While I was on vacation, my buddy Matt Lewis wrote a piece called Is meritocracy undermining Christianity that really bugged me because the premise was not only harmful, but extraordinarily wide of the mark. Matt’s comments were a take off on some things Walter Russell Mead, who’s also an excellent conservative writer, had to say about the subject.
In short, Mead argues that our meritocratic society makes it harder for us to remember that everything comes from God — makes it harder for us to remain humble. This, perhaps answers some important questions: Why are many who live in nations with less economic (and religious) freedom more devout and dedicated? Why does Christianity seem to be more energetic in developing parts of the world? Why are so many successful Americans so unhappy and unfulfilled?
People who work hard to get ahead tend to think they deserve all the credit (The opposite phenomenon exists among the “gauche caviar” trust fund kids who didn’t earn their wealth, and turn to socialism.) This, I think, also helps explain the noblesse oblige phenomenon, whereby aristocrats are sometimes kinder and more understanding of the poor than are middle-class folks who were once poor (but worked their way up.)
Meritocracy, I believe, is incredibly important — and a vital reason for our nation’s success. Rewarding effort and success tends to breed more effort and success. And, though not perfect, meritocracy is a hell of a lot fairer — and more productive — than rewarding birthright. But in this flawed world, nothing is perfect. And it is interesting to note that there are valid criticisms to be made of it from both the left and the right.
First of all, although this is not in any way, shape, or form a slap at Matt Lewis or Walter Russell Mead, this whole argument is a non sequitur. In fact, it reminds me a lot of liberal claims that science is incompatible with Christianity. They say if you believe in the Big Bang Theory, you can’t believe in God. Of course, that’s incorrect. If you’re a Christian, you believe God created the Big Bang. In fact, the Big Bang theory dovetails perfectly with the idea that God created the universe. The same goes for evolution. The argument is supposed to be, “If you don’t believe in evolution, you must be a Christian who believes that evolution contradicts Christianity!” — except that there are plenty of Christians who believe in evolution. They just believe that’s how God created us — via evolution. For the overwhelming majority of Christians, there’s just no conflict whatsoever between science and religion. The same goes for a meritocracy and Christianity. In fact, the very roots of culture come from people who embraced both Christianity and the meritocracy. This country was founded by Christians who wanted religious freedom and a better life for their families. Ever heard of a Puritan work ethic?
Now that being said, great wealth and prosperity can indeed distract people from the Lord. That’s why Jesus said,
“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” — Matthew 19:23-24
Incidentally, most scholars don’t believe the “eye of a needle” is a reference to a gate or a pass that made it difficult for a camel to get through as opposed to literally being “the eye of a needle,” which would essentially mean rich people couldn’t go to heaven.
That’s the explanation for two of the questions above, “Why are many who live in nations with less economic (and religious) freedom more devout and dedicated? Why does Christianity seem to be more energetic in developing parts of the world?” Because people tend to reach for God when things are tough and going badly, not when they’re at ease and surrounded by shiny new toys.
As to the question, “Why are so many successful Americans so unhappy and unfulfilled?”…Well, keep in mind that studies show that money does buy happiness — up to a point. If you have enough money in the bank where you don’t have to worry about money day-to-day, you tend to be happier than the people who don’t. Once you get past that point, whether you have a million, 10 million, or a hundred million in the bank probably doesn’t make much difference. So for that reason, wealthy people are on balance happier than the general population.
But there are always going to be unhappy people at every level of society. You can be jumping in rain puddles, singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”-ecstatic about life if you’re flat broke or as wealthy as Soros. You can be “so sad you’d be grateful if a meteor hit you”-depressed” whether you’re impoverished or a trillionaire, too. If you’re successful, particularly financially successful, you’re more likely to be happy than other people, but it’s certainly no guarantee of happiness.
As to pride, well, that’s just a human failing we all have to watch out for, no matter what type of society we live in or what our station is in it. That’s why you’ll find so many verses like this one in the Bible,
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” — Proverbs 11:2
No matter how high you may rise in the world, a wise man stays humble.