that one suspects that there would be a lot of overlap among those who oppose the Higgs government’s changes to Policy 713 and support the basic principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. It’s not obvious however what part of the latter’s rationale shouldn’t apply to the former. If 16-year-olds are mature enough to make judgments about their gender identity without parental consent, what’s the internally consistent logic for treating them as kids before the courts?

The purpose of these rhetorical questions isn’t necessarily to persuade people that the government’s policy changes ought to be supported in and of themselves. One can recognize that these are complex issues and there are good-faith perspectives on both sides including individuals and families for whom they involve real-life questions. But they are meant to push back against the wrong-headed notion that the only way to come to the Higgs government’s policy outcomes is to assume crass politics or worse.

Far from “weaponizing” gender identity issues, the government has seemingly sought a sensible middle-ground position rooted in long-standing legal and social conventions about the rights and responsibilities of children, parents, and the state.

If the debate over New Brunswick’s Policy 713 is indeed a new front in the so-called “culture war”, the onus is on the government’s critics to explain why they’ve taken up ideological arms in the face of such pragmatic policy. Because it seems like only one side is really fighting. The coming days will determine if the premier and his government can withstand the political barrage.