Meritocracy and Government: How Can Americans Be So Inconsistent?

One thing that rationally-minded, thinking people often struggle with when entering into the fracas that is politics in any guise is the fact that people aren’t just inconsistent, they don’t seem to have the slightest inkling or concern that they are indeed embracing opposed ideas.

For example: A belief in meritocracy and a belief in government malice and corruption.

Why are these ideas so opposed?

When people raise an idea like, “There are structural barriers that are creating inequality” or “Consistent patterns in policy maintain racial inequality” or “The 2008 recession deeply harmed the black-middle class”, there is a consistent refrain:

“I worked hard for what I get!”

“If you’re poor in this country, you just didn’t work hard enough. Stop blaming others”.

Logically, these stated positions would fall from the mouths (or fingers) of people who believe that America is fair and competent, that the governmental and economic institutions are consistent, efficient and arbitrary.

How many Americans actually believe this?

Two-thirds of young Americans don’t.

Even more ironically, it is blacks who often have the best things to say about government . The very ethnic group that so often has a very bad view of police and the criminal justice system are often willing to trust that government in crucial respects.

Those activists and scholars who say that racism, sexism, or class inequality are pernicious in this society overwhelmingly point to government as a cause. They point to the Federal Reserve’s failure to craft monetary policy that benefits the poor. They point to the way that agencies like the SEC became captive to the rich and corporations, and thus failed to act in a way that would have prevented the 2008 recession. They point to taxes, deregulation, cooptation of regulatory agencies, governmental failures to invest into infrastructure, and minimum wage not following productivity because politicians want a chance to raise the minimum wage as a fetish to shake at their constituents like a shaman enacting a rain dance during a monsoon. Consider how bad foster homes or the failure of social workers can cause poor children and young adults to fall through the system. Consider how government policy can affect housing availability and price, and thus impact homelessness.

So why are these claims so hard for people to swallow?

It’s easy to understand why Americans might believe in the meritocracy of the economic system, against all the evidence. That is a propaganda battle that the rich won.

But given how deep anti-government attitudes are in America, isn’t it astonishing how those attitudes fall short of enabling so many Americans to accept easily that there are barriers that go beyond individual effort for some people’s success? Is it that weird to believe that government is racist if you already believe it’s malevolent or incompetent?

Of course it’s an open empirical question to see if government is affecting inequality, and to what degree it is. People should be skeptical of any report, any statistic, any scholar. But what we see when we suggest that there may be barriers that people of color, women, the poor, and other groups face is not skepticism, it is out-and-out denial. It is a refusal to even engage with the statistics.

Conservative politicians, journalists and opinion leaders can have their inconsistency on the government’s capabilities dismissed easily: They are either ideologically unable to see the inconsistency, or don’t care. The anti-government rhetoric in the U.S. has been a boon for corporations and the rich, who could use it to selectively dismantle what parts of the safety net they felt willing to dispense with.

But why are so many rank-and-file conservatives, often themselves in the anxious middle-class, so willing to accept that government can’t handle healthcare but will accept that government is of course not standing in the way of racial equity?

To their credit, some libertarians recognize that government is involved in creating inequality as well. Their belief that inequality should cause no concern even when not caused by government should be rejected, of course. It’s perfectly valid to be willing to see a society that has a little less prosperity and growth but is more equal in how it distributes it. And inequality always causes serious problems ranging from democratic deficits to loss of growth.

Still, this inconsistency shows that the “small government” rhetoric that people have is superficial. It’s shallow.

Conservatives are by and large perfectly willing to believe that government can try people fairly, that police officers and judges and juries are immune to any kind of bias, that there are no destructive influences that drive the criminal justice system to imprison so many people unnecessarily.

Conservatives are by and large willing to believe that government can not only invade and bomb countries, but in so doing so fix complex social problems. They of course accept as rote that welfare must always cause the undesired consequence of dependency, but will resist heartily the idea that we can’t kill enough people to make us safe.

Conservatives are by and large willing to believe that government could successfully impart a Christian ethos through schools. Even if they want to pay teachers less, they do insist that those same teachers could possibly impart ideas like prayer or intelligent design to their children.

Conservatives are willing to insist on deficit reduction, but resist the idea that it may be worth to look into military waste. They’re willing to look for Medicare fraud but not for military contractor fraud.

Our political beliefs as a species are formed by our anxieties, our perceptions. It’s easy to believe that the FDA is incompetent but the military is a paragon of efficiency, especially when you know a soldier but no one in the FDA. It’s easy to think that providing welfare or social services are easy when you haven’t had to do it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon where people are insistent that they are competent at a field until they learn the slightest bit about it, is one of the most vital insights we have to have in psychology and is eminently applicable to politics. It is easy for the conservative taxpayer to think that the system is selectively inefficient until they are called out both on the inconsistency of their beliefs (and the media-based sources of those inconsistencies) and how they are assuming that fellow Americans they’ve never met are bad at jobs that they don’t have the first clue about.

It is easy for a person who is white to not realize the difficulties of working and living in a society where one encounters constant discrimination. And it is very difficult to help that person correct that misperception, because so many barriers encountered by non-whites (and women and LGBTQ people) are qualitative and deeply ambiguous.

It’s important that they be corrected on this, as gently as possible. We’ve allowed government to become a mechanism to harm and control the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, as well as allowed inefficiencies in our government to prevent people from getting resources that they need. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not a particular policy is warranted. But it’s simply asking for efficiency to insist that whatever policy is actually adopted must be fulfilled properly, without bias, corruption, regulatory capture or inequity.


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