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Highlights From The Comment Thread On Meritocracy

[followup to Targeting Meritocracy]

Some commenters rightly question exactly what we mean by meritocracy. For example, Mark writes:

Isn’t the real problem that we have no good system to identify who deserves power over others, in the most general sense?

Grant the surgeon their power, in their specific field of expertise, within their own hierarchy. But I think we have to question strongly whether we need grant them any special power beyond that.

Different considerations certainly apply to surgeons versus senators, and talking about appointment to a vague “ruling class” probably confuses things pretty badly. I’m much more willing to listen to arguments for a randomly selected Congress than I am for a randomly selected surgical staff. Maybe the problem is that, aside from a few elected officials, nobody ever notices that they’re choosing people for the ruling class at all. They’re just choosing economists, lawyers, bankers, et cetera, for the particular purposes of their institution/law firm/bank. Any rigorous discussion of meritocracy would have to separate these out more than anyone’s done so far, and definitely more than I am going to do in the rest of this thread.

Another group of people express concern about meritocracy insofar as they define it as focusing on certain kinds of proxies for merit (standardized testing?) rather than real merit. From RSJ:

Meritocracy is an ideological hammer to beat down those who demand consequences for failure. It is a shift from being judged based on results to being judged based on “qualifications”. It is very easy to be judged based on qualifications since that status never changes no matter how often you get things wrong. It’s a type of aristocracy that short-circuits the necessary discipline that must be applied to any elite.

Tom Bartleby tries to tease some of this apart:

Genuine question (for Scott and everyone else): what is the “meritocratic” outcome in the following hypothetical:

Alice and Carol are both programmers, and are up for a promotion to management. Alice is smarter, works harder, and produces better code. She gets along well with everyone and is consistently rated as the highest performer in the group. By contrast, Carol is consistently a mediocre programer. She’s not awful—certainly in no danger of being fired. But she’s not as smart, she doesn’t work nearly as hard, and her code is acceptable rather than excellent.

On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management. When she’s in a group project, she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her. (Alice is more likely to just do an unfair share of the work herself.) Looking at the two of them, we can confidently predict that—even though Alice is the better programer—Carol would be the better manager.

So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

I would say that it’s more meritocratic to promote Alice. If a company has the habit of promoting people like Alice, I would describe that company as having a meritocratic culture. I get the feeling, though, that Scott disagrees.

Some Faceless Monk had the same worry, but was more fatalistic about it:

I think in some ways, meritocracy as it is practiced as opposed to meritocracy as it is idealized is in play here. Companies that incorporate meritocracy start out in the idealistic manner: Choosing based on merit and ability. However, over time, companies (especially big ones that get hundreds or thousands of applications) will start to make the hiring process efficient, and gloss over a lot of details by weighing on specific factors: “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.” Or “Oh, these two guys have experience from Z company and were fired two months in. Are we sure we want applicants from Z?” The reasons why X, Y, and Z matter are almost never analyzed, and instead these name just get turned into keywords for the applicant tracking system to filter. This can lead to, worst of all, “This applicant may have the abilities, but they went to A school, served in B organization, and worked at C company. And I haven’t heard any of these!” What you witness is an institutionalized form of quasi-nepotism, in that your application gets weighed on by the names on your resume rather than what you did with those names. That’s what I really think these publications are deriding, they just call it meritocracy because they can’t think up a good word for it.

MartMart was more fatalistic still:

If word X should mean X, but thru out known history has always meant Y, it’s not unreasonable to claim that you oppose X on the grounds that it always results in Y which is terrible. I mean, people who oppose soviet style communism do just that.

I would counter-argue that people still use words like “justice” and “equality” despite their similarly dismal histories. If we have to abandon a good-sounding word just because the people who claim to practice the good-sounding word usually don’t, we’re not going to have a lot of good-sounding words left.

A third group of people have more fundamental concerns that apply even to ideal meritocracies. A common worry was that if all the meritorious people end up in the upper-class, then the upper-class has complete power and the lower classes don’t have anyone competent left to represent their class interests. For example, dndsrn writes:

[Young’s] attack on meritocracy – really, the original attack on meritocracy – was not “gee it’s awful convenient how the people on top have come to the conclusion that society puts the best on top” (which is, to a considerable degree, a legitimate and true criticism) – his attack on meritocracy was that it would strip the working classes of high-IQ individuals from those classes who in his world (the Britain of the early to mid 20th century) became union reps and Labour politicians – that a real meritocracy would leave the working classes defenceless against being snookered by the bosses.

And Iain quotes part of the Guardian article:

It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.

They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots.

With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

I’ve heard this argument before in the context of segregation and immigration. That is, when segregation ended, many of the upper-class black people who could move to white neighborhoods did, stripping black neighborhoods of their potential leadership. And when the doctors and lawyers in a Third World country immigrate to America, it creates a brain drain back home.

Both of these are recognized as difficult problems, but the meritocracy version seems even harder. Once someone from the lower class becomes a Senator, they’re not so lower-class anymore; this seems like a natural problem in any governmental system. I’m not going to say it’s tautologically impossible, because there are ways to keep them more or less in touch with their lower-class roots, but it does seem like a harder problem than a lot of people give it credit for.

This naturally segues into another class of critique: meritocracy unifies all of the talented people into a hegemonic upper class with its own values, disconnected from the people they’re supposed to rule. RSJ again:

Meritocracy-as-practiced means herd behavior as a very small group schools (both intellectual and actual) produce the leaders who echo each other’s conventional wisdom. This is how we get entire nations pursuing economically or militarily disastrous policies, such as the whole western world deciding it needed to go back on the gold standard after WWI, or, for that matter, WWI. Or the current tragedy of Greece, and the sadism of the European Monetary Union. It’s how all economists agree that we should tax consumption rather than unearned income. It’s how we got financial de-regulation, wall street bailouts, a flatter tax schedule, a shrinking middle class. When these are deeply unpopular beliefs among common, less “meritocratic” people who didn’t all go to the same 5 elite graduate schools.

And Jaskologist quoting dndsrn:

Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

I hope that deemphasizing education in favor of skill will be of some help with this – after all, where do these people learn their class solidarity and distinct values except at Harvard and Oxford? When I hear rags-to-riches stories from a bygone era, they always involve the guy who did such a good job as a waiter that he became head waiter, then restaurant manager, then head of the restaurant chain. That seems both most truly meritocratic, and like a strong antidote for the identical-Oxbridge-clones problem.

I really don’t think that self-contained elites are meritocracy’s fault. The hereditary aristocracy wasn’t exactly famous for avoiding the failure mode of becoming a cloistered elite who talked only among themselves and ignored the people they were supposed to rule. Has there ever been a system that was any good at this?

A final class of commenter takes this to its logical conclusion and says that the problem isn’t rule based on merit, it’s rule, period. From qwints:

Young is proceeding from a socialist perspective by looking at classes means of reproducing themselves. His key emphasis is on the suffix – the ruling done by the intellectual elite. The problem is not at all an inequality of opportunity, it’s the power given to those who’ve taken the opportunity and the moral authority they wield.

These critiques are really saying that letting the most able rule is, in fact, a bad thing – even worse than letting all the important jobs go to aristocrats (at least for Hayes and Young). They’re really saying that the seductive nature of the claim “we should give out jobs based on merit” is dangerous, and the claim must be opposed. The solution they offer is getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether.

I was also lucky enough to get a response from Andrew Granato, author of the Vox article linked in the piece. He wrote on Twitter:

Even if we had some extremely accurate way of identifying the most talented people and allocating them to the top positions, we would still have the same structural force at play that mars America now: the stratification of society into increasing distant tiers. Except now the stratification would be more based on “merit” than what we have now- which is what Ivies sought to do in the 60s and 70s.

Seems reasonable to claim that there are ways of finding better elites than we currently have. But it would still generate elites by design. And whenever you structurally give people money and power, you give them the means to seek and extract rents from society.

Okay, so, uh, the problem is that we “structurally give people money and power”. And the solution is “getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether”. That sounds nice and straightforward. Let’s get a couple of grad students to write a white paper on it and try to have it implemented by next quarter.

Okay, fine, I’m being mean. But it does seem like a lot of these solutions are utopia-complete; that people’s objection to meritocracy is that it’s not a perfectly just world where everyone is free and equal and prosperous and lives in harmonious understanding and nobody has power over anyone else. I agree this is a pretty good objection to a lot of things. But it doesn’t seem to be an objection to anything in particular.

I guess what I mean by this is…suppose I attack welfare. I write a bunch of articles like “Welfare Is Destroying America” and “We Need To Smash Welfare” and “Ten Reasons Why Welfare Ruins Everything (Number Six Will Astound You!)”. When questioned, I admit my main objection is that welfare is inferior to a world where everyone is rich. There’s no way my criticism helps produce the everyone-is-rich world, but it’s super-likely that it helps people like Paul Ryan who just literally want to destroy welfare, in the normal sense of destroying welfare.

And look. A couple days ago, Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis is a right-wing talk radio host who has “never even taken an undergraduate course in any science”, and believes global warming is a scam. This follows a few months after Trump appointed his son-in-law as one of the nation’s top diplomats. And I wish I could say this is one of those completely unique Trump things that we keep being told we should “never normalize”, but it’s just an exacerbation of politics as usual. We justly celebrate the decline of the spoils system in much of the civil service, but it never totally disappeared, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on how common it is today, whether it’s going up or down, or anything like that.

The most salient alternative to welfare isn’t everyone-being-rich, it’s poverty. The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.

And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.

One point I keep pushing on this blog is that it’s a bad idea to demand downstream solutions to upstream problems. For example, I’ve argued that if a company’s applicant pool is only 20% women, and the company engages in gender-blind hiring and gets 20% women employees, it’s more useful to focus on the factors shaping the applicant pool composition than it is to yell at the company. For some reason nobody (sometimes including me) seems very good at this.

But this same problem seems to be shaping discussions of meritocracy. If you don’t like the fact that the CEO of Goldman Sachs exists, that’s a pretty reasonable upstream problem to have. If instead you complain about the downstream problem that he’s chosen based on merit, all you’re going to get is more people appointing their son-in-laws.

Other miscellaneous good comments: baconbacon on which seemingly-unmeritocratic rules are just excuses to protect people’s feelings. Nikolai Rostov on the difficulty of measuring merit in different domains. And especially rminnema linking to an excellent article on how the Soviet upper class always managed to get their kids into top schools despite the system’s supposed Communist bent.

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277 Responses to Highlights From The Comment Thread On Meritocracy

  1. dndnrsn says:

    Both of these are recognized as difficult problems, but the meritocracy version seems even harder. Once someone from the lower class becomes a Senator, they’re not so lower-class anymore; this seems like a natural problem in any governmental system. I’m not going to say it’s tautologically impossible, because there are ways to keep them more or less in touch with their lower-class roots, but it does seem like a harder problem than a lot of people give it credit for.

    It makes more sense in a British context, and even more sense in a Britain-of-the-past context. A working-class boy who worked in a mine, became a union representative, and eventually ended up getting elected as a Labour MP would still identifiably be working class. The Tory MPs, even if they thought that he was a fine chap, would still think of him as a bolshie with the wrong accent. I think North Americans in general tend to discount this because our accents tend to be a lot less marked – in general, I’ve noticed that people from “the old country” (be that England or elsewhere) can identify class and hometown through accent in a way that North Americans can’t. I can identify a few major Canadian accents, enough that I can tell if someone’s from the Maritimes or the Prairies, etc. I can tell some class markers. But I’ve noticed that, to give an example, Europeans tend to be able to pinpoint someone’s hometown and social class far more precisely. When I was in school, there were a few blue-collar-background people, first-in-the-family-to-go-to-university types. They were able to blend in fairly quickly to the upper-middle-class environment. If you can tell by someone’s accent that they’re from the bad part of Upper Northern Hilltown-upon-River, that would be harder to do.

    I hope that deemphasizing education in favor of skill will be of some help with this – after all, where do these people learn their class solidarity and distinct values except at Harvard and Oxford?

    It is worth noting that the people whose attitudes towards the working class I find so unpleasant are exclusively people I remember from university. If you get into a good university, you are taught to think of yourself as someone important, even if you haven’t really accomplished anything, and even if you’re a complete wastrel screwup (I know I was). The people who act superior base their sense of superiority on moral and intellectual grounds, and usually identify intellect as a moral quality.

    • Tom Bartleby says:

      I think your point about the durability of class is a really, really important point, and a big part of what many people object to about how “meritocratic” our society is.

      Consider someone like President Obama. He came from a fairly middle-class background, maybe less. But in our culture, he was picked out as meritorious and given a fancy educational background. So fancy that he was literally classmates with Governor Romney. As a result of our meritocratic education system, he became one more “elite” president, despite the way he’d grown up.

      Contrast that with someone like John Rockefeller, who was able to work his way up to being the richest person in the country (world? History?) but seems to have maintained more of a tie to the environment in which he was raised. Part of that is that he wasn’t whisked off to a fancy set of schools–because his culture was less meritocratic, and didn’t recognize his talent.

      These days, Rockefeller would probably get a good scholarship to a prestigious school and end up with an MBA from Harvard. And maybe that would be better; but it would certainly be different.

    • dansimonicouldbewrong says:

      I addressed this in the previous thread. Throughout history, aristocracies have always been based on cultural markers (accents in Britain are an obvious example) rather than merit, because merit is too difficult to pass down to descendants, who must compete with the hungriest and most gifted among a much larger lower-class talent pool. Even if an elite class starts off as a meritocracy, reversion to the mean eventually does its work, and the class must either establish a more heritable set of class markers, or else accept that its progeny will lose their elevated status after a couple of generations.

      The current backlash against meritocracy in America is the first stage in this process: third- or fourth-generation members of the postwar white-collar upper-middle class are noticing that it’s really hard for their families to compete for meritocratic positions in society. So instead of demanding tougher standards and railing against the rampant racial discrimination against Asians in top-tier university admissions, they instead push for colleges to shift even further away from meritocratic standards, and towards appreciation of “character” traits that are more easily conflated with highly heritable social and cultural habits.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Didn’t the top colleges introduce “holistic admissions” considering “character” and so forth in the 20s and 30s largely as a way to discriminate against Jews? So, not a new thing. There was a long-ish debate here a while back over the legitimacy of university admissions on this or that basis.

        • dansimonicouldbewrong says:

          Absolutely. As I mentioned, this business of ruling classes preferring cultural traits over meritocratic ones has been going on for a very long time. The brief postwar meritocracy fad happened to suit that era’s newly ascendant elite, but it has now clearly outlived its usefulness to them.

    • Deiseach says:

      in general, I’ve noticed that people from “the old country” (be that England or elsewhere) can identify class and hometown through accent in a way that North Americans can’t

      This amused me back when I watched the pilot episode of BBC Sherlock and there was a scene with Lestrade, Watson and Holmes all lined up, and I went “comprehensivegrammar schoolpublic school” to myself (and was later vindicated when I saw a screenshot of Dr Watson’s CV where he did indeed go to a grammar school). That Rupert Graves, who plays Lestrade, did go to a comprehensive and Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow just makes it funnier (well, to me anyway).

      I was amused because I automatically did this, and yet if you simply looked at the characters in the shot, there weren’t really very visible class markers distinguishing them – but tiny indications that if you picked up on them, you certainly would be able to slot them into “yeah, this guy is higher status background than that guy”. To an American, I’m sure they would all have seemed to be the same class, if they thought of class at all (and that’s one of the differences with the American version, Elementary).

      • dndnrsn says:

        Americans and Canadians, to different degrees, have a tendency to interpret just about any English accent as sounding posh, and (at least I saw this among other Canadians) frequently a deference to England and English stuff that came off to me as weird.

        • johan_larson says:

          I think this goes both ways, actually. To me, as a Canadian, most British accents sound rather posh or proletarian, sometimes ridiculously so in either direction. It’s rare that I hear an accent that is both distinctly British and somehow just-folks ordinary.

        • Nornagest says:

          I can’t make the fine distinctions between different English accents that Brits can, but I can reliably tell the difference between an upper- and a lower-class London accent, or between urban and rural England.

      • Forlorn Hopes says:

        Annoyingly I never developed that British superpower. (Mind you, I’m descended from Jews fleeing Europe so maybe that’s why).

        I wouldn’t mind hearing what gave it away to you though.

      • Nornagest says:

        Lestrade came off as having a clearly lower-middle-class background to my American eyes. Holmes and Watson came off as having different backgrounds, but not stratified in the way you describe: Watson’s military experience comes through strongly in his bearing, but his dress and speech could be anything from middle class to rural old money. Not a poor family, not from any kind of background where schmoozing is important, but could be anything from middle class to rural old money. Holmes is clearly a brahmin type: he dresses conspicuously well, shows evidence of an expensive education, and talks like he knows social rules but is choosing to ignore them.

    • kenziegirl says:

      It seems to me if you’re right about lower class MPs, that doesn’t really solve the problem. Granted I have little familiarity with British politics, but if an MP or Congressperson is recognizably lower class and everyone else sort of looks down on them and thinks they’re a bit of a joke, how is that person supposed to actually have any influence in directing policy? It gives them a self-esteem bump that they’re rubbing shoulders with elites, but how could such a person actually be effective unless he was part of an influential bloc?

      On the subject of American accents, this seems relevant: https://www.unz.com/isteve/americas-ugliest-accents-tournament/ . To me, and this may just be a personal thing, I can think of a couple of accents that are so low-class and annoying to me that I can barely stand hearing them, and can’t imagine electing such a person for office. Even if they are intelligent and virtuous and otherwise the ideal person for the job. But their accent makes them come off as ignorant and uncultured. It’s definitely a drawback. Examples would be https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_Peterman and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2cqceHGqno .

      • Brad says:

        I’m not an expert on British political history, but my understanding is that at the start of the Labour Party it was dominated by actual working class MPs. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about Ramsay MacDonald, who was Prime Minister 1924, 1929–1931, and 1931 to 1935.

        MacDonald was born at Gregory Place, Lossiemouth, Morayshire, Scotland, the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid.

        Ramsay MacDonald received an elementary education at the Free Church of Scotland school in Lossiemouth from 1872 to 1875, and then at Drainie parish school. He left school at the end of the summer term in 1881, at the age of 15, and began work on a nearby farm. In December 1881, he was appointed a pupil teacher at Drainie parish school. In 1885, he left to take up a position as an assistant to Mordaunt Crofton, a clergyman in Bristol who was attempting to establish a Boys’ and Young Men’s Guild at St Stephen’s Church.

        • baconbacon says:

          From the Wikipedia article

          With Henderson taking the lead, MacDonald, Snowden, and Thomas were quickly expelled from the Labour Party.[69] they responded by forming a new National Labour group, which provided a nominal party base for the expelled MPs but received little support in the country or the unions.

          At the very least the example you choose highlights how hard it is to remain connected with your ‘roots’.

      • Regarding someone as working class isn’t at all the same as regarding them as incompetent.

      • po8crg says:

        Granted I have little familiarity with British politics, but if an MP or Congressperson is recognizably lower class and everyone else sort of looks down on them and thinks they’re a bit of a joke, how is that person supposed to actually have any influence in directing policy?

        I think you’ve misunderstood this a little. First, it’s not “everyone else” that looks down on them – it’s Tory MPs that do, that is, the representatives of the wealthy.

        Second, there were lots of them – an absolute majority of the House of Commons in 1945-50 was comprised of men who had worked in manual labour. Even if the Tories did look down their nose at them, what did they care? They were ruling the country.

        What we had was a party of the working class, not just one for the working class, and one of the middle class.

        Anyone born to a working class background in 1905 (that would be about average for a new MP entering Parliament in 1945) would not have attended university and would be very unlikely to get any formal qualifications at all: compulsory schooling would have ended at 12 (ie in 1917). For a few younger MPs, it would be 14 (extended in 1921, ie for those born after 1909 and therefore no more than 36 on becoming an MP in 1945).

        Bright boys born to working class families in that era just didn’t get into high school, much less university. That changed with the 1944 Education Act, but, of course, it took 20 years for the products of that reform to start entering Parliament. In the meantime, the Labour party was dominated by the products of the working-class self-education movement – which centred around the Workers’ Educational Association and Ruskin College (which is an independent institution located near the University of Oxford, but funded by the trades unions to provide higher education to the working-class that were denied it by the official system). The result was that they had worked in manual labour for some years, while studying in the evenings, and Saturday afternoons (most jobs were five-and-a-half days a week). By the time they were getting an advanced education, their habits, style and accent – the cultural markers of class – had set solid as working class ones.

        In today’s world, someone bright from a similar background would certainly go to university – probably not Oxbridge (which is still deeply class-ridden), but likely to an Russell Group university close to where they live (in rough US terms, Russell Group translates to something like “public ivy” or “state flagship”). Attending somewhere like that, on a residential basis from the age of 18 is likely to result in a major change in accent, in personal style and in habits and taste – resulting in someone who is no longer identifiably working class, but comes across as middle class, and also someone who has not worked manual labour for several years and been raised up because he was the clever guy in the factory, but got there through the formal education system.

        As for girls and women, the huge expansion of opportunities runs right across the class system – and there are more identifably working class women as MPs than ever before. Thing is, that’s about a dozen total.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      Americans move around so much that accents by village never can take root.

      There _are_ two American accents that will give you real social disadvantage:

      1. “White southerner”, which says you’re an uneducated bigot.
      2. “Black”, which says you’re uneducated and a criminal.

  2. doubleunplussed says:

    Surely if we take a step back, then there’s no reason to quibble about definitions, except to the extent that you want to argue with people set on a particular definition, which I suppose is what your post was originally about.

    Instead, maybe we can just agree that in a utilitarian sense, it’s useful to incentivise people who are good at surgery to become surgeons, and that money is a good way to do that. The utilitarian will notice though that there are diminishing returns in paying surgeons too much though, because it probably means charging patients more, and so then nobody can afford to actually obtain good surgical outcomes, which is what we should be optimising for here. So there’s a point where you no longer want the best surgeon, just the best given a certain price.

    And if there’s a lot of wealth inequality then a lot of people can’t afford surgery either.

    And then we can argue whether the free market gets you the right balance or not – whether some industries are being paid way more than is required to incentivise the best people to go into it, or whether there is a coordination problem where everyone would benefit if the poor had more money but it’s clearly not in anybody’s individual interests to bring it about.

    From this perspective the “anti meritocracy” people could be steelmanned as wanting to solve the coordination problem, (basic income plus ruthless meritocracy everywhere else anyone?) but they’re too confused to articulate it well.

    • sclmlw says:

      I’m seeing a lot of the anti-meritocracy crowd basically assuming the rigors involved in becoming a surgeon, lawyer, CEO, [insert high-paying/high-demand position here] to be simply a matter of “well of course anyone with rich parents just idles away a few years at an expensive school and then walks into the job”. And I think this inaccurate portrayal often gets implied throughout this whole discussion. The reality of current higher education in the USA, as I’ve experienced it, is a little more nuanced. The system we want to achieve, to modify a quote from the animated film Ratatouille, is a system where “not just anyone can become a good surgeon; but a good surgeon can come from anywhere.”

      So it’s a little unfair to those in the current partially-meritocratic system to say they don’t really deserve their positions because they didn’t work for them. They did work for them. Hard. Ask a highly-paid neurosurgeon or oncologist sometime what it took to get where they are. It’s not a cake-walk, and in that sense the ‘downstream’ problem of trying to recruit and train the best surgeons (or the best talent in any specific field) isn’t really a problem that needs anyone to step in and solve it.

      The upstream problem – that it seems everyone can agree on – is that some people don’t ever get the opportunity to pursue the option of becoming a neurosurgeon due to the circumstances they were born under. Thus in the current system the “good surgeon can come from anywhere” quote should come with a qualifier. *some restrictions may apply. And if we were focusing on eliminating those restrictions, society as a whole would be better off. Arguments for eliminating meritocracy don’t seem to do anything to advance that end, however, and it’s not apparent to me that any system of government or decision-making has done much better than the imperfect meritocracy we live under.

      “Utopian meritocracy” aside, at least in the current system there is always what economists like to call “money on the table”. If there’s a stack of cash on the table, sooner or later we expect someone will notice it and pick it up. Or in this context, if we have a large amount of potentially high-performing talent, it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how to leverage that talent on the cheap. And once that happens perhaps people will want to replicate that and “on the cheap” will become more expensive, as employers start to figure out that although fancy degrees are how rich people signal they’re hard-working/high-performing talent, there are also ways poor people can signal they’re hard-working/high-performing talent.

      Theoretically.

  3. J Mann says:

    I think there are three key questions raised by the discussion:

    1) Q: Is meritocracy better than any alternative. A: IMHO, obviously yes for the reasons Scott lays out, but see 2 and 3 below for some shading details.

    1.1) But there are bound to be some exceptions where the cost outweighs the benefit. We might settle for a less than ideal senator or juror because we think the values of citizen involvement in democracy and justice outweigh the benefits of additional merit. I’m sure there are many other cases, but pretty confident they’re the exception, not the rule.

    2) Q: Would it be possible for modern society to be more meritocratic? In other words, given the costs of gathering information about merit, are there improvements to be made in the objective product of surgeons, fed directors, and senators? A: Sure, let’s work on that. Scott’s ideas are good in that regard. However, it’s much more meritocratic than the extreme skeptics give it credit for.

    3) Q: If we assume that meritocracy (i) is generally preferable to the alternatives and (ii) imposes costs disproportionately, do we have an obligation to use some of the gains from our super-productive meritocratic society to ameliorate some of those costs? A: It seems to me yes, and this gets you to a possible point of agreement with the critics. It also seems very hard to do, so let’s get some super meritorious people on it.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think the problem with meritocracy as it currently works is that we as a society say we’re making decisions based on pure merit (“We hired George and not Jamal because George has better qualifications”) but there are always subjective impressions (“George went to Harvard – and he got a genuinely good degree – but you know, Harvard – top school, right kind of people, will be able to mix with our clients on the same kind of level, will know other top guys, it’s the kind of brand where you know you’re getting quality”) and that’s what the Feminist Philosophers and others are trying to fight against (a struggle I think will always be in vain, to be honest).

      It’s “Jamal and George both worked hard and genuinely got good results, nobody is saying George didn’t get his degree honestly, but you will always pick George over Jamal because of the snob value of Harvard, and that is not meritocratic”.

      • J Mann says:

        I’d argue that it’s the sorting value of Harvard. If all I know of Jamal and George is that Jamal went to Harvard, then I know that Jamal had the ability to get into and graduate from Harvard, while George went to large state school U of X. (Also Jamal has Harvard connections, which might assist in the job, depending on duties). All else being equal, Jamal is likely to be a more productive hire.

        It’s true that my ability to predict merit (which I’ll simplify to productivity, for whatever product I’m looking for from that position) is imperfect, but that’s still probably what I’m aiming for.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yeah, but exactly the point we’re arguing over is “ability to get into Harvard”. Where the false meritocracy comes in is “Well, if Jamal is smart, he’ll be able to get in. If he didn’t get in, that just proves he is not being held back by society, but because he was too lazy/unmotivated/expected it to be handed to him on a plate to get in” and that is not necessarily so.

          Money helps. Knowing how to apply for and get scholarships helps. Knowing how to apply to colleges like Harvard (indeed, college in general), what extra-curricular activities will look good on your application, etc. helps. Having a background where your parents know all this and can advise you helps.

          There can be all the financial aid and scholarship packages in the world out there, but if you don’t know how to access them/your parents aren’t good at filling out paperwork, then it’s likely that Jamal may instead be shuttled the route of “get a halfway okay job and start supporting yourself after you leave high school” or, if further education is possible, it’s “local community/state college that will give you an okay qualification but the only way it’ll get you into MegaBank is as a janitor”.

          • J Mann says:

            It seems to me that criticism mostly means that we’re in an imperfect meritocracy – our ability to predict future performance isn’t perfect, and the amount of resources we can spend on predicting future performance isn’t infinite, but most positions still are assigned largely or primarily on who is believed to be likely to be most successful in the role, for whatever values the hiring party places on success.

            Let’s take a simpler issue – the manager and the coach of a baseball team are deciding who to hire as their next pitcher. Their primary motivation is to guess future performance, which is complex – not only strikeouts, but will the candidate be likely to get in legal trouble, will he contribute to a cohesive team, will he stick around and stay healthy, will he help sell jerseys, etc. At the end of the day, they’re trying to pick the guy who will be most successful for their preferred output.

            Then the Moneyball guy comes around and proves that our manager and coach are using suboptimal metrics – if they placed more value on indicators X and Y and less on A and B, on average, they would get more successful pitchers.

            That’s great, and it shows that they were in an imperfect meritocracy before, but at the end of the day, they were trying primarily to maximize performance – winning games over time is what they enjoy doing, and it’s what their jobs and salaries depend on (along with selling jerseys).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @J Mann:
            It’s even deeper than that, as moneyball is not just about choosing the best player at position X, but composing the best team out of a pool of known players. That can mean choosing a less optimal player at one position simply to free up resources to expend on an overall more valuable team composition.

        • po8crg says:

          The real question is what happens when all else isn’t equal.

          A 3.9 GPA from Harvard might reasonably be held better than a 3.9 GPA from, say, Texas-Austin. But is a 3.8 from Harvard better than a 3.9 from T-A? A 3.7? A 3.5? A 3.0?

          [And yes, I’m deliberately avoiding the 4.0 because measurements break down at the upper limit]

          • Nornagest says:

            Word on the street is that grades at the Ivies are not very predictive, partly because they’ve been bit hard by grade inflation, partly because they hire top-notch research faculty that are generally not very interested in teaching undergrads, and partly because so much of what you’re getting out of an Ivy is networking and other things not reflected in grades.

            So I might even say that someone with a 3.9 in a reasonably demanding subject from a reasonably demanding state school has a good chance of being better at the subject than someone with a 3.9 from Harvard. But Harvard boy might be natively smarter (it’s a lot harder to get into Harvard), and he’s definitely better connected.

      • bean says:

        To play devil’s advocate, though, in certain jobs I could see ‘Harvard’ being part of merit. If it’s a client-facing role at a hedge fund, then having the person be able to get along with the clients is very important. And if we believe that George and Jamal will each do about as good of a job managing the money, but George will do a better job managing the clients, then hiring George is the meritocratic thing to do.
        (I’m not saying that all hiring of Ivy League grads is this way. I could easily see cases where the manager wants one for prestige for his department or something.)

        • sclmlw says:

          And what if the real difference is that those pieces of paper are more than just signalling? In my current position, I work with a lot of talent from different educational backgrounds. Although all have post-secondary degrees (some have basic nursing degrees, some have masters degrees, and some have PhDs) it’s often easy to tell who has more education.

          In my experience, the PhDs just do a much better job of critical thinking, solving problems that aren’t straightforward, and finding solutions on their own than colleagues with less education. Of course, # of years’ experience tells me the likelihood the person understands nuances of the job, but I still see those with higher educational attainment in a much better position to think through and find solutions to problems themselves. This is immensely valuable, and is consistent regardless of whether the questions are in the subject of the individual’s training. (I don’t work with a lot of Ivy-league graduates, so I can’t speak to the differences between Ivy-league and State schools, however. I suspect the difference is less pronounced.)

          That’s not to say there aren’t differences in opportunity to attain those more-desirable qualifications. I’m just saying there’s an implicit assumption that the qualifications don’t represent real differences to some degree. And maybe in some fields the differences aren’t important. But in my field they’re both important and fairly obvious. I’m sure some well-qualified applicants are being overlooked because of flashy credentials. But if the difference is “applicant X was 12% better than applicant Y, but applicant Y was better at signaling so he got the job” then we’re really talking about employers paying a small premium as an end-run around an information problem. It’s not obvious that one applicant is better than the other, but if one applicant went to a school that requires more rigor in order to get in and later graduate at least you can say that the student demonstrating rigor isn’t likely to be a lazy oaf.

          And that means something. So maybe the real problem is that the best way to signal quality to potential employers is to spend enormous amounts of time and money taking the right standardized test, getting into the right limited-enrollment schools, and getting the flashiest pieces of paper. And of course this is out of reach of most people based solely on money. So the solution should be to build a better signalling mechanism. And make it free. (But let’s not make the mistake of just blindly mass-producing the current system. I’m not sure “free college for all” will have the type of signalling effect we’re looking for.)

        • Deiseach says:

          Oh indeed, and that’s part of the whole “more than simply judging on qualifications”. If part of the job involves “must look the part and be able to deal with clients as ‘one of our lot'”, then that’s why it’s more sensible to hire George than Jamal. But that is also why “we hire blind on pure merit which means the best academic qualifications” is not what is really going on – nobody has to be a moustache-twirling villain and racist to prefer George over Jamal, but the effects pan out much the same.

          And that’s what people object to when they object to the meritocracy: no, you didn’t get hired just on being smart and getting a good degree on your own work, you got hired thanks to advantages (and to use that awful word, “privilege”) which you don’t even recognise or take into account, such as coming from a background that is comfortable in that kind of social sphere.

          • J Mann says:

            I don’t interpret meritocracy to mean “we hire blind on pure merit which means the best academic qualifications.”

            Instead, I interpret it to mean “we try to hire the person we think will be most successful in the role, for our values of success” (usually but not always in my experience: impact on total productivity, which means individual productivity, whether they contribute to the group or are toxic, how much supervision they require, whether they’re likely to stick around or jump, whether they’re trustworthy, etc.)

            Unfortunately, indicators like “was admitted to and completed an education at a challenging school” and “has a recommendation from someone I know and trust” are informative if you’re trying to make a prediction about future performance – they reinforce our current class structure, but they don’t mean we’re not in a meritocracy, albeit an imperfect one.

        • And that is how meritocracies rot: first, signals and credentials substitute for real merit. Second, they become mandatory, and those who don’t have them are shut out.

  4. Aapje says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? Is it cronyism?

    What is meritocracy’s endgame? Won’t it be cronyism as well with an elite making sure they have the best education, exclusive internships that prove they are the best, etc; so they just happen to always be the meritorious?

    My feelings about meritocracy are very similar to how I feel about capitalism: it can only be stable in the long term if we constrain it excesses and don’t treat it as a magic force for good that will always give the best outcomes, if we just leave it alone.

    • moonfirestorm says:

      At least at that point you end up with someone doing the job very well (if they aren’t actually doing it well, you have a pretty powerful lever to free up the position).

      If we’re going to have cronyism either way, we might as well have the elites be elite because they have exclusive opportunities to be better. Regular cronyism often does the opposite, and appoints people who are far less qualified for their jobs than another applicant would be.

      • Aapje says:

        At least at that point you end up with someone doing the job very well (if they aren’t actually doing it well, you have a pretty powerful lever to free up the position).

        Well, one of the criticisms of the current meritocracy/technocracy is that it is merely optimizing for an elite. So you don’t just need meritocracy, you also need a good goal.

        A perfectly optimized paperclip-AI that turns us all into paperclips with minimum waste has the highest merit in some sense, but is not something I prefer over a far more wasteful leadership which seeks to achieve goals that I support.

        Similarly, the meritocracy is, just like the very similar technocracy, a bit of a red herring, where all the focus is put on ‘do it well,’ but not so much on ‘do the right thing.’ The latter is at least as important.

    • alwhite says:

      I think the question here is “constrain with what?” What is the method of constraining meritocracy? How do we know meritocracy has gone too far and what is the correction?

      • Aapje says:

        One way may be to limit the rewards of meritocracy so it becomes less crucial to be on top. Most likely there is a balance where the incentives don’t encourage gaming the system (and not helping those with high potential for high merit) too much, while still giving enough stimulus for those with merit to strive for the best.

    • albatross11 says:

      Aapje:

      If the easiest way to improve your kids’ chances of making it in the meritocracy is to make them more productive (better genes, better education, better work-ethic, whatever) then at least you are, by your efforts, making the world better. You are making the system work better overall by bending your own personal efforts to producing more productive people.

      On the other hand, if the easiest way to improve your kids’ chances is stuff with little social benefit (cram schools to raise their test scores in ways uncorrelated with any other benefit, resume-building activities you can afford to finance on your generous salary from the meritocracy, calling in favors to get your kids ahead), then we will see a lot of people at the top spending a lot of resources for no benefit. (And if the easiest way is to do negative stuff like bribery or blackmail or violence, then the society is probably going to fall apart.)

      • Aapje says:

        1. A lot of that ‘merit’ is probably actually going to be arbitrary markers that are sold as merit (‘fitting in’), teaching to the test and other stuff that doesn’t actually increase performance that much, but is more interpreted as such.

        2. Should the not-rich-parent having kids have much less opportunity to gain merit?

        3. If the main reason why a natural 5 in ability looks like a 10 is that they got a lot of teaching to the test and such, then there is a good chance that they’ll regress back to the 5 + whatever bonus they get from the environment that the gatekeeper was shielding. If that person edges out a natural 9 who has poor parents and thus looks like a 7, then if the latter gets to pass the gatekeeper, they’ll probably regress to a 9 + that bonus, which ultimately results in more merit. If we imagine that the bonus is substantial, like a +5, then the natural 5 will end up a 5+5 = 10 and will still look more impressive than the natural 9 who never got in, despite regressing back to her natural level after no longer getting help from her parents. You get the situation that Scott described, where the natural 9 then has to replicate the bonus on their own, by studying computer science privately. As he said, it’s pretty much only a valid path in programming, probably due to the tight labor market and the acceptance by employers that programmers are pretty odd (it helps that you can keep them far away from customers).

        • albatross11 says:

          Aapje:

          Your 1 and 3 are both about the *failure modes* of meritocracy. For example, suppose we have a life-defining test (cough SAT cough) that correlates pretty well with success in school. It’s possible that test prep raises your score a fair bit, while not really resulting in any greater merit–you won’t become a smarter person or know more math, you’ll just get better at scoring well on SAT-like tests. In that case, my attempts to get my kid into Harvard are basically zero-sum–I don’t make the pie bigger (by creating more capable people who will ultimately create more wealth), I just increase my kid’s chance of getting a bigger slice of the pie.

          This is what it looks like when meritocracy gets implemented in the real world, and so it has flaws people can exploit to get position better than they should.

          But even in an ideal meritocracy, there may be things I can do to help my kid do well. For example, I’ve been teaching my kids concepts from math, statistics economics, evolution, and game theory since they’ve been old enough to understand them. I’ve made some extra efforts to make sure my kids get a good education. Assuming those things make my kids ultimately more capable and more productive, I’ve helped my kids get a bigger slice of the pie, but I’ve also helped the pie get bigger.

          Your point 2 applies even here. There’s some random kid being raised in a perfectly normal home, with two not-very-educated parents who make sure he has enough to eat and goes to school and does his homework. That kid has the same innate potential as my kids, but doesn’t get that early enriching environment[1]. The playing field isn’t level, because he doesn’t get exactly the same opportunities as my kids.

          But in this case, my helping my kids is at least making the world a better place–my efforts are helping them rise in the meritocracy by way of helping them learn more and understand the world better. It’s hard to imagine any non-horrible way to prevent such things, and it’s hard to imagine any such policy making the world a better place[2].

          [1] All this assumes my enriching environment is helpful. I think it is, but I may be deluding myself. I do suspect I’m capable of providing an intellectual environment at home that most parents couldn’t manage, and that my kids are bright enough to benefit. But again, maybe I’m deluding myself.)

          [2] “Now there’s no more oak oppression, for they passed a noble law. And the trees are all kept equal, with hatchet, axe, and saw.”

          • Aapje says:

            “Now there’s no more oak oppression, for they passed a noble law. And the trees are all kept equal, with hatchet, axe, and saw.”

            You can also keep the trees more equal by giving those in bad soil some fertilizer.

            I would argue that universal access to primary & secondary education was enormously important for humankind and that this was a non-horrible way to give more access to merit-building environments.

            The belief/delusion that such interventions are impossible and that those in top positions can do little more than perhaps open the door a bit further to those who have so much potential (or luck) that they can overcome a great many hindrances, while those with merit can merely educate their own into having so much merit that they are natural leaders is merely a defense of aristocracy.

          • Ketil says:

            It’s possible that test prep raises your score a fair bit, while not really resulting in any greater merit

            It’s possible that I misinterpret the term “test prep”, but wouldn’t preparing for an important test also be a sign of merit? Not caring about SAT scores enough to do whatever you can to raise the scores signals a lack of motivation and self-discipline, which can be just as negative as lower IQ score.

          • Aapje says:

            @Ketil

            Parents who lack higher education often assume that the system is set up to actually work as advertised (teaching kids what they need to know) and are often unaware where the system is broken and how you can gain an advantage. Note that it is insufficient to just know that the system is broken, you need to know how, which requires a decent understanding.

            Lower class/poorer people may not have the means to personally help with test prep (because their own education is lacking) or the means to outsource it (because they don’t have the money for it).

            Not being aware of these possibilities and just assuming that a kid who doesn’t do test prep was stupid in the first place is exactly how aristocracy/false meritocracy develops. Barriers get thrown up that don’t select on ability, but select on means and then those who profit from these barriers pretend that they do select on ability.

    • Drew says:

      What is meritocracy’s endgame? Won’t it be cronyism as well with an elite making sure they have the best education, exclusive internships that prove they are the best, etc; so they just happen to always be the meritorious?

      When you say, “so they just happen to always be the meritorious?” is the implication that they’re lying?

      Because, if the elite is simply lying, then that’s a class-stratified society that lies. It’s not a meritocracy. And the pro-meritocracy faction would want that elite to rank people based on actual-merit instead of pointless internships.

      Alternately, are they telling the truth, and those educations or experiences actually increase merit?

      If so, your phrasing is odd. It’s like saying, “Tim’s parents are professional athletes. They helped him do years of the best training, with the best technique, and he just happens to make the track team?”

      Yes, the second case might lead to persistent inequality; Tim’s kids could also make the track team. But it’s not cronyism. Tim, and Tim’s kids really have to be faster than everyone else who’s trying out.

      And the persistent inequality will only persist in-as-far as you think success is deterministic. If there’s a huge component of individual luck, then Tim can try his best to help his kids, but his best might not be enough to matter.

      In that case, the meritocratic world would be very overtly different than the crony world.

      • albatross11 says:

        I’d say we can (and do) have a substantial amount of meritocracy, combined with people at the top gaming the system to ensure they stay in power despite their screw-ups, and that their kids also get into the elite. The sensible goal then seems to be to keep getting the Larry Summers types (famously smart guy born into a family of elite intellectuals) into the meritocracy, but remove the ability for him to insulate himself from the consequences of his failures or get his kids into Harvard via his connections.

      • Aapje says:

        @Drew

        Because, if the elite is simply lying, then that’s a class-stratified society that lies. It’s not a meritocracy.

        Yes. Communism also wasn’t egalitarian in the way that is was supposed to be. However, a lot of people use(d) egalitarian argument to attack capitalism and defend communism, even though the practical implementation of those ideals seems impossible. So the people who were pushing towards extreme egalitarianism were actually pushing to oppression and a stratified society, despite their insistence (and often honest belief) that they were not.

        Similarly, many people, like Scott, seem to defend meritocracy merely based on an Utopian ideal, not on the actually achievable outcome. If that Utopian ideal is not actually possible (which it isn’t), then the defense is a lie/delusion.

        Being an asshole contrarian and anti-Utopian, my desire is to get people to abandon their delusions and become pessimistic/suicidal realistic, so they will choose actually effective, often messy solutions, over ideologically purity.

        Note that this doesn’t mean abandoning meritocracy as I believe people should abandon the idea of a workable communist state, but rather, that you don’t get into a similar situation with the USSR/communist China/etc, where the gap between theory and practice is not acknowledged and those who point it out are silenced/ignored.

        But it’s not cronyism. Tim, and Tim’s kids really have to be faster than everyone else who’s trying out.

        “Cronyism is the practice of partiality in awarding jobs and other advantages to friends”

        It seems to me that giving opportunities to gain merit to only some can be called cronyism. You can even give examples where they intertwine, for example when the child gets to have an intern position in the company of a friend of the parents, which is a form of education, but also builds the kind of personal connections and/or career path that ‘naturally’ then gets the kid hired for a very good job later on (on merit, look at that CV!).

        Limiting the scenario to people teaching their own kids doesn’t seem to be consistent with reality, where the elite tends to regularly outsource the task of teaching high merit to their kids to others. For example, I believe that in the US this can be achieved by getting a house near a good school or by getting private schooling.

        In that case, the meritocratic world would be very overtly different than the crony world.

        My perception is that the meritocracy is gradually becoming more crony.

        As I’ve said elsewhere, aristocracy literally means the same thing as meritocracy. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

        • engleberg says:

          @my perception is that the meritocracy is gradually becoming more crony’

          The D party made it illegal to give an IQ test and hire on that basis half a century ago. Their base will fight to keep it illegal, from strong self interest. Cronyism rules, meritocracy is schooled.

  5. qwints says:

    Is the claim just that, on a micro level, a person or group selecting someone to fill a role should try to choose the person that will produce the best results in that role?

    Then sure, I agree. Even on that individual level, however, everyone involved should realize that they’re deciding on imperfect information (of course most do, which is why credentialism and its defensibility is so popular). And everyone still has to be wary of letting past choices distort their perceptions.

    • qwints says:

      *On second thought, there are definitely situations where having a transparent and well understood way of choosing a position may provide more value than the value obtained by choosing the best candidate. In certain sectors, filling a position based on popularity, seniority or past results may make others in the organization happier than if the people choosing try to predict who will do best in the position.

  6. Tom Bartleby says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.

    See, that’s part of the reason I like the idea of defining meritocracy as the system of promoting/hiring/whatever based on past merit is that it allows answers to this question.

    Someone can say “I’m going to be non-meritocratic: I’m not going to hire the best-qualified candidate. Instead, I’m going to hire a well-qualified candidate who will do a fine job; maybe they’ll even be the best performer. But hiring is not a reward for past merit, and being hired is not any endorsement of past merit.”

    I think this gets at a maximizing/satisficing distinction. The meritocrat (my meaning) is trying to find the person with the best qualifications (who will accept the job). The non-meritocrat may be trying to hire a “good enough” candidate, feeling that it doesn’t really matter whether someone got As at Harvard or Bs at Duke.

    As a result of this, jobs still go to people who can do them well. But the people who get the jobs don’t think “Yep, I earned this.” They think, “Wow, I’m really lucky! It was pretty random that I got this cool job, and someone else didn’t; it could have just as easily gone the other way.”

    I would hope that this causes them to feel more gratitude, and to be more altruistic/willing to help others. But I’m open to the possibility that this is a naive view.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “The non-meritocrat may be trying to hire a “good enough” candidate, feeling that it doesn’t really matter whether someone got As at Harvard or Bs at Duke. ”

      But how do you picture this working? Suppose a decider gets two resumes, equal except that one got As at Harvard and the other got Bs at Duke. Should they pick the second one just to be anti-meritocratic?

      I agree it’s stupid to be obsessing over people who are 1% more meritorious than other people, but if I’m some random job interviewer and it doesn’t matter to me either way, I’ll always choose the 1% more meritorious guy.

      • Tom Bartleby says:

        Well, it seems like it can work in a few different ways. To give you a real-life example, I suspect that I got the most selective job I’ve ever had in a fairly non-meritocratic way.

        Here’s how it happened. The boss announced a very sought-after job. He posted it for several months, while he was busy with other things. He then asked his second-in-command to pull good applications for him. She pulled several, including mine. He read through the pile, decided he liked my application, and then interviewed me and hired me. What he didn’t do is comprehensively search through all the applications and determine that I was the very best candidate who had applied.

        Now, was I qualified for that job? Certainly. And based on his feedback while I there, I know I did a good job. But was I the most qualified candidate for the job? I really, really doubt it. I know for a fact that there were people with better grades from fancier schools who applied and weren’t hired.

        But what the boss understood was that, even if those people were “more qualified” in the sense of having better grades etc., they weren’t likely to do a better job. My qualifications were enough to show that I had the skills the job required, and exceeding that threshold by an extra amount wouldn’t make any difference to real-world job performance.

        And, as a result, definitely understood how lucky I was to have that opportunity.

        Another way you could get to the same result (to return to my earlier hypothetical) is to interview the person with As from Harvard and the one with Bs from Duke and then hire whichever one you think you’d enjoy working with. If you think both are qualified for the job, and can’t reliably predict that one will do better than the other, why should you hire the one with the “better” qualifications?

        Yet I think most people do, because our culture is “meritocratic” in the sense I’m using it (and in the sense I’m criticizing)

        • eccdogg says:

          Another way you could get to the same result (to return to my earlier hypothetical) is to interview the person with As from Harvard and the one with Bs from Duke and then hire whichever one you think you’d enjoy working with. If you think both are qualified for the job, and can’t reliably predict that one will do better than the other, why should you hire the one with the “better” qualifications?

          But isn’t “pleasant and easy to work with” also part of merit. I know I have seen several management philosophies essentially rate employees on two dimensions competence-incompetence and Asshole-Nice Guy.

          See the “No Asshole Rule”

          • Aapje says:

            I think that you are stretching ‘merit’ too much there, since being “pleasant and easy to work with” is often a very (sub)culturally defined thing. In some environments like the military, people probably prefer a fairly direct and even brusque demeanor, while in other situations an entirely different attitude might be considered agreeable.

          • eccdogg says:

            But isn’t that just saying that “merit” is not the same for every endeavor?

            Different jobs require different skills. For many jobs being able to work well with others is a big skill.

            What is merit if not skills/ability that let you do well at something that is valued.

          • Aapje says:

            If a company has fairly arbitrary cultural values then I don’t see how you can describe being compatible with that to be merit.

            To give an extreme example, being white is then merit in a racist organization.

            If you call every trait that the hiring people use to select a person ‘merit,’ then the concept just becomes meaningless. One can then argue that the son of the king has most merit, since if people assume that the person with royal blood is a good ruler and will follow his commands more than a random other person, he is going to be more effective at ruling.

          • eccdogg says:

            So I looked up some definitions of “merit” to see if I was smuggling in my own idiosyncratic use and to see why “gets along well with people” seem to fit and white or the kings son does not.
            ____
            Google Dictionary: the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.

            Dictionary.com

            noun
            1.
            claim to respect and praise; excellence; worth.
            2.
            something that deserves or justifies a reward or commendation; a commendable quality, act, etc.

            Wikipedia: The term merit constitutes a desirable trait or ability belonging to a person or (sometimes) an object

            Merriam-Webster
            a obsolete : reward or punishment due
            b : the qualities or actions that constitute the basis of one’s deserts
            c : a praiseworthy quality : virtue
            d : character or conduct deserving reward, honor, or esteem; also : achievement

            ——
            The key term seems to be praiseworthiness. Being a pro-social team player seems to fit. But we rarely praise someone for being white or the king’s son.

          • Aapje says:

            @eccdogg

            – If you define merit as the surgeon who operates with the best outcomes
            – and if people will prefer surgeon who operates with less good outcomes if he is nicer
            – then this is not a meritocracy according to that definition of merit

            If an important reason why people prefer to hire a nice coworker is because it makes them happier, even if it may objectively decrease the performance of the team a bit, then this requirement is anti-meritocratic.

            Of course, you can claim that the latter is utility-maximizing, although that requires that the coworkers accurately weigh their own happiness increase against the reduces happiness caused by the preferred coworker being less productive. It seems unlikely that people can make such an assessment.

          • eccdogg says:

            My claim is that often hiring a nice person increases the productivity of the team even if that person is not the most productive individually.

            And there is evidence that this is not a new idea in management/HR. See the don’t hire assholes link I posted.

            For one, having to work with a jerk is like a salary cut. A nice working environment is a perk like any other. Having a bad working environment make it hard to retain other productive people.

            Also if someone is a jerk that you can’t trust you don’t want to collaborate with them and that breaks down the effectiveness of teams. Whatever positive productivity the productivity the jerk has over the less productive nice guy it is potentially totally destroyed by the jerks productivity lowering affect on others and the team.

            I don’t see why agreeableness or any of the other 5 personality factors + IQ can’t qualify as a type of merit in certain environments. In others maybe less so. In your surgeon example maybe it does not matter much. But even there I can see how a jerk could lower productivity, because he makes it hard to retain quality nurses or makes them not perform at their best. Or possibly because his bedside manor affects patient outcomes.

          • Aapje says:

            @eccdogg

            You are conflating two issues: the direct effect of niceness on productivity and the desire by people to have nice work environments regardless of how it impacts productivity. I was pointing at the latter.

            People usually don’t want to work in an environment that optimizes for productivity, they want to work in a pleasant environment. So they make choices that are incompatible with a pure meritocracy.

            In a pure capitalist meritocracy, people will maximize their income per hour worked. They won’t care if the work is enjoyable, they won’t care if the coworkers are unpleasant to be around if this doesn’t hamper their work, etc. At the moment that this isn’t true (and it isn’t), then people will start to make choices that go against the meritocracy.

            Imagine that you are a team leader who has a choice between hiring Bob or Ernie. Bob is boring and somewhat irritating but provably increases the productivity of the team by X amount compared to hiring Ernie, who is fun to be around. Imagine that the team works on a short term project, where all team members have contracts for the duration of that project that they cannot break without hefty penalties. So the choice is merely to weigh a productivity increase vs more fun for you and your coworkers.

            Will you choose any amount of higher productivity regardless of how much more fun Ernie is? Or will you weigh them against each other, accepting less in one if the gain in the other variable is substantial enough? If so, you, like most humans, don’t actually favor the meritocracy, you favor partial meritocracy.

            My objection is that many people who claim to favor meritocracy merely favor partial meritocracy and are in denial about this.

          • eccdogg says:

            I view hiring Bob as like a salary cut for everyone you have to pay people more to work around a bunch of Bobs. Like anything else jobs offer a mix of benefits in addition to salary. Each employer needs to optimize salary vs other benefits.

            If I hire a bunch of Ernie’s productivity per hour worked might go down, but cost per hour worked might go down as well because I don’t have to pay folks as much for because they don’t hate being around Ernie.

            Productivity in and of itself is not the end goal, profit is. And profit takes into account cost.

            One of the merits of Ernie is that he allows me to hire at a lower cost. I realize your hypothetical stipulated a one shot game, but I don’t think that is what the real world is like very often.

        • crh says:

          Your employer’s behavior in that example doesn’t really sound non-meritocratic to me, much less anti-meritocratic. It sounds like a real-world implementation of meritocracy subject to time/resource constraints. Meritocracy doesn’t obligate you to expend unbounded effort determining with 100% certainty who the best candidate is. Or at least, I don’t think that’s what anyone defending meritocracy is advocating for.

          • spork says:

            Yeah, I thought that too. And let me add three more elements that belong to genuine meritocracy but have gone largely unnoticed in this discussion, because because people here are stuck on the silly idea that merit = qualifications.

            1. Demonstrated high performance is a kind of merit that doesn’t reduce to qualifications. Anyone who overlooks the former in favor of the latter is judging by resume and not judging by merit.

            2. Desert-for-deeds is a separate signal in real meritocracy. You might be meritocratically obliged to give tenure to someone who’s produced groundbreaking research just on the strength of the research, not because you think she’s really that good. She earned it. Many other things can be earned in this way, and they are merited.

            3. Drive is another kind of merit, closely connected to the meritorious quality we usually call “potential”. It’s one of many ways why a preference for a less qualified applicant could be justified. Even a track coach who tries to make the best team possible might not simply pick the fastest runners at tryouts, but also include some slower but more trainable runners. Those cut from the team in favor of someone slower might feel that meritocracy has been subverted, but they’d be wrong.

            I’m becoming annoyed by posts that first conflate merit with qualifications and then acts like the unfairness of “qualificationism” exposes some kind of unfairness in meritocracy. Meritocracy has its downsides, but there’s one thing it definitely isn’t: unfair.

      • Icey says:

        1% more meritorious by which measure?

        I’ve been in the hiring position for programmers, hiring at both midlevel and senior positions. We used a coding assessment similar to the one that Triplebyte used, and it’s very good for some things (namely, it helped keep us from having to waste 2 hours interviewing someone who couldn’t even figure out how to cheat at an online coding assessment), but using them for much more than that is not very helpful.

        What is helpful is trying to measure, by some arbitrary manner, a baseline minimum competency. (In my workplace, we had all of the existing devs take the same coding assessment just to see if they thought it was unnecessarily difficult/easy for the actual work that we do.) Anyone above that, apply whatever other filters you want to see if you’d hate working with this person, but don’t try to claim that those filters are measuring “merit” unless “interacting with me and the other people who already have a job here” is in fact a measure of merit (which it really isn’t).

        It’s essentially a lottery mixed with all of the hiring managers’ (and anyone else who affects the hiring decision’s) biases all bundled into one.

    • bean says:

      Someone can say “I’m going to be non-meritocratic: I’m not going to hire the best-qualified candidate. Instead, I’m going to hire a well-qualified candidate who will do a fine job; maybe they’ll even be the best performer. But hiring is not a reward for past merit, and being hired is not any endorsement of past merit.”

      But it still is an endorsement of past merit. All you’re doing is replacing ‘take the top person’ with ‘take someone who is past this cutoff’. Setting that cutoff is still the problem, and it will probably creep up to the point where the two systems are basically indistinguishable.

      • Tom Bartleby says:

        Why do you think it’s inevitable that it will creep up? I would think that there are some jobs where you need to have a certain set of skills but where having more skills than that threshold isn’t of any benefit.

        • bean says:

          The skills that management thinks are necessary to do a job are not necessarily the skills actually necessary to do a job. If I’m Goldman Sachs, and I try your method, and suddenly find that all of my new hires are uncultured and have degrees from state schools (the horror!), then I’m going to, consciously or unconsciously, start raising my threshold again. Every time one of them screws up, I decide it was because they weren’t from an Ivy League school, and raise the bar again. It will take a lot of discipline to fight this tendency, and most organizations don’t have it.
          In fact, I almost have to wonder if the fact that you don’t need the absolute best is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Harvard is probably a more reliable indicator of competence than the average school, even if it doesn’t necessarily have the absolute pinnacle of people. You need someone who can do the job, but once you have that, you can start to filter on things like prestige and low variance.

    • sovietKaleEatYou says:

      A complaint I heard in tech is that “superstardom” is overvalued. Say an A in Harvard student would make her company $5,000 more a year but needs to be paid $25,000 more. The standard economic argument is that the company should hire the Duke student if it’s self-interested — but the problem is that so much of tech is about status that the signal boost hiring Harvard grads might actually provide more long-term profit. I think a lot of “anti-meritocracy” complaints are not even about the meritocratic pecking order being wrong (in general, better credentialled people do perform better), but about credentials being valued above market value.

      • gbdub says:

        And there’s also the problem that the Harvard grad that got to choose between 5 job offers at graduation is less likely to stick around if they get even a little bored. Especially in places with lots of companies vying for talent (Bay, NYC, DC) the average time-at-a-company for recent grads is really low (< 2 years last I heard).

        So even if the Harvard grad might be worth the $25k premium eventually, they almost certainly won't earn that back for you before they take off for the next juicy offer.

        • Icey says:

          Around 2 years or so at a company seems fairly average in the tech industry, in general, actually. Swapping companies is generally one of the more reliable ways to ensure you’re continuing to be paid fair market value, since so few companies tend to give aggressive raises to keep the top half of their pool there.

          I didn’t graduate from college, and the one I partially attended was a very small local college, and that roughly mimics my career progress (4 roles over 10 years, with one being a longer role, which in retrospect was a mistake)

    • mnarayan01 says:

      I’m going to hire a well-qualified candidate […] being hired is not any endorsement of past merit.

      You’re still pretty clearly endorsing their past merit here.

      The meritocrat (my meaning) is trying to find the person with the best qualifications (who will accept the job). The non-meritocrat may be trying to hire a “good enough” candidate, feeling that it doesn’t really matter whether someone got As at Harvard or Bs at Duke.

      “Merit” is fuzzy enough that I’m not sure how these two positions even differ, unless you’re using “meritocracy” and “credentialism” interchangeably.

      • albatross11 says:

        I’d like to propose that we split the discussion into two distinct threads:

        a. Assuming we could do a meritocracy[1] really well, what would be the upsides and downsides? Would we even want one, if we could have it? Would there be some modifications we’d want to make on an ideal meritocracy to ensure that, say, some smart people were in the working class so they had articulate representatives?

        b. What are the known or likely failure modes of a practical attempt to build a meritocracy. (Credentialism, overreliance on grades and prestige of school, elites gaming the system for their kids’ benefit, etc.)

        Those seem like very separate discussions. It’s possible that an ideal meritocracy would be a bad thing in some ways. It’s also possible that our attempts at meritocracy will fail in some ways that make it bad. But those seem like discussions that ought to be had separately.

        [1] By “meritocracy,” I mean ranking jobs in order of importance, people in order of ability to do each job, and coming up with an optimal placement. I’m pretty sure this is actually NP-complete, but you could imagine some way to get very close to the optimal placement.

        • mnarayan01 says:

          By “meritocracy,” I mean ranking jobs in order of importance, people in order of ability to do each job, and coming up with an optimal placement. I’m pretty sure this is actually NP-complete, but you could imagine some way to get very close to the optimal placement.

          That does seems NP-hard…intuitively I’d say that it’s lower bounded by Integer Programming and I’m not sure that would be sufficient.

          Also it seems overly strong: Everyone should like it provided the correct evaluation function for that person was chosen.

          • [Thing] says:

            Why NP-hard? If you’re given a global ranking of occupations by order of importance, and rankings for each occupation of what people would do them best, just recruit the people who are best at it to take the most important job, until all of those positions are filled, then move on to the second-most important job, and so on.

            If the problem is how to create the rankings in the first place, that doesn’t just seem NP-hard, it’s more like “planned-economy-complete,” i.e. impossible.

          • Nornagest says:

            That doesn’t give you a globally optimal allocation in all cases. Toy example: two jobs, P and Q, and two candidates, Alice and Bob. Alice can do P with efficiency 1 and Q with efficiency 0.9. Bob can do P with efficiency 0.8 and Q with efficiency 0.5. We consider P epsilon more important than Q. Your algorithm specifies we hire Alice for P and Bob for Q, for an average efficiency of 0.75. But it’s actually better to hire Bob for P and Alice for Q, for an average efficiency of 0.85.

            I haven’t actually done the reduction, but this intuitively looks to me like the knapsack problem, which is NP-hard in its optimization form.

          • [Thing] says:

            @ Nornagest

            That would require some numerical quantification of job-importance and people’s abilities at jobs, which is more information than just linear orderings of jobs by importance and people by abilities at jobs, but I suppose that must have been what albatross11 and mnarayan01 had in mind. In which case the problem does indeed sound like integer programming, which is NP-hard.

            Although if you assumed people could split their time between different jobs with arbitrarily fine granularity, maybe it would just be linear programming, which is tractable in principle. But not in practice, apparently, for reasons that I recall reading about in Scott’s post on Red Plenty or something linked to from there. (Maybe this?)

          • Iain says:

            Linear programming is O(n^3.5). So it’s polynomial — that is to say, tractable — but a relatively high order polynomial, which is to say that past a certain size of problem you need an awful lot of computing power to get anywhere.

            That said, I suspect that the number-crunching problems would take a back seat to the much more difficult question of how you propose to provide crunchable numbers. There are no algorithms for ranking the importance of a job, or a human being’s skill at performing that job. I’m not even certain that those are well-defined concepts.

    • Deiseach says:

      As a result of this, jobs still go to people who can do them well. But the people who get the jobs don’t think “Yep, I earned this.” They think, “Wow, I’m really lucky! It was pretty random that I got this cool job, and someone else didn’t; it could have just as easily gone the other way.”

      Of course they are going to think that; all the training and coaching for job searching revolves around selling yourself and having confidence that you can get the position you applied for. In such a situation, the only way “Wow I was lucky to get this, it could have gone the other way” works is “I’m a bricklayer but this hospital just made me their chief brain surgeon, wow that was a stroke of luck!” (that is, you know you’re not qualified or have no relevant experience, but you flashed your legs at the interviewer and you were lucky he likes blondes).

      The person who gets the job on “good enough” is still going to think “yes, I earned this – my qualifications were good enough, I had relevant experience, and I prepared really well for the interview and knocked them dead”, not “wow I was so lucky to get this”.

      Unless you really do luck into a job by a combination of happy accident and being in the right place at the right time (like my current job, where I am going “wow I’m lucky to have this”). Other jobs? I don’t care if people better qualified than me applied, if I got it (without being a blood relation of the employer) I damn well earned that by my tailoring my application and CV to the job and my performance at interview, it wasn’t dumb luck.

      • po8crg says:

        Maybe employers should have an explicit lottery. That is, take all the candidates, filter out those who are unsuitable, then pick one at random. Instead of trying to work out who is best, just have a level your candidate needs to reach.

        Then it really would be luck that got you the job. Perhaps people would be less arrogant about it?

    • kominek says:

      I would hope that this causes them to feel more gratitude…

      Who do you expect they’ll feel more gratitude to? It seems most likely that they’d feel more gratitude to the employer. Do you see lack of employee gratitude to employers as a problem that needs correction?

  7. Anon. says:

    I feel the role of capitalism is ignored in all of this. It’s literally a system for maximizing meritocracy. Sure, the CEO can hire his son, but then he’s not maximizing value – it’s not a sustainable strategy. When you look at credentialism or seniority displacing meritocracy, it always comes from an anti-capitalist source.

    Scott highlighted how programming is unusually meritocratic. I’d like to point out that 7 out of the 10 largest public companies in the world right now are tech companies. Half of them didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Would creation of wealth on such an immense scale and at such rapid pace have happened without the meritocratic culture?

  8. Nornagest says:

    So, to sum up, if the word “meritocracy” has positive emotional valence for you for whatever reason, you see benign stuff in it. If it has negative valence, you see malignant stuff in it. But there is essentially no commonality either way in which benign and/or malignant stuff.

    That isn’t even motte-and-bailey. It’s more like a Rorschach blot. We can’t have a productive conversation about it because there is no well-defined thing to have a productive conversation about; all the word’s doing is reflecting our preconceptions.

    Well, that was a giant waste of time.

    • J Mann says:

      It seems like the split is between people who see “meritocracy” as “hire the person believed to be most likely to to the best job” (benign?) vs “hire the person who has the best resume/went to the best schools/’deserves’ the job.” (malignant?).

      It’s more of a fish/pheesh problem than motte and bailey, IMHO – we just need a new word for each of those two ideas, and then we can have a conversation.

    • mnarayan01 says:

      One thing I’d add is that it seems like if you take someone’s definition of meritocracy and make it better/worse by some decent chunk, they’d still think the new definition was bad/good, respectively.

  9. The original Mr. X says:

    Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

    This is, incidentally, why in olden days a lot of countries required people to own land before they could vote: landowners can’t just pick their land up and move it somewhere else, so if their stupid decisions screw up the country, they’re stuck with the mess they made; people with moveable wealth, on the other hand, can just pack up and leave, so they’re less likely to feel loyalty to their country or to put as much thought into the policies they support.

    • Rob K says:

      …this isn’t actually the reason for that requirement. You can argue that it was a side effect, but, it wasn’t the reason.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        this isn’t actually the reason for that requirement

        Hmm, was it not?

        I mean, no institutions like that were ever designed by a committee of thinkers from first principles. When somebody says “X is why only landowners were allowed to vote” they mean something analogous to “the purpose of the heart is to pump blood”. The beneficial “side effect” is exactly why the institution is so common. Since we are a teleological species, we express that by saying that the side effect is the motivation.

  10. bean says:

    I wonder how much of this is “nobody got fired for choosing IBM”, because that seems like a likely culprit. Hire the guy from Harvard and he’s an idiot? Well, he was from Harvard, so you can’t have known. Hire the guy from a state school and he’s an idiot? Well, so are you, for hiring him instead of the guy from Harvard who also applied.
    I’m not sure there’s a solution to this, other than finding and killing Moloch.
    (This also seems a likely explanation for places with hard limits on promotion for people without degrees.)

    • gbdub says:

      Having done some on-campus recruiting, it’s easy to see where this aspect of the problem comes from. Recruiting is expensive and time consuming, and it just makes more sense to go all out on say the top 10 schools rather than try to have a presence at every Middling State U. It’s not that you won’t get anyone good out of Middling State, just that a higher percentage of students at the University of Meritoriousness will be good, and you’re already getting 100 good resumes from people you got to meet in person for every opening just on your tour of the Top 10. So why bother with the rest?

      (Add to that, having spent money on your Top 10 UofM tour, your CEO will want demonstrated results, which means you’re motivated/required to hire a high percentage of your new grads from that list)

      • Alan Crowe says:

        I think that is what the baseball book Moneyball, byMicheal Lewis, is about.

        There are n teams and two talent pools, A and B.

        n-1 teams fish in talent pool A because it has r times as many fish (r > 5). We might explain where they fish by saying “That is where the fish are!”.

        Just one team fishes talent pool B. The book documents their success, which is due to n-1 > r. Sure they are fishing in the “wrong” place, but the total catch isn’t being split n-1 ways.

  11. eqdw says:

    > Tom Bartleby tries to tease some of this apart:

    If the promotion is a promotion to _management_, the obviously meritocratic move is to pick the better _manager_.

    • entobat says:

      Agreed—with an extra helping of the Terrelle Pryor problem (ignore the irrelevant chess nonsense).

      Promoting Alice gets you a decent manager at the cost of a great programmer. Promoting Carol gets you a great manager at the cost of a decent programmer.

    • A trouble with that whole narrative is the word ‘promote’. A lot of people naturally want to promote people that are doing a good job, because it carries the connotation of giving a reward by widening someone’s influence. But of course one can still widen someone’s ‘influence’ without what is traditionally considered a promotion – for example in a technical environment you could give someone architectural authorities, introduce them to newcomers as the tech-guru, et cetera, without that you need to make them team lead and give them a disciplinary role they may not be good at.

      Of course, on the other end of the scale, there’s so much hierarchic baggage that comes with the phrase ‘management position’. I don’t mind hierarchy, don’t get me wrong (I think some of it is healthy), but in many cases I’ve observed people would have been helped to see a management position as a role that comes with much responsibility, and that in many ways serves the people (or should serve the people) that are sorted in under it, than as some kind of rung to climb.

      tl;dr: Connotations make conversations about who should be in what position tricky even amongst people in favour in meritocracy.

      (Full disclosure: I like the idea of meritocracy but I don’t think there’s any way now or in the near future to implement it. I consider it more buzzword than policy, though I nonetheless appreciate people who try to approximate it (and wave said buzzword around).)

      Edit: Just realised I should probably add to this: I don’t think it’s easy to change “the baggage associated with the phrase ‘management position'”. Depending on the size and age of the culture you want to change it may not even be worthwhile to try and change this, either. In some situations you might not want to do it even if you’re a small group with a nascent culture (e.g. I’m thinking of a nation that needs to jumpstart a military — though I don’t mean to rule out that a military could be run non-hierarchically (note that I don’t just mean decentralised), I personally don’t yet know models that work that way).

      Edit II: Related point by Deiseach further down the page about the connotations (and very real effects of) ‘lesser’ roles: http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/07/25/highlights-from-the-comment-thread-on-meritocracy/#comment-527252

      • petealexharris says:

        Where I work, there’s a fork in the advancement of Software Engineers. After Senior Software Engineer, one path goes to Technical Manager, the other goes to Principal Engineer. Both are promotions, both are respected and rewarding, both increase your contribution and influence, but each plays to different strengths.

        From the example given, the meritocratic solution is Alice gets to be a Principal Engineer, Carol gets to be a Technical Manager. They both have fun and prosper.

  12. Rucksack Revolution says:

    Genuine question (for Scott and everyone else): what is the “meritocratic” outcome in the following hypothetical:

    Alice and Carol are both programmers, and are up for a promotion to management. Alice is smarter, works harder, and produces better code. She gets along well with everyone and is consistently rated as the highest performer in the group. By contrast, Carol is consistently a mediocre programer. She’s not awful—certainly in no danger of being fired. But she’s not as smart, she doesn’t work nearly as hard, and her code is acceptable rather than excellent.

    On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management. When she’s in a group project, she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her. (Alice is more likely to just do an unfair share of the work herself.) Looking at the two of them, we can confidently predict that—even though Alice is the better programer—Carol would be the better manager.

    So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

    I would say that it’s more meritocratic to promote Alice. If a company has the habit of promoting people like Alice, I would describe that company as having a meritocratic culture. I get the feeling, though, that Scott disagrees.

    It is more meritocratic to promote whomever will most positively affect the profitability of the company. Programming skill and industriousness will have varying relevance depending on the company and the specific position being filled.

    I think in some ways, meritocracy as it is practiced as opposed to meritocracy as it is idealized is in play here. Companies that incorporate meritocracy start out in the idealistic manner: Choosing based on merit and ability. However, over time, companies (especially big ones that get hundreds or thousands of applications) will start to make the hiring process efficient, and gloss over a lot of details by weighing on specific factors: “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.” Or “Oh, these two guys have experience from Z company and were fired two months in. Are we sure we want applicants from Z?” The reasons why X, Y, and Z matter are almost never analyzed, and instead these name just get turned into keywords for the applicant tracking system to filter. This can lead to, worst of all, “This applicant may have the abilities, but they went to A school, served in B organization, and worked at C company. And I haven’t heard any of these!” What you witness is an institutionalized form of quasi-nepotism, in that your application gets weighed on by the names on your resume rather than what you did with those names. That’s what I really think these publications are deriding, they just call it meritocracy because they can’t think up a good word for it.

    A company who makes these sorts of hiring mistakes will eventually be outcompeted by an otherwise similar company who does not. So in some sense, competition is a force protecting meritocracy. Maybe at some scale, using heuristics to make hiring decisions increases the error rate, but the tradeoff in time/money saved may be worth it for the corporation. Obviously it would be ideal (for both the company and our meritocracy) if companies could hire perfectly without relying on fuzzy heuristics. As technology advances and transactions costs decline, you’d think these hiring decisions will converge towards true meritocracy.

  13. Bugmaster says:

    I’m much more willing to listen to arguments for a randomly selected Congress than I am for a randomly selected surgical staff. … Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis is a right-wing talk radio host who has “never even taken an undergraduate course in any science”, and believes global warming is a scam

    Do you think that this situation — uneducated bumpkins being in charge of science and technology policy — would more more likely, or less likely, to happen in a randomly-selected Congress ?

    • dansimonicouldbewrong says:

      Depends on what you’re looking for in a science and technology policy. The top problem with leaders in history hasn’t been incompetence but rather selfishness and brutality. So my number one concern about a science and technology policy czar wouldn’t be, “is he or she capable of deciding the overall optimal science and technology policy for the country?”, but rather, “is he or she going to use his or her post for personal enrichment and/or power accumulation, at the expense of the country as a whole?”.

      In that respect, politics is a special case in the meritocracy debate, with very different goals and solutions. I certainly wouldn’t like to see every high-ranking job in society filled by election, for example, but in the specific field of politics that’s actually a reasonable model.

    • Deiseach says:

      Out of curiosity, I Googled the Secretaries of Agriculture. Your current one is a Trump appointee who was formerly governor of Georgia, comes from a farming background, has a qualification as a veterinarian, and is a businessman.

      Your former one (under President Obama) was a lawyer and politician (so no scientific or farming background) who allegedly wanted to quit because he had nothing to do:

      In 2015, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed the desire to resign to President Obama. The Washington Post reports that he said “There are days when I have literally nothing to do,” he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit. President Obama asked him to stay and asked him to look into the problem of opioid addiction”

      Honestly, I find that a lot more alarming: the head guy who is in charge of running the whole department has “nothing to do”? That’s the sign of someone who is being run by his civil servants, and the “hey guy stick with me I’ll find you some make-work project” from Obama sounds like the same kind of wanting to keep a party/personal loyalist around as part of the administration.

      Cronyism is a bi-partisan affair 🙂

      • axiomsofdominion says:

        Look at the rhetoric surrounding Sanders. He was NOT A DEMOCRAT. That’s literally why Hillary won. Politics is about money. Therefore people who raised money for you are the people who count. Hence the power of the Clintons. All that matters is networking and fundraising. Money means staying in office. Any tool discovered that allows cheap success will be cloned and then its back to money.

        That’s the reason personality and consistency is so valuable. You can’t copy it.

        • Deiseach says:

          Sure, that’s the perennial problem in politics: when you get into power, you have to reward the loyal and punish the traitors and keep the promises you made to get into power, otherwise the support you needed (and need) to get into power is going to abandon you and you’re likely to get stabbed in the back in an internal coup.

          Hiring a guy as agriculture secretary who spent days going “doo-de-doo-de-doo” while drumming his fingers on the desk (because “gee, there’s nothing to do!”) is not “meritocratic” by any measure but does score high on the “consolidate your power base by keeping promises and rewarding the loyal” – yes, even for the Blessed Obama 🙂

          • HeelBearCub says:

            yes, even for the Blessed Obama

            There was really no need to phrase it this way.

          • Deiseach says:

            HeelBearCub, probably not, but in the light of all the sighing over the glory days when a progressive president was in power, maybe a little reminder that Trump is egregious but it is not a sole property of the Republicans only to be looking after the boys and girls in the club is no harm.

            I don’t think Democrats are necessarily stupid or evil, any more than the Republicans, but they’re a political party and Obama was a politician, so they and he did the usual political traditional party loyalists rewards and punishments things that all parties do. That includes sticking a guy into the first free slot you have to reward him, even if he’s not the best fit for the job, and then finding something/somewhere else for him, just to keep him onside and to be able to count on ‘reliable guy who will have my back and follow my lead’.

  14. alphago says:

    >But it does seem like a lot of these solutions are utopia-complete;
    >…And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? Is it cronyism?
    >I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their
    >positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not
    >giving those positions based on merit?

    Scott seems to be assuming that the only anti-meritocratic approach is to avoid giving *positions* based on merit; however, another alternative is to simply limit the degree to which the rewards for those positions are proportional to merit (i.e. money/status/etc). This isn’t utopian, it’s conventional social democracy with progressive taxation. Perhaps to some degree this is semantics, but it seems a reasonable interpretation to assume that in a pure meritocracy both positions and the rewards for those positions would be doled out in proportion to merit. My sense is that part of the opposition to meritocracy is just the standard Rawlsian notion that you don’t *deserve* rewards for your genetic luck anymore than other forms of luck, and that redistribution should be used to partially even out the returns to merit (e.g. per Wilkinson’s anti-meritocracy Guardian article).

    • dndnrsn says:

      Vaguely related: Something that’s always interested me is how the monetary – as opposed to status and authority – rewards scale up so much less in the military versus private enterprise. If I’m reading my Wikipedia right, the best-paid major general (potentially commanding ten fifteen thousand soldiers) makes a tad under $13k a month, while the lowliest private makes just under $1500.

      • bean says:

        I think it’s the result of lock-in and the fact that a lot of people aren’t actually that motivated by money. A major general has 20-30 years in the military, and it’s not like they can switch to a different military which pays them better. Yes, they could probably make more in the private sector, but then they wouldn’t be in the military any more. (And note that most generals get pretty good private-sector jobs when they retire, so all they’re losing by not leaving now is a few years of the differential income.) Nobody becomes a general to become rich, and I expect anyone who would trade generalship for riches left for riches when they were an O-4 or less. The reason this doesn’t happen in the private sector is that employers have to compete for personnel. Personally, I’d do engineering if it paid art wages, but I’m not going to take art wages if I can get engineering wages. But you can’t do generalship anywhere but the military, so they can pay lower than market wages.
        Edit:
        Let me extend the metaphor a bit. I enjoy my work as a tour guide on the Iowa enough that I don’t need to be paid for it. Iowa has enough people who think the same that they don’t need to pay people to be tour guides. (Also, we can’t afford it.) But let’s say that there are a lot of museum ships in the area, and there aren’t enough tour guides willing to work for free to go around. Wages would go up (I’m neglecting the financial details of how the ships can pay), both to draw in people who aren’t willing to work for free, and to keep the people who are at your ship and not one of the others. The military is in the position of Iowa today.

        • Alan Crowe says:

          I’d like to add a further complication. Where the social system permits the private ownership of the means of production, employers are not merely competing for with other employers for business acumen, but are also competing with self-employment.

          A successful manager has the option of taking out a bank loan to start his own business or to buy out a failing business. Then he gets to keep the whole upside from his skill, not just draw a salary. The closed military analogy is staging a military coup and becoming president. I don’t think that is close enough to be informative; private enterprise is fundamentally different. Production is distributed among many firms and coordinated through markets and the barriers between owners and employees are often a little porous.

      • DocKaon says:

        This is true throughout government. The senior managers of governmental organizations make far, far less than managers with comparable responsibilities in the private sector.

        This has probably always been the case, but the degree of disconnect has dramatically increased in the past 40 years as executive pay in the private sector has increased by an amazing amount.

      • sourcreamus says:

        The status and authority are substitutes for the monetary compensation. If the CEO of a company instituted a policy where everyone in the company had to stand at attention and salute him when he walked into a room and he could have people put in a company prison for not obeying him, most people would think he was power mad but a general has all those perks as a matter of course.

    • gbdub says:

      How do you “redistribute” social status, political insider-ness, etc.? Money is easy to move around, but it’s the connectedness that makes the current elite self-perpetuating. Legally require all Ivy-League parties to invite a few community college students?

      • alphago says:

        How do you “redistribute” social status, political insider-ness, etc.? Money is easy to move around, but it’s the connectedness that makes the current elite self-perpetuating.

        Wealth increases social status; it also encourages self-segregation into wealthy communities and expensive schools, etc. But sure, I don’t think most people who are concerned with excess meritocracy are suggesting the complete abandonment of all meritocratic advantage and status, just a reduction. Scott appeared to be saying that nothing could be done other than putting under-qualified people in roles, which I take to presume a rather narrow interpretation of meritocracy.

        • gbdub says:

          Wealth helps certainly, but it’s not the only thing. There are a lot of people with more money than Senator X (or hell, the NYT film critic) but who clearly hold less power/influence/ability to rub shoulders with the cool kids.

          I’m not saying merely that you can’t redistribute this non-monetary stuff completely, I’m saying I’m not sure how you’d do it at all. And if you can’t redistribute those things, you’ve done very little to solve the problem of a self-segregated elite class. Comparatively, progressive taxation is a cake walk.

          • albatross11 says:

            Social power/influence is multidimensional. There are ways in which Scott is more influential than any state governor, and yet on most dimensions, any state governor is much more powerful.

          • Deiseach says:

            Oh yeah, there are plenty of private businessmen who earn a hell of a lot more than the Prime Minister/President, even though the President is the one who can push the big red button and start the war. Some guys are not interested in running for office because they’d take too big a hit in losing earnings and anyway, if they want political influence, they can always buy a parliamentarian of their own 🙂

          • Civilis says:

            I’m not saying merely that you can’t redistribute this non-monetary stuff completely, I’m saying I’m not sure how you’d do it at all.

            Titles of nobility are redistributable, or at least distributable. The closest modern American equivalent would be prestige positions, like the position of ambassador to a country where the job entails hob-nobbing with the local VIPs rather than actual work. Still, that’s not much power to be distributed these days, and it requires someone at the top to do the distributing.

            Still, your point stands; wealth is the one form of power that can be distributed and can ideally be generated by anyone. The cynic in me sees reducing the power of wealth as a power ploy by those with other forms of power – such as social status, celebrity, or political power – to increase their own relative power.

          • Aapje says:

            @Civilis

            wealth is the one form of power that can be distributed and can ideally be generated by anyone.

            Democracy is the distribution of political power, much more equally than economic power! It is generated by having citizenship.

            The cynic in me sees reducing the power of wealth as a power ploy by those with other forms of power – such as social status, celebrity, or political power – to increase their own relative power.

            I would argue that you want to balance the various forms of power and have the ‘right’ relative power for each type, so whether a shift in power is an improvement or not depends on whether it brings you closer to the desired balance.

            Merely arguing against any change because it changes the balance presumes that the current balance is optimal, which seems unlikely.

            You actually have to make the case that the change makes the situation worse to convince me. ‘Change is bad’ is pure contrarianism, without value.

          • Civilis says:

            I would argue that you want to balance the various forms of power and have the ‘right’ relative power for each type, so whether a shift in power is an improvement or not depends on whether it brings you closer to the desired balance.

            I agree that there’s a merit to a balance, and different people are going to have a different idea of what that balance is.

            You actually have to make the case that the change makes the situation worse to convince me. ‘Change is bad’ is pure contrarianism, without value.

            I also agree that ‘change is bad’ is pure contrarianism. Still, I think there’s more merit to defaulting to putting the burden is on those proposing the change to persuade that the change will make things better than defaulting to putting the burden on those supporting the status quo to prove that a given change will make things worse. On the other hand, I’m a pessimist.

            Democracy is the distribution of political power, much more equally than economic power! It is generated by having citizenship.

            Saying that a voter in democracy has political power is like saying a homeless man that found $100 on the sidewalk has wealth. Your elected representatives have more political power than you do. The news people you get your news from have more political power than you do. The head of the local teacher’s union has more political power than you do. The elected representative’s college friends have more political power than you do. (I’m assuming you personally aren’t in the government, and I’m using US-centric politics.)

    • agranato says:

      Andrew Granato here; I agree with alphago.

      I don’t think it’s utopian to claim that even in a fully realized meritocracy, the negative externalities to meritocracy (class stratification, inevitable rent-seeking, etc) would be significant, and so a significant improvement on such a system would be analogous to fixing the negative externalities to capitalism. “Getting rid of the ruling elite” is probably a fantasy, but that is very different than curbing the unfair returns to being an elite that inevitably entrench elite status, no matter if a person got to be an elite through nepotism or merit.

      Of course I’m only speaking for myself and my article here and not for the other articles linked to in the original post, but if I were asked to quickly summarize what my idealized endgame would be, it would be something like:
      1. Elimination of policies that enable elite people to accrue direct rents (mortgage interest deduction, exclusionary zoning, etc)
      2. Rawlsian policies designed to prevent inequality, even inequality that comes from ‘pure merit’, that builds on itself (some forms of income transfers, greater investment in public goods like education, etc)
      3. Not necessarily a policy change, but a general awareness that success is greatly determined through lottery of birth, and so that winning in even a pure meritocracy should carry less moral valence.

      You could argue about the degree to which those three general points constitute being ‘anti-meritocracy’, but that would probably end up in a disagreement over semantics. Meritocracy certainly has good attributes, but I don’t think meritocracy alone is a desirable end goal.

      • alphago says:

        +1

        Scott is often quite fair, but in this case it does seem like his blog post (unintentionally?) strawmanned your position. It’s too bad he hasn’t responded to your comment to clarify. I wonder if he just didn’t see it.

        @Scott Alexander

    • John Schilling says:

      another alternative is to simply limit the degree to which the rewards for those positions are proportional to merit (i.e. money/status/etc).

      The President of the United States of America earns a salary of $400,000/year. Senators top out at $192k, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court makes $235k. Mission accomplished, or do we expect the great social transformation when POUTUS only makes $200,000/yr?

      Really, do you think it would make any difference at all if the job were wholly unpaid?

      And if you’ve got a recipe for reducing the status of the guy who exercises supreme executive authority over the most powerful nation on Earth, that’s the part you need to explain. And ASAP, because I’ve got a target in mind.

      This isn’t utopian

      Absent a plausible mechanism, yeah, it kind of is.

      • Aapje says:

        @Schilling

        The relative status of the POTUS is already going down as the salaries of top managers are increasing at a furious pace. So the logical outcome is then that the top of the merit pyramid is going to be (more) centered on business, not politics. Furthermore, you can expect those whose rewards are growing far faster than those of politicians to have increased ability to leverage those rewards to shape politics.

        The person you responded to didn’t seem to limit his ‘top positions’ to politics and he responded to Scott, who explicitly included positions such as surgeons.

        Absent a plausible mechanism, yeah, it kind of is.

        Reverse the trend to less progressive taxes.

        • John Schilling says:

          The relative status of the POTUS is already going down as the salaries of top managers are increasing at a furious pace.

          I understand that this is conventional wisdom in some circles, but I am exceedingly skeptical and would ask that you defend that assertion.

          Reverse the trend to less progressive taxes.

          Does no good whatsoever for the non-financial forms of status, which you apparently don’t believe to exist but which I see as the most important. And if money is often used as a measure of real status, Goodhart’s law will apply as soon as you try to broadly rearrange people’s status by taking away their money.

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s a mistake to think of prestige or power or influence as a single dimension–it’s really a an n-dimensional vector[1] with a pretty big n and no clear definition of how to compare the importance of the definitions. Tim Cook and John McCain and Clarence Thomas all three are people with enormous power and prestige, but it’s not so easy to directly compare their power or their prestige, even though you can intuitively say that all three are much more powerful and influential than some homeless guy begging on the street corner.

            [1] Okay, it’s really not either one, but the n-dimensional vector is a better model for it than a single real number. All models lie, but some models are useful.

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            American congresspeople seem to spend quite a bit of time on fundraising and seem to believe that they are not doing enough. If wealth concentrates in the hands of fewer people, politicians can achieve their fundraising targets better by catering (more) to a small number of rich people than the many. ‘Catering to’ then includes doing what this group wants and/or not doing what they don’t want.

            Presidential campaigns are pretty expensive, so this seems to be even more true for POTUS. Furthermore, the actions by POTUS rub off on the congresspeople of his party. So presumably they put pressure on POTUS that is consistent with the pressure they experience.

            Does no good whatsoever for the non-financial forms of status, which you apparently don’t believe to exist but which I see as the most important.

            I just gave one example of a fully viable measure that can be taken. I don’t think it is necessary for my comments to be fully comprehensive.

            I do agree that cultural values are important, but even there it is fully viable to change American opinion, because:
            – there are clear changes in American values over time (like racism)
            – there are clear differences between cultures

            Changing American cultural values requires more than ‘just’ making a law though, but there are perfectly plausible ways to go about doing this.

          • John Schilling says:

            American congresspeople seem to spend quite a bit of time on fundraising and seem to believe that they are not doing enough.

            Fundraising has little to do with a congressman’s personal wealth, and is incidental to their terminal goal / true source of status which is holding a powerful political office. It is roughly comparable to a communist factory manager’s lobbying for more resources and labor to be assigned to their factory. Which communist factory managers do, for reasons of personal advancement, and the ones who wind up managing a thousand workers have more status than the ones with merely a hundred even if filthy lucre never appears in the equation.

            I just gave one example of a fully viable measure that can be taken. I don’t think it is necessary for my comments to be fully comprehensive.

            I assert that proposed attempts at status-leveling will invariably fail because they cannot be applied to the non-financial drivers of status that are I believe more important than the financial. You can give as many examples as you like of financial leveling measures, and however viable they may be, they do nothing to counter my assertion. What have you got for measures to level non-financial status?

            Whatever it is, I’m guessing that if applied in practice, the guy who makes the top-level decisions on how and to whom it is applied will wind up on the high side of a huge status inequality. Which you will fail to recognize because you’ve insisted that he accept a salary no more than an SD or so above the mean, and you think his eagerness to take that deal reflects his egalitarian commitment to status-leveling.

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            Non-financial drivers of status are preferable to financial drivers as they are more subjective and harder to compare. If Bob gets a leased Bentley and Alice gets a gold-plated bathroom, they can both consider themselves winners because Bob does have a more expensive car than Alice and Alice does have a more expensive bathroom than Bob.

            This is similar to how one man can consider himself a winner in the dating game for having a stunning wife, while the second can feel the same for having a smart wife.

            You want to tap into personal, divergent preferences to make this work, so people feel like winners emotionally and feel that the other person is a moron for getting paid in a stupid Bentley/gold-plated bathroom, which competition by wage doesn’t do.

            One of the things that well meaning, short-sighted people are fighting for is more transparency about high-level wages, as they tend to be the kind of people who feel negatively about this, so they think that this shames CEOs in the eyes of their peers/society. Due to status games, the opposite is true. So you actually want to obfuscate and hide CEO salaries.

          • John Schilling says:

            If Bob gets a leased Bentley and Alice gets a gold-plated bathroom, they can both consider themselves winners because Bob does have a more expensive car than Alice and Alice does have a more expensive bathroom than Bob.

            I ask you to address non-financial drivers of status and all you can come up with are material goods with a clearly defined dollar value that’s only a quick google away? You really are having a hard time with this whole concept, aren’t you?

            When Barack gets to be President and Hillary gets to be Secretary of State, I guarantee Hillary does not consider herself a “winner”.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Secretary of State takes orders from the President and normally lasts no longer than the President does. But there are longer-lasting, more independent seats in our government. In other branches, most prominently: if Alice had gotten to be President and Bob had gotten to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, it’d be hard to say which would be more influential in the long term. But there’s even precedent for it in the executive: J. Edgar Hoover was arguably more influential than some Presidents despite nominally heading only one small executive department.

          • Matt M says:

            And yet, “influential in the long term” isn’t the question. The question is status. POTUS has more status than any other government official, period. Maybe that’s not how James Madison originally envisioned it but that’s how things actually are.

          • Aapje says:

            @John Schilling

            I was thinking along the lines of financial vs non-financial compensation. If you increase taxes on the rich, they tend to shift the compensation package more to the latter. I was arguing that it is good to shift status this way.

            Anyway, you argued earlier that taxation is not a solution because it shifts status. However, one type of status game may be much preferable to other type. A major reason why it is a problem when income = status is that differences in income have repercussions far beyond how people are perceived.

            Furthermore, different status games have different winners and encourage different behavior. Some status is even more perception than reality.

            The nice part about Obama/Trump considering themselves a winner is that they are actually quite constrained in their power by various checks and balances. Furthermore, they maintain/gain status in their role by working for others, not by being purely selfish. The status game they play is far better for society overall than the status game that Putin plays.

            In general, you want to set up society to that people gain standing by behaving in ways that are beneficial for society. In that case, ‘status’ is actually good as it redirects selfishness into behavior that it good for society.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think it’s not so much the money, it’s the surrounding intangibles: the “mercs and perks”, the deference, the “yes, Senator/Minister”, the “the meeting can’t start because you’re held up for an hour and they’ll just have to stand around and wait for you”, all the rest of it.

        Some of that is directly tied to office, which is why I think there must be a hell of a bump back to ‘real life’ when the Senator or Minister or President becomes an ex-Senator etc (yesterday they could start the Third World War, today they have to stand in line to buy their coffee like everyone else). And I think that’s probably also why they hold on to power in behind-the-scenes influence within the party, getting positions on boards of charitable foundations (or like Tony Blair, trying to bring peace to the Middle East) and so on – the trappings of status are very seductive and hard to give up.

        I think that’s possibly also what was at work behind Michelle Obama’s anecdote about being mistaken for a supermarket worker: where the “this is not in actuality a meritocracy” argument applies is that there will always be a difference between the person who is mistaken for “are you the help?” and the person who is assumed to belong there as of right, even if they both have the same qualifications on paper, and that this is the kind of thing that is intangible, but real and has an effect on life outcomes.

        To end with quotes from the Father Brown story, “The Queer Feet”:

        If you meet a member of that select club, “The Twelve True Fishermen,” entering the Vernon Hotel for the annual club dinner, you will observe, as he takes off his overcoat, that his evening coat is green and not black. If (supposing that you have the star-defying audacity to address such a being) you ask him why, he will probably answer that he does it to avoid being mistaken for a waiter. You will then retire crushed. But you will leave behind you a mystery as yet unsolved and a tale worth telling.

        …But every clever crime is founded ultimately on some one quite simple fact — some fact that is not itself mysterious. The mystification comes in covering it up, in leading men’s thoughts away from it. This large and subtle and (in the ordinary course) most profitable crime, was built on the plain fact that a gentleman’s evening dress is the same as a waiter’s. All the rest was acting, and thundering good acting, too.”

        …”Why,” said the colonel, eyeing him with a certain sardonic approval, “I should suggest that henceforward we wear green coats, instead of black. One never knows what mistakes may arise when one looks so like a waiter.”

        “Oh, hang it all!” said the young man, “a gentleman never looks like a waiter.”

        “Nor a waiter like a gentleman, I suppose,” said Colonel Pound, with the same lowering laughter on his face. “Reverend sir, your friend must have been very smart to act the gentleman.”

        Father Brown buttoned up his commonplace overcoat to the neck, for the night was stormy, and took his commonplace umbrella from the stand.

        “Yes,” he said; “it must be very hard work to be a gentleman; but, do you know, I have sometimes thought that it may be almost as laborious to be a waiter.”

    • Janet says:

      Scott seems to be assuming that the only anti-meritocratic approach is to avoid giving *positions* based on merit; however, another alternative is to simply limit the degree to which the rewards for those positions are proportional to merit (i.e. money/status/etc).

      The classic libertarian answer is to limit, to the extent possible, how much power in one area (whether gained by pure excellence or by some less respectable means) bleeds over to power in another area. So, the surgeon might be truly outstanding in every way, might genuinely be the best dean of surgery that USC has ever had and deserve every penny of his large salary… but if this “merit” translates into the power to skate out of consequences for drugs-n-hookers parties, then we’ve got trouble. On a lesser scale, the legitimately-hot-shot surgeon doesn’t automatically get to be captain of the softball team, control the neighborhood association, or tell everybody else to shut up about their political choices.

      The larger problem is, of course, the government– it’s hard to say what “merit” looks like for a senator or for a cabinet secretary, let alone the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary for Something Obscure. My view is that much of the complaining about meritocracy is rooted in the fact that the government, and especially the central government, is getting MUCH farther into our private business now than ever before. One size fits all rules are of course going to be sub-optimal in many (maybe all) specific situations; many people are going to be able to say, rightly, that those out of touch so-and-so’s are enforcing stupid rules on us, they’ve stitched it up with their cronies and think we’re all morons if we have the temerity to object, etc.

      The classic libertarian (and liberal!) approach is to tightly limit what the government can do (since there’s always danger in letting it decide and enforce things on society, although it’s necessary sometimes), and to watch carefully that non-governmental entities don’t get control outside of their societal roles and usefulness (think: rents, monopolies, regulatory capture, deceptive advertisements, “lawfare”, etc.)

      • HeelBearCub says:

        At the risk of being too pedantic for my own amusement:

        consequences for drugs-n-hookers parties

        There is substantial irony in choosing this as the example of bad behavior when highlighting the libertarian solution to a problem.

  15. Clarkhat says:

    > We justly celebrate the decline of the spoils system in much of the civil service

    I’ve been thinking on this a fair bit and I think that this “we all celebrate this obviously good thing” is an example of history being written by the victors.

    When did the spoils system end ?

    c. 1900 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Civil_Service_Reform – dead in the center of the Progressive Era.

    What if I told you that’s not air you’re breathing? By which, I mean, what if I told you that we didn’t end the spoils system, but just put in place a better, more stealthy one that acted like a ratchet for progressives: every time there are progressives in charge, the civil service gets quickly more progressive – and every time there are Republics in charge, the civil service gets more progressive at a slower pace?

    The problem that Trumpkins have in 2017 is that the presidency doesn’t matter. The true source of power is the unelected perpetual bureacracy – exactly the one that was created by the “end” of the spoils system.

    Republicans creating non-profits to fight the culture war? No problem – the spoils-system controlled IRS is on the case.

    Republicans trying to remove power from the clerisy-creation engine of the universities by promoting blue collar work like mining? No problem, the spoils-system controlled EPA is on the case.

    And so forth and so forth.

    Ask yourself “if Clark is right and the civil service reform was actually a soft coup by progressives, how would things look differently than they do now?”

    I think the answer is “they wouldn’t”.

    • BBA says:

      I know of no historian who places 1883, the year the Pendleton Act passed, in the “center” of the Progressive Era. I guess the supposedly deranged Charles Guiteau could’ve been part of an overly convoluted conspiracy to overthrow elected government in favor of a permanent left-wing deep state, but the whole thing smells of General Ripper’s fluoridation theory to me.

    • AnonYEmous says:

      And so forth and so forth.

      care to expand on this?

    • mnarayan01 says:

      Ask yourself “if Clark is right and the civil service reform was actually a soft coup by progressives, how would things look differently than they do now?”

      Progressives did actually stage coups in various European countries from the 20s through the 40s. I think they looked different.

    • JDG1980 says:

      At the time that civil service reform was initially implemented (1880s), the majority of federal government jobs were low-level clerical or manual work that required a minimum of judgment and discretion. As long as both parties agree that there should be a U.S. Post Office, it makes sense to hire postal clerks based on merit, and not fire them every time a new President is elected.

      The system becomes more problematic when civil service employees are able to make what are, in effect, political decisions. This is an issue with agencies like the EPA and EEOC. Having unelected bureaucrats work against an elected President is what Trump supporters often mean when they complain about the “deep state”. The executive branch is supposed to report to the President. Right now, the President’s official position is that we want to bring back resource extraction and manufacturing jobs and that there is no such thing as global warming. If EPA employees are unwilling, or unable, to act in accordance with these views, then they should resign, and if they don’t, then the President should have the authority to fire them.

  16. Christopher Hazell says:

    I have two thoughts:

    1. You’ve defined “meritocracy” in such a way that it would be incredibly difficult for anybody to argue against it, which makes me think that your worries about a perfectly good word going down the drain are, um, overblown, to put it politely.

    If “meritocracy” is defined as “rule by people most suited to rule” then who on earth could be against that? The only possible argument that could be mustered against that is an argument against ruling per se.

    You say that cronyism is the alternative to meritocracy, but cronyism (and aristocracy, and fascism, and etc.) is completely compatible with meritocracy if cronyism is an effective way of identifying those most suited to rule.

    Here’s a couple of possible thought processes on Trump’s part:

    A) “Sam Clovis is an inept fool, he’ll make a fucking terrible agricultural secretary, but he’s my friend, so I have to give him a job.”

    B) “Sam Clovis is my friend, so I know he’ll be loyal to me, and that’s going to be important in an administration that has as many leaks as mine does. He’s also not in the pocket of these liberal scientists who want to destroy American agriculture for their woo-woo hippie agenda.”

    I would argue that, even in cases of clear cronyism, some variation of thought process B is usually involved. For cronyism to be opposed to meritocracy, it has to be consciously an attempt to put a suboptimal person in charge. I’m not saying that never happens, I’m just saying I think it’s probably pretty rare.

    Or, to push back a bit, how often have you heard this opinion?

    “Aristocracy is a noticeably worse way to pick rulers than democracy, but damn it, you don’t argue with tradition!”

    I think I’ve never heard that. Any argument that Artistocracy, on balance, produces better leaders than the alternative, is a meritocratic argument. Under your definition of meritocracy, the only way to argue against meritocracy is to consciously try to produce less effective rulers than you can.

    I don’t see that becoming a popular opinion any time soon, no matter how many articles the Guardian writes.

    2. I think it’s worth expanding on Some Faceless Monk’s comment.

    “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.”

    Try this: “Oh, hey, these guys came from school X! School X has tons of available student aid, and I hear they’re really meritocratic like that. We should totally give more weight to students from school X.”

    And then flash to school X: “Hey, this applicant is from high school Y, and high school Y is one of the most rigorous, best high schools in the country, they’re super exclusive and really meritocratic, we should give more weight to students from high school Y in our acceptance process!”

    And high school Y: “Hey, this applicant comes from grade school Z, and they’re really meritocratic…”

    And grade school Z: “Hey, this applicant comes from preschool Q, and they’re really rigorous and meritocratic…”

    • dndnrsn says:

      On the subject of cronyism, on a far smaller scale than the US federal government:

      Since David Price joined Rob Ford’s staff last month, the mayor has rarely been seen without the grim-faced man of few words — Ford’s longtime friend, former football coach and, now, his inaugural “director of logistics and operations.”

      Always dressed in a suit and tie, his graying hair buzzed close to his head, Price could easily be mistaken for Ford’s bodyguard, particularly given his penchant for blocking Ford from reporters.

      No one at City Hall can define Price’s new role with any certainty — the position did not exist prior to his arrival, and the hiring was done by Ford alone, making some senior officials feel the mayor simply wedged Price in. Asked about Price’s hiring last month, Doug Ford told a Globe and Mail reporter: “You can’t teach loyalty.”

    • Jiro says:

      Barring large numbers of expulsions, it isn’t possible for a school at level X to both be meritocratic, and accept only applicants from a set of schools at level X-1, unless the schools at level X-1 are as meritocratic (with respect to merit for the current level) as the current level. If the levels go all the way down to preschool, that means that merit for preschool is also merit for college, which seems unlikely.

      (Even if “merit” means IQ, extrapolating childhood IQ to adult IQ is notoriously unreliable.)

    • Christopher Hazell says:

      Actually, it occurred to me on the way to the laundry room that even some arguments against ruling per se are meritocratic, at least to the extant that many of them can be rephrased as “Humans should not be rulers because no human being has the merits necessary to rule.” and I think many of them can be accurately rephrased that way.

      I reread Mr. Alexander’s definition of meritocracy, and I didn’t quite remember it correctly.

      “decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education”

      And I would ask this question: What makes him think “merit” is easily separable from those other categories? I’m going to focus on education here.

      Two people pass the programming test. One of them flunked out of high school and, for good measure, has some minor shoplifting and vandalism on his criminal record. The other is a straight-A student who went to very prestigious schools. Yeah, maybe her parents paid for those classes, but those schools don’t just sell grades, she had to earn them, and, actually, even if her parents DID buy them, well, she clearly managed to stay in school, which indicates that she has a kind of pro-social attitude, and, in a high pressure work environment that requires long-term teamwork, isn’t that a merit too?

      No, seriously, isn’t it? That’s not a trick question, isn’t that an actual asset to the job?

      In the most broad definition of meritocracy that our host uses, “rule of those most suited to rule”, it’s basically impossible to argue against. Even the most corrupt ruler will generally want to at least keep some level of competence in his organization, simply because he can’t be a ruler anymore if the organization becomes so dysfunctional that it ceases to exist.

      In the definition “decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education”, you basically have to spend a bunch of paragraphs explaining what the hell you mean, because we have no universal idea of “merit” that exists separable from those things. Education, in particular, is itself meant to be a way to both measure and instill merit, which shows the problem, here: If education can become a failed proxy for merit, we have to take that risk seriously in any other endeavor to discover merit.

    • Ketil says:

      Any argument that Aristocracy, on balance, produces better leaders than the alternative, is a meritocratic argument.

      Even when people argue in favor of quotas for women or minorities, it is often argued that white male dominance in (say) governing boards or among business executives is wasting valuable talent. So it’s actually meritocratic to appoint from the neglected groups, but the people currently doing the appointing (e.g., shareholders) are biased and bad (i.e., worse than your average SJW blogger or liberal journalist) at judging merit.

      • Aapje says:

        Slavery was also defended using meritocracy arguments (them dumb blacks can’t do the white jobs, so having them work the plantation at their level of ability and benefiting from white rule is the optimal arrangement).

  17. Deiseach says:

    And a couple days ago, Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis is a right-wing talk radio host who has “never even taken an undergraduate course in any science”, and believes global warming is a scam.

    Mmmm – looking at that, the USDA post is a position that is “undersecretary for research, education and economics”, and while it is “department’s top scientific post”, the guy was “formerly a tenured professor of economics at Morningside College”, so it’s not like Trump simply yanked the first guy out of his posse that his gaze fell upon. (Okay, maybe…) There’s at least a fig-leaf of “this guy has a qualification in economics and this job involves economics”.

    It’s the same as the hypothetical of “Alice is a great programmer, Carol is a mediocre programmer but a good manager, who do you promote – Alice or Carol?” Please note: I am not saying this is not a political appointment, that Trump is not appointing a loyalist, that it’s a good choice or anything of the kind. I’m saying “yeah, it’s one of those appointments that is EDIT: now being used as a plum for awarding loyalty to the party leader, just like the cronyism in pretty much every parliamentary democracy”.

    That it’s not a knock-down argument for “and this is why we need meritocracy!” is because “well, do you need someone who’s a good scientist in the job, or do you need someone who’s good at translating between science and politics and who understands the farm industry?” Because if I’m thinking of a similar role in Irish government, my first thought is “you really want someone who knows the ins and outs of CAP” and not necessarily “quick, hire the head of the dairy science department at UCC!” though I do see that previous undersecretaries have all had some kind of agri-science/biology qualification.

    Yeah, probably a poor choice but not literally “talk show host with no qualifications at all”.

  18. themikemachine says:

    In a world where people have different levels of ability, there will be different levels of success, and society will by default become stratified. Smart, successful people want to be around other successful people. The obvious downside is that people don’t like to be at the bottom (low status actually decreases life expectancy), where they would have less resources and less control over their lives.

    We can ameliorate this downside in multiple ways, according to what concept we wish to maximize for:
    Lack of suffering – Provide free, endless entertainment for the lower classes to whittle their days away in enjoyment. This might be facebook, movies, shows, internet, drugs, etc.

    Equality in status – Only a few can be at the top financially, or politically. One way to allow more people to be high status is to create an infinity of groups where people can belong, and be leaders of. People already create these kinds of social groups (biking club, toastmasters, DND club, etc.) and I believe the search of status and belonging is a key driver. We could encourage more creation of these groups, possibly even fund them through taxes.

    Basic needs covered – Create the universal basic income to ensure everyone has the stated minimum.

    Maximum productivity – Create a system where unskilled people can be productive members of society, for real. There are many things that need doing, such as cleaning up the town plaza or helping out the elderly, and many idle hands, but no way to connect the two.

    • 2181425 says:

      “Lack of suffering – Provide free, endless entertainment for the lower classes to whittle their days away in enjoyment. ”

      “People already create these kinds of social groups (biking club, toastmasters, DND club, etc.) and I believe the search of status and belonging is a key driver. We could encourage more creation of these groups, possibly even fund them through taxes.”

      “Maximum productivity – Create a system where unskilled people can be productive members of society, for real. There are many things that need doing, such as cleaning up the town plaza or helping out the elderly, and many idle hands, but no way to connect the two.”

      If I squint a little, this looks like you’ve invented the concept of community churches?

    • Deiseach says:

      It would be better to acknowledge “yes, some people have to be Wall Street traders and some people have to be garbage collectors, for the benefit of society of large” and also “yes, Wall Street traders probably are more productive and benefit the state more so they earn their rewards” but also say and mean it, which is the hard part “No, not everyone can be a Wall Street trader if they just buckle down and go to Financial Boot Camp, so being a garbage collector does not mean you are a dumb, lazy, worthless parasite loser who was too lacking in grit to work hard and become a Wall Street trader so you deserve to be treated crappily and kept pacified by a version of bread and circuses, because that’s all you’re good for”.

      I think there might be less resentment of those at the top if those at the bottom weren’t treated as “well, this is a meritocracy, so you being at the bottom means it’s your own fault for being poor, because it is so easy to be not-poor in our meritocracy!”

      • lvlln says:

        This reminds me of something Scott wrote a while back about how intelligence seems to be the one thing that people are horrified at the idea that it might be outside one’s control. Like, if people are born shorter or with disease, we acknowledge that this was out of their control and that we should do what we can to alleviate the suffering they have due to their luck. And we do do it to an extent with intelligence with respect to mental disabilities, but there seems to be a tendency to consider one’s intelligence one’s own responsibility and a determiner of their worth.

        I wonder how much of it is because in today’s society, intelligence does in fact strongly correlate with someone’s “worth” in the sense of how much value they can potentially contribute to society. Thus people fear that people who have less potential to contribute will also be considered to have less moral worth. And hold onto the fantasy that everyone has every potential.

        I wonder if other characteristics were treated this way in the past. In the past, intelligence was less valuable than it is today, while physical strength and size were more valuable than they are today – back then, were being physically weak or short considered moral failures, and did people stubbornly hold onto the fantasy that anyone could be strong and tall if they just applied themselves enough?

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Even here is the (implicit) assertion that garbagemen are particularly stupid, and Wall Street traders particularly smart.

          On average I’m guessing it’s true that Wall Street traders are higher IQ than garbage men. But I’d lay pretty good odds that it isn’t universally true, and further that it is a mistake to think of traders as “smart” and garbagemen as “”stupid”.

          • lvlln says:

            Even here is the (implicit) assertion that garbagemen are particularly stupid, and Wall Street traders particularly smart.

            I don’t see how you can possibly get this from my comment. Could you explain your line of reasoning?

            On average I’m guessing it’s true that Wall Street traders are higher IQ than garbage men. But I’d lay pretty good odds that it isn’t universally true, and further that it is a mistake to think of traders as “smart” and garbagemen as “”stupid”.

            This doesn’t contradict my comment in any way. There’s nothing in my comment that implies or requires that all Wall Street traders are smarter than all garbage collectors or that traders are at all smart or that garbage collectors are at all stupid.

            The way I see it, holding all else constant, the lower bound of the range of intelligence required to succeed at being a Wall Street trader is higher than the lower bound of the range required to succeed at being a garbage collector. The ranges likely overlap (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the range for the Wall Street trader is entirely contained within the range for garbage collector). This is all that’s required for my reply to Deiseach to be relevant. Do you disagree with this assertion?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            I was reacting to the overall tenor I read in the post, but perhaps this sentence is most indicative:

            I wonder how much of it is because in today’s society, intelligence does in fact strongly correlate with someone’s “worth” in the sense of how much value they can potentially contribute to society.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub

            I was reacting to the overall tenor I read in the post, but perhaps this sentence is most indicative:

            I wonder how much of it is because in today’s society, intelligence does in fact strongly correlate with someone’s “worth” in the sense of how much value they can potentially contribute to society.

            Could you please tell me what specifically about my tenor gave you the impression that I was asserting that Wall Street traders were “particularly smart” or garbage collectors were “particularly stupid?” I have blind spots like everyone else, and it would definitely be helpful for me to learn to avoid this type of miscommunication in the future.

            Perhaps I could have explicitly spelled out in that quoted sentence that I meant “value they can potentially contribute to society” purely in $$$ measured in GDP terms and literally nothing else, but that just feels like needlessly jumping through hoops for signalling purposes. I think the rest of the comment makes it pretty clear that this is the meaning I meant, because the entire comment was specifically about how people seemed to conflate 2 different meanings of “worth.”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            So, I read that particular quoted sentence as saying that we see a very strong correlation between how much money someone is paid and their IQ. Hence my statement about garbagemen, who are not paid incredibly well compared to Wall Street traders (although, come to think of it, garbagemen probably aren’t paid all that poorly).

            This is completely orthogonal to your point about how moral worth should be seen as distinct from economic worth (but frequently is not), which I think is fairly cogent. I think if we look back in history, we do see things like strength being equated with moral worth (and intellect equated with moral degeneracy in some cases).

            You actually sort of seem to be making the mistake you were arguing against, by reading my statement about “stupid” as if it meant moral worth. Regardless of implications of moral worth, “stupid” is still going to be seen as insulting, which I read as part of Deiseach’s original complaint (partially due to her posting history).

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub

            So, I read that particular quoted sentence as saying that we see a very strong correlation between how much money someone is paid and their IQ. Hence my statement about garbagemen, who are not paid incredibly well compared to Wall Street traders (although, come to think of it, garbagemen probably aren’t paid all that poorly).

            I’m still not following how this my statement or the tenor of that statement “asserted” that “garbagemen are particularly stupid, and Wall Street traders particularly smart.” Again, the only thing that my comment implicitly asserted was that the lower bound of intelligence required to succeed (for some reasonable value of “succeed,” obviously) as a WS trader was higher than the lower bound for a garbage collector. The comment would have been equally coherent whether or not WS traders and garbage collectors were both particularly stupid or particularly smart – the only assertion was on the relative levels of the lower bound.

            Your reply made it seem as if I was claiming that literally every WS trader was smarter than literally every garbage collector, in addition to the idea that WS traders were generally smarter than the typical person and that garbage collectors were generally stupider than the typical person. Both of those seem completely taken out of thin air (in fact, given that it’s fairly well known that garbage collectors aren’t paid particularly poorly, claiming that I’m asserting that garbage collectors are “particularly stupid” when claiming that intelligence “strongly correlates” with income seems particularly unwarranted). That’s why I’m still confused.

            You actually sort of seem to be making the mistake you were arguing against, by reading my statement about “stupid” as if it meant moral worth. Regardless of implications of moral worth, “stupid” is still going to be seen as insulting, which I read as part of Deiseach’s original complaint (partially due to her posting history).

            That was just a shot in the dark, really, since I was having a hard time making heads or tails of your previous comment, which didn’t really explain much other than referring to “tenor” and quoting a single sentence. Your latest comment definitely clarifies, but I still don’t follow the chain of reasoning you were following that led you to believe that my comment was implicitly asserting anything about whether either population was “particularly smart/stupid” and whether literally every member of one population was more intelligent than literally every member of the other population. Especially since I wrote “strongly correlated,” not even “very strong correlation,” much less “1-1 correlation,” which is what would be required to at least get the assertion that WS traders are “universally” smarter than garbage collectors from my comment.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            It feels like you equivocating between wanting to understand what I meant and trying to prove me “wrong.” I don’t think that is your intent, but it seems like it it may be part of what is going on.

            Going back to the original post I reacted to:

            Like, if people are born shorter or with disease, we acknowledge that this was out of their control and that we should do what we can to alleviate the suffering they have due to their luck.

            Here we have a statement that not quite explicitly says lower IQ (and shortness) is like a disease, and causes suffering. Further on, you bring up mental deficiencies and say, again not quite explicitly, that the high-IQ should take the attitude towards the average IQ that the average-IQ/society-as-a-whole does toward those who have some condition which renders them mentally deficient.

            And then you further complicate matters by bringing in (presumably) wages, first assuming that wages correlate with worth to “society” (as opposed to worth to the employer), and then seeming to assume that those wages should give us a good sense of someone’s IQ.

            The reason that garbage collector’s were brought in is that it was Deiseach’s original example as compared to Wall St. Traders. I think we can see from this that we are dealing with more than simple wage dichotomy, but rather assumptions about “blue-collar” and “white-collar” workers. This is one of Deiseach’s consistent themes (and part of this has to do with her being English, where classism has even stronger roots and effects).

            The garbage man might wear $400 dollar boots and the trader $59 dollar wingtips, but we know whose shoes come with assumptions of more “worth”, moral or otherwise.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub
            Sorry, I’m still having a hard time making heads or tails of your reasoning. You still haven’t explained how you got the 2 logical assertions:

            1. WS traders (or, more generically, white collar workers) are “particularly smart” & garbage collectors (or blue collar workers) are “particularly stupid.”
            2. Every WS trader (white collar worker) is smarter than every garbage collector (blue collar worker).

            That’s what I’m seeking to understand.

            If I may take another shot in the dark and speculate, with your referring to my stuff about “suffering” and Deiseach’s “classism,” you seem to be hinting that the tenor of my comment was to denigrate blue collar workers as being of less worth than white collar workers. Hence your use of terms loaded with positive/negative affect like “particularly smart” and “particularly stupid.” I.e. you weren’t using any logic to infer assumptions from my statement, but rather inferring a sort of bigotry embedded in my comment which you expressed using those loaded terms.

            Am I on the right track? In particular, your last paragraph about different shoes only seems to make sense in that kind of context, because, as far as I can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with the logical reasoning you were using to get the 2 assertions I listed above.

            If I’m on the right track, perhaps I could have been clearer, but it also seems like an odd way to interpret a comment that was explicitly arguing against that very same bigotry. But, again, this is just a shot in the dark.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            Lost a long reply. Grrr.

            Basically, I think the phrase “value to society” is not the same thing as economic worth, nor is it the same as moral worth. Your bringing in those with severe mental handicaps seems to think that the phrase “moral worth” is doing some work that I don’t think that it is.

            Also, garbagemen have a negative valence that is not directly tied to either the importance of their job to society, nor is it tied to their actual economic value. Your explanation for this posits that we are rating them so low because we expect them to be low IQ.

            I think the explanation has to do more with “purity axis” concerns.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub

            OK, I think I’m getting a better sense of where the disconnect is. I guess “value to society” and “moral worth” are bad terms to use because they’re somewhat ambiguous. I think any part of “value to society” that doesn’t include economic contributions should be slotted into “moral worth” rather than “value to society.” I could have been clearer on that. I didn’t think it needed clarification, because the entire comment was explicitly about how no one should be denigrated as any less than anyone else for their luck of birth causing them to be less able to do things.

            You still haven’t explained how you got to the 2 logical assertions I keep going back to. Are you saying that you didn’t actually mean to imply that I had made those 2 specific assertions?

            For garbage collectors, I perceive “willingness to do a job that others have an aversion to” is an economic contribution. Whether it be handling garbage, cutting people open, firing people, or anything else.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            OK, let me just accept your definition of “moral worth” for a second.

            Take as a given that garbagemen are judged negatively, found wanting, what have you, as Deiseach said. In your parlance, they are judged to have low “moral worth”.

            Now take your explanation, that because IQ is linked with economic prosperity, we unfairly judge as having low “moral worth” those who are low IQ.

            What explanation does that then offer for why garbagemen are judged to have very low “moral worth”?

        • engleberg says:

          Virtue started as virility and will never entirely lose the sense of ‘can you maintain a stiffy?’ With or without applying yourself.

  19. Anonymous says:

    If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Do we have to go further? Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I’m not trying to mock you guys here, I honestly want to know.

    One thing you could try is going back to low-level territorial autonomy. By the time of the French Revolution, the monarchy in that dismal land had already removed almost every power the local nobility had. Check out de Jouvenel’s On Power for details; I’m boiling it down a lot here.

    In early feudalism, the various lords had their own back yards of varying size, where they were The Law – the King Karl couldn’t just come in and start ordering the Baron Bob’s people around, he had to ask the Sir Bob politely to send troops. And the Barons as a class were somewhat suspicious of unnecessary, unprofitable warfare – they would pay the cost in underlings, after all, and those underlings were the source of their wealth. ‘Course, His Majesty Karl did not like that sort of autonomy one bit, and over some thousand years, his successors gradually centralized power so that they could, in fact, just order around Sir Bob XXVI’s peasants as if they were their own household servants. The court became the font of wealth and offices, and the importance of particular serfs greatly diminished, since they were no longer assigned to a lord. Thus increased isolation from the situation on the ground.

    The original feudal arrangement has the advantage of the elites having an interest in the well-being of particular people – their own subordinate peasants. If you get all your peasants killed, you’re not getting any more of them. Since this interest exists, the lord also has an incentive to be informed about particulars of his demesne – to say nothing of the fact that he probably lives in shouting distance of his direct subjects. Subjects who, at times, might even approach him to deal with some problem they have. Unless he’s a total shut-in, opportunity to do this abounds – say, when he’s hunting, or touring the villages under his command, etc. None of this “vote for change” stuff, but the equivalent of asking the President to issue some executive order or other. And that’s not even getting into how now the lord probably sees his subjects as actual people, with names and lives.

    I’m not sure how this might be implemented in modern times, but I think the principle – requiring rulers to live in close proximity to the ruled, and explicitly assigning who rules whom and where – is historically sound.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      I’m not sure how this might be implemented in modern times, but I think the principle – requiring rulers to live in close proximity to the ruled, and explicitly assigning who rules whom and where – is historically sound.

      I guess some sort of Switzerland-style decentralised system might be the closest modern equivalent?

  20. grothor says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? Is it cronyism? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit? If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Do we have to go further? Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I’m not trying to mock you guys here, I honestly want to know.

    I had a similar confusion recently when I was talking to a couple people in the very small demographic of physics PhD students who think that Communism is a good idea, in the sense of there is no currency, everybody does the job they want, and everybody receives according to their needs. Additionally, they were very concerned about any doling out of opportunities that required someone to decide who was more able to succeed, citing ableism, racism, and other forms of discrimination.

    I was trying to understand how it is that they thought, for example, that people would be chosen to consume resources being trained as physicists. It seems easy enough, when you’re at the stage of reading books, talking to people who already understand the material, and solving problems on paper, in order to learn the basics. This doesn’t need to cost society any more than universal basic income, plus public education. I can at least understand how those are supposed to work. But eventually, you need to decide who gets to run expensive experiments like LIGO or the LHC. Being physicists-in-training, they weren’t going to tell me that these were wasteful things that a communist society would not engage in, and besides that, I got the impression that they believed scarcity in general is a symptom of capitalism, so that such a question is moot. If you believe the only reason we can’t build enough particle accelerators for everyone is because greedy people in power are withholding resources, then I suppose you wouldn’t be worrying too much about whether the people using them are those that are most able to get results. This is especially true when you’re more concerned about class and discrimination than you are about getting good results from your $10B experiment.

    But I’m not sure if that was their view, and I didn’t get too far down this line of questioning before they did seem to think that I was mocking them and they stopped trying to explain their view to me. I wish that I’d been more able to convince them that I really was curious about their views, and that I wasn’t trying to prove them wrong, because given my previous experience with these people, I expect there’s more nuance to their beliefs than “capitalism is the source of all scarcity, and meritocracy is only relevant when there’s a scarcity of opportunity.”

  21. HeelBearCub says:

    This whole argument reminds me of a Facebook thread I had with one of my oldest friends, let’s call him Fred:

    Fred: I can’t believe what Goldman-Sachs, et. al. got away with. They just destroyed the economy and came away rich. And the huge corporations like Walmart are increasing profits by immiserating their employees. Gah. Capitalism is evil. Seriously it’s fucking evil.

    HBC: Ummm, what would your alternative be?

    Fred: Regulated capitalism.

    On the one hand, I see no real alternative to meritocracy. I think it’s undeniably true, in a facile sense that we broadly want people who do jobs to be good at them and that if you are demonstrably better at a job, you should be “first” in line for that job.

    But of course our measures for both “merit” and “required merit” are incredibly imprecise. We can’t just handwave away that problem and assume that because the goal is competence, even excellence, in job performance, that it means this is currently how job candidates are actually chosen.

    Propose a system to find the most meritorious person in the U.S. to get the next cashier job at a local deli. Not so easy, and it should also be obvious that we don’t even want the most meritorious person to fill that job.

    We don’t have to go very far to see that, even in systems where merit is much more clearly and easily defined, it is exceedingly hard to remove bias from judgements of merit. Black QBs and black coaches were unknown in the NFL not too long ago. This wasn’t because there did not exist black individuals who would have made good QBs or good coaches. But you also couldn’t simply fault the NFL, as the entire society assumed these things to be true, and therefore there really weren’t any good candidates for NFL QB or coaching positions. The problem was circular. You might even say it had a problem that looked like being stuck in a local maxima.

    “Meritocracy” is the current system. “Meritocracy” is a good thing. The current system is not actually a true “meritocracy”. A true “meritocracy” is impossible. The current system is likely an impediment to some who are the most “meritorious” individuals.

    All of these can be true at the same time.

    • Are you sure that the current system is in fact based on merit, and not on credentials indirectly representing it?

      • albatross11 says:

        *Any* real-world attempt at meritocracy will use imperfect measures and humans with fuzzy thinking. We don’t have a magic black box that tells us which applicant for a job will do the best in the job. All we have are imperfect indicators–test scores, interview, grades, previous work experience, references, class markers, prestige of school, etc. But the goal is to find the person who will work out best in the job–they’ll do the job well, they won’t cause lots of social friction at work, they’ll stick around long enough to be worth training them, etc. That is, the employer is thinking “who will do best for me” and choosing on that basis.

        One question we might ask is whether the goal of meritocracy in hiring is the right one. Should we be thinking only of putting the person in who will do the best job? Or should we be worried about other stuff? Other stuff may include:

        a. Making sure the ethnic / racial mix in these jobs meets some social goals. (That might mean “looks like America” or “100% WASP men with upper-class accents and manners,” depending on your goals.)

        b. Correcting unfairnesses upstream–that is, we may want to give the janitor’s kid a job even when we predict he will perform less well than the CEO’s kid, to make up for the unfairness of the CEO’s kid having had extra opportunities.

        c. Ensuring that the people we hire all have impressive credentials (PhDs, Ivy League degrees, inherited titles of nobility) because that keeps the shareholders or high executives in the company happy, even when they don’t do the job too well.

        d. Making sure everyone we hire is the right religion, so that we will have a Christian workplace where we can all feel comfortable and share the same values–even assuming there are non-Christians who would do the job better and not disrupt the shared values in any destructive way. (Alternatively, maybe everyone we hire needs to share the same SJW/progressive political views, for the same reasons.)

        All of those and more are possible criteria we might use to hire people, or admit people to school, or recruit players to our team. Many are goals that at least some people argue or have argued in the past that we should pursue along with (sometimes ahead of) merit in the sense of who will do the job best.

        I think the world probably works best overall when most people doing hiring, admissions, and recruiting team members are focused on merit more than other goals. It’s easy to see failure modes of the other criteria.

        A whole society that does this will have some features we don’t like. Some (inequality of wealth) can be mitigated by social programs–a social safety net, public education, etc. Others (the meritocracy doesn’t look like America, all the downsides of sorting the population by ability) seem impossible to get rid of while keeping meritocracy.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @TheAncientGeekAKA1Z:

        I’m sure that merit is one factor in the current system, and a fairly important one.

        I’m also very sure it’s not the only factor.

        I’m also very sure that much of the conversation is hopelessly tangled up in implicit definitions of “merit” and other upstream definitions. We think of merit as the ability to “do the job”, but “the job” is frequently poorly defined, and in fact “the job” usually changes over time (based on the particular strengths of the individual in the job!)

        “The system” is far too dynamic to think of some sort of linear measure of “merit” upon which all job applicants can be ranked statically and forevermore. But that doesn’t mean it is meaningless to attempt to identify those who are the better candidates for a particular job.

  22. Paul Brinkley says:

    The way I tend to think of it, a meritocracy is simply a framework for maximizing everyone’s utility to everyone else – if you’re most valuable to everyone as a dog catcher, then a meritocracy will make dog catching your best option; if you’re more valuable as a doctor, doctor jobs will look most attractive, etc.

    Furthermore, since this determination isn’t certain and is in constant flux, a meritocracy will not make you the perfect offer, so sometimes you’ll find CEO jobs when CFO might be a better fit, but the farther away the job details, the less likely it will place you there; you’ll almost never get the sense that florist is your wheelhouse if it really should have been fishmonger, etc.

    IQ is just one factor among many. Physical strength is another. Locale is another. So are distinct components of intelligence, such as memory or proprioception.So is plain old personal proclivity – if you really like managing hedge funds, you’ll probably be better at it than someone who’d rather be managing bridge building projects, and vice versa, unless one of the other factors overwhelms this.

    Because the best task for you is so hard to know, it will be hard in general to tell whether the framework you’re in is really meritocratic. You might draw “florist” and not know whether that’s really what you ought to do, or if the meritocracy is malfunctioning and you should really be fishing after all. I see a proper meritocracy as depending on you to use your own judgement as well, since if everyone does that, then everyone will tend toward where they’re most valuable, just as the particles of oil and water in a shaken bottle will tend to sort themselves out.

    There’s a chaotic effect that tends to force continual change. The more people value doctors, the more people will see that as their best place; the more people go into medicine, the less valuable the next doctor will be, and the more valuable an administrator will be, until people choose to be administrators instead. And then clerical staff will be seen as more valuable until people choose to fill those positions, which may then make other staff more evidently valuable until those fill, and so on, maybe in order of decreasing skill, maybe in increasing order, maybe in a circle of complementary jobs, or whatever. Each person’s place of best value is an ever-moving target.

    This also means that any group of jobs one might refer to as a “class” won’t select out everyone that could make the people doing that sort of work better off. The more welders there are, the more valuable it will be to make welders better off, until some people see that as their best fit, take the job, divert resources to it, etc.

    If they truly couldn’t allocate enough resources to compensate welders, it might be because no one values welding enough to make welding attractive enough to make all these people want to keep welding; so something else will look better to them, and welding becomes a truly declining art. Or maybe everyone needs welding enough to have a thousand welders, but not twelve hundred. Or maybe the meritocracy is malfunctioning, since as I said, these things are hard to know. But if it’s functioning even a little bit, it won’t cause all the brains to be systematically sucked out of the welding class, because even a dullard can tell whether a welder is uncomfortable, especially if the dullard in question were himself a welder.

  23. Snailprincess says:

    I find this entire discussion odd, and I’m not sure I can adequately express why.

    I think part of it is the way we’re discussing ‘meritocracy’ as if we explicitly created a meritocractic-system and imposed it from the top down. And now we’re discussing maybe imposing a different system? But that’s not really what happens. We live in some semblance of a meritocracy not because someone said ‘hey, lets create a meritocracy’, but because we’ve developed a system where, generally speaking the best way to improve things for yourself is to surround yourself with people who are good at what you’d like them to do, the best you can find.

    A hiring manager doesn’t hire the ‘best’ person for the job out of some platonic ideal of ‘meritocracy’ they do so because hiring effective people will reflect well on themselves. In an aristocracy, you promote your heir because the best thing can you do for you and your family is to keep being part of the aristocracy. You’d work with whoever was best suited to help you do that.

    Obviously these are generalizations, but those are the incentives and, over all people will respond to incentives. So if we’re talking about a system that is less merit based, we’d pretty much have to change those incentives. Everyone is still more or less going to make choices based on what they perceive is best for them, so how do you create a system where what is best for them is not choosing the candidate they think is going to do the best job? This isn’t just about hiring employees, it would be for choosing a vender, or a plumber or anything. What would the system look like where, given the choice between the good plumber and the bad plumber, choosing the bad plumber is the right move?

    In an aristocracy, this happens essentially because the ‘rents’ extracted by being part of the aristocracy are so high, decision making will mostly come down to what helps you stay part of the aristocracy. So that’s one way to do it, but it rely’s on extreme structural inequality so I don’t think that’s going to be popular.

    The only other way I can imagine creating this non-meritocracy would be if people didn’t have a choice. You need a plumber? The government assigns one to you. Need a surgeon? The government assigns one to you. Maybe that appeals to some people, but I can almost guarantee in practice it’s going to end up looking almost identically to the aristocracy situation.

    I guess that’s what is odd about this discussion to me. Meritocracy isn’t a system that anyone choices, it’s what emerges when people are allowed to make their own choices. I think you kind of touched on this with your upstream vs. downstream problems. If the problem is rich people get to send their kids to the good schools which eventually leads those kids to be better suited for better jobs thus perpetuating an upper class, that’s a problem. But the obvious solution is, lets improve education and opportunities for people with less money. Trying to solve the problem at the other end once the kids are already educated to disparate levels of skill or ‘merit’ will pretty much always end badly.

  24. Doctor Mist says:

    The strange thing I keep seeing in both these threads is an unspoken assumption that kids are entering the workforce and getting sorted into jobs based on some possibly accurate and possibly arbitrary proxy for the real question Will They Do a Good Job? and then we’re all done. That’s obviously ridiculous.

    You hire somebody based on your best guess about how well they will do. For a new high-school or college graduate, your best guess probably sucks, but you do the best you can. A year or so down the road you have a better idea, and that informs your decision whether to fire them or promote them or shift them into a better-fitting position. The Peter Principle is an ever-present danger, which is why so many promotion guidelines include tests like “Are they already doing the job of a Junior Advanced Finagler?” In general, you should be inclined to trust the process, just as Adam Smith trusts the butcher, the brewer, or the baker.

    There are perversities, of course. “Doing a good job” depends on accurately recognizing what the job is; arguably the job of a Senator is to get re-elected, not to govern well, and our only hope is an electorate aware enough to cause the former to be a good proxy for the latter. But I would submit that situations like this are pretty rare in the Real World.

  25. Z says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame?

    I think The Gulag Archipelago documents this quite well.

  26. johan_larson says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame?

    As has been noted, the problem isn’t so much that merit is rewarded with status and power, but rather that the reward is too often made based on mere proxies of merit. These proxies a) aren’t very good, and b) disproportionately favour the children of the current elite. Chief among these proxies is the college education, and in particular that obtained at very prestigious institutions.

    To fix the first problem, emphasize on the job experience (or better yet, demonstrable skill in the task at hand) rather than a formal degree. The government could set a good example by dropping general college degree requirements in government jobs. Either make the requirements more directly relevant, requiring specific coursework, or accept some number of years of related work as the equivalent of college. Military officers, for example, currently have to have college degrees across the board for no particularly good reason.

    To be honest, I don’t really know how to fix the second problem. Elites are generally good at passing on their status to their children, pretty much regardless of the system. Probably the best that can be achieved is to temper their advantage: make sure everyone has a pretty good start in life, quality education is broadly available, and make the requirements for advancement as clear as possible, so knowing how to navigate the system is less of an advantage.

    • albatross11 says:

      I have read (I’m not sure of the source–maybe Steve Sailer’s blog) that the federal civil service used to have a pretty demanding paper and pencil test, which ensured that most federal hires were reasonably bright. And that this was eliminated because of disparate impact. A bit of Googling shows that these exams still exist for some very limited set of positions, bit that in general they were eliminated in 1978.

      At a guess, one consequence of abolishing the paper and pencil tests was to move toward requiring a college degree, since that’s an alternative (much more expensive) way to ensure that the person you’re hiring is reasonably bright and literate.

    • Deiseach says:

      These proxies a) aren’t very good, and b) disproportionately favour the children of the current elite.

      Yes. You can have John Smith, Chief Financial Panjandrum, who got a great degree from a top and elite business school, does a great job, and earned his position and rewards and social status by merit. But when John Smith has kid(s), it’s very unlikely he is going to say “I am perfectly happy if John Jr becomes a ditch-digger”. He is going to try and get John Jr into his own top and elite university, he is going to use his connections to get John Jr an internship in his golf buddy Tim’s firm, and so on.

      And none of this is saying “John Jr is dumb and doesn’t deserve a high-paying, high-status job”. It’s saying “John Jr is not relying on pure merit alone”. George the Groundskeeper at the golf club where John Sr and Tim Moneybags play their golf may have a son every bit as smart as John Jr, and maybe George can get the attention of John Sr and Tim to help steer George Jr into a similar career, but it’s going to be a much more uphill struggle for George Sr to help out George Jr than it is for John Sr to help out John Jr.

      • Civilis says:

        You can have John Smith, Chief Financial Panjandrum, who got a great degree from a top and elite business school, does a great job, and earned his position and rewards and social status by merit. But when John Smith has kid(s), it’s very unlikely he is going to say “I am perfectly happy if John Jr becomes a ditch-digger”. He is going to try and get John Jr into his own top and elite university, he is going to use his connections to get John Jr an internship in his golf buddy Tim’s firm, and so on.

        John Sr. can look at his current status and determine what to spend his money and other resources (time and connections) on.
        A) He can spend it on personal pleasure: buy another yacht and sail around to all the great golf spots drinking champagne.
        B) He can invest it in himself: go back to school for his JD while buying more stocks.
        C) He can invest it in the future: he can donate to helping people like George Jr. (the Groundskeeper’s son).
        D) He can invest it in his family’s future: he can work towards helping John Jr.

        As a society, we want John Sr. to invest in making things better, so A is out. He’s eventually going to die, and you can’t take it with you, so B has its limits and will eventually no longer be an option. Assuming John Jr. and George Jr. are of equal potential, society would be perfectly happy with C or D. Society doesn’t care whether it’s John Jr. or George Jr. that contributes, but John Sr. cares about John Jr. more than George Jr. and has the resources. Allowing John Sr. to boost John Jr. is a mutually beneficial arrangement acceptable to John Sr. even if he’s selfish.

        We want people to be selfless and choose C; the problem is human nature makes many people selfish. By ruling out option D, we’re encouraging selfish people to choose option A, which is the least beneficial to society.

        As long as people are free to choose what to spend their wealth and other resources on, we’re going to run into this problem. We want to incentivize people to spend their resources making things better in the future, and that incentive only works for selfish humans if people think that the people connected to them… their friends and especially their children and grandchildren… will benefit from that sacrifice. If your children are going to get the exact same start as everyone else, what’s the point in sacrificing for them?

        • Deiseach says:

          Assuming John Jr. and George Jr. are of equal potential, society would be perfectly happy with C or D. Society doesn’t care whether it’s John Jr. or George Jr. that contributes

          And the argument for “real” or “pure” meritocracy goes that it should not be a choice between John Jr and George Jr, society should be able to have both of them contributing and improving/making wealthier society. If both John Jr and George Jr are capable and qualified, continuing to hire only from a pool of Johns Jr means that the same argument for bringing women into the workforce applies: by artificially limiting the pool of labour and talent upon which you can draw, you are handicapping productivity and wealth creation and growth.

          Now, it well may be that “there are only so many top financial high-paying high-status jobs to go round, that’s why we draw from the pool of kids like John Jr”, but that’s a different question (e.g. if there is some natural limit on how many financial institutions can operate at a time to make sure you have maximum efficiency and expertise – so for the sake of the economy, instead of a continual founding and opening of new banks and firms that will absorb all the Georges Jr, it’s better to have only a certain number – the same way for expertise in surgical procedures or cancer treatment or what have you, it’s better to have one major centre where they do nothing but this particular treatment for hundreds of cases rather than to have many small centres round the country where the staff only perform a handful of procedures, and so never get enough expertise and knowledge, and that’s why the mortality rates go up if you go to the small local centre instead of the major centre hundreds of miles away in the capital).

          • Civilis says:

            And the argument for “real” or “pure” meritocracy goes that it should not be a choice between John Jr and George Jr, society should be able to have both of them contributing and improving/making wealthier society. If both John Jr and George Jr are capable and qualified, continuing to hire only from a pool of Johns Jr means that the same argument for bringing women into the workforce applies: by artificially limiting the pool of labour and talent upon which you can draw, you are handicapping productivity and wealth creation and growth.

            What I’m worried about is that the cost of purifying meritocracy to strip out some of these factors may be surprisingly high. Some of the things we see as flaws in meritocracy may be necessary side effects of something society desires, and you can’t get rid of the bad part without harming the good part.

            John Jr.’s position isn’t properly compensation for John Jr.’s unearned merit, but deferred compensation for John Sr.’s earned merit.

          • Aapje says:

            John Jr.’s position isn’t properly compensation for John Jr.’s unearned merit, but deferred compensation for John Sr.’s earned merit.

            But then you get a stratified society where at best, you get a gradual decline in the status of John Jr compared to John Sr and John Jr Jr compared to John Jr. More likely is that it merely requires that John Jr is half as intelligent as John Sr to maintain a very high level, because perpetuating wealth is much easier than generating it from scratch.

            And if these successful people work together to create a mutually supportive community then you get aristocracy/a class society with very little movement between classes.

          • Civilis says:

            And if these successful people work together to create a mutually supportive community then you get aristocracy/a class society with very little movement between classes.

            The people at the top still want as much innovation and effort as possible and the way to do that is to reward the very best people, and for some people the desired reward is going to be looking out for their family.

            There is a comparison that didn’t occur to me until just now. We reward the widows and orphans of those killed in the line of duty to society: military, law enforcement, and emergency services. Those orphans didn’t do anything to merit that reward. We expect those in dangerous professions with families to take that risk knowing that if they end up sacrificing everything their families will be compensated. It’s because they know that their family will be compensated that they take that risk. On a less extreme level, veterans preferences are the cost of taking people in their prime and putting them in a job where the benefit to society outweighs any individual rewards. The result is on some levels unmeritocratic; a veteran-run business might not be the best for a particular job yet still win due to the preference for veteran-run businesses, and yet at another level that advantage is part of the merit gained for serving the country.

            You can’t quash the human tendency to socially network for mutual benefit without quashing the value placed on friends and family. If the cost of avoiding some level of hereditary pseudo-aristocracy is the elimination of normal human relationships, then it’s a cost that’s too high to bear, and I say this as an introvert with few friends.

            One of the problems with this is assuming that humans can model the levels of merit involved. To make a comparison, that we can’t model the insanely chaotic levels of supply and demand in the entire economy doesn’t mean that we can’t make observations about limited simple cases or that the laws of supply and demand are invalid. Likewise, that we can’t come up with a codified formula for evaluating everyone’s merit doesn’t mean that merit isn’t useful in simple decisions or that the idea of merit doesn’t have value.

          • John Schilling says:

            The people at the top still want as much innovation and effort as possible

            I am skeptical that the people at the top want as much innovation as possible. Some of them clearly do, but e.g. Elon Musk’s desire to electrify the highways and colonize Mars is perhaps more of a personal affectation or uber-hobby than a general reflection of the priorities of the rich and powerful. For the most part, the very rich and powerful are the ones who benefit the most from the world staying the way it is – and they mostly aren’t the ones who find value or quality in their life by the absolute capabilities of their consumer goods.

          • Aapje says:

            @Civilis

            What Schilling said.

            Also, by having a safety net and/or welfare state you reduce the need for material support by friends and family, making those relationships more focused on emotional well-being. I don’t see how this necessarily leads to the elimination of normal human relationships.

            It probably will reduce the number of abusive human relationships, like a transgender/gay/whatever kid who can’t leave her abusive parents due to financial dependency and must suffer their abuse.

            I’m fine with a reduction in those kind of materially beneficial, but emotionally harmful relationships.

          • Civilis says:

            For the most part, the very rich and powerful are the ones who benefit the most from the world staying the way it is – and they mostly aren’t the ones who find value or quality in their life by the absolute capabilities of their consumer goods.

            I’d say the very rich and powerful have a benefit to the overall system staying the way it is, but most people underestimate how innovations in technology can cause changes in the system. How many patrons of scientists and inventors have been from the upper class? Who’s buying the fast cars, personal jets, and wired homes? Who’s the current target market for space tourism? If anything, the modern tend to show one’s wealth by elaborate and expensive virtue signalling… like personally financing malaria eradication initiatives… is more of a thing these days.

            Also, by having a safety net and/or welfare state you reduce the need for material support by friends and family, making those relationships more focused on emotional well-being. I don’t see how this necessarily leads to the elimination of normal human relationships.

            I don’t understand what the presence or absence of a welfare state has to do with my conclusions which have to do with the value of family and social networks. The welfare state doesn’t remove the value of social networks, and the more power the bureaucracy has, the more valuable social networks are to navigating it or working around it. We’ve talked on the SSC comment boards in the past about how low-income individuals are often tied to particular areas because that’s where they have their social network they rely on for support.

            A point of Scott’s article is that meritocracy as practiced has a downside in that it generates a stratified society, where those on top of the meritocracy have an advantage in keeping their kids on top of the meritocracy. The value of a social network is one of the key things driving that advantage. To eliminate that advantage, you’re going to either have to make humans not value their social network (thus devaluing friends and family) or eliminate the ability to form social networks (which brings us into Harrison Bergeron-ish territory).

            It probably will reduce the number of abusive human relationships, like a transgender/gay/whatever kid who can’t leave her abusive parents due to financial dependency and must suffer their abuse.

            Again, you’re redistributing misery. Yes, it’s best if society has a way to get people out of abusive marriages, but making divorce easy has a cost in marriages entered into too easily or broken too soon. If you’re an omniscient external viewer, is one bad marriage that can’t make it through the legal hurdles to break up worth the societal damage from a thousand marriages where they take the easy route and break up when they could have reconciled? A million? I certainly don’t know the exact answer, but there has to be one. And speaking of stratification, that causes a growing divide between the rich that can afford that sort of luxury and the poor that can’t (much less the divide between kids from stable families and those from broken ones). Just as the rich can afford to buy private education or a house in a good school district to get the best education, the children of the rich can better weather a messy divorce and custody battle between their parents.

    • To be honest, I don’t really know how to fix the second problem. Elites are generally good at passing on their status to their children, pretty much regardless of the system.

      Ensure that things like private secondary education are expensive, not subsidised.

      • Civilis says:

        Doesn’t that just have the opposite effect? Instead of the upper 20% able to afford private education, now only the upper 10% can afford it.

        Nothing you can do will make the problem go away, just shuffle around who benefits. If you get rid of private education, you’ll watch house prices in good school districts shoot through the roof.

        Virginia already has gone past that level of gaming the system where the top districts get packed. Too many people from certain good schools were getting into Virginia’s most prestigious public universities, so the admissions factors were set up to more heavily weigh the top admissions from the lower performing districts. I know people that gamed that system by moving so their kids that would be fighting for the upper quintile in a top school were now near the very top of a school that was good, yet not so good that applicants were disadvantaged in admissions.

        • Brad says:

          I know people that gamed that system by moving so their kids that would be fighting for the upper quintile in a top school were now near the very top of a school that was good, yet not so good that applicants were disadvantaged in admissions.

          Although it isn’t exactly what the new system was going for, it is an improvement over the status quo ante.

          • Civilis says:

            Although it isn’t exactly what the new system was going for, it is an improvement over the status quo ante.

            It’s not an improvement if you were the local that had your shot at a good state school taken away by someone that had the resources and time to move.

            You’ve gone from forty-nine people from great districts and one person from a good but not great district that had a shot at a good, affordable education to fifty people from great districts having a shot at a good education. Meanwhile, a lot of time and effort was spent moving people and jobs around to get there.

          • Brad says:

            Yes, that one kid is worse off. But the entire rest of the school district is better off because now there are some people that politicians actually care about living in their school district.

      • Deiseach says:

        Ensure that things like private secondary education are expensive, not subsidised.

        It already is. That only makes it more desirable as this then ensures “only the best of the best can get in, and that means they are guaranteed to get great exam results, go to the very top universities for the best degrees, and be assured of getting hired by a big concern doing the annual milk-run to the Top 50 Universities”. So if you want your kid to get a good City job like you have, you move heaven and earth to get him into that school, and to hell with the kid from the council estate who is just as brainy but hasn’t the well-off and well-connected parents behind them (limited number of places in Expensive School mean you don’t want some grubby brat from the working class taking up a place on a scholarship and taking it away from your kid).

        • > It already is.

          A voucher system is a subsidy compared to the present system.

          • Civilis says:

            Is a system where private education is available only to the elite more or less egalitarian than a system where private education is available to the both the elite and those with the skills and willpower to navigate the voucher bureaucracy?

  27. IvoryTowerDenizen says:

    I would be happy to see Scott do some more posts on unnecessary degree mongering. I was recently party to a hiring decision at my research institute. We got four applications – three from people with PhDs and one from a peon with a mere MA degree. We had a pretty broad consensus that the MA person was the best fit for the job and that she was the person we actually wanted to hire. But that would have gone against any number of policies and been a huge hassle with possible legal ramifications. So we hired a person with an irrelevant PhD instead.

  28. Yalain Aghast says:

    Meritocracy is ill-defined, which is causing a lot of confusion here.

    Obviously people who are best at a thing and want to do that thing are the ones who should do that thing. A system of government is how we determine what roles there are to fill and how society functions. Meritocracy can be seen as a measure of a particular system – how good is this system at filling the roles we need filled with the people who would best fill them? However, this doesn’t answer the question of what roles exist in the first place. If Alice is the absolutely perfect fit for the role of torturing political opponents, and a skills-based test is set up which can accurately determine this, she gets the role based on merit and the system is a meritocracy, but why the hell that position exists in the first place isn’t addressed.

    The people complaining are quite fairly defining a meritocracy as a system wherein the ruling class are determined based on merit, which makes a lot more sense than the previous definition as it’s a merit based system of government. It isn’t just that the biggest rollers in our current society all went to college, it’s that fundamentally such a system stratifies society according to some measure. Regardless of how good the measure is, you’re handing out a minority of people who share similar traits a vast majority of power. This has a lot of obvious faults that have been pointed out by others.

    If you taboo some words, your position as I understand it is the way society should runs should allow those best suited to a position get that position, without saying anything about what positions exist, as a general principle. The anti-meritocracy position as I understand it would be that we shouldn’t promote a system which increases inequality and stratifies society, and explaining that the method devised is that the people at the top “are ensured to deserve their positions” misses the point entirely.

    Meritocracy isn’t just a word that’s been misused, it’s a bad word. “Merit based system of governance” would obviously be the thing being complained about, not your reasonable stance, and it’s what the word most seems like.

  29. Controls Freak says:

    One thing that I haven’t seen much of in the comments is an understanding that schools have agency. Many times, it feels like they’re portrayed as just something that happens to students. I liked Tulip Subsidies (and partially endorse most of it), but I feel like it may have contributed to this problem.

    Sure, I can follow the logic, “If schools are the arbiters of desert, and schools exhibit a bunch of problems so they match up with existing inequality rather than merit, they exacerbate inequality.” But, uh, duh. The entire point of schools are to create inequalities. That is, even if they were functioning perfectly, their entire job is to take people who lack skills in something and to provide them with those skills. Inherently, people who have acquired those skills will not be equal to those who have not acquired those skills. (That is NOT to say that they are unequal morally or in terms of desert because of said schooling.)

    And as I started off, schools are made of people who have agency. Their job is to produce good skills and outcomes for their students. If they notice that what they are teaching isn’t leading to the desired results, they will change what they teach (I say this as someone who worked in two university departments during a period of time when the field was changing rather substantially). The downside to this is that schools are composed of humans that are subject to all kinds of biases that prevent them from perfectly executing any idealized meritocracy or anything else (…and I’m the first to jump on making a list about the many many ways they’re making mistakes in trying to educate students).

    So in the same vein as how Scott is fatalistic toward the anti-meritocracy, I’ve been pretty fatalistic about how the “all inequality is morally evil” movement is going to clash with the very idea of schools that exist for the sole purpose of creating inequalities. Sure, you can work to fix various biases that make them operate more like a pure meritocratic system (or whatever anti-meritocratic system you come up with to fulfill Scott’s demand)… and you can work to fix other problems both upstream and downstream, but if ‘inequality’ is a dirty word, then you have to at some point dive headlong into this problem. I just hope it doesn’t result in, “Let’s ban school.”

  30. John B says:

    I don’t think we can do anything about the status pyramid. But we could, if we wanted, flatten the economic pyramid using high taxes on the rich (90%, if necessary) and subsidies for the poor (national health care, free community college, etc.) That way it wouldn’t matter nearly so much who rises to the top, and our leaders would be closer to the rest of us.

  31. alchemy29 says:

    My mind is drawn to a comparison with online dating. In theory, online dating gives you a much better shot at finding someone compatible with you. The selection pool is larger, you can screen people based on multiple compatibility criteria right off the bat (that would take many dates to figure out. In practice, everyone seems frustrated – ghosting is ubiquitous and you have to message hundreds of people unless you’re really attractive, or really high status or both. Everyone is constantly thinking “can I do better?”, and no one is satisfied except those at the very top of the food chain.

    I feel all of this generalizes to job searching nowadays. If you’re a straight A student at Harvard or a recruiter at Goldman Sachs, then you’re set. If you’re anyone else, you’re stuck in what feels like a zero sum game – always feeling like you could do better. You can always settle for whatever you get, but your wallet will be smaller. In the past (not that I’m old enough to know), it seems like things were less competitive. You could get into your school’s graduate program if you did well enough in undergrad, or get a job in your home town without too much fuss. People didn’t try to find the very best job, because the world was less connected. Nowadays, for instance, you have to fend up dozens (hundreds?) of applicants if you just want to get into your mid-tier school’s graduate program. More efficient? Possibly. More stressful? Definitely.

    Even more generally, it seems to me that community and efficiency are fundamentally at odds. The strongest example of community is a family. You take care of people in your family because they would do the same for you. To a lesser extent you take care of people in your town – business owners hire employees, consumers support local businesses etc. I’m sure that this is an extremely alien concept to many commenters here, and many people might scratch their heads wondering why this is desirable. But for people who lived 100 years ago, or even now live with this attitude – it’s a matter of lifestyle and stability. Competition, meritocracy, individualism definitely produce more material wealth, but is that necessarily better living? I don’t know.

    • JonathanD says:

      I think you’re unnecessarily down on online dating. I found my wife there, and my MiL found her husband there as well. The thirty seconds of googling I just did says that 1 in 6 marriages come from online dating sites. That’s not bad.

      It sounds like you’ve had bad experiences out there and I’m sorry for it, but I have nothing but good things to say about online dating.

      • alchemy29 says:

        Let me clarify me position. What I wrote above was hyperbole. What I believe is that any extreme assortative system creates winner and losers, whereas a system determined more by randomness (coincidence of location, common friend groups, connections) results in a more even level of satisfaction and on average higher. If you’re a winner, congratulations, my thesis fully embraces that there are going to be winners.

        To put this is plain english, lovers, employees and employers are on average better off when they more quickly settle a person/job/employee that is good enough for their purposes rather than exhaustively broadening their search to find the perfect fit*. In theory, a more optimized selection process (that Scott seems to want in the case of employment) should result in better compatibility and efficiency, but in practice there are negative externalities that are fundamental and not a result of a poorly designed system. There are a few reasons:

        1) Paradox of choice: when you exhaustively search, you’re more aware of what you’ve lost out on. People are less satisfied and they are more likely to have cold feet. That is why I think that relationships are on average shorter nowadays and time spent at any one job is way lower in the modern world.

        2) Cost of time: Exhaustively searching takes time and effort. That’s a cost in and of itself.

        3) Loss of connectedness: I don’t have data but I’m willing to bet that romantic partners who have friends in common are more likely to stay to together all else being equal. Likewise, workers with friends already in the company or area are more likely to stick around etc. This ties into the point about community that I tried to describe above.

        4) Rejection: It sucks and the more jobs you apply for/dates you go on, you’ll have to reject more people, and more people will reject you. Perhaps this is a flaw of human psychology – much like fearing failure and never trying to achieve success. Well to that I say – humans are not robots, they can’t turn irrational feelings off. And in reality rejection sucks.

        Now one could certainly look at this through a more positive lens. Nowadays, people are less susceptible to sunk costs, know when to move on, aren’t bogged down my family or local ties etc. But I would argue that the loss of connectedness on average does not benefit people, even if it benefits a few.**

        *But this only works when everyone else does the same. A tragedy of the commons.

        **Some of this the people it benefits are outsiders, loners, those of extraordinary ability. People who I highly suspect make up the majority of this commentariat.

        • Matt M says:

          To put this is plain english, lovers, employees and employers are on average better off when they more quickly settle a person/job/employee that is good enough for their purposes rather than exhaustively broadening their search to find the perfect fit

          Man, at this point in my life, if I were offered the chance to get married to a randomly selected single American woman within say, +/- 10 years of my own age, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

          Of course, the mere fact of saying that immediately puts me outside the consideration set of 99% of women who find such a idea morally repellent and believe anyone so desperate enough to take such a deal must be fundamentally flawed in some way.

  32. Eli says:

    I still object that I’ve got a valid alternative to meritocracy: don’t find the people you need, make them.

    • albatross11 says:

      Eli:

      Doesn’t that just push the question back a level? We need to train the next generation of brain surgeons. We have finite resources for training them (teachers, classrooms, surgical residencies, neurosurgery fellowships), so we have to choose a pretty small number of people. How should we pick the people we’re going to make into the next generation of brain surgeons?

    • Matt M says:

      Isn’t this what various universities and elite-employer apprenticeship programs and lottery-entrance charter schools in the inner city all claim they are doing right now?

  33. John Schilling says:

    The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool,[and we get cronyism]

    But is this really true? Does it really only come down to two choices, meritocracy or cronyism, or at least to an axis with “meritocracy” at one end and “cronyism” at the other, or are there other alternatives? Because I can think of at least one.

    And an aside – I agree that the “-ocracy” part of “meritocracy”, and the common usage of the term, means we should be limiting the discussion to positions which hold real power, political or corporate leadership or the like, not surgeons or coders[1]. It’s entirely plausible, and I believe not unprecedented to have a society that is meritocratic for the latter jobs but not the former.

    Also, as Scott notes, it’s a cop-out to say that we’re really after utopian anarcho-socialism where nobody holds power or status over another.

    For the real power positions, sortition would be the obvious alternative, but the historical examples are limited and dubious and I don’t think a truly sortition-dominated society is practical. At small scales, democracy turns into a popularity contest, and we’ll take common usage to exclude “can win popularity contests real good” from meritocracy. But in a modern state, the kind of office you can win on the basis of direct personal popularity doesn’t wield much power, and you quickly get into a regime where the real question is how you decide Alice and not Bob gets the Donkey Club’s sack of money to fund an advertising campaign to build quasi-popularity among people who would otherwise never have heard of them. Merit, cronyism, or…

    How about identity? We give Bob the position, or the sack of money to hire people to tell the plebs to vote him into the position, because he’s a WASPy member of the hereditary aristocracy who went to the right school. Or we give it to Alice because she’s a lesbian woman of color and we’re making up for centuries of pro-WASPdude bias this year. Or to Joe because he’s a veteran; there’s lots of axes of identity to chose from. And while I’m not a fan of identity politics, I recognize that lots of people are and I sort of understand why.

    So, unless I’m missing something, I think methods for assigning positions of great power and the status that inevitably attaches to them can be plotted on a ternary graph where the corners are Meritocracy, Cronyism, and Identity. Crudely speaking, what you know[2], who you know, and what you are. And the “identity” corner is not to be trivially dismissed in the way cronyism perhaps can be. Lots of people care deeply about and openly advocate identity politics in a way that almost nobody will advocate for cronyism, and they have better arguments than the cronyists do.

    Bottom line: pick the corner you think is most likely to select people who you would prefer to have power over you. And understand that they are going to be smug, arrogant, elitists no matter where you are on that plot.

    [1] “Power of life and death” only counts for people who can keep their job after admitting they deliberately chose for someone who could have lived, to die. So not surgeons, at least not most surgeons.

    [2] More precisely, what you have done and what we thus infer that you know how to and are inclined to do in the future.

  34. userfriendlyyy says:

    The problem with meritocracy as it is currently practiced is that it is a somewhat self fulfilling prophecy on both ends. People on the top tend to overlook the structural advantages they had but never the hard work they put in. They see almost everyone below them as lazy and undeserving. They also always notice the guy ahead of him who really hasn’t earned it.

    It makes people who have grown up in poverty and can’t catch a break feel like it’s their own fault they haven’t been able to pick themselves up by their boot straps. These are people who suffer bouts of unemployment because the FED intentionally makes sure there are less jobs than people looking for work as a way to make sure we don’t have inflation (which would be horrible for lenders and great for people in debt). There are few things we could do as a society that could be more cruel than telling someone we live in a meritocratic society while simultaneously ensuring that they can’t get a job.

    What we should do is take the equality of opportunity MUCH more seriously. Increase the top tax rate to 90% on income over $10 Mil, 75% over $5mil, and 50% over $1mil. Estate tax at those same rates and brackets. Cancel all student debt and make college free for anyone who can get in. Free Pre-k, and mandate companies offer 8 months paid maternal/paternal leave for all employees. Single payer health care. A federally funded Job Guarantee program that pays at least $15/hr to anyone ready willing, and able to work; administered by non profits and all participants are required to file a resume with the state should a private sector employer be looking to hire.

    • AeXeaz says:

      “There are few things we could do as a society that could be more cruel than telling someone we live in a meritocratic society while simultaneously ensuring that they can’t get a job.”

      A cursory look at history (even recent history) would reveal a *lot* of things we could do that would be more cruel…

      That said, I like a lot of your ideas for taking equality of opportunity seriously, but at the same time I consider the Scandinavian countries (while they haven’t implemented your ideas fully, they go a lot further in that direction than, say, the US) to be dystopian hellscapes for anyone who wants to rise above mediocrity (however they define it!).

      • That’s quite a bold claim. Are you saying that there is no one who is very good at anything, or just that the rewards and symbols aren’t there?

        • AeXeaz says:

          It’s the Law of Jante. Even if you’re good at something, try not to let anyone else know.

          The aesthetics of functional and friendly socialism pervade everything from architecture to the food, creating a sense that whatever you do, nothing will ever change. If you succeed, your lifestyle will stay the same, if you fail, the state will make sure you don’t fall too far. The safety net isn’t just below you, you’re wrapped up in it 24/7 and the only way out is to grab a knife and start cutting. Until someone notices and you get shut the fuck down.

          • Have you considered moving to the states?

          • Aapje says:

            @AeXeaz

            The aesthetics of functional and friendly socialism pervade everything from architecture to the food, creating a sense that whatever you do, nothing will ever change.

            Can you clarify this? It seems extremely weird criticism. Swedish architecture doesn’t seem to be particularly soviet-style and my impression is that they are at least as adventurous as the US.

            And what specifically is socialist about their food? Are there not enough restaurants with food from different countries?

      • userfriendlyyy says:

        I consider the Scandinavian countries (while they haven’t implemented your ideas fully, they go a lot further in that direction than, say, the US) to be dystopian hellscapes for anyone who wants to rise above mediocrity (however they define it!)

        To Each their own. I consider this country to be a crony capitalist hellscape that takes and crushes everyone, no matter how driven and hardworking they are, by saddling them with debt and ensuring that the hiring process has nothing to do with what you know and everything to do with who you know.
        The data is on my side though… since Reagan dropped the top tax rate down from 70% to 30% intergenerational mobility has fallen off a cliff. Which means we are wasting human potential just to perpetuate oligarchy.
        http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/papers/abs_mobility_paper.pdf

    • Deiseach says:

      Why would inflation be good for people in debt? If the currency is worth less today than it was five years ago, don’t you need more of today-dollars to pay off that loan you took out five years ago? And getting the dollars is the problem in the first place (that’s why you’re in debt). I know it makes money ‘cheap’ for lenders and encourages them to loan it out more, but eventually you have to pay it back, and if you’re financing your life on “just borrow a bit more and top up that loan” and not on “what I earn/have access to assets”, then you’re still going to get bitten in the backside.

      • Creutzer says:

        Loans are in nominal dollars, not real dollars, so after inflation, you need the same amount of nominal dollars to pay them back, which is not a smaller amount of real dollars.

      • Iain says:

        You need the same number of dollars to pay back a loan; inflation means that today-dollars are worth less than yesterday dollars, which means that the cost of the loan is smaller in terms of your overall purchasing power.

        It’s easiest to see if you assume that your wages go up with inflation. If everything costs twice as much, and everybody gets paid twice as much, then nothing has changed, except that your loans cost half as much to pay back as a fraction of your overall salary.

        • Deiseach says:

          If everything costs twice as much, and everybody gets paid twice as much, then nothing has changed, except that your loans cost half as much to pay back as a fraction of your overall salary.

          If I earn €120 a week after deductions and, after accounting for all my expenses, have €20 left to pay back a loan, then earning €240 a week after deductions and paying off everything means I now have €40 left to pay off the loan, so I can either pay it off faster or keep paying it at €20 a week and spend that extra €20 elsewhere, is that what it means?

          It sounds good when you put it that way, but I don’t know – what if everything costs twice as much but my wages don’t go up twice as much as well? It now costs my employer twice as much to run the business and keeping wages down is one way to reduce expenditure, for instance – maybe I get a rise but not in line with inflation. That’s something I often see in the news – inflation is going up mildly, the economy is starting to do well, people have expectations of pay rises after the austerity years – and all the business representation groups are cautioning “we can’t pay that! government should keep the lid on public spending! don’t expect more money than maybe a very little more in your pay packet!” 🙂

          • Corey says:

            You raise a good point – the econ community tends to assume that overall wages and costs will rise together. And there’s some truth to that at higher inflation levels – to get serious 70s-style trouble you need wages to go up along with prices, or businesses run out of customers and prices come back down.

            That leads to a pet theory of mine – I don’t think the US *can* have high inflation anymore, because labor has lost bargaining power below a critical mass, and so overall wages would never be able to go up enough to sustain high inflation.

          • Iain says:

            @Deiseach:

            Yeah, that’s basically it.

            If you do not get a raise to match inflation, then the increased cost of things will hurt. Of course, that’s true whether or not you are in debt. Another way of phrasing the underlying claim might be: holding everything else equal, inflation is better for people in debt than it is for people with investments.

            The other half of userfriendlyyy’s argument was that the Fed prioritizes keeping inflation down over increased employment. Over-simplistically: if there are more jobs than workers, then employers have to raise wages to keep their employees from leaving for greener pastures. As a result, everybody has a bit more money to buy things– but the supply of things to buy hasn’t necessarily increased, so prices go up. Inflation! The formal model of this story is the Phillips curve. Empirically speaking it is, if not wrong, at the very least incomplete as a description of long-term changes, but I don’t know enough about the newer models to comment further.

        • baconbacon says:

          You need the same number of dollars to pay back a loan; inflation means that today-dollars are worth less than yesterday dollars, which means that the cost of the loan is smaller in terms of your overall purchasing power.

          It’s easiest to see if you assume that your wages go up with inflation. If everything costs twice as much, and everybody gets paid twice as much, then nothing has changed, except that your loans cost half as much to pay back as a fraction of your overall salary

          In reality though the underlying assumptions are not true (or rarely true).

          First value isn’t about dollar value, it is about marginal value, and under surprise inflation* flexibility typically rules. There are a lot of reasons why, but the primary one is that you don’t suffer from the “average” inflation rate. Your personal rate will depend on your specific basket of goods that you purchase. The more flexible your purchases are the lower your personal inflation rate will be. Debt payment can be viewed as locked in consumption. Your student loan debt? You can’t go back in time and change majors or take more AP credits to lower it, your consumption of education is pretty much fixed (or at least the baseline is). Own a 5 bedroom house? Pretty difficult to downsize to a 3 or 4 bedroom, or to lower your tax burden. Your housing consumption is fixed.

          This is a major problem because real wages almost always (always?) fall with surprise increases in inflation. Sometimes it is of the minor sort where wage increases lag behind inflation, and other times it is of the major sort where unemployment causes a serious drop in real purchasing power.

          *Steady inflation should be ‘baked into’ the interest rate, and as such is more or less neutral in terms of the value of debt.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        So, it’s true that a current spike in inflation, if they are the result of wage gains, favors borrowers over lenders.

        But, if the Fed were to announce a plan for higher inflation, and do so credibly, that would end up being priced into the interest rate of any future loans given, and the borrowers and lenders would be no worse or better off on net, provided the excepted wage growth and inflation materialize (all other things being equal).

        It’s a mistake, I believe, to think of the current long term fed policy as harming borrowers. The current argument for looser Fed policy is that, in the face of a demand shock post 2008, we did not see any signs of approaching the desired inflation rate and wages have stagnated. But this is an argument about current conditions, not an argument about some over arching long term policy.

        We could also, I think, make the argument that, higher wage growth, and subsequent inflation would have helped the credit markets clear faster post-2008 crash.

        • lvlln says:

          The idea that inflation is good for people in debt and bad for lenders is that it’s good for people already in debt and bad for people who have already lended. No one makes the argument that inflation is good for people intending to get into debt in the future or bad for people intending to lend in the future. It’s plainly wrong, for the obvious reasons you laid out.

          Also, the wage gains part isn’t particularly relevant. Regardless of what caused the inflation, once it happens, it reduces the real value of the debt that one holds. If you have $10 debt and a hamburger costs $2, then your debt is worth 5 hamburgers – paying back the debt means foregoing 5 hamburgers. If inflation causes hamburgers to cost $5, then now you have to forego 2 hamburgers to pay the debt instead of 5. Even if you’re still being paid the same nominal amount as before (obviously it helps you if your nominal income increases to keep your real income the same, but that doesn’t affect the fact that the real value of your debt went down).

          • baconbacon says:

            Also, the wage gains part isn’t particularly relevant..

            This, and what follows, is really wrong. Debt isn’t an asset, it is a liability. Having the real value of an asset increase is great because you can realize that gain, but also because it does not necessarily come at the expense of the value of other assets. The ‘real’ decease in debt that comes with inflation comes, BY DEFINITION, with increases in other costs. Imagine two guys talking

            “Did I ever tell you how I got one over on those terrible banksters?”
            “No, pray tell”
            “Well inflation skyrocketed, and I got to pay those suckers back in bills with ever decreasing value!”
            “Wow man, so how come you live in a cardboard box now?”
            “Oh, well eventually I couldn’t afford to eat and pay my mortgage, so I defaulted….#Winning”

          • lvlln says:

            @baconbacon

            Well yes, inflation can screw you over if your nominal earnings don’t rise to make your real earnings stay at the same level. This is obvious.

            The question, though, isn’t whether or not inflation helps or hurts you – that’s a question that can’t really be answered without additional details. The question is, does inflation help or hurt you specifically in relation to your debt? And the answer is that it helps, because it lowers the opportunity cost of your debt. The lowering of the opportunity cost is, indeed, due to the increase in nominal costs of everything else (i.e. the definition of inflation). And that increase in nominal costs can screw you over. Doesn’t change the fact that your debt now costs less to you in real terms (i.e. amount of other stuff you have to forego in order to pay down the debt) than before.

          • baconbacon says:

            Well yes, inflation can screw you over if your nominal earnings don’t rise to make your real earnings stay at the same level. This is obvious.

            You did specifically say

            Also, the wage gains part isn’t particularly relevant.

            And the answer is that it helps, because it lowers the opportunity cost of your debt.

            No, this is only one aspect of the debt, the other aspect is that fixed debt is, well, fixed. How much you value your degree, house or car will depend on how much everything else in the economy costs. If gas prices triple that will significantly decrease the value of a car with low MPG. The fact that the debt is less valuable in real terms doesn’t imply that on net the debt is more valuable.

            Or think about it through expectations. If you think that inflation over the next 10 years will be ~ 2% a year what amount of money would you feel comfortable borrowing to buy a house/car. Now imagine that you expect inflation to be 10% a year, does that induce you to buy an even more expensive house or car?

          • lvlln says:

            @baconbacon

            No, this is only one aspect of the debt, the other aspect is that fixed debt is, well, fixed. How much you value your degree, house or car will depend on how much everything else in the economy costs. If gas prices triple that will significantly decrease the value of a car with low MPG. The fact that the debt is less valuable in real terms doesn’t imply that on net the debt is more valuable.

            I don’t follow this paragraph. Could you expand on it? What do you mean by the “fixed” part of “fixed debt” playing into this? How does the change in value of a car caused by an increase in gas prices play into this conversation at all, as an analogy or otherwise?

            Like, if you incurred a debt last year for $10 with, say, simple 10% interest, then this year you’ll have to pay back $11, next year you’ll have to pay $12, etc. That’s in nominal terms. If inflation skyrockets to 900% between this year and next year, and everything increases in price 10-fold, this decreases the value of your debt relative to anything else you’d want to buy. For instance, if a cup of coffee cost $1 this year, you would have had to forego 11 cups of coffee to pay back the debt this year. But next year, a cup of coffee costs $10, so you’d have to forego 1.2 cups of coffee to pay back the debt. And 1.2 is much less than 11.

            Now, the fact that everything costs 10x to you might still screw you over and make you go bankrupt. This would suck. This would also not at all affect the fact that your debt is now worth less to you in real opportunity cost than it did without inflation.

            Or think about it through expectations. If you think that inflation over the next 10 years will be ~ 2% a year what amount of money would you feel comfortable borrowing to buy a house/car. Now imagine that you expect inflation to be 10% a year, does that induce you to buy an even more expensive house or car?

            I’m not following how this is relevant. We’re specifically talking only about debt that one has already incurred before the inflation in question happened. That is, the higher inflation we’re talking about is specifically unexpected higher inflation that was not baked into the interest rate when that debt was created. Debt that one plans to get into has no bearing in this conversation.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:

            No one makes the argument that inflation is good for people intending to get into debt in the future or bad for people intending to lend in the future.

            The OP makes an argument that seems to be about long term over all policy of the Fed. I think this is an implicit argument that it would be better,long-term, for borrowers to have higher inflation.

            These are people who suffer bouts of unemployment because the FED intentionally makes sure there are less jobs than people looking for work as a way to make sure we don’t have inflation (which would be horrible for lenders and great for people in debt).

            Go look at the stagflation of the 70s and tell me how it was great for debtors and how the lower and middle classes were so happy with the situation…

            Nominal wage gains are very necessary for the individual consumer debt holder to benefit from inflation. Sure, in the long run, things will balance out, but in the short run, the big problem is cash flow. If you default on debt payments and lose your house, it doesn’t matter that you would have been ahead of the game in 5 years.

            Wages are sticky, but prices aren’t.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub

            The OP makes an argument that seems to be about long term over all policy of the Fed. I think this is an implicit argument that it would be better longbterm for borrowers to have higher inflation.

            The OP’s parenthetical reads to me like an aside repeating a fairly well known result of macro econ on how inflation affects pre-existing debt (which Creutzer & Iain explained in an above thread before I did in this one), rather than making some grand statement about how people who have debt do in their personal finances as a whole as a result of high inflation.

            The commentary on the Fed looks like repeating a fairly well-known trade-off in macro between interest rates – which the Fed sets and which tends to be inversely correlated with inflation (a rough, simplistic explanation: higher interest rates -> it costs more to borrow $ -> people tend to borrow less $ -> reduce amount of $ in the economy -> less inflation) – and employment rate. That is, if Fed raises interest rates, that tends to lower inflation but also raise unemployment.

            But if your interpretation is right, then sure, obviously high inflation is bad if your nominal wages don’t rise to keep up. This is true whether or not you have debt, and the debt is only relevant in that it acts as a liability that sucks up resources that you might otherwise spend on other things. This is basically trivially true.

          • baconbacon says:

            I don’t follow this paragraph. Could you expand on it? What do you mean by the “fixed” part of “fixed debt” playing into this?

            When you purchase something there is an expected value to it, which is influenced by all the costs associated with it. Lets say you are looking at houses, and you have narrowed it down to two very similar ones, one with a pool and one without, with the pool adding ~$20,000 in price. If you buy the house with the pool you have fixed your consumption of pools at >=1 for the near future. You cannot (under most circumstances), sell the pool off for $20,000 and reduce your pool consumption to zero. The best you can do typically is move to a house with no pool with all the costs of buying and selling homes and moving, or close up the pool and stop paying to maintain it. Either way it is basically fixed consumption, you will be paying for that pool indefinitely.

            Now inflation doesn’t occur evenly. 2% price inflation doesn’t mean that $3 gas goes to $3.06 next year, and a $500 computer goes to $510 next year, it means that the net price increase of a basket of goods is 2%, but that could mean computers are flat and gas jumps more than 2%, or it could mean that computers drop in price and gas jumps a huge amount. If inflation unexpectedly hits 10% you can bet that it won’t be a 10% across the board increase, increases will be heavily weighted toward necessities like food and fuel, and under persistently high inflation demand for some luxury goods will fall enough that their prices will fall.

            Back to the pool. You borrowed an extra $20,000 for the pool (to keep it simple), prices increase by 100% over time T. The ‘real cost’ of the pool has dropped to $10,000, and so you have ‘gained’ $10,000 buying the pool. However it is plausible (and even likely) that you now wish that you hadn’t bought the pool at all, and had gone with the no pool house, but you cannot escape the stream of payments that comes with the house (easily). Instead you are forced to cut spending in areas where you value it more highly than pool payments.

          • baconbacon says:

            I’m not following how this is relevant. We’re specifically talking only about debt that one has already incurred before the inflation in question happened.

            Debt is like a commitment to consumption. If you borrow to buy a house you are committing to consuming that amount of house. If you would buy a $200,000 house under 2% inflation expectations, but a $150,000 house under 10% expectations (numbers out of thin air) then a sudden surge in inflation to 10% reduces the value of the house to you by $50,000.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            I don’t think it’s as “trivially” as you are thinking.

            You keep using a trade off example, as in the debt payment now only trades off against 4 coffees instead of 5.

            But in a situation where you already have consumer debt, this is a marker of already having made trade-off decisions to set your current consumption. Otherwise you would not have consumer debt. You decided that you wanted to be able to buy whole bean arabica, and not ground Folger’s in a big can. You structured your debt decisions to allow you to do this.

            Or, more consequentially, your daughter is going Private U., not State U.

            Under rising costs, you can’t go back and undo your debt decisions, so inflation absent wage growth just means a current loss of spending power. The fact that my debt is only worth a State U. degree doesn’t matter to me, because my daughter had to drop out of Private U. because we can’t afford it anymore.

          • lvlln says:

            @baconbacon

            Back to the pool. You borrowed an extra $20,000 for the pool (to keep it simple), prices increase by 100% over time T. The ‘real cost’ of the pool has dropped to $10,000, and so you have ‘gained’ $10,000 buying the pool. However it is plausible (and even likely) that you now wish that you hadn’t bought the pool at all, and had gone with the no pool house, but you cannot escape the stream of payments that comes with the house (easily). Instead you are forced to cut spending in areas where you value it more highly than pool payments.

            I disagree with none of this. This is all obviously true. But even you admit that the “real cost” of the pool in this example dropped by 50%. That is literally the only point I was making and basically the only point anyone ever makes when they talk about inflation being good for holders of debt. I think we’re talking past each other.

            @HeelBearCub
            I think you’re making the same point as baconbacon & we’re also talking past each other. Your latest post states things I find to be true. Inflation hurts you if your nominal wages don’t go up to keep up. This is obvious just from the definition of inflation. All else being equal, this hurts you more if you have debt compared to if you don’t have debt. This is obvious just from the definition of debt. You add on the idea of people having made debt decisions based on expected inflation and then getting screwed over if inflation rises beyond what was expected – and this seems true – perhaps not trivially, but definitely and fairly obviously, true. But that’s really on a case-by-case basis depending on how much debt each person went into, how much income they have, how many other assets they have, etc.

            The point is that, for any given amount of debt, the opportunity cost of that debt falls if inflation rises. That’s the only point I’m making. It doesn’t contradict the fact that plenty of people who have debt can be majorly screwed over by inflation rising. Or even that everyone with debt would be hurt by rising inflation if their wages don’t keep up (though I imagine in the real world, there would be people with enough slack in their budgets and enough negotiation power in their wages such that even if the inflation wasn’t wage-driven, they could ride out the increased costs for a little bit until they renegotiated their wages upwards and also enjoy the gains of reduced real debt – I have no evidence, but I also imagine this would be a small # of people).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            I think we are getting wrapped in the minutiae slightly, and that is why it seems like we are talking past each other.

            You originally made this claim:

            … inflation is good for people [currently] in debt

            I believe that statement is the core of what bacon and I have been disagreeing with. Regardless of the minutiae of how many cups of coffe trade off against current debt, we seem to agree that inflation absent wage growth is not actually “good” for debtors, yes?

          • userfriendlyyy says:

            we seem to agree that inflation absent wage growth is not actually “good” for debtors, yes?

            Yes obviously. Inflation minus wage growth is horrible for anyone; debtor, lender, Jesus.
            Let’s say today I borrow $10k at 5% interest for 10 years. That’s roughly $105/month.
            If inflation starts going up to 4% next week I may not get a raise right away but when I do it will have what ever inflation has already happened baked into it but that $105 isn’t changing. So in the immediate short term inflation is bad for everyone, in the medium to long term it is a huge win for people in debt. In the 70’s there are stories of people whose entire mortgage inflated away…. Which is the reason that banks really, really hate inflation.

          • Aapje says:

            Mortages are a good way to think about it. You can have mortgages with fixed interest rates and those with a rate that follows market rates.

            Many debts are like the mortgage with the fixed interest rate. So if inflation happens, your payments stay the same.

            Most other spending is like the mortgage with the flexible interest rate, where if inflation happens, your payments go up as well.

            The argument that inflation is good for debt-holders merely means that when inflation happens, it’s better to have that mortgage with the fixed interest rate, set to the market interest rates of yesterday.

          • lvlln says:

            userfriendlyyy has it exactly right. High inflation sans wage growth is bad for everyone who relies on wages for income. Obviously. But all other things being equal, a debtor comes out ahead relative to a lender, because the real value of the debt payments a debtor has to make decreases, while the real value of the debt payments a lender receives also decreases.

            This is irrelevant to the obvious fact that both a debtor and a lender and anyone else dependent on wages for income could be hurt substantially by inflation sans wage growth. Whether inflation helps the life of a debtor or a lender isn’t something one can determine purely from the fact that they’re a debtor or a lender and requires far more details about their specific finances. Thus it’s unreasonable to interpret the comparison between how debtors and lenders are affected by inflation as making a statement about that. The reasonable interpretation is that it helps debtors relative to lenders with respect to the debt, all other things being equal. Which is true. Even if the inflation ends up hurting both. Which, again, is down to other personal finance details.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            This –

            But all other things being equal, a debtor comes out ahead relative to a lender,

            is very different from what you originally said which was –

            [inflation’s]’s good for people already in debt and bad for people who have already lended.

            In addition, the debtor and the lender are highly unlikely to be “equal”. The lender is far more likely to have both capital reserves and hedges against inflation. Therefore the phrase “all other things being equal” is doing a great deal of work.

          • lvlln says:

            @HeelBearCub
            I considered “all other things being equal” to be obviously implicit when I wrote “relative to a lender” in italics. I could have been clearer. It just seemed obvious to me that when talking about comparing 2 different things in economics – or really any science – “all other things being equal” is implicit unless stated otherwise.

            One problem is, statements like

            In addition, the debtor and the lender are highly unlikely to be “equal”. The lender is far more likely to have both capital reserves and hedges against inflation.

            are empirical claims about the characteristics of the population of debtors and the characteristics of the population of lenders, and talking about that isn’t really useful without actually consulting empirical research. So it seemed obvious to me that when making a simple statement about inflation being better for debtors than lenders was holding all other things equal.

            It’d be like someone claiming that people who take in good nutrition live longer than people who take in bad nutrition, and someone else arguing that people who take in good nutrition also tend to be male and smoke more and engage in dangerous extreme sports. All of those things may be true (though I doubt it in this specific example – but I lack the empirical evidence to claim either way), in which case the population of people who get bad nutrition may tend to outlive the population of people who get good nutrition due to those other factors. But the original point was that all other things were being held equal.

          • random832 says:

            I believe that statement is the core of what bacon and I have been disagreeing with. Regardless of the minutiae of how many cups of coffe trade off against current debt, we seem to agree that inflation absent wage growth is not actually “good” for debtors, yes?

            Is inflation without wage growth really inflation?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @random:
            Most certainly it is. Lots of examples.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @llvln:
          Remember, you originally objecting to my post that:

          So, it’s true that a current spike in inflation, if they are the result of wage gains, favors borrowers over lenders.

          And you specifically objected the “wage gains” part and said that higher-inflation was good for debtors, full stop. That’s how the whole conversation started, but now you seem to want to argue something completely different.

          If you are retracting the original objection, then we are probably just counting angels on the head of a pin.

          Edit: Wrong sub-thread. Oops.

          • lvlln says:

            And remember, this is in the context of a thread that started with an aside parenthetical “(which would be horrible for lenders and great for people in debt).” That “full stop” you perceive is completely ignoring that context, which was the macro economics result that inflation causes pre-existing debt to be worth less and thus “horrible for lenders and great for people in debt,” not some grand statement about [population of lenders] or [population of people in debt]. And in that context, what drives the inflation is utterly irrelevant.

            I’ll make clear now: any interpretation of my comments that reads as making claims about [population of lenders] or [population of people in debt] is a misinterpretation. Clearly you were talking about something else, and I have no objections to what you wrote other than that it seems to be changing the subject from Deiseach’s question which was about the general impacts of inflation on value of money causing impacts on debt, not about the specific impacts of inflation in the current economy to the [population of lenders] and [population of debtors] as they exist in the world today.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @llvln:
            Again, I’ll just repeat, and agree, that what I was responding to was Deiseach making a query about this part of the OP.

            These are people who suffer bouts of unemployment because the FED intentionally makes sure there are less jobs than people looking for work as a way to make sure we don’t have inflation (which would be horrible for lenders and great for people in debt)

            I think we have arrived at the point where we both agree that inflation absent wage growth is not, in fact, great for people in debt? That was really my whole point.

          • random832 says:

            I think there’s an argument that it’s “worse” for the lenders than for the people in debt, even as it’s bad for both of them (and even though this is mostly offset in the real world by the fact that lenders tend to be wealthier)

            Let’s, in defiance of how inflation is normally talked about, suppose that the currency has a fixed value and it’s everything else (except wages) that’s becoming more expensive.

            The borrower is being paid the same amount in wages, making the same payments on their debts, and worse off because their other expenses are higher.

            The lender is being paid the same amount in payments on the debt (with, possibly, a greater risk of default due to the additional cost burdens on the borrowers), and also has higher other expenses.

            In this perfectly spherical system, both parties have their income held constant and their other expenses (but *not* the debt service expenses faced by the borrower) increasing, and the lender faces an additional risk that the debtor will default.

  35. siradamsith says:

    You’re not framing the problem correctly.

    The issue is whether we have more meritocracy or various versions of cronyism at the margin. We need more cronyism. Why? Because we don’t want a single class of really similar people class of people ruling a hoi pollio they are disconnected from. That’s far too risky. Better to spread the risk seeking along dissimilar lines.

  36. dahillauthor says:

    @Scott Alexander, you say

    if I’m some random job interviewer and it doesn’t matter to me either way, I’ll always choose the 1% more meritorious guy.

    What if the margin of error in the correlation between job performance and which school you attended is 2% or 5% or 10%? Then a big percentage of the time you’re actually choosing wrong.

    The core of the problem is using crude measures to make very fine grained distinctions on which money and power and access to future opportunities depend – and these opportunities build on themselves over a lifetime and even into current generations. Hence self-perpetuating elites. “My kids don’t need to be the best, I just need to use all my advantages as a Harvard grad and my knowledge of how to work the system to get them into Harvard.”

    I’m fine with choosing for my surgery between “guy who went to medical school” and “guy who printed his diploma using MS Paint.” But are you (even as a medical professional) able to reliably predict the difference between a guy who went to medical school in NY vs London vs Tokyo? What about between two different medical schools in the US? Yet the difference over a lifetime could be millions of dollars in earnings and untold differences in status because people are convinced these distinctions really matter.

    Lots of Aussies like me come to the US and are very successful despite not attending Harvard simply because US employers don’t know how to compare the University of Sydney with Harvard or Duke so they’re forced to rely on stuff that’s maybe harder to measure but more reliable in predicting job performance. But somehow they manage without this crutch available.

    I think a better description of our current system is “credentialocracy” which is to meritocracy what a wolf in sheep’s clothing is to sheep.

  37. lfstevens says:

    Whomever the rulers are, they will form a tribe that attempts to reify whatever got them there. Merit, lineage, love of video games, whatever.
    Instead of arguing over the rule to use, fight tribalism, via rapid turnover. E.g., limit Supreme Court terms to 10 years.
    If merit and nepotism are bad (sure) what is better? Buckley once clImes that be would rather be governed by a random cull of the phone book than the current lot. I don’t think that would fix much.
    The ultimate solution would be for everyone to actually be equally meritorious. If only that were possible.

  38. Fossegrimen says:

    These last couple threads reminds me of a mode of debate that I keep being surprised over and I’ll add a tangent.

    Where I live, most political debate takes the following form:
    Party 1: We want more X, and to achieve that we should do A, B and C.
    Party 2: Of course, everyone wants more X, but it’s much better to do D, E and F to get that and you should vote for us.

    In anglophone countries*, the form is:
    Party 1: We should do A, B and C.
    Party 2: NO! A, B and C is evil, we need to do D, E and F!
    And nobody even pauses to notice that what everyone wants is more X

    There are several problems with this.
    – It’s impossible to do controlled trails on A vs D when A and D have become terminal values
    – It’s a lot easier to see your opponent as evil which leads to more polarisation

    I’m suspecting that a large part of this whole meritocracy debate is an instance of this failure mode. In order to evaluate whether or not meritocracy is a good thing, we should define what we want to achieve with it/with removing it.**

    * My current hypothesis/prior is that this is built into the language on some level in the same way that having only one word covering both “Efficiency” and “Effectiveness” makes it impossible to realise that there is a difference. I have noticed that there is less of this in Germanic speaking countries and that Spanish seems to be somewhere in between, but I am not a Linguistic so can’t elaborate on the details.
    ** Currently I’m in favour of meritocracy until someone tells me what they are going to replace it with. (This essentially goes for all “Against X” positions)

    • onyomi says:

      I think a couple things are at play:

      1. I think there used to be more genuine consensus on terminal goals. I think the optimum future the right desires and the optimum future the left desires have begun to diverge more in fact, and not just in terms of best ways to get there, at least in the US.

      2. More existing polarization and divergent terminal goals means that both sides are more skeptical of the other side’s motives, even when they claim to want the same thing. When someone left of center tells me “people need to stop thinking their hard work and intelligence makes them better than other people,” I hear “white men need to stop opposing our efforts to equalize outcomes on the theory they deserve any of their success.” When I say to someone left of center “I really, seriously think black people would be better off if we eliminated welfare programs,” they hear “I’m nostalgic for a day when black people shined my shoes.”

  39. Null Hypothesis says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.

    I’m pretty sure that’s just Harrison Bergeron. Where we give the jobs to even to those least-able to do them, and handicap anybody else down to their level.

    The opposite of merit – of one person doing a job better than another – isn’t anti-meritorious distribution of jobs where people are given the jobs they’re worst at. It’s a-meritorious distribution, where things are fixed such that no person can be any better than another at a job.

    And, maybe 7th grade me was just elitist… but when I first heard the story I wasn’t thrilled with living in that world. And I’d still really rather not.

  40. rahien.din says:

    Late to this party, but…

    Isn’t each case against meritocracy summed up as “[Such-and-such system] has more merit than meritocracy!”?

    And don’t most of the objections take the form of “Meritocracy is exploitable!” or “Meritocracy is anti-inductive!” which could constitute an objection to literally any system involving humans?

    This all seems really dumb.

    • Aapje says:

      When people defend the current system as being a meritocracy and/or conflate reality with the ideal, it’s a perfectly fine counterargument to argue that they are full of it and that the current system is not in fact as meritocratic as claimed.

      And don’t most of the objections take the form of “Meritocracy is exploitable!” or “Meritocracy is anti-inductive!” which could constitute an objection to literally any system involving humans?

      These objections are more true for some systems than others. Some systems are more like capitalism, others more like communism.

      I think that it is reasonable to discuss where along the spectrum meritocracy lies.

  41. liz says:

    “I would counter-argue that people still use words like “justice” and “equality” despite their similarly dismal histories. If we have to abandon a good-sounding word just because the people who claim to practice the good-sounding word usually don’t, we’re not going to have a lot of good-sounding words left.”

    Agreed. But in this case I think we do have some proper terms (at least, how I would describe it).
    Seems we’re comparing results-based outcomes and procedures-based outcomes.
    The scoffers seem to be referring to procedures-based outcomes as “meritocratic”.
    The military does this a lot.
    This is why they give Commanders a great deal of discretion in some instances.
    Pointy edge of survival situations require the person who produces the best results must get that job/do that task.(results-based)
    But on the flip side, bureaucratic red tape (politics) demands the fluff for promotion (procedures-based….does he/she have an advanced degree, did they finish the right courses, do they have a lot of volunteer activities and so forth).

    The Soviet Union was a textbook example of procedures based outcome. The thing that matters is the program in place, not whether or not it produces a good result.
    Accountability is shifted that way (“hey, I did my part, we have a program in place”). Procedures based outcomes are generally “cover your backside” motivated.

    • liz says:

      Just to add, a lot of that is the result of scale…the reason larger corporations/government bureaucracies tend to favor procedure based outcomes.
      Imagine you ran a debate site and wanted a certain outcome. Say…”reasoned debate”.
      Human communication is pretty subjective (and often differs between communities, nations, states…due to custom)
      On a small scale, you’d come up with some rules and people would follow for the most part.
      But eventually if participation size grew too heavy to handle and moderate on your own you would have a staff.
      That (smallish) staff would probably run things smoothly on a “that looks about right” scale (disagreements within the moderation team for what they thought “inflammatory” “unconstructive” or whatnot could just be up for vote, but for the most part a competent moderation team could work it out…up to a certain number of participants). Eventually if the participant size grew in the thousands the “that looks about right” measure wouldn’t cut it. There would just be too much work, even if the moderation team expanded.
      So the regulations for posts would become more strict, and rules would be added….eventually it would just be “yes” and “no” squares to fill, very little would be left for the “reasonability test” as regulations grew to head off “unconstructive debate”. The system would become impersonal.

  42. Thoughts:

    * One relevant idea to the discussion is the Peter Principle – if choosing between Alice in the example discussed by Tom Bartleby, in the long run their may be a risk that most jobs are occupied by people who have risen in their hierarchy to their level of incompetence. Maybe the inherent unfairness of choosing Carol can be offset by paying people at least partly based on performance rather than just position – Carol gets the promotion but Alice gets more money.

    * In regards to education, I think it would be a great service to ideal meritocracy to structurally separate teaching and assessment at some or all levels of education and training. There’s a major conflict of interest between the two – specifically, lowering or misdirecting assessment standards in order to make the teaching seem better quality than it is. It puzzles me why neither industry nor government has ever pushed for this on a large scale especially at tertiary level. It would increase competition in both areas too. The only disadvantage would be that it would probably put too much of a squeeze on the non-vocational parts of education, although you could try to get secondary education or some compulsory public tertiary to pick up this slack.

    * Political merit relies partly on being a moral person with a sense of duty, and I don’t think we have any reliable test of that… neither ability to rise through a hierarchy nor the ability to run a successful business particularly filter for a sense of duty or morality, although they might filter for some other beneficial qualities.

    • Maybe […] choosing Carol can be offset by paying people at least partly based on performance rather than just position – Carol gets the promotion but Alice gets more money.

      This is typically how I’ve seen this solved.

      That said, this happened in contexts where no one was aware of who earns what (even approximately), meaning the monetary upgrade was invisible on the social status map, which might not be optimal. I personally find the trade-off between potentially kindling envy and making relative value clear difficult to juggle.

      • po8crg says:

        The status trade-off is also manageable by having separate “expert” and “management” tracks.

        Programmers tend to get interesting titles like “guru” or “architect” at the higher levels of the expert tracks.

        Another possible approach is to take your very best and make them instructors/trainers rather than managers.

        Aside and anecdote: During WWII, the British and American air forces took ace fighter pilots and made them instructors, while the Germans kept theirs on the front line. This resulted in the top German aces racking up huge kill figures, but the Anglophone nations had far more aces. The overall quality of the air forces was similar enough to make it unclear which was better until in 1944 the Allies had a big numerical advantage and shot down all the top German aces, after which the Allied air forces got a big qualitative advantage too. I doubt that last is likely to be much of a problem for most normal businesses.

      • Matt M says:

        A good executive is far more valuable to the company than a good programmer. That is what pay is based on, so it seems odd to assume that Alice should be paid as much as Carol, even if Alice is a Top 1% programmer and Carol is only a Top 20% executive.

        This strikes me as almost leering off into “labor theory of value” territory. How good Alice is at programming is largely irrelevant to her success as a manager. It is in no way “unfair” to promote a “worse” programmer over her for a different job.

        I think this creates general confusion when Scott says things like “Goldman Sachs should hire based on someone’s ability to predict the market.” Well, maybe, for a technical analyst sure. But are technical analysts the people we are considering when we discuss the “ruling class?” Of course not. We’re talking about the executives. Goldman executives don’t need to know how to predict the market – that’s what the analysts are for. The executives need to be able to sell work to clients. They need to make sure that Goldman is the firm of choice for major IPOs, mergers, etc. And the skills necessary for that are not based on predicting the market or performing technical analysis. They’re marketing skills, communication skills, and largely not even skills, but assets like “relationships with top executives in other companies.” Things that you get from belonging to the right country club and going to Harvard Business School and stuff like that.

        • I think your conflating fairness and optimal microeconomics a little there. You’re right that in theory payment should be based on market value (and about labour theory of value being wrong), although the question of demand depends on the nature of the company. Sure being well connected is vital in some industries, but software development strikes me as one where product quality is pretty important to sales, and that paying your developers handsomely might make a lot of business sense.

          As for fairness, it probably makes good business sense to integrate fairness into internal labour decision making because that’s going to effect employee motivation pretty seriously. Although I’d agree with you that the company’s first job is to make money not provide fairness. I’d say that’s mostly the job of a strongly progressive tax system, which can improve fairness without doing weird things to your workforce incentives.

  43. Civilis says:

    One point I keep pushing on this blog is that it’s a bad idea to demand downstream solutions to upstream problems. For example, I’ve argued that if a company’s applicant pool is only 20% women, and the company engages in gender-blind hiring and gets 20% women employees, it’s more useful to focus on the factors shaping the applicant pool composition than it is to yell at the company. For some reason nobody (sometimes including me) seems very good at this.

    I think upstream solutions to downstream problems are just as bad.

    If holding a college degree is a bad proxy for qualification a large number of jobs, the solution is more likely to find a better proxy for those jobs, not tinker with college education.

    One of the issues is that as a class, the determiners of proxies (in this case colleges) have an incentive to use their power to remain the proxy of choice.

  44. Incurian says:

    Scott is very smart.

  45. baconbacon says:

    We don’t live in a meritocracy, we live (generally) in a nepotocracy. You don’t hire the best person for the job, you hire the best person that you know about for the job (at least is is a better approximation).

    What do you get when you hire someone from Harvard? If you are a large enough company that hires from Harvard or fancy pants elitist school X you already have a bunch of Harvard grads, from various years, on staff. You can be pretty sure that your applicant actually went to Harvard. This is surprisingly important, because lying is surprisingly easy in a lot of cases. Why not just ask for a transcript? Harvard claims (on their website) 370,000+ living alumni. If 1/2 of them are in the workforce, and they are considered for one job every 10 years the alumni office is fielding 18,000 transcript requests every year on top of the 4-10 per student that graduated that year (an other 6,000-15,000), with those requests being pulled from 40 years worth of records.

    This is just one half of the inefficiency of a true meritocracy. Everyone of those 24k-43k transcripts has to be received by a business, graduate program, government agency or whatever, and this has to be done for every college, certification program, extracurricular activity for every position if you want to avoid massive fraud among your applicants.

    Relatively small, elite, insitutions are a short cut around paperwork like this. “I see you were on the Harvard Law review in 200Y, you must know Bill Peterson our head of blankity blank, he was the editor in 200X”. Better than that, Bill Peterson will be the guy going to alumni events and on recruiting trips so he can hand pick people to apply for the position.

    Top institutions pluck the cream and then funnel them into cliques and sub cliques within the school, for the purposes (intentional or accidental) of future recruitment. The president of the drama club isn’t necessarily an executive at a movie studio, but he has an automatic in when he visits his old stomping grounds, and who doesn’t want to hear stories about INSERT FAMOUS ACTRESS that was in the club with you?

    This is they only way a system of this size can work, companies cannot devote unlimited man hours to recreating academic papers to make sure that the designs are good, the results reliable and the interpretations honest. They can’t interview 20 friends, professors and colleagues to really nail down your personality and honesty, and they cannot find “the best person for the job”. What is being looked for is a person that is capable of doing the job, so you apply a bunch of filters to end up with a small pool of people who should be capable, and then try to hire someone good from that bunch.

  46. cassander says:

    There’s no way my criticism helps produce the everyone-is-rich world, but it’s super-likely that it helps people like Paul Ryan who just literally want to destroy welfare, in the normal sense of destroying welfare.

    This is an extremely inaccurate description of Paul Ryan’s political goals and aspirations.

  47. herbert herberson says:

    And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame?

    I think a huge part of it isn’t necessarily to change anything in the remotely-near future, it’s just to have everyone roll their eyes at the idea that people who are currently in positions of authority can be inferred to have merit absent more information, or that the solution to a given problem is to simply put more qualified people in charge. Personally, I think that is good.

  48. bumpermeat says:

    Regarding Some Faceless Monk: X, Y, and Z traits. I believe laziness (or time constraints) plays a large role. I’ve read hundreds of resumes in my tech career in Silicon Valley & had to quickly identify which 10-12, usually from a stack of >80, make it to round 1 (phone interview) or 2 (on-site interview) for a role in my org. The process: 1) Scan for typos, spelling & grammar errors. If any, I toss it aside. Why? If you can’t be bothered to proof-read your resume or use an auto-correct tool, why should I bother to read further? 2) Scan for job titles & key words applicable to the role. Now I’m down to a stack of 30-50. 3) Read each to determine if the requisite skills are listed in their work history. 4) Who were their prior employers (same/similar industry) and time in each role. Schools & degrees are almost always listed on the bottom of the resume. I rarely looked at those (for any position requiring work experience more than education). By #4 I’m down to my short list of who will get called for an interview. However, at a certain point in ones career (especially in the upper ranks – read that as management), I’ve seen a distinct shifts from skills &/or work history to cronyism.

  49. sourcreamus says:

    The discussion reminds me of Moneyball. It is a story of someone trying to replace one type of proxy for baseball ability for another type of proxy.

  50. po8crg says:

    I think there is a good case, I won’t say against meritocracy, but one worthy of consideration in how we structure society.

    Which is this: when we are selecting who is employed as a surgeon, or as a BigLaw associate, or as a middle manager (someone whose direct reports are all themselves managers) or whatever, we are not just selecting someone who will be a surgeon. We are also selecting who will be a member of the class that has most of the economic, cultural and political influence.

    Are the qualities that make someone a good surgeon also the qualities that make them a good person for choosing which political candidate to give a $2,700 (max) donation to? Transparently not, but surgeons tend to earn the sort of money that makes that kind of donation pretty normal.

  51. Matt M says:

    The most salient alternative to welfare isn’t everyone-being-rich, it’s poverty. The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism.

    I’m sad to have missed most of this discussion, but this was my immediate reaction to the OP.

    Everyone who attacks something that seems pretty good should be required, immediately, to state what their preferred alternative is. Nobody who attacks meritocracy seems especially eager to do so. Best I can tell, their implied answer is something like “A egalitarian communist utopia – this time with fewer gulags!”

    Meritocracy is not a system wherein certain people rule over certain others. That is statism or corporatism or whatever else. Meritocracy concerns itself only with how the rulers are selected. The only real alternatives to “do the best job we can to implement meritocracy, understanding that we will not get it 100% perfect” are things like hereditary rule, nepotism, cronyism, or random chance. Meritocracy was specifically implemented as an alternative to those things. Not as an alternative to having government or corporations or what have you.

    If your point is that nobody should rule at all, direct your ire towards the existence of government in general. Not towards Harvard Business School.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Conversely, if someone point out the flaws and failure modes of X, these can be true even if X is actually demonstrably better than Y.

      It can both be true that meritocracy is better than the alternatives, and yet needs to have its flaws ameliorated and failure modes guarded against.

  52. Civilis says:

    I really enjoyed this discussion. I know I’m still commenting well after the thread has petered out, but this has been thought provoking and I wanted to get my thoughts out.

    Part of the problem is that linking people and jobs involves two questions. Meritocracy is concerned with one of them: “what’s the best person for this job?”. The other question, “what’s the best job for this person?” is the source of the problem. Since we generally let people pick their own jobs to try for, the question becomes “what’s the best job for me?”

    [Apologies in advance for not knowing baseball very well but using it in an example.] Aaron Judge is, from everything I have read, an outstanding baseball player. If you had a minor league team that needed an outfielder, he would be, on merit, if not the best baseball player for the job, then close enough as to make no difference. Yet, of course, he’s not going to play minor league ball because he can play major league ball; minor league ball is not the best job for him.

    Most of the people we’re talking about in this discussion… surgeons, professional athletes, congressmen, CEOs, etc., are people with a lot going for them. There’s likely a lot of jobs that they’re the best for, so ‘what is the best job for them?’ becomes a more important question. If you want to hire these people, it becomes a matter of making the job better for them so that the two questions have complementary answers.

    True meritocracy is impossible as long as “what’s the best job for me?” is not automatically correlated with “what job am I the best for?”

  53. davidlizerbram says:

    Once you start to pay attention, you tend to notice all the strange places where credential requirements show up.

    A few days ago I saw a performance of the touring company of Book of Mormon. Paging through the Playbill before the show, I noticed that just about every performer had a theater degree of one sort or another. Many had MFAs. It occurs to me that if you went to see a Broadway musical 50 years ago, most likely very few of the performers would have had college degrees in theater. I’ll bet quite a few would have been high school dropouts. Was the quality of Broadway (or Broadway-adjacent) performances better, worse, or the same 50 years ago? I don’t know; I’m 40, and how would you even make this comparison?

    Lots of people complain about the cost of going to a Broadway (or the like) show. Maybe if we got rid of the soft academic requirement for casting, and just let the best singers and dancers sing and dance their way onstage and learn as they go, overhead would go down and ticket prices for all but the most popular shows might adjust. Of course, producers could still demand almost any price for Hamilton on Broadway, but there is certainly price sensitivity elsewhere in the market. Who would suffer, other than musical theater professors?

    Of course, I get where producers are coming from. Lots of people want to be cast in these shows; you have to filter the applicants out somehow. Having acquired an MFA sends a strong signal that the applicant has the necessary dedication, skills, and stamina, and is likely not to flake out before Opening Night. Still, it does seem like there should be a way to filter out applicants without requiring them to take on a fortune in student loan debt. I know next to nothing about the economics of musical theater, but someone, somewhere, is bearing these costs. If it’s not showing up in the ticket prices, then someone else is getting stuck with the bill.

    • Matt M says:

      I don’t think that’s quite right. Entertainment definitely doesn’t price itself in a “cost-plus” sort of matter. The price of a ticket to Hamilton has literally nothing to do with how much the cast members had to pay to go to college.

      Certainly the price of NBA tickets didn’t suddenly spike when they adopted a rule preventing high school players from being drafted, did it? Conversely, nobody thinks the price of NFL tickets would go down if only the players didn’t have to go pretend to be students for a few years prior to entering the league.

      Then again, the reason football and basketball players choose to go to college is that it basically trains them for their future career. I imagine the top ranked theater programs are similar. Hopefully, the students spend most of their time learning how to sing and act, not taking chemistry or mathematics courses. And the most prestigious theater programs are probably the ones that produce the best singers and actors – sort of like how the most prestigious basketball program is Kentucky and the most prestigious football program is Alabama – neither of which are particularly prestigious when it comes to much of anything else.

      • davidlizerbram says:

        I take your point, but almost everybody in the NFL or NBA had a full academic scholarship. And the comparison doesn’t quite work, as in any given city there is a maximum of one NFL or NBA game happening on a particular day, while there are more or less as many musical theater performances as the market will support (more, actually, given all the subsidies).

        I’m wondering if the overall quality of musical theater performers has improved as a result of academic theater programs. If so, great. If not, then it’s just a weird credential requirement, right?

        • Matt M says:

          But how do we know it’s a credential requirement?

          It may very well be that the training at Julliard actually does produce higher quality musicians than learning to play piano in Bob’s basement.

          Therefore, a play that needs the best piano player will simply hire the best piano player – it’s not that they require him to be trained in Julliard, that’s just the place where the best piano players choose to go.

          To turn the analogy back to athletics (a field I know more about), NFL teams are more than willing to draft the occasional player from a no-name Division III school. Teams don’t require you to go to Alabama, Ohio State, or even a middle of the pack FBS school. But the reason so many players from Alabama and Oklahoma are in the NFL isn’t a “credential requirement” in any fair sense. It’s that those are the places who attract the best talent, as I imagine is true for many of the top theater training programs.

    • dndnrsn says:

      I imagine that the degrees aren’t just about singing and dancing. Someone who does a drama degree will be involved in several productions over the course of their degree (or, at least, that’s what the drama kids did where I went to school) often in different jobs: someone might act in a few shows and direct one. Similar is true for someone who does a degree in a musical instrument, or as an opera singer, or whatever.

      It doesn’t just indicate “this person is good at the technical skills,” it also indicates they have been able to function within the context of a stage production or whatever. Which is probably as important as their technical skills. Someone has to be really good to get away with not playing well with others, and even then people often won’t like them.

  54. PeterDonis says:

    > Isn’t the real problem that we have no good system to identify who deserves power over others, in the most general sense?

    I would put it a bit differently: I would say that the real problem is that we have no good way to *not* give people power over others at all. In some cases, sure, it’s unavoidable: if you need surgery, you need surgery, and you are going to have to give the surgeon some power over you to get the job done. But we seem to have a default assumption that the best way to get anything done is to pick someone and give them power over everyone else.

    To put this another way: if meritocracy means “judging people by results”, then you have to be *able* to judge them by results. For a surgeon, you can probably do that–you can look at things like patient outcomes, controlling for confounders, etc., etc. But how do you judge, for example, the Fed chairman on results? We only have one US economy; we can’t turn the clock back to 2007 and re-run the experiment with a different Fed chairman and a different Fed policy and see if it works better or worse.

    In a case like that, where there is no way to really judge on results–basically because there’s no way to control for confounding factors–then the truly meritocratic thing to do would be to give *nobody* power over others. But we are either unable or unwilling to do that.

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