What do the following have in common?: newspaper columnists paid six-figure sums to echo their readers’ prejudices; bosses who are overconfident and/or psychopaths; reality TV show contestants; Jedward and Samantha Brick who profit from people laughing at them; and radio show hosts employed for their controversial views.
There are two common features here. One is that these are characteristic types of our media age. The other is that they are examples of anti-meritocracy. Such people are financially successful not despite a lack of merit, but because of a lack of it.
What we have is a latter-day Bedlam. The difference is that lunatics are not displayed for a penny a view, but instead have gone viral and have their own shows.
Of course, it has always been the case that some bluffers, chancers and arse-lickers have got lucky. What is new - or perhaps more prevalent now - is that a lack of merit can now be a positive asset; people are selected for their demerits. The counterpart to this is that ability can be a drawback. Competent singers earn much less than Jedward; Tim Harford probably earns less than Boris Johnson; and some decent radio presenters less than Galloway. And so on.
If this is the case, then the tension between meritocracy and a market economy is more acute than ever*. But does this matter?
In one sense, I don’t think it does. As Michael Young famously argued, a meritocratic society would be hellish because both rich and poor would think they deserve their fates. In an anti-meritocratic society, the less successful at least keep their self-respect. And I’m not sure that - bosses apart - anti-meritocratic successes claim to deserve their fortune, and if they do nobody believes them.
In another sense, though, it does matter. If young people think that success is possible without merit, then they will under-invest not just in education but also perhaps in cultivating a quiet good character. If so, then anti-meritocracy might have long-run costs.
* Some right libertarians will object that the success of these people is evidence that they do have merit. However, if we equate merit with what sells, then we drain the word “merit” of its conventional meaning, and make a free market economy meritocratic by tautology. This is silly, and intelligent defenders of a market economy do not argue this way.