Is Meritocracy the New Caste System?



Origins of the Caste System

The idea for the caste system in India, came from the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, Krishna describes four groups to which people belong:

The different responsibilities found in the social order – distinguishing Brahmin [Priests], Kshatriya [warriors], vaishya [traders/merchants], and shudra [agricultural/labor class] – have their roots in this conditioning.   

Each group has its own unique, defining characteristics. Priests, for example, demonstrate self-control and purity of heart, warriors and soldiers should be courageous, and so on.

By successfully performing the duty of your group, or caste, you worship God and attain perfection.

By devotion to one’s own particular duty, everyone can attain perfection. Let me tell you how. By performing one’s own work, one worships the Creator who dwells in every creature. Such worship brings that person to fulfillment.

Krishna also advises against abandoning your inherited duties for another, just because he sees problems with them.

It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another. By fulfilling the obligations he is born with, a person never comes to grief. No one should abandon duties because he sees defects in them. Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.

This isn’t overly simplistic advice that says “don’t ever leave your job even if you hate it,” Krishna says that you should learn to be detached from the defects of your job. Because every activity has defects and imperfections, if you are not detached, you will be at the mercy of any particular combination of defects that rub you the wrong way.

If you can learn to be detached, you will attain perfection.

One who is free from selfish attachments, who has mastered himself and his passions, attains the supreme perfection of freedom from action.

Instead of finding the perfect job, one must learn to perfect the self.

The Corruption of the Caste System

The caste system was based on the idea that to achieve social harmony, you need the people in the different castes to perform their duty. Warriors should defend the land and people, priests should contribute to the spiritual development of others, businessmen provide goods and services, and farmers will provide food.

No caste was supposed to be “better” than another, as they are reliant on each other to function.

However, this began to change in the 5th century BCE. A sage named Manu developed the Laws of Manu (Manava Dharma Shastra) which outlined procedures and rules for civil and religious practices.

Manu also included rules that a) ranked the castes and b) prohibited mobility among the four castes. The priestly class was higher than the warrior class, the warrior class was higher than the merchant class, and the merchant class was higher than the agriculture class. With few exceptions, members of one class could not transfer to another.

India took these rules to heart and developed a whole society in which class (not function) was the dominant social signal, and led to widespread, institutionalized discrimination. It wasn’t until 1950 (a few years after India won its independence) that the government formally outlawed discrimination based on caste.

Caste in the West

Of course, it is human nature to want to create a hierarchy (and be on top), and Western civilization developed its own hierarchy that looks quite similar to the Indian caste system. [Note: Quotes in this section are from Alain de Botton’s excellent book, Status Anxiety]

With the spread of Christianity during the later Roman Empire, many fell prey to a religion that taught them to accept unequal treatment as part of a natural, unchangeable order. Notwithstanding the egalitarian principles embedded within Christ’s teachings, there was little suggestion on the part of Christian political theorists that the earthly social structure could or should be reformed so that all members of the Church might share more equitably in the wealth of the land. Humans might be equal before God, but this offered no reason to start seeking equality in practice.

The idea of a “natural” stratification of society took hold, and the class structure was simply God’s will. Noblemen, warriors, and clergy were near the top of this structure, while merchants, farmers, and peasants were near the bottom.

Like the Indian caste system, there was no expectation of social mobility. If you were born a nobleman, you would stay a nobleman. If you were born a farmer, you would stay a farmer.

However, where it differs a bit from the caste system is the narrative about being in a low class.

In the caste system, being from a low class was viewed as “deserved.” Because people were believed to be re-incarnated, it stood that if you were in a low class, you must have done something in a previous life that you are now being punished for. Conversely, if you were born into a high caste, you somehow earned it in a previous life.

In the Western class system, being of a low status was not “deserved.”

If one had asked a member of a Western medieval or pre-modern society on what basis society was divided into rich and poor, peasant and nobleman, the question would most likely have seemed bizarre: God had simply willed the division. 

Being poor was not your fault. It was simply an act of God over which you had no control.

In addition, there was not a moral stigma to being poor.

Scripture provided another comforting perspective for those of low status. The New Testament demonstrated that neither wealth nor poverty was an accurate index of moral worth. After all, Jesus was the highest man, the most blessed, and yet on earth he had been poor, ruling out any simple equation between righteousness and riches. 

Insofar as Christianity ever strayed from a neutral position on money, it was in favour of poverty, for in the Christian schema, the source of all goodness was the recognition of one’s dependence on God. Anything that encouraged the belief that a contented life might be had without God’s grace was evil, and wealth fell into that category, promising both worldly pleasures and a frowned-upon sense of freedom. 

This is not to say that the poor had easy lives, or that the higher classes treated them particularly well, but the Western model seems much closer to the ideal of the caste system (one that recognizes interdependence and emphasizes function over class) than the bastardized version of the caste system that tool hold in India.

The Rise of Meritocracy

Beginning in the 18th century, the idea that social status had no correlation with moral status began to falter. Bernard Mandeville, a London physician, published The Fable of the Bees, in which he argued that the rich contributed the most to society, not the poor. Their pursuit of luxury and wealth provided employment for everyone else.

In judging a man’s value, one had to look not at his soul (as Christian moralists were inclined to do) but at his impact on others. Judged by this new criterion, those who amassed riches (in trade, industry or agriculture) and spent liberally (on absurd luxuries or on the construction of unnecessary storehouses or country seats) were without question more beneficially engaged than the poor.

This line of thinking was further developed by the famous Adam Smith, who argued that the indulgence of vices by the rich actually turned into a positive social good.

“In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

It wasn’t long after that this idea that the rich helped society prosper that wealth and social status became correlated with moral status, and merit replaced inheritance as the path to wealth and social status.

The US, of course, became the perfect breeding ground for this radical change in thinking. The US was founded by people who felt they could create new and better lives for themselves. Aristocratic titles became unimportant. The wealth you attained for yourself became the new status marker.

Faith in an increasingly reliable connection between merit and worldly success in turn endowed money with a new moral quality. When riches were still being handed down the generations according to bloodlines and connections, it was natural to dismiss the notion that wealth was an indicator of any virtue besides that of having been born to the right parents. But in a meritocratic world in which prestigious and well-paid jobs could be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money began to look like a sound signifier of character. The rich were not only wealthier, it seemed; they might also be plain better.

If you are poor, it’s because there is something wrong with you. You are lazy or dumb or lack some sort of trait necessary to function in society. And, here’s the kicker, it’s your own fault.

The Downsides of Meritocracy

The upside of the new, meritocratic system is that of course, there is significantly more social and economic mobility. Generally, if you work hard, you can attain a reasonable standard of living.

It’s also significant that the material quality of our lives have dramatically improved since the world has embraced free market principles. The modern poor are far better off than the medieval poor, or even the medieval rich, in many cases.

There are a few problems, however, with fully embracing the meritocratic way of thinking.

1) We’re not 100% meritocratic

This may seem obvious, but the fact is, people are born with varying levels of resources, including financial support, innate talents or abilities, etc.

Thus, if you are born into poverty, it will be significantly harder for you to achieve a middle-class lifestyle than if you were born into a middle-class family, even if you are as talented or intelligence or whatever as the average middle class person. This isn’t to say it’s impossible, but it will simply be more difficult.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, becoming wealthy is not always the result of hard work and talent. Sometimes, success is random. Two aspiring actresses with equal levels of talent and determination may have vastly different outcomes. A CEO might preside over a period of unprecedented rise in his company’s share price, even if he did nothing to contribute to the rise.

Again, I believe that we are generally meritocratic, however, it’s dangerous to believe that we are 100% meritocratic, especially because your expectations for yourself and your assumptions of others will become perverted, which leads me to my next point:

2) You will be become more anxious about your own standing

If you believe we live in a meritocratic society, than you believe you can be the author of your own success. Becoming a multi-millionaire is within your grasp if only you work, study, or network hard enough.

Maybe you can become a multi-millionaire, but until the moment you are, you will be ridden with anxiety about your status. You will wonder if you are worthy enough to become a multi-millionaire, and your happiness will be measured how close or far away you are from achieving your goal.

It’s the burden of accountability, or rather, the anxiety of accountability.

3) You become more judgmental of those more unfortunate than you

Actually, you will not think they are “unfortunate” at all, as that implies some randomness. You begin to feel that you are indeed, “above” others.

In my own life, this doesn’t so much happen with people who are several tiers below me in the economic ladder. For example, I don’t feel smug when I see homeless people.

However, I do feel a bit smug when I see a Facebook update from a former classmate who has seemed to accomplish less than I have. “Oh that guy dropped out college? Makes sense, he never seemed that smart.”

This is a human tendency and pre-dates the meritocratic worldview, but because meritocracy places everyone in the same bucket (at least initially), it is only natural to compare yourself to nearly everyone. Previously, a serf would not feel anxious about a nobleman having more money than he does, and a nobleman would think it was beneath him to feel smug about his status relative to a serf. Now, we think the only difference between the nobleman and the serf is merit. The pool of people we compare ourselves to has grown exponentially.

Meritocracy vs. the Caste System

Paradoxically, we’ve created a new sort of caste system. There are a few differences. Instead of our status being determined by what we did in a previous life, we believe it is determined by what we do in this life. Instead of saying, “Oh Joe is working a minimum wage job because he was an asshat in a previous life,” we say “Oh Joe is working a minimum wage job because he was an asshat in high school.”

I’m not sure one is better than another, as both betray a lack of compassion for Joe.

Another point of comparison between the caste system: mingling between classes. In the Indian caste system, there was a whole group of people called “untouchables” that the other castes would not associate with at all (beyond using them or labor of course).

We, as westerners, would of course find that appalling, but do we not have our own “untouchables?”

I find that I tend to socialize with 20-something, college educated, upwardly mobile urbanites. Even when I lived in Egypt, where most of the population does not fall into that category, the Egyptian friends I hung out did fit into that category.

It’s not intentional; it’s simply the unintended consequence of a meritocratic system.

I’m not sure what the level of interaction was between a nobleman and a serf, but I’m pretty sure it was impossible to ignore each other.

I on the other hand could live most of my life without talking to a single “blue-collar” person (outside of my trips to the mechanic).

It’s not that they’re untouchable, it’s just that I don’t see them. Perhaps instead of untouchables, we now have “invisibles.”

Final Thoughts

I would be exaggerating if I said modern society is a new caste system. It’s clearly not. Social mobility has, indeed, improved. Rags-to-riches is more likely today than it has ever been at any point in history (not to say that the likelihood is high, just more likely).

But there are significant similarities between a modern meritocracy and the caste system. There is a fairly clear hierarchy in both. We generally rank investment bankers higher than janitors and start-up founders over secretaries. We apply meritocratic criteria to determine other’s worth as dogmatically as any religious fundamentalist. If you have a high income and do interesting work, you are a great person. If you barely graduated form community college and work at McDonalds, you are a loser and it’s your fault you are a loser.

The modern meritocracy seems even more harsh than the medieval Western caste system that developed, at least psychologically. Even though we might actually be stuck in whatever group we’re in, we believe that everyone can get unstuck and improve their lot in life. This feels good while we’re on the rise, but terrible when we’re immobile, or even moving downward!

This leads to profound anxiety of our own place in this world, and distracts us from what’s important and fulfilling (cultivating virtues, developing good relationships, serving others, etc.).

More troubling is how meritocracy changes out views of others. At least under the Indian and Western caste system, there was an understanding that this life is the lesser life, and the afterlife or return to the Brahman (the universal Self) was the higher goal. In modern secular life, we generally believe that this is it, this is our one shot and everything hinges on the impact we have now.

But when a belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish and scientifically impossible opiate, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so. In such a context, earthly achievements can no longer be seen as an overture to what one may realize in another world; rather, they are the sum total of all that one will ever amount to.

And of course, if we constantly fear that we are wasting our own lives, we must feel contempt for others who we feel are wasting theirs. We become, as Alain de Boton, calls them, snobs.

It is easy to recognise the moment when we have entered the orbit of a snob. Early on in an encounter, the subject of what we “do” will arise and depending on how we answer, we will either be the recipients of bountiful attention or the catalysts of urgent disgust.

The company of the snobbish has the power to enrage and unnerve because we sense how little of who we are deep down—that is, how little of who we are outside of our status— will be able to govern their behaviour towards us. We may be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon and have the resourcefulness and intelligence of Odysseus, but if we are unable to wield socially recognized badges of our qualities, our existence will remain a matter of raw indifference to them.

Though snobs have always existed, the condition seems more widespread in a meritocracy (though perhaps, more subtle).

Perhaps the biggest danger of modern society is not income inequality or unfair tax rates or college drop-out rates, but rather, the temptation to become a snob, to view yourself only in a hierarchical and competitive relationship with others.

The inevitable result of viewing yourself this way is that it is a distorted view, one that will lead to great anxiety and bad decisions.

Perhaps we should be embrace meritocratic actions, but reject a meritocratic worldview. By performing our duties well and with detachment, maybe we can achieve the material benefits of a meritocratic society but without the psychological alienation of others that comes from meritocratic thinking.

I’ll report back on how well that works at my next high school reunion….

Note: If you see an unattributed quote, it’s from Alain de Botton’s book, Status Anxiety.