[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.
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.