The Merits of Meritocracy

I can’t seem to let go of the Swedish Emigration Investigation (or Commission might be a better word for it) from 1907 three posts ago. One theme in it, is that emigrants left not only due to the economic situation, but also due to issues such as dignity and human respect linked to class differences and the exclusion of the poor from the political system.  The english wikipedia page about the Commission (yes, there is one!) has the following little story:

Bitter experiences of Swedish class snobbery still rankled after sometimes 40–50 years in America. A man who’d emigrated in 1868 described the disparaging comments he had heard in his youth from the aristocrat in charge of the parish poor relief, which “gave rise to great bitterness and a large number, among them myself, emigrated to America, which I have never regretted. Here, you are treated like a human being, wherever you are.”

The analogy with present day African migration breaks down somewhat  here.  I’ve heard African emigrants to Europe say that avoiding discrimination and hidden racism would be one benefit of going back. Still, I’d say both Sweden 100 years ago, and present day Africa were not very meritocratic societies and both were/are in a process of becoming more meritocratic.

My grandmother was born into the Swedish nobility, and there are records of her male ancestors with names, titles, professions, and dates of birth and death back to the 17th century. And every one of her ancestors has an important sounding title from mainly the church or the army. Practically, they were are all priests or officers in the army.  If we disregard the unlikely possibility that every one of them, 18 generations back, was competent enough to, on his own merit, reach the top 3% of society in terms of salary and social status implied by being a priest or officer, it means that many people were born rich and died rich regardless of their ability.

The corollary would be that there were many more people that were born poor and died poor despite being very capable and competent – essentially held down by a class and caste system. That’s a sentiment I have heard many times in Africa by people living in areas such as Yopougon, or as a Senegalese friend of mine says “En Afrique, si on ne pauvre on va mourir pauvre, wallahi!”

Putting aside thoughts about  revolutions for a moment, I have an entirely untested hypothesis that one implication of the lack of meritocracy for the real estate market is that as a landlord, one will have less problems with tenants in areas with low socioeconomic status in Africa than corresponding areas in  developed countries.  The reasoning goes that given a couple of generations living under reasonably meritocratic principles (or a decade would probably be enough),  a number of capable and competent people will manage to move out of bad areas, leaving behind a higher proportion tenants that might cause problems.

In Africa where there hasn’t yet been been a couple of generations living under meritocratic principles,  poor areas should have a higher proportion of people with the ability to move to a better area if they had the chance.  And here I am assuming that such people on average are better tenants than others.

Anecdotal evidence for this hypothesis would be that drug problems, vandalism and senseless violence appear to be more common in bad areas of developed countries than corresponding areas in Africa.  Violence may be more common in Africa, but it’s usually political or of the – what’s necessary to take someone’s money and get away – type.

All of this disregards differences in absolute wealth as well as cultural factors both of which are very likely to have an impact on tenants likelihood to pay rents and cause troubles.

Anyhow, there are tons of amazing stories in the Emigration Comission’s work, including letters to the Emigration Commission from Swedes having moved to the US . Here are some excerpts from Appendix VII:

N:r 193

J. E. C., Washington.  Emigrated 1882. From [the Swedish region of] Södermanland

I left Sweden for three reasons: 1) I wanted to improve my situation 2) I wanted to escape rich land-owners’ despotism 3) I wanted to get out and see the world.

To illuminate the above I would like to give the following life story. I was born at a mansion in Södermanland, where my father was a gardener. At age 9½ I was taken out of school and put to work. My salary was 0.10 kr a day the first year, and I worked 12½ hours a day excluding meal breaks. […]

My father had served masters in all his time, in the last place he stayed 27 years, and when he at age 64, after 27 years of faithful service he had to stop due to old age he didn’t even get accommodation for his remaining days, and had to take refuge at a married daughter at which he stayed until his death twelve years later.

At age 20, I moved to another mansion as garden worker; my salary was 100kr a year plus meals and accommodation. I have no complaints about the salary, but the mansion-owner treated his staff as serfs. They were for example not even allowed to take a bath in the lake that surrounded his property. His words still ring in my ears when he one evening at around 9 surprised us while swimming: “I do not allow something like that on my beaches!”

Under such circumstances the thought on traveling to the free America matured. In the autumn of 1881 I quit.  I spent the winter at a workshop in Eskilstuna, where the foremen were English and I found them more humane than the Swedish masters I have had to deal with. When I have mentioned in America, that in Sweden a servant has to have his hat in his hand when speaking to his master, I haven’t even managed to get an Irishman to believe it, and yet the oppression from masters is greater in Ireland than in Sweden.

In Spring 1882 I went to America on borrowed money. I went all the way to the Pacific Coast, to Washington territory. The ticket cost more than 400kr. Here I got a job at a lumber mill. The salary was 30 dollar a month plus meals and accommodation.  When I had worked 4 months I paid off my debt. I earned more here in a month than a year in Sweden. The working hours were 11½ hours a day, and the work was hard, but I prefer to do hard work in America and be treated as a citizen by my foreman, than to do easy work in Sweden and be treated as a necessary evil.  Then I worked for lumber mills in western Washington i more than 15 years. […]

I married a Swedish girl who left Sweden for the same reasons as me. I now have 40 acres of land, 6 miles from a city with 95,000 people. I grow fruit, berries and garden plants making a good profit and am able to provide my children a good school.

But I still love my fathers land and its people – just not the masters. I and my wife would happily travel home to spend our remaining days in Sweden, now that we can get our own home, but it would be a big injustice to our children to bring them to a country, who’s language and customs are comparatively unknown to them and where the opportunities to make a living are far fewer than here. Therefore, we stay where we are.

Another letter:

N:r 177

C. P. R., Chicago.  Emigrated 1870. From Kalmar län

I was born in 1852 in [the region of] Småland. My father was a skipper. At age 2 I lost my mother. And at age 5 I got a stepmother, an angry, fiery woman, that didn’t stand me in any way. I entered school at age 6. […]

The schoolmaster was an old man, in the last stage of tuberculosis, and he went there and coughed and spit on the floor. I am not surprised that so many children got the same disease, because we all had to sweep the floor twice a week and doing so caused the dust to whirl up like a on a well-driven country road on a dry summer. The schoolmasters that came after his death, died too, one after another of the same disease.  The education consisted of reading the catechism, the testament, the hymnbook, the biblical history and small excerpts of Swedish history and grammar for those who wanted and could afford to buy the books.    We had counting and writing twice a week. Catechism and biblical history were homework to learn by heart, and God help the pupil that couldn’t recite his homework in the morning.  The punishment was done straight away. The delinquent had to lay head forward on the roughly made school benches, and the schoolmaster beat him freely over the back and posterior. I have never seen a human being treated in such a way other than the treatment of slaves I saw on the south west coast of Africa in the 1870s.

I went to this school for five winters until my stepmother could no longer bear me and joined my father on the sea. But my inclination was for studies, I learnt easily, and borrowed books where I could, but when my stepmother saw that I had a book she beat me and said she would burn them. […]

I was written in [as a sail making boy] for six years. For the first two years I would get 20 kr per year, the following two 25 kr and the last two 30 kr. For this fantastic salary I would buy tools and clothes and work as a slave.  A bell rang at ten to five in the morning, and at five o’clock we had to be in the workshop. We were six boys, and every year a new got in and an old one left. […]

I was at the sail maker for three years, but one day during the summer something happened. We worked two and two on a sail, two boys and two apprentices. The apprentice I worked with had been at a party the night before and slept most of the time. In the afternoon he woke up and asked how much of the sail was sewn, and I answered half of it.  That made him furious, he took the end of a rope and hit me. I hit him back, but then the other apprentices  ran up and helped him. They beat me until they were tired.

At 8 o’clock in the evening, I asked for permission to go to the port where my father was loading his ship. I ripped open my shirt and showed my chest which was blue due to the beatings to my father saying that I would no longer stay with the sail maker. My father got mad and said “Go back there, but you do no longer work there! I’ll come tomorrow.”

The next morning my father came and took me aboard as a passenger on his ship to Germany and out in the wide world. […]

I certainly had difficulties to begin with, because the war between Germany and France broke out in year 1870 forcing me to leave Germany headlong for Copenhagen. […]

Then I boarded a ship from one of the big Dutch companies that went to Bergen (Norway) during the summer for fish, and during the winter to Oporto for wine. There my salary was 36 kr per month and at the company’s sail making workshop I learnt what I didnt know before of the sail making profession. Then I boarded an English steam ship that went to the Congo river and back to Rotterdam. Then a dutchman that made a trip to Venice, further to Greece and from there to Groningen, Holland. Then I went to Rotterdam and took the same steamship to the Congo river where I was supposed to stay, but I got a fever and was sent back more dead than alive.

[…] I went back again to America where I got a position in the postal service.

I now have a salary of 1,100 dollar a year, or 4,070 kr in Swedish money. I have papers of ownership for 20 acres of America’s fertile land, and two plots of land for construction in Chicago’s beautiful suburbs, and enough money in the bank to go home and buy a farm at one of your beautiful bays, Mother Svea. [the Swedish equivalent of uncle Sam]  But after the experiences I have had, I hardly think so.

And yet I love you! When you give your children universal suffrage (because it’s at the ballot boxes that the class difference disappears), when you separate the church from the state, when you modernise some of your archaic laws, and take education away from priests, then I shall liquidate all I own and travel home to rest in your earth.

And then there is this little nugget indicating from where the lead author of the Emigration Commission Gustav Sundbärg got the idea that Scandinavians and other protestant north-west Europeans were doing better than others.  The man was a statistics buff, and not much into empty prejudices.

Freely translated to:
“In comparison with other countries, Scandinavians [who have emigrated to the US] show an advantageous position in terms of the relative number of poor. In year 1900 Scandinavians formed 10.3% of the [US] foreign population, but contributed, in 1903, only with 4.9% of the total amount of foreign born persons admitted to poor houses. […]

As a comparison, it can be mentioned, that the corresponding numbers for Ireland are 15.6% – 46.4%, for Germany 25.8% – 23.3%, and for England and Wales 9% – 18.7%. From this it can be seen that the Swedes are in a favourable position, especially compared to the Irish.”


One thought on “The Merits of Meritocracy

  1. Pingback: Lessons from letting to poor people in rich countries « Hotel Ivory

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