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September 15, 2013


Geoff Willis

This is the whole reason why soaps exist. You can gossip about them at work.

Note that soap stars are generally known by their character names, not their real names. And the public treat them like real people.

If I walked in to work and said that James Bond or Jason Bourne were really clever, athletic people; I would be treated as a loon.

However nobody has a problem discussing the behaviour action or character of Ken and Deirdre Barlow.


Ann Widdecombe used her notoriety to get a book writing contract. The books received modestly positive reviews and she sold a decent number of copies. I sought them out in clearance booksellers (as tasteful gifts for friends) but none were to be found. She was a good enough writer and had a smart enough editor that her work sold at "full price".

Thats's a high standard for Ms Dorries to match. I doubt that she will keep up with Widdecombe because Dorries' name recognition exists only in political wonks. Dorries has been an obsession for bloggers but she is less noted by apolitical people than, say, Mary Portas. Chris Dillow, following in the footsteps of others, assumes that Ms Dorries' notoriety in a narrow space makes her a celebrity.

Chris Dillow: "A market economy is not, and cannot be, a meritocracy."

But who wants a meritocracy? Utilitarian and meritocratic policies are mechanisms of governance, commonly used by liberal-ish authorities. Meritocracy is not a political philosophy, and as Michael Young explained, it is often used to excuse illiberal measures.


Many book deals involve straightforward corruption. I doubt whether the publisher claws back many of the advances paid to politicians for their autobiographies; it is, in fact, a disguised subsidy to the author from someone who likes their politics.


Ann Widdecombe wasn't terribly notorious when she sold her first novel. She was just good at it.

If you want a truly embarrassing politician's novel, get hold of Iain Duncan Smith's The Devil's Tune.



The mass media do indeed provide an environment where the brand recognition of a celebrity can be used quite effectively to attract attention, and to sell something that is only vaguely (if at all) related to the celebrity in question. This does not require any inherent ability in the celebrity - people who are a celebrity simply for being well known can fulfil this magnet role very effectively.

But to conclude from this that "a market economy is not, and cannot be, a meritocracy" is a bit of a non-sequitur.

A market economy is complex, and certain segments are pretty obviously meritocratic. A market economy will generally provide a higher income to a baker who bakes a good loaf than to one whose bread is only mediocre. It will do similar to a good baker who is more productive than to an equally good baker who is not so productive.

If we suspect that the market is not meritocratic in certain segments, then maybe that is more to do with how we define 'merit' than with how the market operates. There is no inherent reason why a meritocracy should reward people proportionately to the amount of talent they have, or to the amount of effort they make. Merit does not have to be in the eye of the producer; it can be (and often is) in the eye of the consumer.

Imagine a town in which there are just two barbers. Fred is very good, Joe is almost as good (let's quantify it, and say Joe is 95% as good as Fred). The people in the town earn similar incomes, and all have the same budget for having their hair barbered once per month. It is common knowledge that Fred is the better barber, so Fred's appointment diary is always full, and Joe's is empty. Given the choice, everyone does indeed prefer to get a haircut with Fred.

Would a meritocratic society mean that Joe, who is 95% as good, needs to earn an income 95% of Fred's? Of course not. There is really nothing unmeritocratic about the situation in which Fred gains *all* the revenue for haircuts and Joe none: they get rewarded according to the value they provide to the people in the town. This is a more meaningful measure of merit than the respective talent (or effort).

What we see is a kind of 'winner-takes-all' situation. Such non-linearities in the relationship between objective effort, talent etc, and reward are not new. The Fred and Joe example may be a little theoretical, but it is not that unrealistic in principle: the reason why there used to be only one barber, baker, butcher etc in small villages is exactly that the better one took all the business, leaving no place for a marginally less good one.

An equivalent non-linearity is apparent in some buying behaviour. If you buy a car or a sofa, you don't give a lot of money to the maker of the best vehicle or settee, a bit less to the second best producer and so on, until you give a few pennies to the worst one. Instead you give all your money to the best one, and the others get nothing.

Thanks to the mass media and the internet, we see the Fred-and-Joe winner-takes-all phenomenon replicated on a much larger scale. And while it may somehow *seem* unmeritocratic that Nadine Dorries gets a lucrative book deal instead of an equally able, but unknown author, it is actually nothing of the kind. The merit, in the eye of the consuming beholder, is not the inherent ability, but the amount of entertainment and gossipability she provides.

Some people may deplore this state of affairs, but it is incorrect to refer to it as not meritocratic.


Dorries, Widdicombe, Hamilton, Campbell, Galloway. Dear God. Swivel-eyed loon, swivel-eyed loon, crook, war criminal and...the lawyer's friend.

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