The War On Merit

by | Apr 1, 2001 | POLITICS

America faces a serious threat. It comes from a war being fought within our own borders. The war is on merit, and it may ultimately decide the fate of our society. One place this war is being fought, and lost, is in the U.S. Army. The losers are the Army Rangers, the Army’s top combat […]

America faces a serious threat. It comes from a war being fought within our own borders. The war is on merit, and it may ultimately decide the fate of our society.

One place this war is being fought, and lost, is in the U.S. Army. The losers are the Army Rangers, the Army’s top combat unit, the kind of men who are prepared to parachute into jungles and survive behind enemy lines. The attack Rangers suffered was not on their lives–but on their pride. The Army command led the charge against them and decided to assign black berets to all 1.3 million enlisted men and women, including cooks, drivers, and clerks. The berets, so far the exclusive possession of the Rangers, traditionally stood for the skills and prowess of these soldiers who endured the most demanding and excruciating of trainings. The idea to give away black berets–the earned symbols of this elite–to undeserving men and women, is at root an attempt to sever the connection between merit and reward. The foolish attempt to boost the average soldiers’ morale will not succeed, of course, but it has already succeeded in undermining the Rangers’ morale. Many Ranger officers took it as “a slap in the face.”

Other casualties from the war on merit are the best and brightest of our public school teachers. Last year, the National Educational Association, which is the nation’s largest teachers union with two and a half million members, voted down a merit pay proposal. Its official statement declared that “any compensation system based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance” would be “inappropriate.” The union’s rejection of merit pay was no news. For decades, teachers’ unions have been fiercely fighting against any remuneration based on performance. Also last year, for example, the teachers’ union in Los Angeles called a strike mainly to oppose a salary raise for teachers whose students showed improvement. How motivated can teachers be when they know merit and achievement will not be rewarded?

Teachers are not only attacking merit within their own ranks, but also among their pupils. How? They are inflating students’ grades. The dramatic increase in the number of A students taking the SAT in the last decade, from 28 to 38 percent of the total, is part of the evidence for that–the other part is the simultaneous drop in their average scores, from 582 to 569, indicating that their school grades grew more than their actual knowledge. The teachers’ attempt to boost their students’ morale by giving them A’s has the same harmful effects as the Army’s attempt to boost their soldiers’ morale by assigning them black berets. The best students and soldiers realize that hard work is not rewarded, and feel betrayed. They see that what they worked so hard to achieve was given to others for free. They learn, surprised and revolted, that merit counts for nothing. The average soldiers and students, on the other hand, feel a false sense of achievement that doesn’t last for long. They conclude, to their detriment, that no effort is needed or required: that the A’s and the berets will just keep coming their way, somehow.

Merit has also become irrelevant in many of our universities, which ignore students’ grades and select them based on their sex, race, or ethnicity. A recent proposal in California even threatens to ban SAT scores altogether as admission criteria. Why should the criteria for enrolling students be anything other than individual merit? How is justice served if the better students are rejected despite their merit, and the worst are admitted just because of their origin?

The liberal intellectuals, who stand on the forefront of the ideological war on merit, do not want to honestly address these questions. But they should. After all, they are the ones pushing for affirmative action in hiring practices, rejecting merit pay for the best teachers, and inflating grades of underachieving students. The liberals’ assault on merit is also manifest in their constant persecution of individuals and businesses for their success–through progressive taxation and anti-trust law. Will the liberals ever show us where is the morality of punishing the best for their merit and rewarding the worst for their lack of it?

What about the consequences of ignoring merit? What soldier, teacher, or student will put any real effort to excel, knowing that no recognition or reward is forthcoming? What person, indeed, would strive to achieve, only to have his merit ignored or discriminated against? Would you?

If we want to keep living in a civilized and prosperous society, protected by capable soldiers and educated by competent teachers, we must affirm our sense of justice and reward merit, wherever we may find it.

David Holcberg, a former civil engineer and businessman, is now a writer living in Southern California. He is a former writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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