Brian Giesbrecht: Meritocracy or Mediocrity—Canada Must Choose

By Brian Giesbrecht
Brian Giesbrecht
Brian Giesbrecht
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
July 18, 2023Updated: July 19, 2023


In “Civilization: The West and the Rest” historian Niall Ferguson asks why, from about 1500 AD, the West was able to rise from being a backwater of illiterate, unhygienic bumpkins to become the greatest civilization the world had ever seen. He suggests an answer: the West created what he calls “the six killer apps” that “allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years.”

Those “apps” were: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.

Ferguson describes the “apps” and explains why they worked. He also shows how non-Western nations copied versions of those “apps” to achieve similar success.

The one common element in all six “apps” is the principle of meritocracy. Simply put, only the best ideas survived, and only the most creative people achieved success—sink or swim. Isaac Newton, Mozart, Picasso, and Einstein were simply the best and brightest. Their mediocre competitors are long forgotten.

During those 500 years when meritocracy ruled the day, lifespans more than doubled and both quality of life and average wealth increased enormously. The peasant who formerly could expect only a nasty, brutish, and short life became today’s longer-living, healthier, and wealthier citizen. It produced airplanes that stayed in the air, and surgeons who saved lives that hitherto would have been lost. Meritocracy, which is the opposite of mediocrity, is responsible for the comfortable lives we inherited.

Meritocracy remains strong in non-Western nations, such as Japan, but has been in steady decline here for decades. Affirmative action (AA) policies have steadily eroded it. AA seemed to be reasonable when first proposed. In the United States, the legacy of slavery had prevented many African Americans from achieving the same success as did the mainstream. In Canada, the history of racism and injustice towards indigenous people had done the same. AA was implemented in an understandable attempt to correct those imbalances. When Canada’s Constitution Act was passed in 1982, AA was specifically exempted from court challenges.

But it was always implied that AA would be temporary. The theory was that once the historical injustices had been corrected it would no longer be necessary. Instead, AA became firmly entrenched, and a virtual industry grew up around it, guaranteeing its survival.

And now the recent push to implement DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies has put AA on steroids. Because DEI is basically one giant AA program, based on the notion that “equity” will only be achieved when all demographic groups are at the same level of income, health markers, etc. (DEI is basically a more muscular version of what Karl Marx had in mind.)

DEI gives permission to elite universities and other institutions to discriminate against demographic groups, such as Asians in America, in order to promote groups they favour—hard work and achievement be damned. Despite having higher marks, Asian students are refused admission, while candidates from favoured groups with lower marks are admitted. Although they are “people of colour,” Asians are deemed by these wrong-headed admission policies to somehow be not quite the right colour. In this way DEI/AA morphed into explicitly racist policies that reward mediocrity and punish excellence.

The irony is that the people of colour, like Asians, for whom AA was originally supposed to be necessary, achieved their success using the same formula that has always worked for immigrants: strong families, education, going where the jobs are, and hard work. AA had nothing to do with their success. These groups overcame racism and other obstacles, and now punch above their weight on most socio-economic and health markers.

The other irony is that many people within the groups DEI now favours, such as African Americans and Indigenous Peoples, have also achieved success the old-fashioned way—through education, hard work, and going where the jobs are. AA was irrelevant to their success. These people replaced victimhood with a success strategy. The truth is that AA never worked. Instead of removing obstacles for disadvantaged people, the programs were usurped by opportunists.

But AA remains firmly in place, now buttressed by DEI. This conveys the debilitating message to recipients that they are permanent victims, not able to compete with others, and that they need the government nanny state to survive. This is a false message, but a very powerful one.

In Canada this has metastasized into a virtual industry composed of charlatans peddling the false claim that Canada is a racist and genocidal nation. Academic standards have been lowered, and huge taxpayer-funded rewards are given to favoured indigenous groups under the rubric of—apparently permanent—“reconciliation.” In America, race hustlers like Al Sharpton feed like vultures off manufactured racial division. This depressing picture worsened with DEI, and shows no signs of changing.

Until now, that is. The U.S. Supreme Court has shaken up the status quo in the landmark “Fair Admissions” decision. No longer, at least in theory, will American universities and colleges be able to legally discriminate. Elite schools like Harvard that were able to choose selected demographic groups—to the detriment of better qualified Asian students—have been put on notice that this racial discrimination has to stop.

Exactly how this decision will change things in the United States remains to be seen. Elite institutions will use every trick in the book to attempt to thwart it. Their commitment to their DEI theology is far stronger than their commitment to education.

However, regardless of its immediate consequences, the decision is profoundly important. It is a very strong signal from SCOTUS that the days of AA and exploiting racial division in America are numbered. Meritocracy, namely the principle that made America great in the first place, is making a comeback. America’s best and brightest will once again compete against the world. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that the colour of one’s skin will become irrelevant might actually come true. The DEI race-hustling business might be starting to come apart at the seams.

But none of this is happening in Canada.

So, here we sit. Non-Western nations such as Japan are firmly committed to meritocracy. The United States also appears to be moving back to the meritocracy that made it great.

And they are all passing us by, as Canada slips further into mediocrity—meritocracy’s not-so-bright twin.

Meritocracy or mediocrity—Canada must choose.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.