Mediocracy vs meritocracy

November 21, 2016 § 22 Comments

Aristocracies or ruling classes are typically composed of fairly mediocre ordinary human beings, and that is all for the best.  Everyone seems to assume that we need political leaders and popes who will be the best of the best, who will make our countries great again and meet our own special snowflake Current Year challenges as great leaders.

But genuinely great leaders are mostly a big problem, because every mediocrity who inherits a position formerly occupied by a genuinely great leader inevitably winds up all full of himself.

Having midwit leaders – and the great majority of people in authority are and always will be midwits – who aspire futilely to greatness, is an endless source of trouble.  A few truly great outliers here and there may pull off a temporary innovative greatness, but that just sets us up for a variation of the apex fallacy applied to self assessment on the part of leaders in general. Once we’ve set the precedent of having a great leader here and there, every ordinary midwit of a leader starts to think of himself as a really important man in a really important position building a really important legacy.

Most of the greatness needed for the maintenance of civilization does not involve innovation, creative destruction, and the like.  The kind of greatness which is important for the maintenance of civilization occurs when ordinary people rise up in defense against existential threats to civilization.

The main purpose of a Pope is to reiterate and defend the clear and eternal verities of Church doctrine (something any properly educated orthodox Catholic high school student can do); and otherwise to just not screw things up. Anything beyond that is likely to do more harm than good.

And the same sort of thing applies to aristocracies in general. The basic purpose of an aristocracy is to preserve its inheritance, including the common good of the community of which that inheritance is an integral part, and otherwise not screw things up. So aristocrats need proper indoctrination in how wealthy and powerful civilized people must behave for the common good: a good aristocracy, that is, requires not genius or intrinsic greatness in its human raw material, but proper civilized cultivation.

This cultivation should include constant lessons in not overestimating one’s self importance just because a genuinely great man used to fart into the same seat cushion.

§ 22 Responses to Mediocracy vs meritocracy

  • William Luse says:

    It’s true that greatness is not contagious. (I think Obama and Francis are enthusiastic ‘victims’ of this delusion). It’s a good point.

    But I also think you were just looking for an excuse to wield this line: “…overestimating one’s self importance just because a genuinely great man used to fart into the same seat cushion.”

    And it’s a good line.

  • Every institution from government to church to Fortune 500 suffers from this. Every leader has to be a guru, for some reason. It’s just an excuse to overpay someone.

  • Different T says:

    @ Deplorable Me

    This article:

    is relevant for your perspective, especially the last paragraph.

    There are OTHER reasons to consider for increasing accuracy. Searching ribbonfarm for “alice and bob” and “bad carver” may be explicative.

  • […] effects of liberalism is that it tends to make everyone falsely believe that their own uncultivated political opinions are worth more than flatulence particulates embedded in a couch […]

  • King Richard says:

    I have told my sons and citizens that if I succeed in my goal I will be known as ‘King Richard the Mad’.

  • Bruce Charlton says:

    Good points – you have valuable insights on leadership.

    On the flip side, elites often are ‘meritocratic’ in the sense of having considerably higher average intelligence, or some other advantage for ruling. The Normans were a group I loathe, overall – but they were obviously extremely talented in many ways: warfare, strategy, building – and were almost certainly an intelligence elite (being bred from a select group of about 10-30,000 knights and expert cavalrymen and ruling something like a milion Saxons – minus many of the elite Saxons who fled abroad or were exterminated).

    Also, while I certainly agree that we should not, and cannot, expect leaders to have genius – I do think that they need to be real leaders to do a good job – i.e. they need the psychological attributes of leadership, even when their abilities are nothing special.

    Leaders are born not made – at least, I have never seen anyone learn to be a leader. I have seen so many non-leaders put into positions that require leadership, and it is always a disaster. The trouble is that almost all current major world leaders are middle managerial mediocrity non-leaders – UK, USA, Germany, France (I don’t know anything about China) … the only real natural leader among major countries is Putin, and he runs rings around everyone else.

  • Zippy says:

    Bruce Charlton:

    I’m not denying a nature aspect to leadership here, I’m just addressing the problem of succession. For succession to work in an aristocracy (every society has an aristocracy and succession) it has to take into consideration the fact that most leaders are going to be just mediocre. Regression to the mean more or less guarantees this, at least as a trend, and there is no mechanical or procedural way around it.

    It follows that (unabashedly borrowing from Plato) proper cultivation of wisdom in young aristocrats before they come into their inheritance is critical. A properly cultivated midwit aristocrat is far less dangerous to the continuity of civilization than an uncultivated genius.

  • brucecharlton says:

    @Zippy – I amdistinguishing between a leadership class, and an individual in a key leadership position; such as a monarch (or a general or equivalent).

    There have not been many periods in history when it was possible to get away with a mediocre monarch for very long (indeed, even brilliant monarchs are sometimes barely or not enough in difficult times).

    Inertia will keep things going for a while, but over time a mediocre leader will destroy an institution – if not by losing competetive advantage, then by appointing a cohort of medicre people. Or by handing over the power which s/he cannot wield, and shirking responsibility.

    This has happened, for example, in all the previously fomous/ excellent UK universities where there is often not one single honest, competent and able person on the faculty. And they have handed over all strategic power to the state.

  • Todor says:

    What do you make of the relationship between aristocracy and war? They were, after all, the warrior class. They used to have privileges, but only because it was assumed they were willing to die on the battlefield for King and Country. Why give privileges to individuals who are now the least exposed to the woes of war?

  • Zippy says:

    I don’t have much to add other than to affirm the basic principle that with greater authority/privilege comes greater responsibility/accountability.

  • TomD says:

    Another aspect is that during the Middle Ages, when aristocracy ruled, wars were mostly fought over land and therefore had definite beginnings, goals, and ends.

    Now wars are fought over ideologies and can be much more destructive.

  • Mike T says:


    There is nothing stopping the elite from developing a culture where male honor includes mandatory military service, particularly in the more dangerous occupations in the military. Well, nothing other than their own lack of will. The model of warfare is not really a factor here. To their credit, AFAIK both of Britain’s princes have served not only in their armed forces, but in combat arms. Even if it’s nominal service, that is still a damn sight better than what we have in our elite enclaves.

    If Trump were to draft every son of the 1% to military service and draft every daughter of the same to mandatory Americorps service, I don’t think I would be particularly outraged. Couldn’t happen to a better class of people today…

  • Todor says:

    Well, that’s the problem: you can’t create a warrior class by sending the richest kids to war. It takes centuries of meticulous breeding, just like with dogs and horses. So I kind of disagree with Zippy. The members of the old aristocracy were often mediocre individuals, but a bad specimen of a bulldog is still a bulldog, and not a chihuahua.

  • Zippy says:

    The claim though is just that in absolute terms most aristocrats are in fact mediocre, and that social arrangements need to take this into account. That there is no difference between ruler-population and ruled-population would be an orthogonal claim: one I haven’t made.

  • Alex says:

    Zippy, I may be wholly wrong in this, but I think, at least as far as the papacy goes, the Church does rely in that the pope will be a very good one. That is, for the Church to work well, for it to reach more and more souls and keep them in the path of salvation, it needs* a dedicated and virtuous father at its helm. It needs someone with the moral and spiritual strength to keep the course of the Church, even as it seems to calmly sail along.

    Now, to be sure, these strengths might not be what people think nowadays when they think of a great leader (though they should be present in one as well). People tend to think about “dynamism”, or enormous charisma, or shrewd negotiation skills when they think about a leader. I agree that most leaders won’t have great skills in those areas, maybe even most popes. But a leader does need a goodly amount of humility, of justice, of prudence, of faith, hope and charity. Of course, these strengths are available to common people in some measure, especially the theological virtues.

    Anyway, I am not even sure whether we are in disagreement, so I made this comment in the hopes of clarifying this and, if I am wrong about any of this, to be corrected.

    *Of course, a bad pope can be offset by good bishops, priests, and even saintly lay people, though I do understand that a bad pope would make the life of these people harder, not only materially but also supernaturally.

  • TomD says:

    Mediocre doesn’t mean not good – the point Zippy is making is that the mediocre man who knows he’s mediocre is already half way to being a good man, as he will be humble.

  • Todor says:

    I got sidetracked by “ordinary human beings”. You can’t tell aristocrats that they are “ordinary human beings” who have simply received a better education than the rest of us. They must really believe it’s in their blood. That’s why in time of crisis they would never say to their sons, “Remember what you have been teached”, but instead “Remember who you are.”

  • Zippy says:


    It is a worthwhile clarification.

  • […] Decent civilizations require good followers.  Some leaders are genius enough to herd cats, to be sure. But they are few and far between, and genius has no succession plan. […]

  • […] blood-and-bone animals with limited intellects, voracious appetites, narrow perspectives, egos well out of proportion to their ant-like personal significance in the scheme of things, mountainous lasagna layers of […]

  • […] in relation to any greater intrinsic moral and economic worth of the elite. As Zippy Catholic points out: “The basic purpose of an aristocracy is to preserve its inheritance, including the common good […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Mediocracy vs meritocracy at Zippy Catholic.