Prospect Magazine writes about the problem with meritocracy. First Things thinks meritocracy is killing America. Feminist Philosophers comes out against meritocracy. The Guardian says “down with meritocracy”. Vox calls for an atack on the false god of meritocracy. There’s even an Against Meritocracy book. Given that meritocracy seems almost tautologically good (doesn’t it just mean positions going to those who deserve them?), there sure do seem to be a lot of people against it.
Some of these people are just being pointlessly edgy. The third article seem to admit that a true meritocracy would be a good thing, but argues that we don’t have one right now. This hardly seems “against meritocracy”, any more than saying we don’t have full racial equality right now means you’re “against racial equality”, but whatever, I guess you’ve got to get clicks somehow.
The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.
Grant that this is all true, and that it’s bad. Does that mean we should be against meritocracy?
There’s a weird assumption throughout all these articles, that meritocracy is founded on the belief that smart people deserve good jobs as a reward for being smart. Freddie de Boer, in his review of yet another anti-meritocracy book, puts it best:
I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times.
More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance, and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”
I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.
The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.
This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.
Does this mean we just have to suck it up and let the truffle-eating Harvard-graduating elites at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV lord it over the rest of us?
No. The real solution to this problem is the one none of the anti-meritocracy articles dare suggest: accept that education and merit are two different things!
I work with a lot of lower- and working-class patients, and one complaint I hear again and again is that their organization won’t promote them without a college degree. Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”. Some of these people are too poor to afford to go to college. Others aren’t sure they could pass; maybe they have great people skills and great mechanical skills but subpar writing-term-paper skills. Though I’ve met the occasional one who goes to college and rises to great heights, usually they sit at the highest non-degree-requiring tier of their organization, doomed to perpetually clean up after the mistakes of their incompetent-but-degree-having managers. These people have loads of merit. In a meritocracy, they’d be up at the top, competing for CEO positions. In our society, they’re stuck.
The problem isn’t just getting into college. It’s that success in college only weakly correlates with success in the real world. I got into medical school because I got good grades in college; those good grades were in my major, philosophy. Someone else who was a slightly worse philosopher would never have made it to medical school; maybe they would have been a better doctor. Maybe someone who didn’t get the best grades in college has the right skills to be a nurse, or a firefighter, or a police officer. If so, we’ll never know; all three of those occupations are gradually shifting to acceptance conditional on college performance. Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?
Remember that IQ correlates with chess talent at a modest r = 0.24, and chess champion Garry Kasparov has only a medium-high IQ of 135. If Kasparov’s educational success matched his IQ, he might or might not have made it into Harvard; he certainly wouldn’t have been their star student. And if it was only that kind of educational success that gave spots on some kind of national chess team, Kasparov and a bunch of other grandmasters would never have a chance. Real meritocracy is what you get when you ignore the degrees and check who can actually win a chess game.
One of the few places I see this going well is in programming. Triplebyte (conflict of interest notice: SSC sponsor) asks people who want a programming job to take a test of their programming ability, “no resume needed”. Then it matches them with tech companies that want the kind of programming the applicant is good at. It doesn’t matter whether you were president of the Junior Strivers’ Club in college. It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe. What matters is whether you can code or not. As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company. Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.
I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.
I don’t think the writers of the anti-meritocracy articles above really disagree with this. I think they’re probably using a different definition of meritocracy where it does mean “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials”. But I think it’s important to defend the word “meritocracy” as meaning what it says – decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education – and as a good thing. If we let the word be tarnished as some sort of vague signifier of a corrupt system, then it’s too easy for the people who really are in that corrupt system to exploit the decline and fall of the only word we have to signal an alternative. “Oh, you don’t like that all the important jobs go to upper-class people instead of the people who are best at them? You’d prefer they be given out based on merit? But haven’t you read The New Inquiry, First Things, and Vox? Believing in so-called ‘meritocracy’ is totally uncool!” And then we lose one of the only rallying points, one of the few pieces of vocabulary we have to express what’s wrong with the current system and what would be a preferable alternative. We ought to reject the redefinition of “meritocracy” to mean “positions go to people based on their class and ability to go to Harvard”, and reclaim it as meaning exactly what we want instead – positions going to those who are best at them and can best use them to help others. Which is what we want.
(None of this solves one of the biggest problems that the anti-meritocracy folk are complaining about: the fact that there’s a distinction between millionaire Goldman Sachs analysts and starving poor people in the first place. I’m just saying that in a world where somebody has to be an investment banker, a surgeon, or a Federal Reserve chair, I’d rather choose them by true meritocracy than by anything else.)
[see here for more discussion]