Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Joseph F. Kett's "Merit"

Joseph F. Kett is James Madison Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His books include The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750–1990 and (as coauthor) of The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century, and reported the following:
Advancement by merit and not by bloodlines or wire-pulling was among the Founding ideals of the American republic, no less important than equal rights and government by consent. Merit, equal rights, and government by consent nevertheless had the potential to conflict with each other and Americans have spent over two centuries devising ways to reconcile these ideals. Merit argues that one means of reconciliation has been to try to make the unequal distribution of economic rewards as transparent as possible, so that everyone could see the basis of distributive justice. So, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we find Americans embracing scientific factory management and the personnel management movement. The former sought to base wages on small differences in individual productivity; the latter urged employers to publicize factory flow charts, so that each worker could see the basis of advancement from job to job, rank to rank.

Page 99 of Merit addresses a different aspect of the same reconciliation. It quotes John L. O’Sullivan, a leading Democratic Party editor and activist, who stated in 1840 that wealth acquired by the movements of paper money “controlled by a few gambling speculators” could never be “the test of merit.” O’Sullivan was writing at a time when guide books to the major American cities were listing their “leading men” by their net worth. In O’Sullivan’s eyes, however, these moneybags often owed their wealth to the frenzied ups and downs of the stock market. In the middle of the nineteenth century states, which traditionally had used lotteries to fund roads and schools, were outlawing lotteries, mainly because the American economy was starting to look like a gigantic lottery.

O’Sullivan worried about more than the pillaging of the many by the few. Echoing a point made by Andrew Jackson in 1832 (in his famous message vetoing re-charter of the Bank of the United States), O’Sullivan affirmed that if governments would stop legislating privileges for the rich that gave them advantages over ordinary Americans, then rewards would follow merit; economic ruin would be the natural requital of ill-desert. He added a psychological dimension: as long as rewards were seen to be based on merit, the bitterness spawned in America “by the deadly animosity of classes feeling themselves equal” would shrink.
Learn more about Merit at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue