[Column] Myths of meritocracy, fairness

Posted on : 2021-06-29 16:59 KST Modified on : 2021-06-29 16:59 KST
In the reality of severe inequality, “fair competition” is an unrealistic proposition
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok speaks during an interview with the Hankyoreh at the National Assembly in Seoul on June 17. (Kim Gyoung-ho/The Hankyoreh)
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok speaks during an interview with the Hankyoreh at the National Assembly in Seoul on June 17. (Kim Gyoung-ho/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Kang-kook
Lee Kang-kook

By Lee Kang-kook, economics professor at Ritsumeikan University

These days, we have been hearing vocal calls for “fairness.” Lee Jun-seok, who was recently elected leader of the People Power Party (PPP), has been advocating for “fair competition,” declaring his aims of bringing the US’s brand of “jungle competition” to South Korea.

Lee’s idea of fairness is based on a conservative perspective. It refers to fairness in procedures and forms that are rooted in meritocracy, a system where competition is like a test with an outcome that determines our status.

In one speech, he said he dreams of a world where everyone can find themselves at the starting blocks of a fair competition based on their education. Perhaps this attitude will win support among younger South Koreans who have been critical of the administration’s “unfairness.”

But just as there are different species of animals in the Darwinian jungle, it is difficult for competition to be truly fair when it involves children of diverse family backgrounds.

Indeed, many studies have reported on how heavily the efforts and abilities of children are influenced by their parents and their home environment. The severe stresses associated with poverty inhibit brain development during childhood; the environmental factors influencing pregnant women have effects that extend to the health and income of the children they bear.

In a reality of severe inequality, “fair competition” is an unrealistic proposition. When we emphasize formal “fairness” — in a situation where the starting points are already different, and many people cannot even enter the race — our existing inequalities are very likely to intensify.

The “competition first” mentality, with its opposition to quotas and the solely test score-based definition of meritocracy, stands to reinforce the inheritance of inequality and disparities of opportunity; for communities that only damages actual fairness.

Not only that, but the “myth of meritocracy” and its claims that people succeed purely through their own efforts will be used to justify inequality. Fairness without equality is hollow; the progressive concept of fairness emphasizes consideration for the vulnerable and equality of outcomes.

The young people who are up in arms about “fairness” today are hardly unaware of the differences in privilege among families. Perhaps they view inequality as an inalterable precondition, and they’re hoping for at least procedural fairness so that people can compete to the fullest without the odds being shaped by the parents a person is born to.

At root, the feelings behind this argument come down to a sense of deprivation — the feeling that people cannot get ahead no matter how hard they work. Despite the current administration’s emphasis on fairness, young people have witnessed various examples of the rules being broken.

The situation is also closely tied to the administration’s failure to provide carefully crafted policies that instill the belief and hope that the current inequalities can be improved.

In a reality where inequality runs deeper and there are fewer opportunities for growth and upward mobility than in the past, we may see more vocal calls for “formal fairness” in the distribution of status. This raises the risk of a vicious cycle forming between formal fairness and inequality of outcomes.

South Korea’s progressives now face the difficult tasks of proactively working to remedy unfairness and inequality while convincing young people how it will ultimately benefit everyone to deter “formal fairness” in certain cases.

At the same time, we must not lose sight of the importance of expanding meritocracy throughout South Korean society, rather than simply criticizing and shunning it.

The debate over fair competition and meritocracy often focuses mainly on testing, such as university entrance exams and employment at companies. But it’s more important to have a true meritocracy — one that goes beyond testing to reward people appropriately for their efforts and contributions in their everyday work and life.

Unfortunately, many issues in South Korean society, including that of inequality, have their origins in a lack of fairness and meritocracy in various areas, including the workplace.

Even among employees doing the same kinds of work, there are often vast disparities in pay according to their status. Compensation is not commensurate with contributions to production. Chaebol companies use their power to keep subcontractors down while funneling work to their own affiliates. Is that fairness?

In that sense, we need to go beyond simply demanding a fair competition when it comes to passing through the narrow gateway into the solid citadel of the upper class. We need people demanding that fairness and meritocracy work properly for everyone both inside and outside that fortress.

We should also raise fundamental questions about whether the share enjoyed by the highest earners in South Korea — which is very high by international standards — really is based on genuine effort and fair competition.

This should inevitably lead to criticisms of the mechanisms and monopolies controlled by the wealthy and the rent-seeking practices of vested interest, along with discussions about reforming wage structures and the public sector practices exemplified by excessive seniority-based compensation.

We can look forward to seeing the various presidential hopefuls all talking about their version of “fairness.” But the question of what sort of fairness we need or want is something for the community as a whole to consider and debate.

I look forward to seeing the recent fairness debate branching out beyond the narrow scope of “testing fairness” and developing into the kind of full-fledged fairness that does away with vested interests — a fairness that goes hand in hand with equality.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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