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Addendum to “Targeting Meritocracy”

I’ve always been dissatisfied with Targeting Meritocracy and the comments it got. My position seemed so obvious to me – and the opposite position so obvious to other people – that we both had to be missing something.

Reading it over, I think I was missing the idea of conflict vs mistake theory.

I wrote the post from a mistake theory perspective. The government exists to figure out how to solve problems. Good government officials are the ones who can figure out solutions and implement them effectively. That means we want people who are smart and competent. Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct. The only conceivable problem is if we make mistakes in judging intelligence and competence, which is what I spend the rest of the post worrying about.

From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests. At best, merit is uncorrelated with this. At worst, we are the lower and middle class, they are the upper class, and there is some system in place (eg Ivy League universities) that disproportionately funnels the most meritorious people into the upper class. Then when we put the most meritorious people in government, we are necessarily seeding the government with upper class people who serve upper class interests.

This resolves my confusion about why people disagree with me on this point. It reinforces a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.

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524 Responses to Addendum to “Targeting Meritocracy”

  1. Douglas Knight says:

    I have heard that (in the 19th century, say) the British Navy was a meritocracy, but the British Army was heavily class-based because there was much more danger of it taking over the country.

    But if that’s what people mean when they object meritocracy, why don’t they just say so? Some people claim to make arguments against it, but I can’t tell what they are.

    • Rusty says:

      I’ve heard that too and given how useless our army was compared to the navy it sounds very believable.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        The alleged uselessness of the British army or officer corps is a pop history meme with little factual basis. Whilst the navy was more effective than the army, that was mostly because, for strategic reason, the country spent much more on it, rather than because the army was run by incompetents.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Spending money on a 19th century military can correlate directly with having more competent management of that military.

          For example, paying officer salaries was a nontrivial expense in a 19th century military budget. Officers were expected to maintain significant expenses out of pocket.

          The cheap solution was to pay officers almost nothing and rely on the fact that the officers were members of a wealthy hereditary aristocracy to pay for it all, but this meant that “is rich enough” becomes a qualification for service in the army that overrides things like “has organizational skills.” Since being the son of a baron and being able to lead troops are not strongly correlated if there isn’t some systematic program to give all barons’ sons military training, this tends to be bad for your army’s leadership cadre.

          The expensive solution is to pay your officers a reasonable sum of money, at least when they are on active duty. *How* this is paid can vary (prize money in the Napoleonic Wars comes to mind as a form of performance incentive), but you still need to be willing to accept that the money is going into the officers’ pockets instead of into the government’s treasury. This gives you a better chance to retain a leadership cadre who know what they’re doing and don’t end up having to leave the service because you didn’t pay them enough money to maintain their uniforms or something.

          • Aapje says:

            It was probably more the other way around: the elite were willing to finance their kids going to war, so they could improve their organizational skills, gain status, gain grit/hardness, etc.

            Since being the son of a baron and being able to lead troops are not strongly correlated

            That was probably extremely strongly related during a time when the aristocracy trained their kids to lead, while the lower and middle class didn’t.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            By the mid-19th century, aristocratic rank and “be part of a rigorous military training program designed to make you a good officer cadet” were decreasingly correlated. Let’s not conflate the feudal knightly aristocracy with its descendants 500-1000 years down the road.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            That’s all very well in theory, but in practice I’ve yet to see any evidence that the British officer corps was noticeably more incompetent than its peers. You don’t get to control the largest empire in history by putting idiots in charge of your army.

      • Akhorahil says:

        The Navy was usually considered less class-based – unlike in the Army, you actually could rise through the ranks.

        This, of course, made it less respectable.

    • Dewwy says:

      I’d be more inclined to say the most significant component of the meritocracy of the British Navy is because it was more important for it function properly for a certain class of people to make their money, and maybe that in reality it served more purpose in actually defending the state than the army did, what with being an island.

      In the 17th century say, if the navy was riddled with incompetence because it was captured by too many status games in appointments then the economy would be disrupted by piracy. If the army is full of officers who bought their commision the issue only comes about at war time and in the case of Britain if the army fails it doesn’t get so bad that you have foreign soldiers in your country-side, what with the water and the navy in the way.

      There’s also the cost component. A warship is an extremely expensive endeavour and if it sinks or is captured it might take you a year to build a new one at full cost.

      • jumpinjacksplash says:

        Navies are also much more obviously complicated – you could just about appoint a captain who doesn’t know how to run a ship and delegates heavily, but if none of the officers know what they’re doing they’d struggle to get out of port. It’s generally not obvious how badly run an army is until you fight a battle.

        Other points:
        The Navy was always more centralised than the army (the central government builds, fits out and supplies warships at naval dockyards, versus simply funding a regiment and leaving it to its own devices), and promoting people on merit is obviously better if you view the Monarch/government as the navy’s “customer.”

        The Navy was presumably less attractive than the army for rich people purchasing commissions – it’s rather less dashing, and involved months at a time in a mouldy wooden box surrounded by water. If no-one wants to buy a commission, promoting on merit/seniority becomes the default.

        Finally, the Navy was largely seniority-based as opposed to merit-based:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provo_Wallis
        (No, his years of service aren’t a typo)

    • domain322 says:

      > But if that’s what people mean when they object meritocracy, why don’t they just say so?

      The first rule of promoting own class interests is to never admit that you’re promoting your class interests. Well, not literally never, when you’re rallying your own people you want to make sure that they understand what you’re really about. But otherwise conflict theory just can’t produce an actual argument, at all. So all arguments you make must be necessarily mistake theory arguments, at least in general appearance.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Sure, if your complaint about the ruling class is that you aren’t in it, then being explicit about that won’t get you much sympathy. And I do think that most complaints about meritocracy are of this form, as I say in my other comment.

        But you can call for an attack on upper class for the benefit of the masses. For example, “Workers of the world, unite.” Maybe you’ll get arrested for writing that, but it’s a conflict argument, not an obfuscation. While Scott’s first formulation is general, his second formulation in which “we are the lower and middle class” should be similar. Why not just come out and say it?

        • User_Riottt says:

          And I do think that most complaints about meritocracy are of this form, as I say in my other comment.

          They aren’t. They are about having an elite beholden entirely to monied special interests whose first and last job is to keep rich people rich and convince the rest of us that they are rich because they are smart and work hard and if you would just work hard too then you’d be rich. Which is 100% pure BS. Lowest social mobility. Pathetically low and easily avoidable inheritance tax. Actually taxes are essentially optional for rich people and companies but if you are poor and lucky enough to have heard about EITC (only 3/4 eligible claim it) you’re chances of getting audited go way up. The level of self delusion you need to have to think this country has anything approaching a meritocracy is mind boggling. But it sure has done a great job of convincing poor people they are useless and better off ODing.

          • rumham says:

            Lowest social mobility.

            I believe that to be incorrect.
            Today, 64 percent of the people born to the poorest fifth of society rise out of that quintile—11 percent rise all the way into the top quintile. Meanwhile, 8 percent of people born to the richest fifth fall all the way to the bottom fifth.

            Granted, stats from 6 years ago, but if it’s anywhere close today, is that truly the lowest? By any measure except excluding all the examples of lower mobility?

          • Swami says:

            Adding on to what rumham wrote…

            All this rhetoric about the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor is absolutely contrary to fact when we stop looking at abstract statistical classes and actually look at living people. As the linked article and every actual study I have ever read reveals, the poorer a person or family is at the start, the higher the likelihood they move up in class and the higher the average gain in later income.

            Poor people, tend on average, to see higher increases in income over subsequent years than those starting non poor. The so-called fact that the poor stay poor is based upon the class itself which now has new members starting at the bottom of the stairs (or escalator?).

            It is like looking at an elementary school of kids and saying the 6th grades are unfairly getting all the height.

          • Aapje says:

            That’s just the logical consequence of wealth accumulating over time and regression to the mean. The proper way to measure social mobility is either correct somehow for these factors or to measure the correlation between parental and children’s incomes. Although really requires correcting for the opposite issue: genetic benefits/downsides being passed on.

            Although if you don’t require an absolute number, but merely a comparison between countries, then these corrections are probably irrelevant.

          • Swami says:

            Aapje,

            “That’s just the logical consequence of wealth accumulating over time and regression to the mean.”

            Partly, yes. But it is also a consequence of people gaining skills and experiences and going through life stages. And that is my point. Those hyping inequality are implying that people are stuck in one class, when most people go through most of all 5 quintiles over various life stages.

            I agree that in a meritocracy, over time, genetic effects and Assortative mating will tend to reduce lifetime mobility.

          • Aapje says:

            Just counting wealth means that people go up in class just because they fill up their pension fund, while they go down in class when they deplete it, even as this has very limited impact on their actual spending ability.

            For example, a 25 year old who just started working, who earns $50k and who puts $10k in a pension fund that they began paying into that year, is poorer in wealth than a 70 year old who has $20k in their pension fund, but who merely gets social security next to what they draw from the pension fund. Yet the purchasing power of the 70 year old is way lower and their prospects are way worse.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @Swami

            The problem is that while in theory, over many generations, a true and optimized meritocracy might eventually see a collapse in social mobility… we haven’t been living in the ideal frictionless vacuum for that long.

            We’re still no more than 1-2 generations out, and in some ways zero generations out, from an era in which inheriting brains and gumption from your parents often mattered a lot less than inheriting a pale skin from them, or inheriting your daddy’s Y chromosome.

            I would argue that it has not been long enough, nor is our present society unambiguously meritocratic enough, for us to use modus tollens to say: “in a true meritocracy, eventually the genetic component of merit and assortative mating would cause social mobility to drop, so the drop we now see in social mobility must be caused by this process.”

            It is about as consistent with the data to claim the opposite: that meritocracy itself is being attacked. Attacked by forces that make it difficult for those born poor to escape poverty, even if they have great talent and would do very well if the ladder to power were not covered in greased and broken rungs. And easy for those born rich to remain powerful, even if they are uninspiring and unremarkable as individuals.

            These anti-meritocratic forces have always been in play, because they are necessary for the preservation of aristocracy, and aristocrats tend to shape societies in ways that perpetuate their power.

          • Swami says:

            Jester,

            I am not sure why you seem to start by almost quoting me, but then you just finish the “quote” by filling in something other than what I said.

            My point is that lifetime mobility is still pretty robust, but that genetic effects are becoming more important over time.

          • peak.singularity says:

            @Simon_Jester :
            Well, yes, the aristocracy does that.

            But the thing is that today’s aristocracy –
            Roughly – the “cognitive elite”, the “9.9%” = $1.2M+ net worth, live on the East/West coasts, went to Ivy League / MIT
            – got there in very meritocratic ways !

            (I’ve already posted this article in this discussion thread, but I feel compelled to do it again, considering how well it seems to pattern-match what you are saying !
            https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/
            )

            So, genetic effects already, or not ?

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @Swami

            It’s because I share your argument that in an abstract ideal frictionless vacuum, the thing you describe would happen… But I don’t think that observation is relevant to the real society of the United States or other developed countries. Even if we live in a society that has finally cleansed itself of all the dumb forms of discrimination that necessarily prevent true meritocratic selection of talent… We just plain haven’t lived in such a society for very long. Not long enough to reach or even approach a stable equilibrium in which genetic effects could plausibly dominate

            Meanwhile, lifetime mobility strikes me as only being robust if you count, for example, someone whose life trajectory involves being born to a couple with an MBA and a master’s degree, working as an intern or through grad school of some kind, then getting their own MBA and becoming rich as a ‘rags to riches’ story. Which it’s not; it’s “being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire.”

            And without that, talking about how a person progresses through the quintiles as their life proceeds doesn’t really strike me as a good reflection of how class structure works. The people working retail or living in a dying Rust Belt town are not simply a larval stage of the people in the top third of the income distribution, even if the grad students and interns who [i]are[/i] nominally have the same income or wealth that they do.

            @peak.singularity

            Barring extremely implausible founder effects that mean WASPs were the master race to a far greater extent than the history of Europe would lead us to believe, it hasn’t been long enough since the “new elite” was fully meritocratic for genetic effects to sink in properly.

            Furthermore, it is questionable IMO whether the correlation between membership in the ‘cognitive elite’ and financial power is as reliable as you might think. There are just plain too many people who show every sign of having a lot of money because a corporate executive had babies with his trophy wife, and even if we grant that the executives really are the best and brightest (not, say, the most cunningly sociopathic but dysfunctional outside a corporate atmosphere that enables sociopaths)…

            Well, the trophy wives aren’t being selected for ‘cognitive elite’ status, and throwing their DNA into the mix should lead to a lot of regression to the mean if we accept your core premises.

            The American upper class simply is not a well-organized eugenics program designed to breed superlatively intelligent people.

          • peak.singularity says:

            WASPs are the old aristocracy. Their peak was the 1920’s-1940’s. The new aristocracy that replaced them is quite a bit more diverse, in ethnic origin at least. The culture (including religiosity, or rather lack of it) seems to have automatically converged ?

            It’s not so much about the sheer financial power any more (but for how long ?).
            (I believe that the % of people that could afford a top-tier education increased quite a bit since the 1940’s?)
            And the CEO’s of the last 80 years probably had a lot less children than their equivalents before used to too ?

          • rumham says:

            @Simon_Jester

            And without that, talking about how a person progresses through the quintiles as their life proceeds doesn’t really strike me as a good reflection of how class structure works. The people working retail or living in a dying Rust Belt town are not simply a larval stage of the people in the top third of the income distribution, even if the grad students and interns who [i]are[/i] nominally have the same income or wealth that they do.

            Except that’s not how the stats I referenced work. Those are for the quintile you’re born into.

          • Swami says:

            @Jester

            ” We just plain haven’t lived in such a society for very long. Not long enough to reach or even approach a stable equilibrium in which genetic effects could plausibly dominate.”

            Which is why I never suggested we were approaching a stable equilibrium or dominance of genetic effects.

            On lifetime mobility, the normal course is for a person to be born of parents without MBAs, starting out in lowest quintile perhaps while going to school or starting at an entry level position, getting married and then slowly rising into the fourth quintile based on two solid incomes. Most people in the US go through most quintiles, and only a small percent of the top quintile have advances degrees.

            “The people working retail or living in a dying Rust Belt town are not simply a larval stage of the people in the top third of the income distribution”

            But they are. The retail worker applies herself and becomes assistant store manager after a number of years. The guy in the rust belt gets his act together and moves to Austin and gets a better job in a new thriving industry. Or perhaps they just stay where they are and they marry and begin to make slightly upper middle class combined income.

          • Clutzy says:

            Even if we live in a society that has finally cleansed itself of all the dumb forms of discrimination that necessarily prevent true meritocratic selection of talent… We just plain haven’t lived in such a society for very long. Not long enough to reach or even approach a stable equilibrium in which genetic effects could plausibly dominate

            Possibly, its also possible that those hierarchies loosely represented biology so removing them did little, because they were doing little.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @peak.singularity

            If you grant the proposition that our elites are probably higher-quality now on the grounds that access to elite status became more open to non-WASPs, it invites the question of whether we went far enough.

            It also invites the observation that the incentives for elites to monopolize access to the system for their descendants remain constant over time. By default, we would expect any meritocratic system’s safeguards to eventually be subverted by members of the meritocratic elite who are responding to their incentive to become the next hereditary aristocracy. The real questions worth discussing are:

            1) Is this already happening or have we forestalled it so far? Also,

            2) If this IS happening, is this happening faster than genetic effects can turn our hereditary aristocracy into genuinely superior genetic overlords? And,

            3) Is making a hereditary aristocracy of genuinely superior genetic overlords actually a good thing, as in will the world be a better place than if you opened up access to elite status to a wider range of people, some of whom are theoretically inferior because of genetic factors?

            I would argue that the answers to those questions are “it’s starting to happen,” “no,” and “probably not,” respectively.

            @Swami

            The core underlying debates I see on the social mobility issue are:

            1) “Okay, if the centroid trajectory of adult life in America involves an orderly progression through the quintiles, what level of social mobility is required to make this progression workable for an acceptably large fraction of Americans?” Also…

            2) “Are the prerequisites for getting to the 60th-70th percentile starting to move unacceptably far out of reach, and/or is being at the 60th-70th percentile becoming insufficient to provide a reasonable degree of personal well-being?” Also…

            3) “To what extent is the separate but related question of limited access to the uppermost slice of the wealth-power distribution a problem?”

            As an example of (3)… Imagine a society in which atheists, by working hard all their lives, can get into the 75th percentile of income, but never do they ever get into the 99.9th percentile. Such a society might have problems that would be quietly undermining its social fabric and functionality, even if the atheists aren’t spending literally their whole lives at the bottom rungs of the ladder like a bunch of slaves. Smug churchy people might deny that there is a problem here… but they’d be wrong, let’s be honest, they’d be wrong.

            @Clutzy

            There is a parallel universe where your alternate hypothesis is true, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that we live in that universe, aside from rather tired and circular arguments from social Darwinism.

          • Swami says:

            Jester,

            I would reply with a Rawlsian answer. Every person needs to decide which type of society he or she could do best in and join or seek to create such a society based upon voluntary agreements of the other adults. In other words, they should gravitate to whatever society provides them and their loved ones their preferred level of safety, comfort, growth, freedom or potential prosperity.

            Honestly, I can see people choosing a place like Sweden, especially when filled with other Swedes. I can also see people choosing a substantially more dynamic place like the US, especially if they want to live in a larger, more diverse place with higher upside potential, albeit more risk.

            The problem with choosing which kind of society to join is that the other people also have to choose you. This creates both opportunity and obligation. Potential benefits and duties. Whatever society you join needs to see you as worth having as a member.

            “Imagine a society in which atheists, by working hard all their lives, can get into the 75th percentile of income, but never do they ever get into the 99.9th percentile.”

            You are judging a society based on one dimension. Real humans never choose on one dimension, as it would be absurd to do so. The problem they face is which type of society can they do better in considering their desire for safety, freedom, opportunity, upside potential, camaraderie, fairness and dozens of other value dimensions. I support the Atheists “right” to move to any other society which will have them or to try to convince us we could make our society better. I also support their freedom to convert to non atheism, or to try harder.

            “Such a society might have problems that would be quietly undermining its social fabric and functionality”

            I believe that current levels of mobility and the institutional rules that mobility is based on (meritocracy?) are in no way undermining our social fabric or functionality. It is, in my opinion pretty much a non issue. What is an issue, is chicken littles screaming that the sky is falling and exaggerating and propagandizing inequality and falsely confusing inequality with unfairness (2 totally separate things). IOW, I think mobility is fine, but that those spreading falsehoods about mobility and equality are indeed a threat to our social fabric and functionality. The lie is more dangerous than the reality.

            I believe that anyone born in the developed world today is in the top 99.9 percent of humans just by being lucky enough to be born in such a well functioning society. Our poor are better off than the wealthiest of even a century ago. What I am concerned with is those peddling inequality destroying what is working so well for all of us. They always do.

      • Ketil says:

        The first rule of promoting own class interests is to never admit that you’re promoting your class interests.

        This makes it sound rather dishonest, but I don’t think that’s how it works.

        Rather, first you posit that unfairness in the world is caused by one group’s oppression of another. (Gender, sexuality, skin color, ethnic group, bourgeois/proletariat, take your pick) Then you collect evidence for your position (add confirmation bias to taste) and discuss it with like-minded people, and get overwhelmingly convinced that this oppression is, in fact, the root of all evil in the world.

        Typically, you would belong to the oppressed group, it makes it both easier to identify unfairness (as a man, I know about suicide rates and child custody numbers) and also more convenient (discrimination was obviously the reason I didn’t get that promotion). But not necessarily, e.g. educated intellectuals would buy into classical Marxism (viz., the working class vs capitalist class struggle) – but you usually won’t see yourself as part of the oppressing group. Members of the alleged oppressor group would typically react with puzzled disagreement (“but I’m not racist”) or denial (“women today have all the same opportunities men have”), which is taken as indication of a secret conspiracy that aims to maintain the oppressive structures in society – leading directly into conflict theory territory: the outgroup is nefariously plotting against us!

      • Telomerase says:

        “The first rule of Class Club: you do not talk about Class Club”

        😉

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtYU87QNjPw

    • peak.singularity says:

      But they do say so ? Haven’t you noticed all the anti-elite (& out of touch with the world – “expert”) sentiment rising in the past 10 years ?? (Or am I misunderstanding your position ?)

  2. Anonymous Bosch says:

    But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.

    This is going to be true of every policy that you cannot express without resorting to terms such as “good” or “meritorious.” When people strain very hard to couch their particular brand of utilitarianism in passive-voice corporate speak about “effective solutions” and “conflict theory” it seems like nothing so much as an attempt to avoid the hard work of straight-on persuasion.

    • Roebuck says:

      Corporate speak and passive voice are rather absent from the post – not sure what you’re referring to…

  3. Plumber says:

    @Scott Alexander >

    “…From a conflict theory perspective…”

    Your now better understanding of the opposition to “meritocracy” does you credit.

    If you ever say “Deserve has nothin’ to do with it” you’ll have come far.

    • bzium says:

      He kind of did say that in the original blog post. Scott quoted opposition to the idea that smart people “deserve” to be rich and have good jobs, and agreed with it.
      It’s just that putting smart people in a job will lead to the job getting done better. I guess the counterpoint to that is “who cares that the job gets done better if the benefits get captured by the guy doing the job?”

      Neither position is really about believing that people deserve something. It seems to be more about disagreement to what degree society is a zero-sum game.

      • etaphy says:

        That counterpoint is a pretty horrific reflection of status competition because normally, EVERYBODY should care. If meritocracy stops being the norm in a given organization(society), many small effects will accumulate over time to make it less efficient, and more wasteful in regards to human labor and time. In Russian, there’s a saying that goes “dividing the skin of a yet unkilled bear”, in English there’s “counting unhatched chickens” – arguing over the fruits of labor that’s yet to be even begun, and disparaging meritocracy would encourage such attitudes en masse to displace part of the actually productive undertakings.

        And most importantly, it forgets that from a whole-society perspective, the most important benefit of a job is satisfying the clients’ needs, not getting paid by said recipients of labor! You’re creating value, how precisely the benefits are spread(let’s argue over fairness instead of doing anything productive) matters less than the fact that the arrangement produces something greater than the sum of its already existing parts and reserves.

        • TheAncientGeeksTAG says:

          That counterpoint is a pretty horrific reflection of status competition because normally, EVERYBODY should care. If meritocracy stops being the norm in a given organization(society), many small effects will accumulate over time to make it less efficient, and more wasteful in regards to human labor and time.

          Meritocracy is much more important in some contexts than others. The Royal Navy was was a meritocracy because sailing ships were very complicated, possible the most complex technology at the time. One of the odd wrinkles of that is that leadership/command isn’t so cognitively demanding. You can have fairly mediocre people at the top, providing they stick to keeping things ticking over. Meritocracy is a middle class sort of thing.

          • Antistotle says:

            One of the odd wrinkles of that is that leadership/command isn’t so cognitively demanding. You can have fairly mediocre people at the top, providing they stick to keeping things ticking over.

            That is so, so wrong. Doubly wrong on an ocean going sailing ship.

            Read the book Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race by Dennis Perkins and Jillian Murphy, or better yet Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink, Leif Babin, et al.

            Leadership and/or command is fairly cognitively demanding in “Fair winds and following seas”. When sailing into the face of a force 7 or higher it gets overwhelming.

            This holds true across all of human endeavor.

          • etaphy says:

            I think part of the cultural mess we’re currently in is the result of the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilbert_principle and its derivatives. Accepting that it’s alright for mediocrity to be in charge as long as ‘things keep ticking’ is a surefire way to stunt any enterprise especially given the resulting negative selection for scruples-free obedience. The causality might be inverse, or going both ways – employees see mediocre leadership and assume that it must be the outcome of “meritocracy”, rather than the results of bureaucratic lip service to the concept combined with generic office politicking.

          • Desrbwb says:

            Antisotle, you seem to have somewhat misunderstood the historical hierarchy of the Royal Navy. The guys sailing and commanding the ships weren’t ‘at the top’. The top were the Flag Officers and the men at HQ. That’s the point TheAncientGeeksTAG seemed to be getting at. At the ‘ship’ level, the Navy was highly meritocratic, because if you were bad at sailing your ship, things went very badly, very obviously. But when you got promoted out of ship command, and the job became less directly life or death, there was more room for mediocrity to slip by (plus of course the old management issue, that the skills that make someone ‘good at sailing and fighting a ship’ don’t necessarily equate to ‘good at running a Navy from HQ’).

          • Simon_Jester says:

            This is why getting into the ranks that could conceivably be responsible for the command of a ship during an emergency (from “lieutenant” to “post-captain”) required a brutal oral examination that some midshipmen spent a decade preparing for and still couldn’t pass, along with intense and fiercely competitive struggle for promotion and military glory…

            …But then getting promoted from post-captain to admiral was done on a basis of pure seniority. The meritocratic promotion structure stopped dead at “captain of the list.”

        • Ursus Arctos says:

          “And most importantly, it forgets that from a whole-society perspective, the most important benefit of a job is satisfying the clients’ needs, not getting paid by said recipients of labor! You’re creating value, how precisely the benefits are spread(let’s argue over fairness instead of doing anything productive) matters less than the fact that the arrangement produces something greater than the sum of its already existing parts and reserves.”

          This is… a bold statement of belief. Is the claim that it’s better to have something than absolutely nothing- no matter how it is distributed? Because this is trivial. Is the claim that it’s better to produce more than it is to redistribute at the margin? Because if so this is just a restatement of your beliefs.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yeah. Most people who argue against our society’s notions of meritocracy are basically arguing either:

            1) That the distribution of income and wealth (not the same thing) are so blatantly disparate that even if we grant that marrying power and merit helps, marrying them that tightly doesn’t help. At some point a lopsided distribution of resources distorts incentives and makes things worse. Giving the CEO all the money and the employees none would not necessarily be a good way to run a business, even if the CEO is theoretically more meritorious and hard to replace than any other employee of the corporation- even if that theoretical superiority reflects reality, which it may not.

            2) That meritocratic arguments are used to justify things they should not justify (i.e. “meritocratically people who work harder should be richer” is not a valid argument against having a progressive income tax, because d$/d(hardwork) remains positive and substantial under most taxation regimens), OR

            3) That merit is being defined, not in terms of what is actually productive, but in terms of what it is beneficial to the elites to call merit. If this is the case, then the entire argument “it would be better to be more productive by joining power and merit at the top of the pyramid” falls apart, because the response becomes “not if you define merit like that it wouldn’t be.”

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          In Russian, there’s a saying that goes “dividing the skin of a yet unkilled bear”, in English there’s “counting unhatched chickens” – arguing over the fruits of labor that’s yet to be even begun

          This is only tangentially relevant, but, I understand that the Bangladeshi equivalent is “oiling one’s mustache before the jackfruit is ripe” – which embeds a heroic number of culturally-specific assumptions.

      • nyc says:

        > Neither position is really about believing that people deserve something. It seems to be more about disagreement to what degree society is a zero-sum game.

        It’s pretty clearly not a zero-sum game, but it doesn’t have to be if stealing is more profitable than creating. Given the choice between creating three utils of which you get one, or destroying five utils for someone else while transferring two more from them to yourself, many people would choose the latter. The net to themselves is +2 instead of +1 even though the net to society is -5 rather than +3.

        The biggest reason this strategy isn’t optimal is that it invites reciprocity. If you create three and get one on separate occasions, you net +2. If you and the other tribe each succeed in destroying five to get two on separate occasions, they don’t just cancel, they make it a net negative sum game for everyone.

      • Darwin says:

        >It’s just that putting smart people in a job will lead to the job getting done better.

        There are two main problems with this maxim, which are metrics and domain knowledge.

        First of all, for some jobs, sure, it’s easy to say what ‘getting done better’ means.

        But for a lot of jobs, especially in politics, there’s no objective metric to judge by; you could make up some metrics, but you wouldn’t get nearly universal support for them, and you probably couldn’t get an objective measure of the outcomes anyway, because they’re tied up in a million unpredictable real-world factors.

        That’s the point where the argument over the metrics is just an argument over the different values and stakes of the people involved, which brings you back to conflict theory (although not necessarily demographic-based, just values-and-preferences-based.

        Second of all, yes, the smartest person is the best ceteris parabis, but those parabises are rarely ceteris in the real world.

        I’m pretty sure I have a higher IQ than any of the plumbers or handymen who I’ve had working on my house or fixing my car over the years, but they’re going to do a much better job than me because they have domain knowledge and expertise.

        Which raises the question: if you’re a politician put in charge of running HUD and solving the housing problems of poor people, does growing up in the projects and being a poor person and living with poor people and dealing with poor people problems your entire childhood and young adulthood and having poor family still there that you talk to regularly, count as ‘relevant domain knowledge’?

        Can a rich Ivy League kid learn everything you know about the issues these communities face in a 2-week orientation, or are you always going to have a massive advantage in understanding and knowledge and perspective because you’ve actually lived there and are still personally tethered to the community?

        Mistake theorists who give different answers to that question, will have different opinions on whether the ‘smartest’ person (irrespective of domain knowledge and experience) will really do the best job.

        • Aapje says:

          @Darwin

          Indeed. For example, according to supporters of the EU, it is making us all richer. Yet real incomes have not increased for many.

          Is that because the supposed benefits of the EU are exaggerated, a matter of the benefits ending up with few people or due worldwide reduction in economic growth regardless of what benefits the EU brings? The answer one gives to this question is going to impact how people feel about the EU (and also, if they are part of the group that is not affected by this malaise).

  4. Ninety-Three says:

    From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests.

    I think this is an incomplete picture: it explains government and maybe big business CEOs, but why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering? The problem is not that all the highly-educated doctors will somehow advance the interests of the educated class, getting to be doctors is the class interest. Those careers are spoils to be fought over and meritocracy gives all of the good jobs to their class while our class are stuck driving garbage trucks.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      I can see people opposing credentialism in those fields but not true meritocracy.

      To practice as a doctor you need to pass many formal hurdles to be allowed into that class.

    • Ttar says:

      I get that your argument is just that people think this, but God… Do people really think this? Do people think you can slot garbage truck drivers into careers as doctors? Do people think there’s some law preventing the children of garbage truck drivers from studying and taking out some loans to become a doctor like all the rest of us can?

      • callmesalticidae says:

        > Do people think you can slot garbage truck drivers into careers as doctors? Do people think there’s some law preventing the children of garbage truck drivers from studying and taking out some loans to become a doctor like all the rest of us can?

        First pass at an argument someone might use: “The children of garbage truck drivers aren’t explicitly banned from becoming doctors, but you’re overlooking that those children probably live in a subpar school district (in part because schools are largely funded by property taxes and garbage truck drivers are unlikely to live in an area with high property values) and may not receive a good enough education to get into and through med school, that it is more likely that both of their parents work full-time (or even more than forty hours/week each) and may not have the family quality time which children need, and so on. By saying that med school simply and solely rewards ‘merit,’ we overlook the numerous accidental factors which can influence outcomes. Or, in other words, merit per se isn’t a bad thing to reward, but what we’re *actually* rewarding are other things.”

        • Clutzy says:

          The school district, if it is “subpar” is more likely to be so because it contains children who are related to truck drivers, and parents who are truck drivers. School “quality” is mostly a measure of student quality, and then parent quality, with teachers and facilities making up very little.

          • Antistotle says:

            Do you have any kids in school?

            Because I just had parent teacher conferences with my kids teachers–at a reasonably well thought of charter school–who admitted that my kid “knows things I don’t”.

            If I thought I could fix some of my kids non-educational problems we’d go back to home schooling in a heart beat.

            I’m not blaming the teachers entirely. Firstly it’s the focus the *parents* put on education. Secondly it’s the Gramscian damage to the schools of education, and some of the idiotic notions (at least one of which Our Host seems to have imbibed) that they have foisted on the educators.

            All but the lowest quartile of students can get a reasonable education. Maybe not to “Doctor” level, that requires both a *slightly* higher IQ than “normal”, but more importantly a much higher “time preference” and “focus” than normal.

          • Purplehermann says:

            My first hand and second hand knowledge of schools says there are very different qualities of schools

          • gkai says:

            Agreed, but largely a factor of students. If most students play by the rules and try to perform the best they can, the school works well. If they don’t, or even if there is a significant minority of children actively fighting the rules, then the school quickly become bad.

            Teachers will also have a much easier time in the first case, so, depending on how much teachers can choose where they work, you may end up with better teachers in the first case. More money to pay them, because less money to spend on controlling the unruly students and give extra help to the slow ones. Plus “good” students tends to come from richer families, hence even more money available….Everything snowball into virtuous/vicious circle, but the root cause is indeed having enough good students, or more, accurately, not too many bad students.

            By good student I mean reasonably clever, but above all docile.
            A school with docile 90+IQ students will work much better than a 100+IQ of unruly ones.

        • nkurz says:

          It’s also likely that garbage truck drivers don’t have many doctors in their social circle, and thus their children lack the sense that “being a doctor” is a realistic lifestyle choice. They and their children also probably lack the social knowledge of what becoming a doctor requires, and when the process starts.

          I attended an elite college, and it was probably the middle of my sophomore year and had already declared a major that I realized that a “pre-med” concentration existed at my school. It wasn’t wasn’t until I had friends in med school that I had a conception of how medical schools and residency programs work.

          While I do have a couple friends who did choose late in life to pursue medical careers, it seems plausible that lack of familiarity (which I presume includes 90% of people who didn’t grow up socializing with medical professionals) with the process has a strong gatekeeping effect.

          • Clutzy says:

            This strikes me as nearing implausible.

            My parents are a salesman and a secretary. I knew about the idea of being an M.D. before I went to college. I didn’t choose that route, but chose a route that would give me the possibility from the beginning. And I had like 1/10th the information my younger siblings had, because I was basically a cheat sheet for them (including my mistakes that both easily avoided). These paths are simple to figure out compared to even rudimentary networking that someone needs to get a job as a McDees manager.

            The medical profession has to be one of the worst examples for this. Law and politics are certainly high barriers to entry for poor white kids, but that is because almost everyone in those professions suck at their jobs, so they basically just hire nephews and diversity candidates.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @Clutzy

            For myself, I only realized that the job I wanted was “engineer” in junior year of high school, and only because my math teacher was one. I knew I liked math and mechanics, but I figured that that just meant that the appropriate career was something to do with physics or something. I knew I liked designing and building things, but I didn’t give any critical thought as to how analytical a process that might actually be. Crucially, neither I nor anyone in my family knew anyone who was an engineer. In retrospect, sure, it’s obvious, and I probably would have figured it out even if I wasn’t friendly with my math teacher, but it’s easy to underestimate just how little a lot of people know about what other people’s work (and education) actually requires or involves. I think I learned about how medical programs work in freshman year, but only because one of my biologist friends mentioned possibly doing medical school and I realized that I had never seen “medicine” as an undergraduate major.

          • Antistotle says:

            @Clutsy.
            > This strikes me as nearing implausible.

            Now, my father was from a *much* different generation (he’s already dead), but when he was growing (late grade school probably, maybe first year of highschool) one of his buddies was the son of doctor (this was before the salaries of doctors took off, so while Doctors made a decent living it wasn’t stratospheric.

            My father met the guy and decided *then* that he wanted to be involved in medicine, but both of my fathers parents were immigrants–grandpa (I never met him) was a dishwasher, grandma never worked outside the home (barely spoke english ever). My father believed that there was no path to med school for him. Eventually he dropped out of highschool (when his father died), wound up getting his GED and eventually getting into the medical profession on the sales side of things.

            So no, not implausible for someone to think that way. After all, that is what even today “society” is telling “poor” kids. To quote Ice-T :

            “Yo man, it sounds like you’re selling out to me, ‘cause I’m from the ghetto; I lived in the ghetto all my life!
            We ain’t supposed to leave here! We’re black! We’re supposed to be poor!”

            To which he responds:

            Shut up! Do you know how dumb you sound?
            That mentality’s what keeps my people down!
            No one wants to live in an urban war
            You live there cause your parents were poor
            They live there because theirs were also
            Get yourself together, hit the gates bro!

            “Escape from the Killing Fields”, Ice-T and Akfrica Islam.

            My father made sure that my brother and I were exposed to a wide variety of professions and trades while we were growing up. My brother has a MBA. I joined the Marine Corps before going to college and getting a BFA.

          • FormerRanger says:

            Clutzy: This strikes me as nearing implausible.

            It strikes me as being utterly plausible. It may be less likely today than it was 20 to 30 years ago, but there are still a lot of kids (and parents) out there who have no understanding or knowledge about how to go about getting into college, or that doing so is a prerequisite for getting into a profession, or even of getting a good job.

            Even such “obvious” things as filling out the forms to take the SAT, or to apply to college is something they don’t know how to do. Even more “plausible” is that they don’t know how to get financial aid for college, and so decide “I can’t go” even if there is actual financial support explicitly targeted for people in exactly their situation.

            Many kids in their situation get no help at all from the “guidance counselors” at their school. Kids from middle class families are able to absorb some of the information from their environment, and they get better, more active counseling, but even they (or their families) have to learn what to do and how to execute it.

            I’m not suggesting that there is an easy solution to this problem. You can’t expect to come into a low-performing high school and teach low-performing kids the steps to become a doctor. It’s too late for that.

        • stucchio says:

          By saying that med school simply and solely rewards ‘merit,’ we overlook the numerous accidental factors which can influence outcomes…but what we’re *actually* rewarding are other things.”

          This argument is logically flawed because you are conflating meritocracy and some conception of justice.

          You are hypothesizing causal factors for why merit might be distributed in a manner considered unjust. Other examples include brain damage due to infantile oxygen deprivation, quadrapalegia due to car accident, or childhood trauma resulting in fainting upon sight of blood.

          Excluding someone who can’t move their hands from being a surgeon is meritocratic. That person lacks medical merit; they are simply incapable of doing surgery.

          Some unfair and tragic things reduce medical skill and other forms of merit. But that does not mean that measurement of medical skill is non-meritocratic.

        • Antistotle says:

          They can say that all they want, the fact is that for all but the poorest families IF the parents value education there plenty of ways to get them educated.

          IF the parents value education and IF the children want to learn.

          I have a relative who was a principle in a Catholic school in a medium sized city, they offered scholarships for children *regardless* of their parents religion. Yeah, I think you had to attend church once a week, but this was a far better education than available to public school kids of *any* socioeconomic status.

          I worked with a guy in who was a Electrical Engineer (masters degree) who had grown up in a poor family that valued education. He did not have his own room growning up (neither, BTW, did my wife) and had to learn to study at the dining room table with the chaos of a medium sized family going on around him–this was through his bachelors degree as there wasn’t money for him to live in the dorms. He could have easily gone the doctor route, it is actually less demanding academically than EE, and for all his other faults he was a really bright guy.

          My brothers first fiance was from a small town in southern Missouri who attended public schools in a semi-rural area. She graduated from a mid-tier state school and was accepted into their medical school on her first application. She had made the decision as a child that she wanted to be a doctor and stayed focused on that.

          Today *any* student, outside of the most corrupted areas, who has the desire and at least nominal support of their parents can get the education they need to *some* medical school, and there are plenty of avenues, from private scholarships to student loans to Department of Defense programs to pay for it.

          As for those in the “most corrupted areas” if you have a full time job you can move out of them and give your kids a better shot. Or you can vote for the sorts of politicians who will fix them, not just continue the misery.

          • jereshroom says:

            Yeah, I think you had to attend church once a week, but this was a far better education than available to public school kids of *any* socioeconomic status.

            Imagine you live a few miles from a Pagan neighborhood. There’s a prestigious Pagan school there that’s generally considered extremely high-quality.

            [Note: I don’t know much about Paganism, so I’m using a fake hypothetical version of it.]

            The math teachers are excellent. The PE teacher is excellent. The English teachers are excellent, but use a lot of Pagan texts in class that you aren’t supposed to be overly-critical of. The history teachers they teach a pro-Pagan version of history (again, criticism not recommended). The science teachers teach Pagan nonsense. They don’t teach economics because they think it’s a harmful way to think.

            90% of the students are Pagan, which makes it harder for non-Pagans to make friends (and more likely they’ll get bullied).

            There are only 2 conditions for your kid to attend:
            – Your kid participates in their weekly Pagan gatherings, which are kinda far away from your house.
            – You pay them [some amount of money].

            Sound good?

            Rhetoric-free version: I don’t think it’s fair to blame people for their poverty on the basis that there was a good school around… if that school taught a religion they might not agree with. In fact, having all the good schools teach in a heavily-biased way is a great example of unfairness that could soft-block people becoming upper-class.

            A similar example: Suppose all the “best” universities taught in a politically-slanted way. Those with opposite opinions decided to go to less prestigious schools that wasn’t as biased, but then were de-prioritized for some jobs because their school wasn’t considered good enough. Would you agree this is an economically unfair system?

          • eyeballfrog says:

            You greatly overestimate the religiosity of the education of a Catholic school. Catholic theology is a required course, but it doesn’t leak out much. The science is fine (Catholics aren’t Biblical literalists).

          • eh says:

            I’m a lifelong atheist and spent my school years in the wicked Godless heathen public education system, but we had a Catholic school nearby and I would happily have gone there, or to an equivalent pagan school. My mother was an Anglican and worked in the Catholic school, science class taught evolution and didn’t touch creationism, the religion class covered Buddhism/Judaism/Islam as well as the different types of Christianity (while public school religious education classes were run by the notorious Access Ministries), there were more openly gay students at the Catholic school than my school, the nuns used to leave their nunnery and go down to the racetrack to bet on the horses, and the students kept a running tally of who had made out in the chapel.

            I understand that the Catholic education system is not always like that, and one anecdote is not solid data, but it honestly didn’t seem too bad.

          • FormerRanger says:

            I had Catholic relatives and my major impression of the difference between public schools and Catholic schools is that the nuns kept order. We envied the extra holidays they got, but we didn’t envy the rigorous enforcement of order in the classrooms.

            My opinion is that if teachers and administration don’t have the ability to impose order, the school is not going to have success teaching the students. It only takes a few to turn a classroom into a shambles.

        • Brandon Berg says:

          you’re overlooking that those children probably live in a subpar school district (in part because schools are largely funded by property taxes and garbage truck drivers are unlikely to live in an area with high property values)

          I see people confidently asserting this all the time, and it just isn’t true. State and federal funding even out much of the difference in local school funding, and in about half of all states, high-poverty school districts receive more funding per student than low-poverty districts. In all but a handful of states, most of them small, high-poverty districts get at least 90% as much funding as low-poverty districts.

          Source, from the Rutgers University Center for School Funding Fairness.

          Also, “schools” are socially constructed. There’s more test score variation within schools than between schools.

      • Plumber says:

        @Ttar says:

        “.…Do people really think this? Do people think you can slot garbage truck drivers into careers as doctors?’

        As adults?

        No, far too late by then.

        Through some miracle switched in the womb?

        Yes, that is almost exactly what I believe (ignoring that most physicians I now see are young ladies and most garbage collectors are still men).

        “Do people think there’s some law preventing the children of garbage truck drivers from studying and taking out some loans to become a doctor like all the rest of us can?”

        “Us”?

        It’s very difficult for me to respond kindly to that.

        It’s long been noted that in the U.S.A. those in the academic top third of their school but who’s parents are in the bottom third of annual income are less likely to have the privilege of “earning” a university diploma than those from the bottom third of their school but who’s parents are in the top third in annual income. 

        Look, I’ve met those of the “cognitive elite” and even married a member (my wife went to Harvard law school for a while) and while I love her and was impressed by the books she collected during her schooling and think she’s smart, I just don’t see her as “homo superior” and I do very much feel the differences in our educations are more due to our different backgrounds, not our “innate intelligence”, ‘sides I know a physician; she’s the mother of a friend of my son (and now lives in an apartment I vacated after her husband divorced her and she went bankrupt), I also work closely with a laborer for the City and County of San Francisco who was a garbage collector for years and I don’t see her as much smarter than him, actually I find him wiser.

        I’m just not that impressed by my encounters with others of the collegiate class, and as far as I can tell y’all have an equal share of idiots as the working class, in some ways more as so many (especially the attorneys in the buildings I repair) have an almost baffling amount of ignorance of how things work (No that won’t flush! Yes, of course that many coffee grounds will clog a sink!).

        Also, I don’t see any better quality of care from the physicians than I do from the nurse practitioners, frankly the nurses seem more knowledgeable over all, the physicians just only cuter

        • nkurz says:

          > Through some miracle switched in the womb?

          Let’s push on that: how late do you think such a switch could be made?

          While there are aspects of prenatal care that affect development, I’d think a switch of infants in the pediatric ward would likely be almost as effective. I’m tempted to think think that kindergarten might be about the latest that one could make the switch. After that, I think the impact of socialization might be difficult to overcome.

          • Plumber says:

            @nkurz says:“Let’s push on that: how late do you think such a switch could be made?

            While there are aspects of prenatal care that affect development, I’d think a switch of infants in the pediatric ward would likely be almost as effective. I’m tempted to think think that kindergarten might be about the latest that one could make the switch. After that, I think the impact of socialization might be difficult to overcome”

            Judging by the “What happens to ‘underprivileged’ children who are moved to better neighborhoods?” studies it has to happen before they’re six years old, later than that and it’s too late.

        • Clutzy says:

          I think most of this post is not very close to my experience, except one part:

          ‘sides I know a physician; she’s the mother of a friend of my son (and now lives in an apartment I vacated after her husband divorced her and she went bankrupt), I also work closely with a laborer for the City and County of San Francisco who was a garbage collector for years and I don’t see her as much smarter than him, actually I find him wiser.

          I think this is the primary valid critique of modern meritocracy. It is self aware of its “betterness” but has lost the chivalry, wisdom, and other features that the previous aristocrats had. This is why I find the objectively corrupt J. Edgar Hoover as a much better FBI head than the likes of Mueller, Comey, and Wray. He had a great amount of power, and used it corruptly, but did so in a way that is benign compared to the “good intentions” of the more recent FBI heads.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I’m just not that impressed by my encounters with others of the collegiate class, and as far as I can tell y’all have an equal share of idiots as the working class, in some ways more as so many (especially the attorneys in the buildings I repair) have an almost baffling amount of ignorance of how things work (No that won’t flush! Yes, of course that many coffee grounds will clog a sink!).

          Agreed, Plumber. The only person I know personally who I’m absolutely sure is more well-read than me is a carpenter, and I met him when I was 14. More generally, I’ve found that thoughtful, intelligent, curious people are vanishingly rare in every social class. And of the thoughtful, intelligent, curious children I know or knew, a good chunk of them are or were stuck in families or social environments that won’t or wouldn’t nurture those capabilities. I was lucky because I had a father committed to doing far, far better for me than his father did for him. If I didn’t, I think I probably would have ended up with a very different life. I think we’re a long way from the world in which all the people who could do “big money” jobs actually do, and while I’m happy enough with that insofar as it’s due to inclination, I’m not happy at all about the degree to which circumstances can effect outcomes.

        • peterispaikens says:

          I don’t know if this changes the conclusions, but I’d like to warn against putting much weight to stats starting with “the academic top third of *their* school” – because the academic top third of school A often is worse in attained education level than the academic bottom third of school B; and I’ve even seen cases where the academic bottom of school A is the top student of school B; these things are not really comparable due to the high differences between both schools as such, and the demographics of students (including but not limited to socioeconomic status) in these schools.

          • Act_II says:

            Sort of supports their point, doesn’t it? Even students at this hypothetical School A who do as well as they possibly can by an objective metric — topping their class — have their prospects limited simply because their circumstances put them in a low-quality school to begin with.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yes.

            You can argue that the average student of Hell Hole High School performs badly because the average student of HHHS is some crazed lowly unworthy beast.

            But you cannot credibly argue that the best student at HHHS performs badly because they are a crazed lowly unworthy beast.

            Likewise, you can argue that the average student at Peerless Paragon Prep School performs well because PPPS’ admissions requirements and academic culture ensure that the school is full of disciplined, highly intelligent champions of learning.

            But you cannot credibly argue that the worst student at Peerless Paragon Prep School performs well because he is a disciplined, highly intelligent champion of learning; realistically he is a legacy student who’s only barely scraping by in the institution because of who his daddy knows.

        • The Nybbler says:

          My street has a doctor, a salesperson, and a school bus driver living on it, among others. They all send their kids to the same school. (No garbage truck drivers on my street, but some do live in the town and would send their kids to the same high school). I’d bet that the doctor is most likely to have a kid who becomes a doctor and the school bus driver the least likely, despite that.

          But that’s just speculation. Let’s look at my father’s family. All went to lousy schools, and my grandparents were working class and lacked college educations. Their children become four engineers who went into management, one mechanic, and one teacher. I went to good schools. Of my classmates, some are wildly successful, some moderately so, and a few are in jail or (in at least one case) murdered.

          I don’t think school differences have nearly as much to do with it as you think.

          • Antistotle says:

            I went to good schools. Of my classmates, some are wildly successful, some moderately so, and a few are in jail or (in at least one case) murdered.

            That’s my high school *social circle*. One did prison time, one is senior counsel for a international computer company, one “made it” in the symphony and me.

      • keaswaran says:

        > Do people think there’s some law preventing the children of garbage truck drivers from studying and taking out some loans to become a doctor like all the rest of us can?

        Yes. It’s not enough to just take out some loans. You need to stick with the education even if some family member gets injured and someone is needed to help out at home. You need to stick with your internship even if there’s some screwup and you aren’t properly put on payroll for two months. Both of those things are much easier if your family has a financial cushion to help deal with the issues without taking you out of your plan.

        Obviously this isn’t a *total* barrier to participation by people from poor families. But it’s much more likely that a person with all the skills gets removed from the pool by one of these events if they’re from a poor family than if they’re from a rich one. And it’s much more likely that a mediocre person manages to push through to the end if they’re from a rich family than from a poor one.

      • Charlie Lima says:

        Having some experience with medical school admissions I would say that there are certainly hurdles placed in front of such children that keep them out.

        Consider “clinical experience”. Medical schools like students to have had exposure to medicine. The easiest option, for children of physicians, is to shadow their parent(s) or their parents’ business associates. How does a garbage collector’s kid do this? They can ask their PCP and maybe, if they attend a good college, they can work through pre-med advising system.

        But yet more opportunities exist to bolster the med school application of physicians. You can do overseas medical work. For your average kid this requires scratching up a few grand and losing a month of study or income time. Your actual experience will vary heavily and you may end up doing quite little. With a family member in the system, you might be able to have your entire costs by bringing along your family member (e.g. your parent’s employer will contribute to the costs of the trip for PR and “community service”). Once there it is vastly easier to get to do the essay-bait stuff if you just happen to have the team surgeon (OB, whatever) ask you to do the interesting things rather than sorting the inventory.

        And then there is “research”. Getting access to a bunch of charts to some basic data diving is vastly easier if you have somebody in the system to advocate for your access as a lowly student. Likewise, finding the sweet spot for good enough sounding undergraduate research project but not so time heavy to compete with grades and other extra-curriculars is again much easier if you have a family member who knows the water cooler gossip.

        And on it goes. Some medical schools might hold it against you if you were a physician child who did not take these advantages, but having more boxes checked is vastly easier if your parents were physicians. And this is all before we talk about money and process familiarity.

      • Viliam says:

        Do people think you can slot garbage truck drivers into careers as doctors?

        Not sure how rare or frequent this opinion is, but I actually met a guy long ago who explained me the vision of “classless society” as a society where no one would have a permanent job, and everyone would take every role in turns. For example, you would herd sheep one day, and be a software developer the next day. Now because everyone would cycle through all the jobs and all the roles, there could be no classes, and all people would be equal.

        I expressed some concern about being possibly operated by a surgeon whose expertise with surgery is close to zero because he spent 99.99% of time doing other jobs… and I don’t remember the answer exactly, but it was something between “don’t underestimate people’s ability to learn things if they are allowed to live and learn in an utopian society” and “even if a few lives are lost because of unskilled surgeons, the benefits of a classless society still greatly exceed the costs”.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          My own experience of people who advocate for classless societies is that this guy was a crank and a non-representative sample of the whole.

          There’s a lot of room in “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” for people to rationally align their manner of giving to their abilities.

          • The Nybbler says:

            The dictum of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is literally a call for the enslavement of the able to the needy. What it calls for people to rationally do is hide their abilities and exaggerate their needs.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The underlying assumption that you are removing to take the statement out of context is that ability is more widely distributed than you believe.

            You cannot enslave 90% of the populace to tend to the needs of 90% of the populace, in other words, even if it’s not always the same 90%.

            Or if you can, then we already have that problem because so much of the bright and gifted population is already toiling away at jobs they don’t like- but can’t break out of- because someone else owns their mortgage and student loans, and they’re just paying it off.

            I am put in mind of how Herman Kahn was describing the potential consequences of a thermonuclear exchange and he mentioned “the percent of infants born with birth defects would increase by 1%.” Someone in the audience replied that they wouldn”t want to live in a world where 1% of infants had birth defects. Kahn replied that if so, then they had a problem, because the base rate was already 4% as it was…

            We already live in a world where much of the world’s intellectual capital is locked up doing things that are doubtfully beneficial to the owners of those intellects. If it is a thing to fear, it is a thing to fear about the status quo, not just about hypothetical alternative future societies.

          • B_Epstein says:

            @Simon_Jester

            “so much of the bright and gifted population is already toiling away at jobs they don’t like- but can’t break out of- because someone else owns their mortgage and student loans, and they’re just paying it off.”

            Could you try and put numbers on it (and possibly on the trend, which surely is improving in that intellect-based jobs pay now better than ever, and tend to be more interesting and rewarding than ever)? My intuition differs from yours on this, but perhaps we’re talking about a different level of “bright and gifted”.

      • wiserd says:

        I have a friend who is a doctor who believes that breaking into the field without relatives or close friends who are doctors is difficult.

        She seems to come from a disadvantaged background and has used the narrative frequently in entrance essays and such. It’s very much a part of her personal narrative so perhaps she gives the notion undue weight. As an outsider, it’s hard for me to say. But I do know a few doctors whose parents are doctors. The view exists. I don’t know how prevalent or accurate it is or whether the people who could have become doctors are garbage truck drivers or some other occupation.

        • The Nybbler says:

          She seems to come from a disadvantaged background and has used the narrative frequently in entrance essays and such.

          Which (assuming it works) ironically indicates that being from a disadvantaged background (or cynically, claiming so) makes it easier to become a doctor.

        • I suspect that it’s often easier to enter a field if your parents were in it, but that may or may not be inconsistent with meritocracy. The fact that my parents were economists meant that I grew up talking and thinking about economics, which made me more qualified to be an economist than if I had been brought up by physicists or biologists. I suspect that the same is true to some degree of plumbers and doctors and at least some other professions.

          Two things bother me about the tone of the discussion here. One is the idea that meritocracy is about desert, about giving people what they deserve. The other is that it is about who should rule.

          I think both of those are wrong. I didn’t deserve to be brought up by economists, but the fact that I was makes me more suited to be an economist than an identical me brought up other people. And being an economist doesn’t give me any more power to rule people than being a physicist.

          The idea of meritocracy, as I understand it, is a system where people end up with the jobs that they are best at doing, which is neither about desert nor ruling. In the context of academic admissions, it’s about admitting those students who are best suited to that school, both in the sense of most benefiting by what they will learn there and most promoting an environment where other students will learn. For MIT, that means students who are good at math, for Oberlin or St. Olaf, at music.

          • Swami says:

            Well said, David. The point is that any and every reasonable person would choose to live in a society where those better at a job get preference over those that are worse (at least as a rule of thumb). Doing so creates positive incentives to produce and creates positive feedback effects. Doing the opposite creates negative incentives and feedback.

          • Swami says:

            Oddly enough, I think I would even argue that those who are least productive and “meritorious” would benefit the most from living in a meritocratic society.

          • albatross11 says:

            Swami:

            I think that depends on the extent to which peoples’ sense of well-being is determined by their absolute wealth vs their relative wealth/standing. Being a nobleman in a poor society might be preferable to being a janitor in a rich society, if you valued social status a lot more than, say, having reliably good medical care, well-built houses, etc.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            And being an economist doesn’t give me any more power to rule people than being a physicist.

            The average economist does have a bit more influence over my life than the average physicist, actually, as other people are more likely to adopt economic policies proposed by economists than by physicists.

            Also, as a professor, you have/had privileges, including your views being taught as authoritative at a university and being given time to write down your views. A plumber typically doesn’t get paid to publish his views nor gets to teach classes. The logical result is that your views are adopted more easily than the beliefs of the plumber, regardless of merit, because you have more opportunity to present your views and your views are framed as being more correct.

            A very real issue is jobs can involve or allow decision making that is political, rather than purely technocratic.

            Our democracy is supposed to give political power equally, regardless of merit. The plumber has an equal vote to the professor. However, the more power is exercised informally (by the deep state, deep university, deep company, etc), the more the democratic principle is undermined.

            This is mainly a problem if the informal political decision making is selfish, rather than neutral or noblesse oblige. Is the professor deciding what to teach based on the best science available, or is she teaching with a bias? Is the millionaire senator voting purely how his voters would like, or is he biased to the interests of millionaire senators?

            Ultimately, merit in a technocratic sense doesn’t equal rectitude. As the saying goes: “Mussolini did make the trains run on time.”

          • Swami says:

            Albatross,

            I think that depends on the extent to which peoples’ sense of well-being is determined by their absolute wealth vs their relative wealth/standing.”

            Yes, this is true. But this is another way of saying it depends upon whether their sense of well being is based on their actual living conditions as opposed to envy. In addition, there should be no presumption that in a society without meritocracy that relative standing would be more equal. Usually non meritocratic societies base standing on wealth, social class or political connections.

            Being a nobleman in a poor society might be preferable to being a janitor in a rich society, if you valued social status a lot more than, say, having reliably good medical care, well-built houses, etc.”

            Just to clarify, being a nobleman is irrelevant in a meritocracy. In a meritocracy those of noble birth would be just as likely to be a janitor as a CEO, based upon their accomplishments or contributions.

            I will also suggest that absent some reasonable degree of meritocracy, I have trouble believing that over the long term that the society would avoid the Malthusian trap. IOW, absent prestige being associated with contribution and skill, I doubt the society would avoid destitution and early death for those least capable, and their families.

            Immigrants are coming to developed states in the millions for higher living standards even though it means lower relative standing at least short term. I don’t think many people move to poor countries so they can be relatively higher status. I am sure someone has, but…

      • Murphy says:

        I run into people who take similar positions a lot.

        Any difference in outcome is due to society being unfair in some way to the people who end up driving the garbage trucks.

        The people who got to be doctors and engineers: they just got their because their parents gave them all the advantages.

        It’s a surprisingly common view.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          And what’s wrong with giving my kids every advantage I can?

          Especially when those “advantages” are things like “this is a book you can read about stuff you find interesting”, “this is how you do paperwork”, “this is how you learn stuff”, “this is how you behave to get along with people”, “this is why its important to be on time”, etc etc etc. You know, “white supremacy” stuff.

          • Ant says:

            You can no longer pretend the run is fair when some people has lead sole and some start with a car. And that fairness is one of the major argument of meritocracy.

    • nyc says:

      > The problem is not that all the highly-educated doctors will somehow advance the interests of the educated class, getting to be doctors is the class interest. Those careers are spoils to be fought over and meritocracy gives all of the good jobs to their class while our class are stuck driving garbage trucks.

      There’s a difference there though. People care who gets elected because they want laws that benefit the ingroup at the expense of the outgroup, not because they themselves want to move to Washington and spend all day begging for money. They don’t want the job themselves. (There also aren’t enough legislative positions for “people expecting to receive a legislative position” to be a significant constituency even if they did.)

      Whereas if you have a heart condition, you want to see a cardiologist and not a truck driver. And not just any cardiologist but the best possible cardiologist. You want your doctor to be chosen based on merit. The doctor who isn’t from your tribe but cures you is preferable to the doctor who is from your tribe but doesn’t.

      You’re taking the other side of that, where you’re the prospective doctor instead of the prospective patient. In that case you obviously want your own application to be the one accepted, but then your tribe has a conflict of interest. They may want their people to be the well-paid doctors but they also want their people to have the best doctors when they get sick. It should be harder to convince the tribe to abandon merit when they suffer as much as the outgroup from the resulting incompetency.

    • Darwin says:

      >but why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering?

      Because the diseases of the rich get more research funding and more training hours than the diseases of the poor, and the medical elites who influence hospital policy and insurance policy and so forth are rich people who are familiar with the diseases of the rich and are concerned about themselves and their friends getting sick.

      Because programmers from the upper classes are familiar with the needs and desires of the upper classes, and make a million apps for them, and don’t see a problem when their predictive sentencing algorithms keep saying that poor and minority offenders should be locked up for much longer than people like themselves.

      Because affluent engineers don’t actually use products aimed at poor people, and only have very limited and diluted user feedback (if that) to tell them if there are problems with those products or if they don’t serve the lifestyles of poor people as well as they could.

      Etc. It’s simply difficult to impossible to fully understand life experiences that are totally foreign to you and to truly treat them with the same weight and urgency as the problems and experiences of your own life and the lives of your friends and family. That’s not a malevolent thing, and it probably doesn’t even rise to the level of a cognitive bias; there’s just no way for your brain to have the same understanding and focus on life experiences that it has no experience with. This has the potential to seep into pretty much everything, on the margins.

      • >but why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering?

        Because the diseases of the rich get more research funding and more training hours than the diseases of the poor,

        That’s probably true, but the main reason isn’t that doctors are rich, it’s that rich people are in a position to spend more money on medical services than poor people.

        • Darwin says:

          Few things have only one causal factor, especially at this level of complexity.

          Both factors contribute to the reality.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Because the diseases of the rich get more research funding and more training hours than the diseases of the poor

        Diseases of the poor are already solved. That’s what makes them diseases of the poor; they’re only problems for people who don’t have the resources to handle them, as opposed to the knowledge.

        and don’t see a problem when their predictive sentencing algorithms keep saying that poor and minority offenders should be locked up for much longer than people like themselves.

        What the algorithms actually say is that younger persons with more convictions should are at higher risk for not showing up for court. That this correlates with poor and minority offenders is simply a fact, and objecting to it is disguised conflict theory.

        Because affluent engineers don’t actually use products aimed at poor people, and only have very limited and diluted user feedback (if that) to tell them if there are problems with those products or if they don’t serve the lifestyles of poor people as well as they could.

        And yet cell phones and smartphones are popular in poor African countries.

      • Antistotle says:

        Because the diseases of the rich get more research funding and more training hours than the diseases of the poor,

        Take that marxist nonsense and shove it right back up the bull it came out of.

        There are (almost) no diseases that “rich” people get that poor people *don’t*–at least as we understand “rich” and “poor” in a western world.

        There are a lot of diseases that people who live in rich *countries* get that people who live in poor countries do it. Things like diabetes mellitius (aka “type II”, aka “The Suga”). This actually gets a TON of medical research and funding despite hitting the poor and middle class (for western values of those terms) than the rich. We know how to avoid it, we have good drugs for it, but we insist on eating ourselves to death. BTW, the main killers of “Rich” around the world line up really well with the main killers of “the rich” in Western countries, mostly because we *are* the rich.

        There’s not a lot of research into the main killers of “the poor” around the world because we know what causes most of those diseases, and we know what fixes it, but every time we argue for it the communists scream bloody murder.

        Breast Cancer is about as prevalent as Prostate cancer. The later gets about 1/5th the funding, but is far more likely to happen to rich, white men than the former.

        and the medical elites who influence hospital policy and insurance policy and so forth are rich people who are familiar with the diseases of the rich and are concerned about themselves and their friends getting sick.

        You’ve never really worked at a hospital, have you?

        • Guy in TN says:

          There’s not a lot of research into the main killers of “the poor” around the world because we know what causes most of those diseases, and we know what fixes it, but every time we argue for it the communists scream bloody murder.

          Ah, so we definitely know what the causes are, and how to prevent, diseases that are most prevalent in poor countries, despite your own admission that there is “not a lot of research” into this subject. Very convincing.

        • Darwin says:

          Literally the first one of the top of my head, I’m sure people with a medical background could name many more.

        • eric23 says:

          This is a very good comment, of course.

          I would suggest one correction: while the US medical research system does a good job of researching diseases “of the poor” in the US, it does a much worse job of researching diseases “of the poor” worldwide (like malaria), relative to their health impact. Of course this is because countries, like people, spend more on themselves than they do on charity (unless they are fabulously rich).

      • chridd says:

        Etc. It’s simply difficult to impossible to fully understand life experiences that are totally foreign to you and to truly treat them with the same weight and urgency as the problems and experiences of your own life and the lives of your friends and family. That’s not a malevolent thing, and it probably doesn’t even rise to the level of a cognitive bias; there’s just no way for your brain to have the same understanding and focus on life experiences that it has no experience with. This has the potential to seep into pretty much everything, on the margins.

        I think this attitude (or something like it) is either something distinct from both mistake and conflict theory, or a different form of mistake theory that has elements of conflict theory.

        It has in common with conflict theory that people have different interests, that people will tend to act in their own interests against other people’s interests, and that people will want people with similar interests to them making decisions… but people are acting against other people’s interests by mistake, and there’s more hope for peaceful resolution than in pure conflict theory, since there might be solutions that benefit everyone, but we need input from people with diverse interests to find those solutions.

        It’s distinct from other forms of mistake theory in what’s considered relevant expertise: with this assumption, being part of some particular group gives some level of expertise on what helps and harms that group, expertise that can’t be gotten just through being smart and educated; without that assumption, things like intelligence and education would be more relevant, and people might be suspicious of people directly involved in the situation of being biased.

        (Also, I think the ideal of a big dialogue with everyone’s voices heard would be more of an ideal of this particular theory, because the more voices are heard, the more interests are being taken into consideration; traditional mistake theory might also have a similar ideal for different reasons (with the ideal that good ideas can come from anywhere), but might also consider “everyone” to have a lot of noise from uninformed people; and a conflict theorist would want their side to win and the other side to stop trying to push their interests. Even with this assumption, though, such a big dialogue could go wrong if there’s lots of noise from people offering uninformed opinions on what’s in other people’s interests, or if there are people who think that there are unresolvable conflicts where they need to silence the other side.)

        (I think my inclination is to generally lean in this direction, though think traditional mistake theory and conflict theory are also partly true; though I don’t know if this is the case in the specific case of poor people and medicine, and don’t have anything to say in response to criticism of that specific example. I also don’t think poor vs. rich is the only, or even the main, relevant difference in interests.)

        • peak.singularity says:

          Yeah, once we’ve identified conflict and mistake theory as being both deluded extremes, what kind of best synthesis/middle ground can we find ?

          • Star says:

            Oh Boy Oh Boy time for my pet theory I’ve been calling this Computationalisum for lack of a better handle:

            Political systems are information processing systems. They should be thought of and edited with this in this mind.

            That’s the nutshell version, the easy rebuke is I work on computers all day so everything I see looks like a computer to me but I think the wild success of Wikipedia is a good counter. The bottom up version of the-thing that was build by people who see and think computers is blowing the top down version out of the water. In addition if you think there are no political lessons to be learned from wiki read the talk pages more.

            Public choice theory shows us that changing the reps in a representative democracy while cathartic is not nor will it ever be progress. Regulator capture shows us that bureaucrats aren’t immune to primary agent problems either. And whatever happened to the NRC (basically the opposite of Regulator capture) shows us that there are instances where bell-end’s like Heinlein were right some of the time about “adding 0’s to a sum doesn’t make it any bigger”.

            In all cases there are informational flow problems the information to make decisions that turn out to be more valuable to the group over time exists in the system but it has not flowed fast enough or far enough to reach the people who need it. Or the incentive structure (it self essentially a informational landscape that people understand to greater or lesser extents based on access) is stuck in a local minima do to inattention.

            I could go on but My favorite low hanging example is the permissionless innovation lesson of the internet. If the people at the edges with no power can just go and do, spectacular things happen.

            I know I know it might just be hard mistake theory but it turns the focus off of the individual and says look at the informational environment they live in instead which is a classic Conflict theory move. I just want the environment examined along potentially productive lines. none of this well it’s all about the parents bank accounts and now lets go dispossess the nearest banker we can find.

          • Purplehermann says:

            @Star could you give a fuller explanation of what you’re proposing? It seems interesting but i don’t quite get it

      • peak.singularity says:

        One thing to notice is that while in 21st century USA technicians-programmers, engineers and doctors are high class and earn a lot of money, I’m not really sure that this generalizes well… (poorly-paid ex-USSR doctors come to mind, and much farther away how engineers were much more likely to be bourgeois than nobility… IIRC ?)

        Is this an overall symptom of a highly meritocratic society ?

        • eric23 says:

          Engineers nowadays are upper middle class, not “nobility”. “Nobility”, such as it is, would refer to upper management or something like that.

          US doctors have somewhat inflated salaries because the number of people entering medical school is artificially restricted so supply is short. This doesn’t occur in some other countries, and doctor salaries are somewhat lower there. Of course the USSR is a special case.

          • peak.singularity says:

            I guess that a conflict theorist would respond to that that this (especially in the US) makes them in today’s world part of the “Elite”, which is the enemy of the “People” ?

            Another view is that they are “Salary class” in conflict with “Wage class” people.
            https://www.ecosophia.net/present-at-the-death/

            Which is IMHO at the core of what we are talking about and might be the main shift in the politics in the last decade ? (At least in the Western World.)

          • eric23 says:

            OK, but such distinctions are just evidence-free assertions, which better fit in the category of religion than science.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Well, yes, politics are closer to religion than to science. This doesn’t mean that these concerns should be dismissed out right, as Democrats have learned in 2016…

          • Viliam says:

            @peak.singularity – regarding the definitions of social classes, the most reasonable description I found was this.

            (As a funnier and shorter version, lower class people are concerned about whether they will be able to eat; middle class people are concerned about how the food will taste; and upper class people are concerned about whether the food will be served with proper etiquette.)

            People often confuse social class with salary, as if every time you get a bonus, you level up to a higher social class. But that’s because people focus too much on minor differences within their social bubble, and don’t notice how other people live completely different types of life. The “wage class” and “salary class” are but minor distinction within the “must spend most of their time making someone else rich” class. Yes, the distiction is important when you are there, but unimportant from the larger people — the difference between wage and salary is negligible compared with difference between e.g. “has to work every day” and “does not have to work ever”. Making the “wage class” and “salary class” fight against each other is an efficient way to protect the classes above them.

            What kind of “elite” are programmers? As an insider, all I see is working 8 hours a day to pay the mortgage, fixing problems created by managers while they give each other bonuses, and yes the salary is nice and comes with some bonuses, but it also requires taking my computer on a vacation and being ready to turn it on when a phone call reports that something bad happened. Despite spending decades studying my craft, my expert opinion is routinely dismissed for trivial reasons. I don’t use my full name online, because talking about my true opinions too openly could get me fired. I enjoy living in a house that is larger and closer to the center of city than people with worse jobs can afford. But my impact on the functioning of society is the same as theirs: one vote among a few millions, once a few years. What kind of “elite” is this? Is this really how anyone imagines the people who rule the world?

            There is a level above me I had an opportunity to observe briefly. Kids growing up with full knowledge they will never have to work a single day in their entire lives, unless they choose to — in which case the work will only consist of telling other people what to do. Their equivalent of work, I suppose, is networking with other people in the same class, and playing some backstabbing games in order to gain more power. Yes, that can also be pretty hard and requires its own kind of talent. But if they desire no power, and are content with merely spending their entire lives in luxury, that’s pretty much guaranteed.

            But it’s easier to focus on a guy who works 8 hours a day, but brings home slightly more money. That’s the “elite” we have to defeat.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Yes, thanks for the link, you can see the same 4 main classes – I wonder if they come from the same source ?

            As for the Gentry being privileged or not, well, notice that the lower Labor (L3&4), which your author estimates at being 50% of the population, has no safety net !
            And their situation has been getting worse. And the ladder from Labor to Gentry ( universities ) has often turned into a debt-poverty trap, so hardly anyone in Labor even *tries* to go there, resulting in an even worse Gentry-university monoculture. And the Gentry has won the culture war, so Labor culture has hardly any space left.

            Back to JMG :

            It’s important to realize, though, that the people who benefit from these arrangements by and large don’t see themselves as riding roughshod over the public good or profiting off the sufferings of others, even when that’s basically what they’re doing. That’s what differentiates privileged progressivism from the privileged conservatism of the pre-Trump Republican Party, an ideology that can summed up tolerably well with the words “I’ve got mine, Jack.” Believers in privileged progressivism are convinced that they are the Good People, that their attitudes are really shared by every morally good person and their lifestyles are what every human being really wants. What’s more, they believe that the arc of history bends inevitably toward them: that eventually, as a result of the unstoppable march of progress, every single human being on earth will have the same attitudes they do and lead the same lifestyles they do, because their attitudes and lifestyles are what goodness, truth, right, and justice are all about.

            […]

            This isn’t simply a matter of ordinary conformism, tbough of course that’s involved as well. To the privileged progressives, their attitudes and lifestyles are the hallmarks of the glorious future everyone will eventually embrace, whether they want to or not. Every person who embraces these things in advance of that final triumph, discarding their own values and preferences in the process, hastens the coming of the privileged progressive utopia, where people of every continent and gender and ethnic group without exception will all believe exactly the same set of rigidly dogmatic ideologies and embrace exactly the same suffocatingly narrow range of lifestyles.

            Sounds a lot like what your author is talking about with post-Malthusianism, don’t you think ? That the post-war rise of the Gentry is going to go on forever, to the stars ?

            Meanwhile, instead, what we had for the last 50 years, is that despite the ever-more-frequent warnings, we have been careening faster and faster into the closing walls of resource depletion and environmental destruction, with each step making even more sure that that scary zero-sum “pre-Malthusian” world your author is talking about would become our future…
            (Some got a hint, but preferred to delude themselves that apocalyptic Climate Change or the Singularitarian “Rapture of the Nerds” was going to save/kill us all, dismissing the need for a very hard reconsideration of our ways of life.)

            P.S.: Also, if the Elites could be scared into sharing in the 50’s, then they probably can be scared again, but the Gentry has to realize that they need to give up a bit of their earning and cultural power in favor of Labor too…

          • peak.singularity says:

            P.P.S.: Also, from your link :

            David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise captured well the culture of G2′s in that time. Members of this social class aggressively manage their careers to get the most out (in terms of intellectual and financial reward) of their careers, but what they really want is enough success and money to do what they really value, which is to influence culture.

            Scott would be between G2 and G1 I guess ?
            And the Wikipedia page for Bobos in Paradise says :

            The term is used by Brooks to describe the 1990s successors of the yuppies. Often of the corporate upper class, they claim highly tolerant views of others, purchase expensive and exotic items, and believe American society to be meritocratic

            (emphasis mine)

        • The Nybbler says:

          Doctors are high class and earn a lot of money. Software engineers (specifically) earn a lot of money, but aren’t so high class. There was a short period when being in software got you a lot of respect, but it’s gone now. Fortunately the money isn’t.

      • Murphy says:

        Because programmers from the upper classes are familiar with the needs and desires of the upper classes, and make a million apps for them, and don’t see a problem when their predictive sentencing algorithms keep saying that poor and minority offenders should be locked up for much longer than people like themselves.

        An article about that one came up on SSC before.

        And some statistician had taken a look at the pipeline the company was using. It turned out that the highly complex algorithm was taking something like 190 variables…. and then discarding all but 2 of them. Age and number of previous convictions.

        Was someone young and had lots of previous convictions: they were very likely to reoffend.

        Old with very few previous convictions: very unlikely to reoffend.

        And the predictions panned out as highly accurate. The people it predicted would reoffend were about as likely to reoffend as it predicted.

        But the news media ran with with as “evil brogrammers” because twitter doesn’t care if predictions are actually correct and the sort of people who hated geeks in highschool don’t suddenly become better people or stop being bullies, they just find more socially acceptable reasons to attack them.

        Also, programmers make apps for the people who’ll buy apps or click through ads and buy things. Doesn’t matter whether the programmer was born rich or poor. Like anyone else they’re people and people respond to incentives.

        • peak.singularity says:

          Fair enough.
          But what about the examples in Automating Inequality ?

          • Murphy says:

            No idea since I don’t own the book.

            From googling some reviews I’m not terribly hopeful since it seems to lump together failed rollout of IT systems with general worries about surveillance and tracking homeless people and objects to the idea that perhaps you might want to flag up when the same family is getting repeated referrals…. because poor and minority families are more likely to be referred hence it’s evil, does the actual book attack accuracy or does it just take as precept that if not as many rich families get referred for abuse or neglect that it’s a sign of conspiracy against the poor?

          • peak.singularity says:

            Here’s a long review(+) :
            http://harvardlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/1695-1728_Online.pdf

            “Conspiracy against the poor” is one interpretation : that this comes from bad politics, and is supported by bad logic : where people take the negation of “rich => good” to be “poor => bad”, while it should be “bad => poor”.

            Another interpretation is that this is the digital extension of Seeing Like a State, so will keep happening as long as people will keep pushing for the State to have a better “understanding” of the situation.

            In both cases, increasing the accuracy and effectiveness of the system only makes the situation worse !

            Also, the phrase “A Brave New World / 1984 / Gattaca / Minority Report wasn’t supposed to be an instruction manual !” comes to mind…

            P.S.: Also I’m slightly suspicious of these high school “social classes” having much reach in the real world, but I guess that the US high school is really this screwed up ?
            In any case, you should probably listen less to what the idiots that are still using Twitter in 2020 might say there…

    • Garrett says:

      > but why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering?

      Because then you don’t get to go to all the “cool” parties. Nothing more bewildering than sitting at a divisional corporate meeting and hearing everybody cheer that they intentionally managed to hire more people that explicitly don’t look like you.

    • Plumber says:

      @Ninety-Three says

      “…why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering?…”

      Using “meritocracy” to mean ‘a privileged few are selected by fate and teachers to get more education and gravy jobs?

      Medicine: Replace most physicians with nurse-practitioners, other than getting treated by good looking folks who (presumably) can discuss philosophy (or whatever their undergraduate studies were), like our host, the nurse practitioners seem to me to do the job as well or better. 

      Programing: Beats me, I’ve never met one, my son says he wants to be one, so whatever system gets him the gig, otherwise who cares?

      Really, why do programmers need university educations more than auto mechanics?

      Engineering: I worked with an engineering degree intern for a bit, and I wasn’t impressed, I told him the tide was coming in, a “superior intellect” he wasn’t!

      I’ll expand further;

      Law: reading law" and becoming an attorney via an apprenticeship as a paralegal, while rare, is still done, replace all the "professions" with the equivalent of nurse practitioners, let those seeking such work put in their dues working first, empty out the universities, and leave the scholars guilds for the scholars (I’d also have no one be a full “professional” until they’re at least thirty years old, have them work first, have no one get to be “white collar while still young!).

      If college educations promote good citizenship (as I’ve seen argued about “Liberal Arts” educations) then, since with our initiative system every Californian is a legislator, implement “college for all”, but have ‘college’ start as early as the age of eleven, and no later than fourteen.

      This current majority “some college” (but still just a minority with the diplomas) is a cruel waste, as are the age segregated warehouses called high “schools”.

      • John Schilling says:

        Using “meritocracy” to mean ‘a privileged few are selected by fate and teachers to get more education and gravy jobs?

        If the selection is meant to be on the basis of which “few” will learn the most with more education and then do the best jobs, that is the literal definition of meritocracy.

        It may not be, is unlikely to be, a perfect merit-based selection. But if it is a real attempt at a merit-based selection, then it is a meritocracy. Without scare quotes. And it’s likely to result in jobs being done better than if the selection were done on the basis of parenthood or political connections or privileged/oppressed status or by lottery or any other such thing.

        And no matter how the selection is made, some people will come out of it with less education or opportunity than others. Under anything resembling a functional meritocracy, those people will miss out on less than their counterparts would under any other system, and will live in a world where critical jobs done on their behalf are done better. Unless there’s no selection at all because everyone gets the same e.g. education, in which case is it to be the plan that all plumbers have to go to med school, or that the surgeons don’t?

        • peak.singularity says:

          But it’s not sufficient for meritocracy ? Under meritocracy, these people *also* get more political power.

          • John Schilling says:

            Only the ones whose particular and demonstrated merit is in the exercise of political power. And isn’t that the underlying theory of democracy?

          • peak.singularity says:

            We might be confusing democracy with representative (republic ?) ?

      • The Nybbler says:

        Using “meritocracy” to mean ‘a privileged few are selected by fate and teachers to get more education and gravy jobs?

        That’s not what meritocracy in programming means. The Apache Foundation describes it thus:

        Unlike other software development efforts done under an open source license, the Apache Web Server was not initiated by a single developer (for example, like the Linux Kernel, or the Perl/Python languages), but started as a diverse group of people that shared common interests and got to know each other by exchanging information, fixes and suggestions.

        As the group started to develop their own version of the software, moving away from the NCSA version, more people were attracted and started to help out, first by sending little patches, or suggestions, or replying to email on the mail list, later by more important contributions.

        When the group felt that the person had “earned” the merit to be part of the development community, they granted direct access to the code repository, thus increasing the group and increasing the ability of the group to develop the program, and to maintain and develop it more effectively.

        We call this basic principle “meritocracy”: literally, government by merit.

        The GNOME charter describes it similarly

        GNOME is a Meritocracy
        Participation in the foundation is intended only for those individuals who are making contributions to the GNOME project and the software which makes up GNOME. A corporation, organization or individual should not be granted a place in the foundation unless its presence is justified by the merits of its contribution. Money cannot buy influence in the GNOME project: show us the code (or documentation, or translations, or leadership, or webmastering…).

        These are open source organizations, where nobody wanted to see your degree; the concept moved into commercial software development later, e.g. through GitHub’s now infamous “meritocracy rug”.

        Really, why do programmers need university educations more than auto mechanics?

        They don’t; both need education beyond that available in high school (even if the high school has a computer or auto shop program), but it doesn’t actually have to be provided in a university. It just traditionally has been.

        • Plumber says:

          @The Nybbler >

          “That’s not what meritocracy in programming means…”

          Well, that’s pretty cool.

      • Viliam says:

        Really, why do programmers need university educations more than auto mechanics?

        I wrote a long reply here, but after sending it I got “you need to log in” and the comment was gone. 🙁 Here is a short version:

        Not all university-educated programmers can reason abstractly about programming, but in my experience all programmers who can reason abstractly about programming were university-educated. There are many self-taught programmers who can accomplish cool things, but have huge blind spots in certain directions.

        Specifically, I mean things like recognizing that some specific situation is an instance of a more general pattern. Seeing that something is a “regular expression”, a “state machine”, a “context-free language”, etc., and knowing that it implies that certain simple solutions will work for this category of problem, and certain other solutions won’t work (and knowing why). This can result in much cleaner code and fewer bugs.

        Also, understanding that things like “thread safety” are not magical properties of programming languages or frameworks, but rather consequences of following certain rules. And that to derive the benefits of those rules, you have to follow them all the time (not merely in 90% of situations). Generally, being able to reason in way “if we always use X, we will get Y as a result”. — The problem in team setting is that all members of the team need to understand this, otherwise it won’t work.

        (I am not familiar with the job of auto mechanics, and what kinds of useful insights could a university provide. I suppose there is also a big difference between people who care about “how stuff works”, and people who only memorize and repeat a few moves. But I suppose that “how stuff works” is less abstract here; that it requires breadth of knowledge, but relatively little depth.)

        • The Nybbler says:

          I wrote a long reply here, but after sending it I got “you need to log in” and the comment was gone

          Usually in this case, if you use “back”, your comment will be still there in the comment box at the top or the bottom of the page (not where you left it).

          What you mentioned was two classes (one in automata theory and one in parallel computing); it’s certainly unlikely that a self-taught programmer will stumble upon these things (because let’s face it, very few people are Dijsktra or Turing level intellects. Or even Chomsky level). But none of that necessitates a university education; distribution requirements won’t help you learn these things, nor most of mathematics beyond some very basic calculus. You could definitely develop a 2-year “computing certificate” that got the basics in.

    • Jiro says:

      I think this is an incomplete picture: it explains government and maybe big business CEOs, but why object to meritocracy in medicine, programming and engineering?

      Because people who lack merit want the things that merit gets people in those professions.

  5. back40 says:

    Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people

    It does not. It means promoting those who navigate the bureaucracy. They are often testably smart and sometimes capable, but that isn’t important to their promotion. Average is good enough.

    From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests. At best, merit is uncorrelated with this.

    This is also true of “meritocracy”. At best, merit is uncorrelated.

    You can find smart and competent people on every side.

    Government is necessarily bad in every case. It’s a bad idea. However, it is also not optional. If one gang of thugs does not seize control then another will do. Least bad is the best outcome to be hoped for. Knowing this, then, the task is to limit government so that the harm is minimized.

    If “meritocracy” advocates were actually smart it seems that they would have realized that this is the case. Every example in the world for all of history shows this to be true. Smart is a relative term.

    • Ttar says:

      This. Government is just sedentary bandits; notions like meritocracy and democracy are nice half-fictions there to keep people calm and productive.

      • Plumber says:

        @Ttar says:

        “…Government is just sedentary bandits;

        I’ll console myself in being just a “sedentary bandit” next time I’m pulling hair out of a drain in the autopsy room, or a towel out of the pipes downstream of the jail toilets.

        Seriously, what’s your job?

        I see far more actually useful work done by me and my fellow government employees than I ever saw in private industry.

        “….democracy are nice half-fictions there to keep people calm and productive.”

        While I agree that “meritocracy” is an obvious lie, there are hints of democracy around (union meetings top the list).

        • nyc says:

          > I see far more actually useful work done by me and my fellow government employees than I ever saw in private industry.

          A lot of “work” is waste even when it feels like real work. If the US didn’t have the largest per capita prison population in the world, you wouldn’t have to pull so many towels out of jailhouse pipes.

          And one of the largest sources of unproductive “work” in private industry is the predictable risk-averse CYA behavior that comes downstream of compliance with complex or unclear government regulations.

          • Act_II says:

            A lot of “work” is waste even when it feels like real work. If the US didn’t have the largest per capita prison population in the world, you wouldn’t have to pull so many towels out of jailhouse pipes.

            This is a pretty silly objection. Top-level policy decisions like the War on Drugs are certainly expensive and wasteful for the reason that they needlessly create more work for people like Plumber. But that doesn’t mean the work itself is “waste”. Given that those towels are in there, somebody needs to get them out.

          • nyc says:

            > Given that those towels are in there, somebody needs to get them out.

            Maybe it’s easier to see it if you make the top-level policy decision more unambiguously useless.

            Suppose the government is paying construction workers to dig holes and fill them back in. Their backhoe breaks down and you get called in to fix it.

            Is that useful work? Not really. It makes no difference whether they actually dig the holes and fill them back in or just stand around doing nothing, so it makes no difference whether they have a working backhoe.

            The entire enterprise could grind to a halt and no less useful work would be done because no useful work was being done to begin with. Not doing the “work” could even reduce waste, because if they don’t have a working backhoe then they’re not wasting more diesel fuel uselessly digging holes and filling them back in.

        • Clutzy says:

          Outside of prisons, isn’t most of your “useful work” merely supporting the people the functions Ttar would view as “not useful”? From his perspective, your skills would be much better utilized if you were the plumber of a GM plant making cars or a GE plant making refrigerators.

        • Antistotle says:

          I see far more actually useful work done by me and my fellow government employees than I ever saw in private industry.

          First of all, that’s crap. My uncles were plumbers in a midwestern city, they ran a private plumbing company that did contract plumbing. They helped build buildings, zoos, parks, etc.

          Secondly, you can draw a distinction between people “The Government”, which would be the those making laws and regulations, and their bureaucracy, and, well, not really sure how to put this, but “Technicians Employed by the Government”–people who have a technical expertise that just happen to be employed by the government.

          The former category has a lot of dead wood. The latter is almost always utilized to it’s fullest.

          And if you haven’t seen a bit of cronyism and nepotism you’re not paying attention.

          • Plumber says:

            Antistotle says: “First of all, that’s crap” 

            What you call crap I call “my lived experience”.

            “My uncles were plumbers in a midwestern city”  
            My uncle is a plumbing contractor as well.

            “they ran a private plumbing company that did contract plumbing. They helped build buildings, zoos, parks, etc”

            And I worked ten years for private industry plumbing contractors, and over fifteen years in private industry before that, I still stand by my statement, the private industry work had far less social utility, office buildings in an area glutted with them, moving restrooms ten feet so big shots could have bigger offices, etc., and before that being a cashier (is there any job less useful?) and sales (double bah!).

            “Secondly, you can draw a distinction between people “The Government”, which would be the those making laws and regulations, and their bureaucracy, and, well, not really sure how to put this, but “Technicians Employed by the Government”–people who have a technical expertise that just happen to be employed by the government.

            The former category has a lot of dead wood. The latter is almost always utilized to it’s fullest”

            You do have a good point there, I’d say there’s at least three times as many who’s jobs mostly involve going to meetings and writing memo’s as those who touch tools, but judging by the other parents at my son’s schools the same sort of people who are white collar government employees go into marketing in the private sector which I think is more harmful, besides I know two former white collar government employees who transferred into getting trained as tool using co-workers of mine, an opportunity hard to find elsewhere.

            “And if you haven’t seen a bit of cronyism and nepotism you’re not paying attention”

            Of course I’ve seen cronyism and nepotism, but no more than I saw in private industry. 

            I’m my personal experience from the best jobs to the worst soul destroying abominations of jobs it goes:

            Small private firms that do some good (replacing old ladies water heaters without selling them bullshit) >

            Government > 

            Big private firms > 

            Most small private firms.

            In my experience telling lies is a job requirement of most private sector jobs (government jobs often require “lies of omission'”, but the sheer scale of required lying is less), and being an “employer of last resort” is a good that government, as good private sector jobs are scarce and don’t last (probably not profitable), I do miss the good private sector jobs I’ve had, but had I known to and had the opportunity to avoid all the bad ones I wish I made the jump decades earlier, and that’s why I think government employment should be greatly expanded, to save more from the soul destroying lying (“sales”) required by most employers, and no a “U.B.I.” isn’t enough, opportunities to do good (cleaning streets, manning libraries, putting out fires) need to be nourished as well as oppurtunities of making an income.

            Now if you can explain to me how to create more good private sector jobs without also creating ten times as many new “Grifters R Us” I’d like to learn it (I haven’t heard any plausible plans yet!), but it just seems easier to me to just raise taxes and make more good jobs that do good and thus save more from having to do grifting.

          • peak.singularity says:

            @Plumber : (out of comment depth…)
            Curious, what exactly made the “Most small private firms” jobs “the worst soul destroying abominations” ?

    • Rachael says:

      “It does not. It means promoting those who navigate the bureaucracy.”

      That’s the fallacy Scott identified in the original 2017 post: opposing meritocracy just because it’s imperfectly implemented in practice. Your comment is not a valid objection to meritocracy as an ideal to strive towards.

      • chridd says:

        If people who strive towards meritocracy tend to implement it poorly in practice in ways that cause problems, that could be a good reason to oppose striving towards meritocracy or be wary of those who claim to be pro-meritocracy.

        (I don’t know how true it is that people implement it poorly; but I think it’s a reasonable position someone could have and not a fallacy.)

        • The Nybbler says:

          There are alternatives to meritocracy. Jobs could be given out by lottery. Few suggest this for jobs, but it gets suggested for entrance to selective schools quite often. They could be given out by family or political connections (as many NYC union jobs are). They could be handed out in first-come first-serve order (as some government jobs are, like subway conductor). Similarly for promotions; the usual alternative to merit here is simple seniority.

          As far as I can tell, these alternatives are most popular when the job is considered less important or low skill. Nobody suggests brain surgeons or rocket scientists should get their jobs based on who they know or how long they are willing to wait.

          In some cases, opposition to meritocracy seems to stem from a disbelief that the merit exists, as with the complaints about the New York selective schools. Some of those opposed to the current exam-based system seem to think that the exam does not measure merit, but rather is some sort of arbitrary hurdle.

        • chridd says:

          I should also clarify: this could apply to people objecting to meritocracy, or to people objecting to people who call what they’re striving for “meritocracy”. (I.e., one possible position is to be in favor of meritocracy in its ideal definition, but to be wary of people who say they’re “pro-meritocracy”.)

      • The original Mr. X says:

        That’s the fallacy Scott identified in the original 2017 post: opposing meritocracy just because it’s imperfectly implemented in practice. Your comment is not a valid objection to meritocracy as an ideal to strive towards.

        Maybe I’m pattern matching too much here, but that argument sounds suspiciously similar to “The Soviet Union wasn’t properly-implemented communism, the gulags are not a valid objection to communism as an ideal to strive towards.”

        • etaphy says:

          The immediate difference is that I’ve never seen anything catastrophically unpleasant on nationwide scales happen from the effects of chasing meritocracy. When people chase credentials – yes, damage can be caused, when people chase hierarchical preferences – absolutely. But the statement itself isn’t about either of those and is rather akin to ‘general pursuit of higher performance should be one of our values’ supplemented by ‘Goodhart’s law applies as with everything’ rather than ‘here’s a wholesale systemic solution for all of our ills that only doesn’t work because we haven’t implemented it well enough…yet’.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Sure meritocracy isn’t as catastrophically bad as communism, but that’s not the point of the analogy. The point is that, sometimes, X is impossible to implement, and/or a failed attempt at implementing X is going to have worse results than not trying at all, so you need to investigate whether this is actually the case before saying “Just because previous attempts at implementing X have failed, that’s not a valid objection towards X as an ideal to strive towards.”

          • etaphy says:

            That ‘X’ tends to be a policy or a set of values in an overarching arrangement, not just one specific value to add to the pile of what’s socially considered to be a virtue. Dismissing meritocracy is more akin to dismissing diligence or conscientiousness. That most people are not perfectly diligent isn’t a reason to dismiss its value, neither is the observation that results can be oftentimes had without due diligence. But denying that meritocracy should be valued for fundamental, instrumental reasons is akin to scorning diligence, and then pointing out that of course people endowed with the trait naturally would consider it a value since it came at no cost to them. Diligent individuals happen to simply be maintaining their privilege and you can extend that logic to essentially any kind of virtue. Then the rhetoric gets amplified by the online chambers and in the end that society will get the doctors, scientists, and even plumbers that it deserves by its choice of values.

            It may also be true that we might want to design social systems that minimize the diligence requirements for their users to function well, but that neither changes the desirability of the value, nor does it mean that we are actually going to be able to fully optimize the need for diligence out of every system we approach. And diligence might be still be good even if you’ve replaced all brain surgeons with perfect medical AI autodocs.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Meritocracy is a way of organising society, not a virtue, so I’m not convinced that “diligence” is a valid analogy for it.

          • etaphy says:

            The effective definition of meritocracy to me is placing more value on the functional outcome of a venture rather than the specifics or preferences of its individual participants. I find that valuing efficiency in the case of meritocratic society(since the concept doesn’t have any direct prescriptions other than letting those best at doing a thing do it – which is vague and mutable enough to disqualify it from the class of organizational paradigms) appears similar to valuing caution and precision in a society that considers diligence important.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        So long as you accept that we could make a one-for-one exchange of “meritocracy” in the above passage with “social justice and equality” and be just as correct, I’m fine with this.

        Pretty much valid reasons to be wary of such boil down to “I’m afraid you’ll do it badly, or that you claim to be wanting social justice and a salutary form of equality, when in reality you want something else and are wrapping your intentions in falsehoods.”

        There are comparable reasons to be wary of “meritocracy,” which reduce to “I believe that you are using this word to sell me something that I wouldn’t want if you were describing it more accurately and plainly.”

        • Guy in TN says:

          @Simon_Jester

          There are comparable reasons to be wary of “meritocracy,” which reduce to “I believe that you are using this word to sell me something that I wouldn’t want if you were describing it more accurately and plainly.”

          This is well-said. Part of my wariness is the willingness for people to bat around a term that is so ill-defined. In this comment section one could easily identify three, four, or possible even more distinct uses of the term, many of which are in direct contradiction.

        • etaphy says:

          I don’t think we could, what “social justice” is is nebulous enough but even “equality” by itself is a very poorly defined term, simply because we have at minimum an “equality of opportunities” and a wholly separate “equality of outcomes”. The former is generally deemed to be a universal good that generates competition and undermines nepotistic relations otherwise toxic to markets – and around the latter entire nations have collapsed while pretending to implement the concept as a part of some larger ideology.

          Whereas for “meritocracy” there’s but one non-corrupt definition that doesn’t confuse it for credentialism or a rigid adherence to hierarchic standards – “best person for the job by relevant objective politically neutral metrics”. Maybe it’s possible to word it better, I find it to have nowhere the same levels of ambiguity.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            The problem is that the entire line of suspicion being expressed in both cases revolves around “there is only one serious and non-corrupt definition of the term, but I am concerned that you are using a corrupted definition, and so do not trust your movement.”

            You can point to examples of ‘corrupted equality’ bringing down societies that picked stupid ways of justifying redistribution of resources. I can then quibble that ‘corrupted equality’ was not the true root cause of the problem, or that the equality in question was corrupt in a way that makes it nonrepresentative, and you will accuse me of dodging the point.

            I can point to examples of ‘corrupted merit’ bringing down societies that picked stupid ways of justifying promoting one group of humans over another. You can then quibble that ‘corrupted merit’ was not the true root cause of the problem, or that the ‘merit’ in question wasn’t ‘merit’ at all… but I will accuse you of dodging the point.

            If you get to define “meritocratic” to exclude all non-corrupt or insufficiently-objective or politically-non-neutral metrics… Surely the Social Justice Rogue should get to define “egalitarian” to exclude things like deliberately parodic Harrison Bergeron scenarios, or systems where someone imposes a grim dictatorship and full command economy in the theoretical name of ‘equality’ while in practice setting themselves and their immediate clique up as a new ruling elite

          • etaphy says:

            I feel like we’re just rolling around in semantics(and part of why might be that English isn’t my native language) but I wouldn’t have an example to point at if we were merely talking about instituting “equality of opportunity” rather than a vague and nebulous “equality” in general. The fact is, we can define what we want to argue about precisely enough that we don’t have to deal with corrupted definitions on ~either~ side.

            I’d rather steelman one another than do repeats bouts of the ‘no true Scotsman’ dance.

            The best case concept representation for meritocracy is favoring recruitment/promotion for a job based purely on universal performance metrics and discarding the applicants’ identities. The best case concept representation for equality of opportunity is essentially the same with more of an emphasis on the latter. These two terms appear compatible by definition. You can’t have meritocracy in either the scenario where your credentials are valued above what you’d actually perform like, or how you’d fit into the hierarchy matters more than how you perform in metrics universal for the task rather than the position as it goes against the definition I’m using, and you can’t have equality of outcomes under the same definition as it’d mean that comparative job performance is valued as irrelevant or at least put under lower priority.
            So we have two supposedly related terms with ‘equality’ in their names that at a glance seem diametrically incompatible in implementation with one another, hence my qualm of ‘corrupt definition’ – or maybe just not enough internal self-consistency. When you talk about ‘equality’ you’re likely talking about one of these two, yet you have to pick which one on a case by case basis. It can almost appear to an onlooker that it’s a sort of a motte-and-bailey argument that’s forced by an imprecise starting definition that serves as an umbrella for diametrically opposite concepts.

            We can go further at such a point and look for historical examples of societies that enforced equality of outcomes versus societies that stated meritocracy or equality of opportunity as their values through one metric or the other and what we come to for the latter are examples on the scale of the Soviet Union: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0332-5
            There is no real equivalence here as the examples between the two differ too greatly on the scale of their respective examples’ negative impacts.

            We can also split ‘egalitarianism’ into multiple definitions that are barely consistent with one another, including the very much desirable ‘legal egalitarianism’ and the incredibly disastrous ‘economic egalitarianism’ for which we have plenty of historical examples. Once one bundles multiple mutually incompatible meanings into a single word, all the discussion around it will revolve to rolling around a puddle of semantics until we drown in its mud. A phenomenon that probably hurt the modern political discussion in general as well.

            As for meritocracy, it doesn’t have issues of definition, the most it can have are questions of metrics. But that’s already a step forward in clarity and thus concept validity from where I stand.

    • etaphy says:

      For what it’s worth, it appears you’re talking about these kinds of office dynamics: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/45mNHCMaZgsvfDXbw/quotes-from-moral-mazes
      And I wouldn’t describe that as “meritocracy”, I’d describe it as “politics”, the exact opposite, where you’re judged not on the result but on popularity within the hierarchy. The opposition to meritocracy frequently comes from somebody extrapolating the general state of society from the state of affairs within their particular corporate bureaucracy. And the other negative take on the meaning of ‘meritocracy’ tends to be a deferral to credentialism – job going to those able to produce a certificate of authority in the field instead of being a real competition for being able to perform said job most efficiently.

      Politics is necessarily bad, Goodhart’s law prevents us from finding simple, non-corruptible guidelines, but the rudimentary act of incentivizing productive activity instead of more office politics by at least pretending to give value to outcomes – which is what recovering the core meaning of ‘meritocracy’ would be about – is at least a first step towards diminishing the waste of our single most precious resource – human attention.

      • back40 says:

        you’re judged not on the result but on popularity within the hierarchy

        Not popularity, conformity. Navigating bureaucracy is a matter of knowing how to make like a member of the posse.

        This is why such organizations fail. They lose the ability to innovate.

        Good current examples include the education system as well as our civil service. A recent past example is broadcast media (radio, TV, print) which are moribund. In each case they became uniform and boring before they became dead.

        The whole “disruption” ethos consists largely of declining to conform or obey. Meritocracy is the resistance.

        One thread of current angst is about stagflation and the apparent exhaustion of (mainly western) society.

        • etaphy says:

          Oh sure, I just assume that in somewhat corrupt hierarchies popularity and conformity become functions of one another so it came out a little weird. Same as one’s results in such a system might only matter as far as the office hierarchy’s convenience is concerned – which for me is decidedly not ‘meritocracy’, as doing a job too well can also be ‘disruptive’ in such a scenario.

  6. guzod says:

    The original conflict vs mistake theory post describes two ways of operating in a debate, but here you seem to be applying the terms in a very different sense, at the object level, where you take mistake theory to assume a sense of good faith and optimism about humanity as a whole. I think the meta-level sense in the original post is pretty orthogonal to this, and neither mistake theory nor conflict theory imply object-level positions. Consider, for instance, this article about a police department rejecting an applicant who scored “too high” on an intelligence test. The police department’s explanation is:

    Those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.

    The author of the article opines:

    Considering all the police brutality and officer-involved shootings in the news these days, here’s a rhetorical question for you: how well does this hiring practice bode for cops actually being able to follow the Constitution or use proper discretion while “protecting and serving” America?

    Does this snapshot from the past at least partially help explain how we got to where we are as a nation today — a total police state? Wow, and the Pentagon has been giving these guys tanks straight off the battlefields in the Middle East to drive down American streets, too.

    I think this is a pretty clear-cut example of a mistake-theory argument against meritocracy and a conflict-theory argument in favor of it.

    • nyc says:

      I’m not sure the second example proves anything, because from a conflict theory perspective the tribe that benefits from meritocracy would still advocate it since it benefits them. What conflict theory explains is why a different tribe would advocate something else.

      And then that explains the first example. It’s really conflict theory masquerading as mistake theory — the tribe that benefits from police jobs going to people who don’t score as well on tests comes up with a mistake theory pretext for why members of the tribe that scores better shouldn’t be hired.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      Yes, and it was one of the things that were off about the original conflict vs. theory post. It was written as if the differences were about, well, theory and intellectual preferences, rather than (perceptions of) reality. This was uncharitable to “conflict theorists” for obvious reasons – people don’t want to be in a conflict. (The exception seems to be conflicts where one doesn’t actually get harmed – like, say, identitarian games played by rich kids at prestigious universities.) They just are in one, and mostly wish for it to end.

    • chridd says:

      My interpretation of conflict vs. mistake theory is that they’re two possible answers to the question “Why does political disagreement exist?” (though, rereading the article, I see this isn’t explicitly stated in his article, though it is explicitly stated in the reddit post that he linked from that article). The answer to that question is something that’s very relevant to consider when deciding how to debate, so conflict theorists and mistake theorists will end up having different debate styles as a result of disagreeing about the reason for disagreement.

      The obvious reason to support meritocracy (that smart people will make better policy decisions, so we should put smart people in positions of power) depends on the assumption that disagreements about policy are due to people disagreeing on factual questions relating to what the outcome of the policy will be, and if you assume that policy disagreements are due to differing interests, there’s an obvious objection to this (smart people in power could use that power to make decisions that benefit them at our expense). This would mean that there should be a general tendency for mistake theorists to be more pro-meritocracy than conflict theorists, but I can think of a couple reasons why there might be exceptions:

      1. The obvious arguments for and against meritocracy depend on mistake theory and conflict theory assumptions, but there are likely other arguments for or against meritocracy that don’t depend on those assumptions (at least not in the same way). (It looks like this is what’s happening in your first example.)

      2. Mistake theory and conflict theory are two extremes, and people can be between those two extremes (there are conflicting interests, but people also disagree on what the outcomes of specific policies will be, and both of those contribute significantly to political disagreements); some in-between people might end up being pro-meritocracy but using conflict theory debate style or vice versa. (This is one of the things I didn’t like about that article; it feels to me like it presents it too much as a strict dichotomy.) I think something like that is happening in the second example.

      • Aapje says:

        My interpretation of conflict vs. mistake theory is that they’re two possible answers to the question “Why does political disagreement exist?

        Yes. Do we really want the same thing and/or something compatible or do we really want something fundamentally incompatible.

        The latter can not truly be solved, other than by making people give up on some of their desires. The conflict is about the extent to which one has to do so: submission – compromise – domination.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    I suspect that much of the growing resentment of meritocracy that you read in, say, “The Atlantic,” has to do with Asians pulling away from whites in college admission test scores. Over the last 20 years, the Asian-white test score gap on the SAT/ACT has increased from maybe 5 points (on the SAT’s 1600 point scale) to close to 70:

    https://twitter.com/unsilencedsci/status/1055400356132282370

    White people who write for The Atlantic can’t just come out and say, “Hey, we gotta do something about all these Tiger Mothers and their kids acing the SAT!” So they make up complex explanations about how their recently turning against meritocracy is because of the crucial need to attack White Privilege etc etc …

    • Ttar says:

      Don’t forget that they’re journalists and humanities majors who spend all their years post middle-age resenting any hardworking STEM major who skips the BS and makes bank. Hence the rise of the “tech bro” meme. Gotta lower that outgroup’s status.

      • Plumber says:

        “Hardworking”?
        Maybe slightly more than others of the collegiate class but I’ve spent time in classrooms, and that’s gravy work.

        Are you deliberately trying to raise my blood pressure @Ttar?

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Here “hardworking” means something like “productive”, as in, “producing a high amount of useful output (per unit of time)”—rather than “expending a high amount of time/effort”.

          Thus a ditch-digger who digs ditches 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for years on end, would be, under this definition, considerably less “hardworking” than an engineer who, in a week’s light work, designs a ditch-digging machine that does the work of a hundred human ditch-diggers.

          • Plumber says:

            @Said Achmiz,
            I get what you are saying, but an excavator comes made by many hands out of a factory, they don’t solely spring out of an engineers pen like Athena out of Zeus’ forehead.

          • Clutzy says:

            Plumber, your definition of “hardworking” is in need of massive revision. I would normally not say this about an opinion, but for this particular topic it is, at least for me, true to an extreme level.

            Why? Because my dream job is lawnmower. I would love nothing more than to be paid my current salary (with expected future increases) to mow lawns like an under the table immigrant who, in my area, makes about $5/hr. My current job, is probably 20x more taxing to me than if I could do that, possibly more. I love being outside, even in the cold (so I would also enjoy shoveling and raking and other such things), I hate being in well lit office buildings with people around. I also need to set aside extra time in my day to do the physical exercise I need to have mental health, instead of happily mowing for 8 hrs while listening to podcasts and classic rock. Thus, even if I only work 8 hrs, its like working 10 because I need that exercise time still.

            Now, I can’t do the job of 20 lawnmowers, but the number of lawnmowers it takes to do what I do greatly exceeds 20 (on average, there may be some gifted ones left behind or who voluntarily choose the good life of lawnmowing).

            And not to denigrate your profession, but I’ve had a lot of experience with plumbers lately, because my landlord refuses to simply reimburse me for home improvement (or believe my correct diagnoses of the issues). We had a toilet that didn’t fill properly (took like 60 minutes between flushes). They “fixed” that problem by making it so the toilet never stops running. Then they “fixed” that by making the handle almost never work. That was fixed by me with wire cutters. They also kept telling me my sink was fine for months even though it drained very slowly despite my reassurances that it was not the P-trap. Eventually it all stopped totally. Oh my, there was a massive corrosion problem in the pipes in the basement! Just like I had told them for months!

            To me, working hard is the opposite of being sweaty and sore. People pay to be sweaty and sore.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            @Plumber,

            Yes, indeed that is true. And we could argue, perhaps, about who is more hardworking—the engineer, or the assembly line workers, or their managers, or perhaps the CEO who runs the whole company, etc.

            However, if you add up all their labor, and measure how much ditch-digging ends up being done, and compare that to how many ditch-diggers (the old sort, with the shovels) it takes to move that much earth, it’s clear enough who comes out ahead.

            And, just as clearly, the engineer is necessary to the whole operation. Without him, none of it happens. (The same can be said about the assembly line workers, or the managers, or the CEO—but that doesn’t make it any less true, when said of the engineer!)

            So the engineer puts in a small amount of effort, which turns out to be all the effort he needs to put in, in order for the result to be achieved. The result is: a great deal of productive output.

            That other people need to contribute also, doesn’t make the engineer’s input any less necessary, nor any less efficiently productive.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            @Clutzy:

            If your point in the latter part of your comment is that many or most plumbers are incompetent, well… I don’t know exactly what it is you do, but I write code; and I can tell you that most programmers / developers / software engineers / etc. are also incompetent. (In fact, the profession is filled with people who are actively making the world worse. Actually, many of the competent ones are making things worse even faster than the incompetent ones, but that’s a separate matter, I suppose.)

            Sturgeon’s Law applies. I don’t think any conclusions can be drawn from this about which profession is more necessary or more hardworking or anything else.

          • nkurz says:

            @Clutzy: > to mow lawns like an under the table immigrant who, in my area, makes about $5/hr

            I’m surprised the rate would be this low. I’m not personally familiar with the going rates for manual labor by illegal immigrants, but the few cases I have known the details they’ve ended up being paid above minimum wage.

            Where are you? What’s your source for this? If true, it would seem like a strong argument the wage depression effect of illegal immigrants as well as an argument for better enforcement of minimum wage laws, but I haven’t really seen this argument being made convincingly.

          • Darwin says:

            And where ‘useful output’ is assumed to be measured fairly and solely by income, under normal market pricing assumptions.

            Making the whole argument nicely circular – rich people are good because they’re productive, and we know they must be productive because they’re rich.

            At least, that’s how I’ve generally encountered it.

          • Clutzy says:

            @nkurz

            NW of Chicago. The area has a glut of illegal immigrants as well as legal Hispanics. Some certainly do make more, but $50/day is not unheard of for even the Home Depot loiterers.

            @said

            For sure that is true, but its inclusion is merely to say that these faults lie not only with the white collared.

        • Antistotle says:

          Maybe slightly more than others of the collegiate class but I’ve spent time in classrooms, and that’s gravy work.

          It’s not the time in the classrooms where the engineers and other STEM students do the work, it’s in the dorms and the bedrooms. It’s my cousin who would study for 5 or 6 hours a night on a regular basis (Dude was a serious outlier–that level of dedication got him his masters in 5 years from a not-quite Ivy school on the deans list the whole time).

          I knew lots of engineering and CS types at the first college I attended. They had a LOT more homework and project work than “liberal arts” majors *except* for the Fine Arts majors, but even there they were much more strictly graded…well, most of the time.

          In the 25 years since I’ve graduated and started in the “real” world, this has carried over. It’s not (usually) the Human Resources or Accounting types working 10 or 12 hour days writing code, building servers, or learning a new language or technology etc. Yeah, they’ll have a day or two (especially the accountants come end of year and/or tax time) but the EEs and CS types are getting after it.

          This is why Engineers prefer offices/cubicals and HR and Office Manager types prefer “open floor plans”. We have to be heads down in our work, they like to babble.

          Note that this is utterly exclusive of “tradies”. Like I noted above I have relatives who are plumbers, had an uncle who was an electrician. Have another one who does road work and farming. That shit is *hard* work, much harder–along a different vector–than what we do for a living.

        • Beck says:

          @Plumber
          I’ve worked 15 years as a framing carpenter and six as an engineer, and I work considerably harder as an engineer. That’s not just measuring by productivity; that’s based on hours put in, stress, and difficulty of the work.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          and that’s gravy work.

          How about *I* don’t tell you what *your* job is like, and *you* don’t tell me what *mine* is like, or what my coworker’s jobs are like?

          I have come home from work so brain blasted that I couldn’t read, couldn’t watch tv, and could barely fucking walk. For days on end. For weeks on end. I have had friends and coworkers lose slices of health, strength, and mind *permanently* doing this “gravy work”.

          When I was in school, for every hour I spent in a “gravy” classroom, I spent 6 in the workstation lab, coding, and about that again in the library with my study group. I did not “party”. None of the other STEM students did, or at least, none of the ones who survived the first year.

          STEM is hard work. There is a reason why it has a high drop rate in university, there is a reason why it is overpopulated with asocial dorks who are willing to give up popularity games in exchange for the literally painful work of being always just not quite too stupid
          to do the work and to keep up, for years.

          It is not “gravy” “sitting a desk” “wiggling your fingers”.

          Your ignorance and your envy have stopped being enlightening, and now have stopped being interesting.

          You are angry because nobody told you 40 years ago that you were just free to walk into a university library and sit down and start reading. You were. You could have. Nobody told you you could, and so you didn’t. That sucks, that’s too bad. It was not a conspiracy by the “connected” “lazy” “gravy classroom” “merit people” to keep you and your labor brothers down.

          Me, nobody told me that I couldn’t. So I did.

          • Ant says:

            I got the same job as you, Mark. It’s far easier and agreeable than most people realize, in part because the beginning (learning your first programming language) is the hardest and the least pleasant*, in part because we lack so many people to do the work we kinda have to take and conserve what we have, even if they are really bad at it, and in part because magnifying the difficulty of task is a sport among many programmer.

            * On that subject, having parents able and willing to help/ force you at this stage will be a tremendous help, far more than an access to a library(that not everyone has, and is far from sufficient. You at least need a computer to practice, which was a luxury 25 years ago).

          • Mark Atwood says:

            was a luxury 25 years ago

            25 years ago was 1995. Having a computer at home was not a “luxury” in 1995. Almost everyone in the US who had even the slightest early interest and calling for programming had access to the tools.

            There was a computer lab in my mid-tier public school high school. In 1985.

            The very first computer that I “programmed” was a Bell Labs CARDIAC. In 1977. I spent hours a day for weeks writing and tuning programs for the thing.

            Followed soon after that by Conway’s Life. Which I also ran by hand. And I then proceeded also to read in depth every single Martin Gardner article in my library’s back issue collection of Scientific American.

            The first electronic computer I programmed was a single shared TRS80-3, which I got access to for two hours each weekend for a summer.

            My mid-tier public library had a few dozen 70s era programming books. I devoured them all. And then I discovered interlibrary loans and university libraries…

            If you had the interest, all you needed was pencil and paper. If you Got Gud at pencil and paper, the electronics were easy to get to, especially in 1995.

          • B_Epstein says:

            “When, suddenly, he agreed with me”.

            For some reason, Mark Atwood just keeps posting things I want to publicly agree with. In 95, I was the 8 y/o son of rather poor immigrants, in a country dramatically poorer than the USA (even more so, in 95). We had a PC and I was playing with it a lot. Both all sorts of games and BASIC. Around that time, I was also enrolled in some after-school activities including some Pascal training. Certainly not a luxury, certainly due to my parents’ culture of learning.

      • peak.singularity says:

        The “tech bro” cliché seems to come from fake-meritocracy firms like the one described here :
        https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22332352
        (I doubt they survive for long though ?)

        • The Nybbler says:

          The “tech bro” cliche owes its origins to a hoax video. The whole idea was intentionally absurd; the “bro” stereotype and the “tech” stereotype were opposites (think back to Captain Awesome and Chuck — or even better, Morgan — on the show “Chuck”, if you’re familiar with it). Business Insider was either successfully fooled or (more likely) ran with it, tech feminists deliberately picked it up as a tool for their own ends, and it was off and running.

          Any real-world resemblances are either life intentionally imitating art, actual bros who program (there’s always been a few), non-programming venture capitalists (who are more likely to be actual bros), or coincidence and apophenia.

          As for that Hacker News comment, the bit about asking for every employer back to high school, including supervisors and contact information, is pretty standard. Or at least they put it on the application forms, which as far as I can tell nobody reads except maybe a background check firm. If the story is true, it sounds like a dysfunctional company, but not very bro-like.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Your link leads to a page of broken (pictures?) ?

            I liked Chuck a lot, but I had no idea that “Captain Awesome” would be considered as a “bro” ? Aren’t “bro”s = fraternity boys = idiots like Stifler in American Pie ?

            If the story is true, it sounds like a dysfunctional company, but not very bro-like.

            Uh…

            The company was almost entirely men, many with quite obvious and malignant ego issues. Their method for making technical decisions was to get all ~20 of them into a conference room and argue about how things should be done, with the loudest, most forceful arguments tending to win. The entire time I worked there, the socially dominant clique was primarily concerned with moving their stack into Kubernetes, despite having almost no traffic that I could discern.

            Am I totally mistaken about what “bro” means in the USA ?

          • The Nybbler says:

            I liked Chuck a lot, but I had no idea that “Captain Awesome” would be considered as a “bro” ? Aren’t “bro”s = fraternity boys = idiots like Stifler in American Pie ?

            Awesome is definitely a “bro” — he was in a UCLA fraternity and later modeled for Abercrombie and Fitch. Not quite the same archetype as Stifler. But the one referred to in the “brogramming” article I linked. (the link works, there’s a lot of ads and a lot of article-related pictures, but only the original video is no longer up)

            For the uninitiated, brogramming is programming…done by bros. Bros, as in frat brothers. As in guys who drink beer, listen to Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews, and spend six hours a day at the gym.

            Am I totally mistaken about what “bro” means in the USA ?

            If you think your stereotypical “bro” knows the difference between Cumerbatch and Kubernetes, yes.

    • peak.singularity says:

      IMHO one the main issues here is that multiple choice questions are terrible, and the SATs that use them are basically worthless.

      • Kevin Carlson says:

        Two bold claims. Care to defend them?

        • peak.singularity says:

          Sure.

          My own equivalent of “SAT” for mathematics had a whopping 20% of its points as multiple choice questions.

          The questions were about 3d geometry and the intended goal was clearly for students to show their knowledge of related equations. But it was fairly obvious that you could just bypass it completely by using the middle-school level pythagoras theorem to eliminate the incorrect answers !

          Even worse, making a mistake wasn’t penalized, so you would get on average a quarter of points by answering randomly !

          So, the main issue is that, on one hand, the person correcting the paper won’t have *any* clue of what might be the thought process of the student, and on the other it gives an incentive for the students to rely on clever hacks like this instead of actually knowing the subject matter – which won’t fly in the university where they are going to have to explain their thought process (and the earlier they learn to do that, the better, since it involves thinking about your own thought processes which is a prerequisite of critical thinking !)

          • Simon_Jester says:

            To be fair, the clever hacks often require an *extremely* solid command of lower-level mathematics, the cunning and flexibility to use them fluently, and the proficiency to quickly and accurately do the calculations over and over. You’re not just using rote memorization of a technique, you’re using the same kind of mechanical ingenuity that lets someone jury-rig a fix to a broken engine using tools that really should not be good enough to do the job.

            There are valid arguments for why this should let you pass the test.

          • peak.singularity says:

            You’re right, but then I feel that multiple-choice still isn’t the best way to achieve the desirable result. When I encountered a potential for a “clever hack” in university, I also often put a comment in the vein of “the expected resolution would use X, but I’m going to this instead”. But at university level it’s often less of an issue anyway, since problems are more open-ended…

  8. The relevant distinction is between situations where someone else’s incentives are to do what is in the general interest and situations where his incentive is to benefit himself at the cost of the rest of us. Part of the point of the libertarian argument for laissez-faire over government control is that, in the market contexts, where interaction is voluntary, the individual interest is usually consistent with the general interest — the cases where it is not, market failure, are the exception. In the political context, where individuals are not restricted to voluntary transactions, it’s the rule.

    It isn’t as simple as upper class vs lower class. A burglar, like a lobbyist, benefits himself at our expense. So if there are organizations of burglars, we would prefer that they not be meritocratic, we would prefer that burglars be less competent, not more. A best selling author is upper class, but the way he makes money is by writing books other people enjoy reading, so we would like the institutions that produce best selling authors to be meritocratic, to select for people who are good at writing books, not people who have the right contacts, or went to the right schools, or push the political views that editors and book reviewer like.

    A standard argument for public schooling is that a democracy needs an educated electorate. That’s right in contexts where the same government policy is good for everyone. But it’s wrong, in contexts where some voters are trying to use government to benefit themselves at the expense of others, because the better educated the former group are, the better they will be able to do so.

    • Plumber says:

      Well, @DavidFriedman,
       we have are ideological differences, but I’m curious on how you think some ideas and musings of mine compare to the status quo of California:

      1) Eliminate high school, the first two years of the Cal States and the U.C.’s, and maybe even middle school, fund public libraries, and community colleges instead, before they’re out of their teenage years kids should start to learn and work alongside adults, not being in age segregated warehouses. 

      2) The community colleges should be next to BART stations (like Berkeley City College and Lane are, and Alameda and Merritt aren’t), so they’re accessible even if you live far away (or some other public transportation substitute).

      3) Not less “credentialism” but more, much more. As I see it youths and their parents are using time in scholars guilds as a way to signal an ability to show up and follow instructions in order to get employment, it used to be that parents would pay “Masters” to show their kids a trade starting in their teenage years, and towns would pay Masters to do the same for “orphans” (often just those with poor parents) at a usually even younger age (so the Masters had more years of labor out of the “orphans” before releasing them as journeyworkers than they did apprentices with paying parents).

      My wife was a dual English and Philosophy major, then law school during which she worked as an intern at a law firm (before dropping out), then at a bank – her university diploma got her the job at the bank, but discussing and learning about Dostoevsky and Plato had little to do with her job at the bank, this seems like a waste of years to me, 17 years of school to get to do some filing? 

      There should be far more avenues to demonstrate competence, and they shouldn’t take so long.

      • before they’re out of their teenage years kids should start to learn and work alongside adults, not being in age segregated warehouses.

        True for many kids, probably not for all. I agree that the age segregation of our schooling system is one of the things wrong with it.

        fund public libraries, and community colleges instead,

        Possibly an improvement on the present situation, although libraries are becoming less important as more and more books are available for free online. But ultimately I don’t want the government involved in schooling at all.

        The community colleges should be next to BART stations (like Berkeley City College and Lane are, and Alameda and Merritt aren’t), so they’re accessible even if you live far away (or some other public transportation substitute).

        Putting aside my reservation about government run colleges, I agree. More generally, I favor an unschooling model, where kids learn in the way that works for them the things they want to learn, rather than spending twelve years learning, or pretending to learn, a nearly random subset of human knowledge chosen for them that happens to be just about the right size to fill twelve years.

        There should be far more avenues to demonstrate competence, and they shouldn’t take so long.

        I agree.

        What do you think about Peter Thiel’s project to pay people not to go to college, funding bright high school graduates who have entrepreneurial projects they want to do?

        • Antistotle says:

          More generally, I favor an unschooling model, where kids learn in the way that works for them the things they want to learn

          I have two kids, and have to deal with lots more.

          That’s *crazy talk*. It might work for a few motivated and bright kids, but for the heaping mass of humanity it will lead to people who believe in homeopathy, vaccines causing autism, and a bunch of other massively stupid shit like communism, and alien abductions.

          I’m not a fan of government run schools, and I’d like to take The Taser Of Instruction to some of the people who run my daughters (charter) school, but at least through maybe 15 or 16 children *need* guided, directed education and in at least two subjects (arithmetic and writing) lots of boring ass drilling.

          Nobody likes to right out their multiplication and division tables, but “we” failed to do that for my daughter (wife claims it didn’t help her, so she didn’t force spawn to do it while we were homeschooling), and I see her struggling with basic arithmetic now.

          It’s the same with the mechanics of writing, or with learning to read.

          • back40 says:

            for the heaping mass of humanity it will lead to people who believe in homeopathy, vaccines causing autism, and a bunch of other massively stupid shit like communism, and alien abductions.

            Well, they do so anyway. And, there is a great deal of massively stupid shit explicitly enforced by the state education system. Different massively stupid shit, but still…

            Massively stupid is a general condition. It’s not preventable. The best that can be done is to enable balanced massively stupid shit where no one odor becomes dominant.

          • eric23 says:

            Well, they do so anyway.

            Without standard schooling they would do so MUCH MORE.

            This line of argument reminds me of the people who support socialism because capitalism is full of crony capitalists who enrich themselves at our expense. Well yes, that is true, but under socialism there would be many more cronies not fewer.

          • but for the heaping mass of humanity it will lead to people who believe in homeopathy, vaccines causing autism, and a bunch of other massively stupid shit like communism, and alien abductions.

            I had the same reaction as back40 and wanted to expand on it.

            As you know, some people believe in all of those things, in a society where almost everyone has gone to a government run public school and most of the rest to private schools following a similar schooling model.

            The existing system tends to produce a population where everyone believes the same things, true or false. That means that people who hold false beliefs are less likely to encounter others who disagree than in a society with more intellectual diversity. If we could really rely on the school system to only teach truth that would not be a problem, but we can’t.

            Why do you expect that false beliefs will be more prevalent in a system where students educate themselves in what interests them, with guidance from their parents and other adults they trust?

            If you are curious, I’ve discussed unschooling at some length on my blog. We’ve home unschooled two children and been happy with the adult results, but that’s a small and non-random sample.

          • peak.singularity says:

            There are also possibilities between the current school system and full-blown unschooling : much smaller classes (and maybe less time spent directly with teachers, if cost is an issue), maybe even going down to direct tutoring…

        • Plumber says:

          @DavidFriedman >

          ” …What do you think about Peter Thiel’s project to pay people not to go to college, funding bright high school graduates who have entrepreneurial projects they want to do?

          I never heard of it before but after a web search I found: The Thiel Fellowship which seems a kind use of his money.

      • peak.singularity says:

        her university diploma got her the job at the bank, but discussing and learning about Dostoevsky and Plato had little to do with her job at the bank, this seems like a waste of years to me, 17 years of school to get to do some filing?

        The idea that the main reason that you would go to the university is to get a job, is utterly alien to me.

        • It’s not utterly alien to most college students. No offense here, but are your parents rich?

          • peak.singularity says:

            Hell no. But I also live in a country where university education is mostly free.

            But maybe I should clarify a bit what I meant by “job” : What worries me is how there seem to have been a not-enough questioned slide from the society needing university-educated citizens because it’s good for society’s own sake, to universities becoming glorified employee training schools.

            (Which is also in theory counter-productive, since employees are best trained on the job itself, and this is also what internships are for. But since companies get to offload their costs this way, why should they care ?)

          • But I also live in a country where university education is mostly free.

            University might be free. There is nowhere that education is free, although most of the costs are not in money.

    • noyann says:

      in contexts where some voters are trying to use government to benefit themselves at the expense of others, because the better educated the former group are, the better they will be able to do so.

      Is this not offset, at least to some relevant degree, by the others being better educated, too?

      • bassicallyboss says:

        The class-conflict model of meritocracy is assuming that the relevant groups of voters are upper class, educated people vs. middle/lower class, less educated people, so in this case, the “others” are not better educated.

        It further assumes that education and class are mutually reinforcing. Yes, the upper classes get more education because of their class, but to some degree, they are upper class because they are more educated.

        So “Let’s educate everybody more” isn’t a great answer on this view, partly because the gains will be mostly captured by the upper class, but also partly because education tends to turn people into upper class rent-extractors.

        (And since there is not enough rent to share with everybody, trying to educate everybody into the upper class just starts the conflict over again at a higher absolute baseline education, but similar relative disparities. Seems familiar, no?)

        • bassicallyboss says:

          That last parenthetical was supposed to be a nod to modern worries about credentialism, but instead I’m just thinking about Peter Turchin’s theory that “elite overproduction” -> intraelite conflict -> reduced asabiya (asabiya being the general willingness of group members to sacrifice individuallly for group benefit) is a major driver of civil unrest and state collapse. I’ve been reading some of his more rigorous work lately and it gets pretty good empirical results.

          That model sounds a lot like the world in which lots of people get educated, find there is not enough work for everyone to get the promised benefits, and fight amongst themselves (and the lower classes) to determine who will capture the spoils. Which could be our world.

          I don’t really like class-conflict models, but these theories lend each other credence. Maybe I should update.

      • Is this not offset, at least to some relevant degree, by the others being better educated, too?

        So far as the distributional outcome it is. But that means we are spending resources educating both sides with no net effect, inefficient just as any arms race is

    • peak.singularity says:

      A best selling author is upper class, but the way he makes money is by writing books other people enjoy reading, so we would like the institutions that produce best selling authors to be meritocratic, to select for people who are good at writing books, not people who have the right contacts, or went to the right schools, or push the political views that editors and book reviewer like.

      I feel that this is an ambiguous (therefore interesting) example, because there’s this age-old argument about “popular” and “good” not necessarily overlapping. And “the market discovery” can take a lot of time : J.K.Rowling had to “fake it ’till she made it”, or how, in a slightly different field, Van Gogh was only recognized after his death… (though painting might be especially prone to the “you need to have the right contacts” effect ?)

  9. notpeerreviewed says:

    But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.

    Or you’re just defining terms differently. People who don’t like meritocracy overwhelmingly define it as something like “an ideology that says people who do well in school deserve power and resources.” People who like meritocracy overwhelmingly define it as something like “jobs should be done by people who are good at them.” These substance of these two positions aren’t in direct disagreement with each other.

    • onodera says:

      > People who like meritocracy overwhelmingly define it as something like “jobs should be done by people who are good at them.”

      People who dislike meritocracy agree with this definition, because they consider becoming good at the job as at least partially driven by privilege. Aaron and Tyrone were both born with the same aptitude and fondness for healing people, but Aaron was born into a family of doctors, while Tyrone was born to a single mom in the projects.

      A meritocrat would say, “of course it is injust that Tyrone got fewer support, and we should have lots of systems in place that help children across all backgrounds become the best doctors, but Tyrone shouldn’t become a doctor, because right now Aaron is a better candidate”.

      An anti-meritocrat would say, “of course it is injust that Tyrone got fewer support, and we should have lots of systems in place that help children become the best doctors, and we should let Tyrone become a doctor, because one of these systems is showing unprivileged people that they matter and actually can becomr anyone they want. Yes, if we give Tyrone the same amount of help we give Aaron, he will become a worse doctor, but this won’t matter in the long run, our goal is not having the super-duper best doctors *right now*, but establishing a long-term trend while correcting the injustice *right now*.

      • nyc says:

        > Yes, if we give Tyrone the same amount of help we give Aaron, he will become a worse doctor, but this won’t matter in the long run, our goal is not having the super-duper best doctors *right now*, but establishing a long-term trend while correcting the injustice *right now*.

        This argument is proposing to balance merit against justice, but that would look different than the policies commonly proposed in combination with that argument.

        If Tyrone is massively disadvantaged, so that he didn’t even graduate high school and is addicted to cocaine, he can’t reasonably be a doctor. Too many people would die. The only way he can be a doctor is if he’s only somewhat disadvantaged, so that he could be a reasonable doctor just not as good as Aaron, and we’re willing to accept worse doctors to help people who have been disadvantaged. But people can be underprivileged for a wide variety of reasons; the son of a coal miner is underprivileged compared to the son of a doctor even if they’re both the same race. So the best measure of “underprivileged but still close enough not to kill too many people” would be the candidates who nearly qualified but didn’t, and the policy to implement that would be to lower the bar to becoming a doctor in general so that more underprivileged candidates can meet it and become doctors.

        Whereas if the policy proposal is to give more doctor jobs to people based on identitarian characteristics, it can no longer claim to be about justice and fairness, which leaves no more than a conflict theory position about advantaging the ingroup at the expense of the outgroup.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          So the best measure of “underprivileged but still close enough not to kill too many people” would be the candidates who nearly qualified but didn’t, and the policy to implement that would be to lower the bar to becoming a doctor in general so that more underprivileged candidates can meet it and become doctors.

          Funnily enough, I agree on the object level about qualifying doctors (and think the AMA is a cartel), but I disagree with the overall idea. I mean, ceteris paribus I agree, but I don’t think that accepting SOP and doing our best with it is the right path forward. Your proposal assumes our metrics are actually good at capturing “suitability for doctorhood” as a measure, when in fact they seem kind of garbage. Is the MCAT meritocratic? It probably ensures that people who exhibit high values of a function that increases with intelligence and drive and decreases with other demands on time get to be doctors. But it’s not clear that using it as a major factor for admissions helps increase (however you want to measure and weight the aggregate) fulfillment of desire for good treatment on the part of patients and desire to be a doctor on the part of the aspiring students.

          • nyc says:

            I think the metrics are just a separate problem. If we can find better metrics then we should use them, but they’ll never be perfect, yet you still need some selection criteria. Doing as well as we know how to even though we know it’s not perfect is still preferable to choosing based on, what exactly? A random number generator?

            Which isn’t to say the existing criteria are optimal, but even after we improve them we’re still in the same boat with respect to underprivileged candidates.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            If we can find better metrics then we should use them, but they’ll never be perfect, yet you still need some selection criteria. Doing as well as we know how to even though we know it’s not perfect is still preferable to choosing based on, what exactly? A random number generator?

            I agree that you need a selection mechanism, even if it is just a random number generator. I also agree that metrics will never be perfect, and that metrics are useful even though they systematically disadvantage the underprivileged. I have two arguments:

            First, insofar as metrics currently systematically disadvantage people, we should try to compensate for that. This is extremely hard and very easy to get wrong, but given that the counterfactual to our attempts is a metric that systematically disadvantages people anyway, it seems worth trying. If your find that truly unable to substantiate an opinion with regard to the relative aptitudes and inclinations of your candidates, actually using a random number generator seems more likely to me to give a fair (or, at the very least, more obviously unfair) result than picking the person with the last name you’re most comfortable pronouncing, or with the SAT score 10 points higher.

            Second, we should have the minimization of the dependence of the allocation of resources and support on metrics as a goal. This is completely impossible because resources are scarce and because you can’t scale certain things without changing their character. For the allocation of certain resources, we probably just have to suck it up, apologize for the unfairness, and keep trying to improve our metrics. But I strongly believe that everyone (and especially every child) deserves to have people in their lives who will nurture their ambitions, care for them, answer their questions or point them to the tools they have to answer them for themselves, and push them to do better and discover their own limits. We are nowhere near that point.

          • The Nybbler says:

            First, insofar as metrics currently systematically disadvantage people, we should try to compensate for that.

            If you had some objective way of doing this, you could just add it to the metrics and fix it directly. The problem is you don’t.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            If you had some objective way of doing this, you could just add it to the metrics and fix it directly. The problem is you don’t.

            Right. So you do your best and probably get it wrong, but hopefully in a less bad way than what’s baked into the metrics, and you don’t actually bake it into the metrics for sanitation reasons, because it’s a moving target with a large circumstantial component and you know it isn’t objective.

          • Clutzy says:

            Right. So you do your best and probably get it wrong, but hopefully in a less bad way than what’s baked into the metrics, and you don’t actually bake it into the metrics for sanitation reasons, because it’s a moving target with a large circumstantial component and you know it isn’t objective.

            I’d venture to say that one of the problems with this idea is that, generally most of the proposals people present seem to be obviously worse.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            most of the proposals people present seem to be obviously worse

            Lucky for us that we’ve rejected most of the proposals people present, then. And given that the quality of American educational institutions doesn’t appear to have cratered over the last few decades, I’m interested to know how bad you think the current system is. I don’t think it’s optimal, but I also don’t think raw SAT score is a sufficiently good metric. Will you at least agree that the best way to identify promising students is not to look only at grades and test scores? because everything else, from race to FIRST robotics participation, falls under the umbrella of “subjective criteria.”

          • The Nybbler says:

            Will you at least agree that the best way to identify promising students is not to look only at grades and test scores?

            Certainly that method has a systemic bias, against those in more challenging schools and in schools without grade weighting. But while it’s certainly not the best possible system, it might be better than anything else that is used. Stuff like robotics competitions not only also have systemic biases, they have nasty second-order effects like fueling the bidding wars to get into the secondary schools with the robotics programs.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Stuff like robotics competitions not only also have systemic biases, they have nasty second-order effects like fueling the bidding wars to get into the secondary schools with the robotics programs.

            Agreed! The point being, the most objective system has systemic bias. Any subjective factors one might consider have systemic bias. Some of those biases add negatively, some orthogonally, and some additively. It’s incredibly non-obvious to me how much systemic bias any particular factor might contribute because I can’t see the conterfactual, but that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to throw up my hands and choose the alternative that’s systemically biased but also involves taking the easiest measurements. Rather, I’m a fan of the system in which we try things and see what seems to work best, and when people tell us they’re being systemically discriminated against we listen, evaluate, and (possibly) revise. Straight testing might, in fact, “be better than anything else that is used,” but it’s not obvious to me that this is the case either.

          • The point being, the most objective system has systemic bias.

            What definition of “systemic bias” are you operating with? If any system has systemic bias, then the word is meaningless.

            It’s incredibly non-obvious to me how much systemic bias any particular factor might contribute because I can’t see the conterfactual, but that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to throw up my hands and choose the alternative that’s systemically biased but also involves taking the easiest measurements.

            Subjective measures are much more vulnerable to discrimination. If an admissions officer wants to discriminate against a group but is forced to use objective measures he’ll have to tamper with the test scores and risk having that be discovered. But if you allow him to use subjective criteria it becomes a lot easier. A lot of people say they see a lot of discrimination against certain groups, yet they want institutions to use those subjective criteria. What does that tell you?

          • The Nybbler says:

            What definition of “systemic bias” are you operating with? If any system has systemic bias, then the word is meaningless.

            Systemic bias is just that — a bias that is inherent in the system. If we have a system that considers grades, but not the difficulty in getting those grades, then we have a system that is biased against those who took more difficult classes or went to schools where more difficult classes are not given higher grade marks (assuming, of course, that taking a difficult course is not itself negatively correlated with the theoretical figure of merit we would like to achieve, but this seems reasonable). This is the sort of bias standardized tests attempt to avoid. It is also arguably the sort of bias grade-weighting was developed to counter (though one could claim that grade-weighting actually introduces a bias)

            I agree you can’t fix this bias by adding subjective factors; at scale, they’re almost certainly going to be worse.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            If any system has systemic bias, then the word is meaningless.

            No it isn’t. What is this even supposed to mean? When we use tests as a sole metric, there’s systemic bias against people who don’t test well. When we use interviews, there’s systemic bias against people who don’t interview well. A system devoid of systemic bias would be one in which everyone had access to everything they had aptitude for and interest in, and the deviation from this hypothetical world is the measure of the magnitude of bias. Any factor that introduces bias does so in a particular direction and with a certain magnitude. Critically, even if everything is biased, things can be more or less biased, and I would like to reduce the magnitude of bias people encounter.

            Subjective measures are much more vulnerable to discrimination.

            “It might make it worse” isn’t a good reason to not do something if you think the status quo is bad. It’s a good reason to be very cautious about irrevocably committing to something, but I don’t think any anti-bias interventions represent irrevocable commitments. If people end up having stupid ideas, I’m fine with scrapping them, but I’m not a fan of wallowing in mediocrity because it works well enough. Our society is incredibly wealthy and stable; this is the perfect time to try random shit to see if it works better.

            A lot of people say they see a lot of discrimination against certain groups, yet they want institutions to use those subjective criteria. What does that tell you?

            That people are good at perceiving injustices directed at themselves, whether or not they exist. That doesn’t mean that they don’t. Did you miss the part where I said that evaluating is the second step after listening?

          • Clutzy says:

            Will you at least agree that the best way to identify promising students is not to look only at grades and test scores? because everything else, from race to FIRST robotics participation, falls under the umbrella of “subjective criteria.

            There might be SOME system that judges subjective criteria that is better than just ACT/SAT/Grades at selecting and identifying promising students. But that is not a system that looks at robotics competitions or race or being an editor for the school newspaper, etc. I think the more promising solution would be to try to get more discrimination and granularity from grades and standardized tests. That is, find a way to suss out grade inflation, make another test past the SAT that is good at discriminating among people in the top 5%, the SAT being best at separating the top 5-10% from the lower 80-90%

            And I don’t think the system we have is totally broken, but it is less good than the system we had years ago. I gets the same (or worse some might say) results for much higher costs.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            make another test past the SAT that is good at discriminating among people in the top 5%

            Is it your experience that people in the top 1% are genuinely better workers and students than people in the second-to-top 1%? Not ceteris paribus, but in real life. Would you sacrifice a hiring interview for a marginally-higher-resolution skills test? That seems like a horrible idea to me.

          • The Nybbler says:

            A system devoid of systemic bias would be one in which everyone had access to everything they had aptitude for and interest in, and the deviation from this hypothetical world is the measure of the magnitude of bias.

            No; the system could still have unbiased noise.

            Our society is incredibly wealthy and stable; this is the perfect time to try random shit to see if it works better.

            Pretty much nobody railing against meritocracy is actually interested in the “see if it works better” part, if “see if it works better” means “the system’s output is better aligned with the theoretical figure of merit”. (And in most cases you can’t see if some “random shit” actually works better.) Rather, they only want to see that the change they introduce produces the outcome they desire.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            the system could still have unbiased noise.

            Fair point, yeah.

            Pretty much nobody railing against meritocracy is actually interested in the “see if it works better” part, if “see if it works better” means “the system’s output is better aligned with the theoretical figure of merit”.

            I think there’s a definition of merit under which

            I strongly believe that everyone (and especially every child) deserves to have people in their lives who will nurture their ambitions, care for them, answer their questions or point them to the tools they have to answer them for themselves, and push them to do better and discover their own limits.

            is a meritocratic attitude and one in which it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t take as its central goal slotting people into roles as efficiently as possible. I want people to have as good an opportunity to realize their ambitions as possible, and damn the cost of providing that opportunity to them. Insofar as meritocracy is the idea that people should be put in roles using the most efficient sorting mechanism possible, I’m very much against it. Regardless, if we’re talking about the first thing, you now know at least one very special snowflake who is interested in the “see if it works better” part.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Hoopyfreud

            Insofar as meritocracy is the idea that people should be put in roles using the most efficient sorting mechanism possible, I’m very much against it.

            Meritocracy says nothing about the efficiency of the sorting mechanism; that’s a constraint, not a goal.

            Your quote, unfortunately, is a feel-good political speech and not a practical goal. At some point a choice is going to have to be made — someone’s getting into MIT and someone else is stuck with State or community college. Someone’s getting into medical school, and someone else is not. Someone’s getting that engineering job at Amazon, and someone else ends up working in the warehouse. The idea of meritocracy says that this choice should be made based on who will best succeed at the position. Deliberately doing this wrong doesn’t help overall; for every less-meritorious person you give an opportunity to, you take that some opportunity from some more-meritorious person.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            It’s not a goal, it’s an ideal. And sure, not everyone will get into MIT or work in an office where they have lobster flavored kombucha on tap, because those things are scarce and those places are actually competing for the cream of the crop. I don’t actually have much of a problem with that.

            Khan Academy, public libraries, and MIT OCW go a long way towards making sure people have the materials they need in order to “have the opportunity.” What I want is for people for whom those materials are their only recourse to not get gatekept without justification and for them to have enough mentors and material support to understand that the effort would be worthwhile. There might not be an Amazon engineer job in it for the disadvantaged – they might actually end up too far behind for that – but there’s a wide gulf between what a lot of these kids (and adults!) expect their lives to look like and what they can accomplish. There’s a lot of positive-sum ground to cover before the disadvantaged start racing head-to-head against the advantaged-but-just-as-passionate-and-apt.

          • Clutzy says:

            Is it your experience that people in the top 1% are genuinely better workers and students than people in the second-to-top 1%? Not ceteris paribus, but in real life. Would you sacrifice a hiring interview for a marginally-higher-resolution skills test? That seems like a horrible idea to me.

            In my experience, interviews are negatively correlated with quality of work. I’d rather read 2 numbers: LSAT (or SAT previously) and GPA in writing courses. If a school doesn’t have writing courses broken out or even easily discernible, GPA is a mediocre, but not great alternative. Two personal examples were

            1: picking new interns in the lab I had been promoted from unpaid intern to paid lab coordinator. Good interviewers showed up on time much less than the kids with good grades in the classes I deemed hardest. This was easily a “picking from the top 5%” at my uni situation, because we were a biomedical engineering lab, the most exclusive major in the engineering school, which was the highest SAT portion of the campus.

            2: Getting a law job, only after the person who beat me out was let go after 5 months. Eventually I learned that he was a great interviewer, but was very bad at spacial reasoning and writing. They figured that his writing sample was heavily edited by someone, or written by another entirely.

          • peak.singularity says:

            One issue here is clearly Goodhart’s law : “”When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”, where higher class parents are going to have much more resources to game the system in favor of their own progeny.
            I wonder if a solution might be to change the metrics often enough that trying to game the system becomes too hard ? (And keep changing them, so that those at the very top can’t subvert the changing process either ?)

          • Will you at least agree that the best way to identify promising students is not to look only at grades and test scores?

            Yes. I recently interviewed applicants to a top university (of which I’m an alumnus). Of the three this year, the one with the best paper record was the least intellectually impressive. If the university follows my advice, which they probably won’t, they will do a better selection than if they go off the paper record alone.

            But it doesn’t follow that the same will be true if they follow the advice of all of their interviewers. What they need is a mass production mechanism for selecting who to admit. That’s a hard problem, and going by grades and test results, with some attempt to identify differences in what grades mean from different schools and different classes, might be the best they can do.

            The one additional thing I think they should do is have applicants write an essay under circumstances where it is clear they wrote it. If the applicant visits the school, put him or her in a room with a word processor and a list of ten alternative essay topics. That would at least give them better information than they now have on one of the relevant abilities.

            Is it your experience that people in the top 1% are genuinely better workers and students than people in the second-to-top 1%?

            If “top 1%” means the one percent best students, yes. The smartest people I encounter are fewer than one in a hundred. Of the seven students I interviewed, one was clearly more intellectually able than the other six and, given where I was (Silicon Valley) and that all of them were applying to a top school, I expect all of them were well into the top ten percent.

            But it probably isn’t true if “top 1%” is defined by grades and test scores, which are only an imperfect measure of ability.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            Doing as well as we know how to even though we know it’s not perfect is still preferable to choosing based on, what exactly? A random number generator?

            The alternative that’s actually on the table is some mixture of test scores and other concerns, such as ethnic representation or reparation for injustice. If one believes that those other concerns have some value, then the less informative test scores are, the more justification there is for weighting them less compared to other things.

      • of course it is injust that Tyrone got fewer support

        Not exactly. A meritocrat would say it’s not ideal that Tyrone got fewer supports. But he might dispute the word “injustice” as it implies that that’s the wider society’s fault, rather than someone more specific like Tyrone’s parents. Fundamentally, the perspective is that yes, people raised with bourgeois values will have an easier time in the world than those who are raised without them. But the former didn’t gain them by going out and stealing from the latter.

        one of these systems is showing unprivileged people that they matter and actually can becomr anyone they want.

        Have you considered an alternative method of showing that you care without the potential negatives of making medicine less competent? Medicine is kind of important, though less than most people tend to think. Or is this a Spence signal, where taking something important and putting it on the altar is the point because it’s costly?

        Yes, if we give Tyrone the same amount of help we give Aaron, he will become a worse doctor, but this won’t matter in the long run, our goal is not having the super-duper best doctors *right now*, but establishing a long-term trend while correcting the injustice *right now*.

        No, it’s establishing what you hypothesize is a long term trend and other people hypothesize is nothing at all. Supreme court said in 2003 that, 25 years later, affirmative action would no longer be necessary thanks to that long-term trend. We’re 17 years in, how is that prediction holding up?

    • Vermora says:

      The correct definition is ““jobs should be done by people who are good at them”, and anyone claiming it means “doing well in school” or some form of credentialism is simply wrong.

      I have yet to read a criticism of “meritocracy” in these comments that uses the correct definition. Most of the criticisms of meritocracy complain that competence is often ignored in favour of credentials – that is, the writer is actually in favour of society becoming more meritorious.

      (It is the case that credentials are often overvalued by companies genuinely trying to find the most competent people for a role. The problem here isn’t meritocracy, it’s that imperfect measures of competence/merit are being used. And often an imperfect measures is the best they’ve got.)

      • Hoopdawg says:

        I have yet to read a criticism of “meritocracy” in these comments that uses the correct definition.

        Well, there is one up there in Scott’s post.

        The problem is, the job of the meritorious is not necessarily the goal we have in mind while hiring him. In some cases, it is – you want the best surgeon to perform your surgery. But in others, it isn’t – when you hire a bureaucrat, you want him to maximize social welfare, but you hire him for his administrative skills. He may be the best manager in the world, and it is of no benefit to you if his class preconceptions only make him skillfully and competently optimize for his own goals.

        Or to make an extreme example: A superhuman paperclip maximizer AI is ostensibly better qualified than any human for the job of managing… basically anything. You emphatically don’t want it to manage anything whatsoever.

        Unless, of course, you’re merely arguing a consequentialist conception of merit where the person who will actually do the job the best is by definition the best qualified to do it. I don’t think anybody ever disagreed with that, though.

        • Vermora says:

          That consequentialist conception of merit is exactly the definition I use, though I wasn’t explicitly aware of it until just now. It did seem like people were disagreeing with that, but it’s more likely we are using different definitions of the word without realising it

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            That consequentialist conception of merit is exactly the definition I use, though I wasn’t explicitly aware of it until just now. It did seem like people were disagreeing with that, but it’s more likely we are using different definitions of the word without realising it.

            As I mentioned in another comment, the term “meritocracy” is a relatively recent one, invented by Michael D. Young to criticize social hierarchy stratified according to educational achievement. The frequent use of it to describe “work being done by those most qualified” is an additional definition that developed over time. I think there’s a strong case for both definitions being correct – as opposed to only the original being correct – but I think there’s no case for the newer definition being the only correct one.

      • peak.singularity says:

        The “-cracy” part means it’s about power.
        So it’s not so much about jobs, as about specific societal roles wielding political power.
        (Related : see also how a great technician might make a poor engineer if he’s not taught well about how to wield power over people under his command…)

        • The “-cracy” part means it’s about power.
          So it’s not so much about jobs, as about specific societal roles wielding political power.

          And “chivalrous” means horsy.

          That’s what the etymology implies, but I don’t think it is how the word is most commonly used. Googling around, I find both versions. From Merriam Webster:

          1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
          // only the elite, in that new meritocracy, would enjoy the opportunity for self-fulfillment— R. P. Warren
          2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria
          // many private schools have sold their birthright by choosing … “diversity” over scholarly meritocracy— L. G. Crovitz

          From another online source, a definition closer to yours:

          government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability.
          “progress towards meritocracy was slow”

          • peak.singularity says:

            As my technician => engineer example hinted at, the two definition tend to eventually come together, as the “people ahead” at some point become leaders, be it inside a company, or in the society in general.

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        The correct definition is ““jobs should be done by people who are good at them”, and anyone claiming it means “doing well in school” or some form of credentialism is simply wrong.

        You might want to take that up with the guy who invented the word, because he was definitely talking about educational achievement.

  10. Douglas Knight says:

    At worst, we are the lower and middle class, they are the upper class

    Does anyone ever make this argument in good faith? Meritocracy as opposed to what? You could propose something that actually addresses this problem, like reducing government power. If no -ocracy, then meritocracy isn’t a problem. Or sortition. But no one ever proposes those as solutions to meritocracy because their complaint is always that they are high class and people who do well on tests are relatively low class. (often this is V vs M)

    (People talking about noblesse oblige are a striking example. Maybe they’re right and not just self-serving, but they sure don’t fit the pattern you propose.)

    ————

    Well, maybe things are complicated. Someone who inherited a position in the union or the police is not exactly “upper class.” The argument for expropriating class privileges applies to them just as much as anyone else. But bulldozing all these complicated hierarchies and replacing them with a single ranking is something weird that I could imagine someone attacking, although it’s rare that they do so explicitly.

    • Plumber says:

      @Douglas Knight >

      “…Meritocrac as opposed to what?…”

      I don’t think it’s been much tried, but maybe Democracy?

      Instead of an elite dispensing the privilege of whom is favored to join their ranks have the ruled do so with the expectation that the rulers will work for the benefit of their voters.

      • Instead of an elite dispensing the privilege of whom is favored to join their ranks have the ruled do so with the expectation that the rulers will work for the benefit of their voters.

        What I like to describe as the civics class model of democracy.

        In order for it to be in the interest for the rulers to act that way, the voters have to know whether or not they are doing so, so they can vote out the ones who are not. But both figuring out what the government should be doing and figuring out what individual politicians are doing are hard problems and the individual voter is rationally ignorant — he doesn’t spend large amounts of time and effort trying to get an accurate opinion of who he should vote for, since he knows that his vote has a near zero chance of changing the outcome.

        Which is why that model does not describe real world democracy, save in very small polities.

        You might consider that, on paper, we have your model — who joins the ranks of the elected rulers is determined by the mass of the voters. Why doesn’t it produce the outcome you want?

        • Plumber says:

          @DavidFriedman >

          “….Why doesn’t it produce the outcome you want?”

          You said it yourself:

          “…save in very small polities…”

          Most polities are just way too damn big, 50 States is far too few, 5,000 would be more to my liking.

    • peak.singularity says:

      Sortition has become more and more popular in the recent years, with several experiments where randomly selected citizens are debating law proposals being experimented with right now.

      Of course there’s still a meritocratic element, since someone has to answer the questions they might ask, and that someone is an “expert” (<= meritocracy !), hopefully an "independent" one… and it's not clear whether the "real" governments are going to find a way to just dismiss the proposals they don't like…

  11. joncb says:

    From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests.

    From the perspective of conflict theory is the “conflict” a positive situation or an unfortunate reality? As in is someone who believes in conflict theory over mistake theory (is that even the right way to think about it?) thinking “Conflict theory being true is a better state of affairs than if mistake theory is true” or are they thinking “I wish mistake theory was true but it isn’t, conflict theory is”?

    • Said Achmiz says:

      From the perspective of conflict theory is the “conflict” a positive situation or an unfortunate reality?

      “It is an unfortunate reality that there exist people who have interests different from ours. It would be good if they were to alter their values and preferences such that their interests aligned with ours (if possible), or—if their different interests are innate—if they ceased to exist (or, equivalently, if they went elsewhere, such that they could no longer compete with us for resources).”

      —thus would speak the conflict theorist.

      As in is someone who believes in conflict theory over mistake theory (is that even the right way to think about it?) thinking “Conflict theory being true is a better state of affairs than if mistake theory is true” or are they thinking “I wish mistake theory was true but it isn’t, conflict theory is”?

      Conflict theorists don’t (necessarily) doubt that some people are making mistakes (cf. “false consciousness”); conversely, mistake theorists do deny that any conflicts aren’t the result of mistakes.

      For a conflict theorist to wish that mistake theory were true, is simply to wish that all “true” conflicts were to be resolved/eradicated (as in my hypothetical quote above). All remaining conflicts would then be the result of mistakes, and thereby, mistake theory would now be true.

    • DocKaon says:

      Personally, if forced to choose would describe myself as a conflict theorist and I believe it’s basically an inescapable fact about the world. We live in a large, diverse society where people are going to have fundamentally different interests and values.

      I don’t believe someone is going to produce an obviously, objectively right description of morality and ethics that will automatically be accepted by everyone. I definitely don’t see how we can eliminate all distinctions that would lead to people having different interests or practically prevent people from promoting their own interests at least to some degree. All of us retreating behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance before participating in politics is a nice ideal, but I don’t see how we could make that a practical reality.

      What I really don’t understand is how someone could think that most political conflict is driven by people making mistakes about what is objectively true.

      • What I really don’t understand is how someone could think that most political conflict is driven by people making mistakes about what is objectively true.

        Consider tariffs. Most public discussion of the issue is conducted in terms of 18th century economics, as shown by terminology such as “favorable balance of trade” and “competitive.”

        Consider macro policy. If the 1960’s Keynesian view was correct, almost everyone benefits from a policy of running deficits when unemployment is high, and there is a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, so you can also hold unemployment down by tolerating mild inflation. If the 1960’s monetarist view was right, the Keynesian model was wrong and the inflation/unemployment tradeoff was temporary, so once people adjusted their expectations to the mild inflation unemployment would go back up.

        Similarly for foreign policy and defense. Practically nobody wanted the U.S. to be conquered or destroyed in a thermonuclear exchange, but people disagreed about how great the risk was, whether it was better to defend the U.S. in the U.S. or by fighting communism expansion abroad, …

        Similarly for the minimum wage law. People who support higher minimum wages claim they will help the poor. People who oppose them claim they will hurt the poor.

        The political issue that looks most like a straightforward conflict of interest is the pattern of taxes, but even there a lot of the disagreement is on facts, not values.

  12. Guy in TN says:

    Instead of the dichotomy of Meritocrats and Anti-Meritocrats, really there are three positions here:

    1. Those who think merit should exclusively be the deciding factor in a receiving a position.

    2. Those who think there should be some role for merit, along with other factors

    3. Those who there merit should never be a factor.

    I’m not going to defend position 3 (and I’m not sure anyone seriously advances it). But I will defend position 2 from the Merit-Only crowd.

    Here’s my thought experiment:

    Let’s take Merit-Only to the extreme. Let’s say, one day a guy shows up in the world who can do everything. Literally everything: it’s his super power. And he’s excellent at it. He can plant every crop, mop every floor, operate every factory, write every code, all across the world, all simultaneously. And he can do all these things, by himself, better than everyone else in the world combined can.

    If I am an employer in a Meritocracy, this guy would be the top pick for my job opening. And he would be the top pick for every other employer’s job opening, as well. In fact, every employer would fire whole armies of workers, literally every worker on the planet, all to be replaced by this one guy. He takes everyone’s job.

    If you are a worker (here meaning that you receive your income from labor instead of capital), the value of your labor has now dropped to zero. No one will hire you for anything, because you are worthless compared to this one guy. Now, it’s true that the price for things in general has dropped dramatically due to this guy’s fantastic increases in global productivity, but the price for things isn’t zero, which is what your income now is.

    No income= no food, no shelter, no healthcare, you know the rest. Only capital owners (who receive rents from this guy’s labor) are able to survive the waves of mass die-offs.

    Does my logic not check out here? Would this society not be far better off abandoning the rules of strict Meritocracy?
    —————————————————————————
    To bring it back to the real world: “Merit” is a tool that can sometimes be used to serve the benefit of human well-being. But it’s not the only tool, and sometimes it is indeed the wrong tool. This is the “merit can be useful” position.

    The Merit-Only position, in contrast, seems to have somehow concluded that awarding positions based on merit must necessarily be the route that best serves human well-being. I’ve not seen this logic spelled out yet in the comments, but I fear it follows the drearily-familiar paths that attempt to rationalize all positions of economic power as axiomatically just.

    • Clutzy says:

      Your logic does not check out because the employers are also SOL in that situation, because he can simply replace them by being the best employer. So all their profits fall to zero as they are outcompeted by superman industries that employs superman. Eventually its just 1 guy working for himself. *Shrug* such is the problem of a corporeal god and a post-scarcity society. No system can deal with that.

      • Guy in TN says:

        @Clutzy

        Your logic does not check out because the employers are also SOL in that situation, because he can simply replace them by being the best employer

        The owners of capital are not going to sell off their last possible sources of income, that would be suicide.

        *Shrug* such is the problem of a corporeal god and a post-scarcity society. No system can deal with that.

        Yes, a system can! Just not a perfectly meritocratic one- that’s my point. One would think that a society in which global productivity tripled would not necessarily have to experience mass die-offs.

        • bzium says:

          The owners of capital are not going to sell off their last possible sources of income, that would be suicide.

          In many cases they don’t have to sell off anything. The superman can make his own means of production, with blackjack and hookers.

          And in case of things like land and access to natural resources, there’s still the problem that owners of capital aren’t a monolithic hivemind and some of them will be willing to sell their stuff for juicy billions in cash. Billions that the superman can easily earn in a couple of months by subsuming just one high-profit industry.

          When all else fails, the guy is better at waging war than all the soldiers in the world combined, so…

          Yes, a system can! Just not a perfectly meritocratic one- that’s my point. One would think that a society in which global productivity tripled would not necessarily have to experience mass die-offs.

          You just reinvented a hard take off singularity scenario. Whether there are mass die-offs or not will depend solely on the whims of the superintelligence. This doesn’t really have anything to do with meritocracy or lack thereof.

        • stucchio says:

          If at least one owner of capital employs him, he will earn a high salary. Superman then invests his capital in the stock market better than everyone else and in a few years is bigger than Renaissance Medallion.

          Now he’s got his own capital and takes over the world.

          Possibly he gets his own capital by being a better beggar than all the others. Then he invests his capital on Robin Hood, posts screenshots to /r/wallstreetbets, and starts a hedge fund by recruiting investment from other autists.

          Or alternately, at least one owner of capital invests in him in return for a small piece of the pie.

          There’s lots of discussion of this; see Nick Bostrom’s book.

        • Guy in TN says:

          @bzium

          And in case of things like land and access to natural resources, there’s still the problem that owners of capital aren’t a monolithic hivemind and some of them will be willing to sell their stuff for juicy billions in cash. Billions that the superman can easily earn in a couple of months by subsuming just one high-profit industry.

          You and other posters seem to be focusing on my suggestion that the capital owners will survive, while the non-capital owners won’t. If I’m wrong and the answer is “But capital owners will also die” that just makes the meritocratic system even worse.

          When all else fails, the guy is better at waging war than all the soldiers in the world combined, so…[…] Whether there are mass die-offs or not will depend solely on the whims of the superintelligence.

          This guy in my scenario is not infinitely powerful. I did not mean to imply omnipotence. He is better at operating tanks and guiding missiles, sure, but he doesn’t have access to the tank and missiles. Which makes the difference, i.e., he is still governed by law. So the economic arrangement of this society is still an institutional, democratic choice.

          • Clutzy says:

            But he could build tanks better than anyone. And faster. And since he can super-accumulate capital he can conceal this even from the prying eyes of the comparably incompetent CIA/NSA.

          • Guy in TN says:

            But he could build tanks better than anyone. And faster.

            He could, if he had legal access to tank parts, which he does not since he is still a regular citizen constrained by law. Again, he only has super-laboring powers. He cannot conjure matter out of air, cannot fabricate the plutonium needed to make nuclear weapons from coal. He is mortal, not omnipotent, and cannot “will” capital into existence.

            Perhaps I erred in relying on a fantasy element in my thought experiment- many people seem to be distracted by this rather unnecessary aspect. I could replace his super-powers with regular powers and reach the same basic conclusion.

          • Lambert says:

            You know you can buy tanks and stuff.
            Obviously the weapons have to be deactivated, but that’s nothing that would stop our Übermensch in a machine shop.

          • Guy in TN says:

            You might be able to sneak away a few tanks in your garage, but the military is always going to have more firepower. All the raw human labor in the world can’t match the power of artillery and ammunition.

            Commentor’s continued insistence on conflating infinite labor power with infinite access to capital, indicates that whatever point I was trying to make in this thought experiment must have been lost in the weeds.

          • Plumber says:

            Guy in TN says: “…whatever point I was trying to make in this thought experiment must have been lost in the weeds”

            Well, I thought that I followed your parable well enough but I was already pre-disposed to your position.

          • Clutzy says:

            I don’t think you understand the ability of this person to accumulate capital and make superweapons without the government knowledge. You have basically created a better version of Lex Luthor.

          • Eric Zhang says:

            It would be trivial for him to take over the world. As he’s the best at running political campaigns, he’d become President and it would be easy for him with his superior manipulation skills to be made dictator.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Should I run this again, without the supernatural aspect? It’s wholly unnecessary to the point.

          • Clutzy says:

            No reason to. The problem isn’t that he’s superhuman, its that I don’t think this is the real problem with meritocracy.

            Rather its more related to virtue, and the failure of our current meritocracies to separate “box checking” from merit. Virtue is ephemeral, but I think its generally taking stands against institutions that hold up over time. This is like the abolitionists of the 1850s, or Ron Paul in the Iraq war.

            Compare that to what we generally have? Who in the natsec apparatus made that stand? Who in DOJ opposed the false prosecution of Steven Hatfill in the anthrax case? Comey and Weissman failed upward there, Mueller’s reputation unharmed. Ditto for the Ted Stevens case. Lack of virtue is our biggest problem.

            Second biggest being “box checking”. This is where a person does a job, but not all that well, but gets credit. The Hillary Clinton campaign was premised on box checking, so was McCain’s. A lot of people arguing for subjective college admissions instead of GPA/SAT focus argue for this. They find it impressive if you were in choir, band, model UN, debate, student counsel, and the school newspaper. Never mind you are a bad musician, can’t persuade anyone in a competitive environment, and write bad articles that are poorly researched. That person is much more worthy than the kid who dedicated himself to wrestling and won a state title.

            Lastly, I don’t think its good to agree to the premise. Lets imagine GATTACA starts tomorrow. Me and my spouse can pick our best genes and birth a girl and boy who represent the best combinations we could ever make. Those tallish (we don’t have NBA genes no matter how you count), athletic, intelligent, perfect eyesight kids (along with the rest of kids around their age) will make the lives of a lot of current infants not very well off. But that is how things often happen. Peace brings stagnancy.

        • Clutzy says:

          The owners of capital are not going to sell off their last possible sources of income, that would be suicide.

          That is irrelevant. He can work for one, destroy the other buy the destroyed business, then destroy the first. No one else has agency in this scenario.

    • joncb says:

      1. Those who think merit should exclusively be the deciding factor in a receiving a position.

      2. Those who think there should be some role for merit, along with other factors

      I feel like very few people will take a hard line position for #1. Take an example where A has more merit than B but wants $30K more. I could argue this away in terms of “the ‘$30k more’ term acts as ‘negative merit'” but that would probably be sophistry and i can’t think of a pithy bit to add to the position. But at the same time, i feel we’d be in a better state if, in general, we placed the best person available in every job.

      If I am an employer in a Meritocracy, this guy would be the top pick for my job opening.

      You don’t need the meritocracy part. Within this scenario, you are acting against your own interests if you don’t, in some way, hire this person. Firstly, if you don’t hire them then you’re basically denying a priceless advantage. Of these things, shareholder revolts are made. Secondly, If you don’t hire them then they may go to one of your competitors who can then comprehensively price you out of the market and all your workers would still end up unemployed. This isn’t even particularly hard capitalism, the fact that this person can simultaneously replace all your workforce is enough. The only way this experiment ends without mass unemployment is if one of the talents of Mr Singularity is overthrowing the government and instituting either communism or UBI.

      If you downgrade the experiment a little so he can do ONE job, whatever it is, perfectly then we can start looking to “competitive advantage” for an answer. But it still makes him an incredibly valuable force multiplier for your corporation.

      To bring it back to the real world: “Merit” is a tool that can sometimes be used to serve the benefit of human well-being. But it’s not the only tool, and sometimes it is indeed the wrong tool. This is the “merit can be useful” position.

      As i said above, i don’t think you could reasonably hold the position that there is no other factor that ever trumps merit in the real world case. However i see “can be useful” as being a bit too low ball. I’d be happy with a position that was something like “In general, Merit is by far the most valuable factor and while other factors can be useful, their use in practice should require justification” except that i’ve put maybe 5 minutes of thought into it so i highly doubt it’s perfection.

    • Christophe Biocca says:

      Your extreme case only works if super-worker has zero opportunity cost for doing work of any kind. That means either faster-than-speed-of-light travel between jobs or ability to duplicate itself infinitely.

      If he’s merely more productive than all other humans put together (but is still some finite amount of productiveness), then comparative advantage applies, which means super-worker + everyone else has better overall productivity than just super-worker on their own.

      But even taking the example as given, a small tax on income from capital to help the now-unemployed would be massively better than dirigiste restrictions on the number of jobs that super-worker can fill.

      • Guy in TN says:

        @Christophe Biocca

        But even taking the example as given, a small tax on income from capital to help the now-unemployed would be massively better than dirigiste restrictions on the number of jobs that super-worker can fill.

        I agree that would be the best policy, of course.

        But implementing a welfare program, which just gives money to the non-workers regardless of whether they “earned” it…doesn’t seem very meritocratic?

        What is the distinction that allows the meritocracy to give away money to people who create no value, but does not allow the system to give away jobs to less qualified people? Is such a system only allowed to give away money if there are no work requirements associated with it?

        • What is the distinction that allows the meritocracy to give away money to people who create no value, but does not allow the system to give away jobs to less qualified people? Is such a system only allowed to give away money if there are no work requirements associated with it?

          One reason is that what we are really talking about here is not really a form of redistribution on the individual level. It’s not saying “if someone makes 80K and someone else makes 90K, let’s equalize it so one makes 83K and the other makes 87K. It’s saying, let’s switch it around, so that one makes 90K and the other makes 80K. Maybe over time the less competent person might get demoted to making 87K and the more competent person gets promoted.

          The other reason is because a welfare program is a welfare program. That’s the goal. In contrast, if you have a job to build houses or heal sick people, the purpose is to build houses or heal sick people. There’s a natural resistance to trying to introduce redistribution as a goal here.

          • Guy in TN says:

            The other reason is because a welfare program is a welfare program. That’s the goal. In contrast, if you have a job to build houses or heal sick people, the purpose is to build houses or heal sick people. There’s a natural resistance to trying to introduce redistribution as a goal here.

            But if the employer said “yes, I want to build houses, but also also want help redistribute wealth. These are my two goals”. So he purposefully hires low income people. Would this still be a meritocracy?

          • Clutzy says:

            But if the employer said “yes, I want to build houses, but also also want help redistribute wealth. These are my two goals”. So he purposefully hires low income people. Would this still be a meritocracy?

            I mean, are they good at building houses? Because if they are, he’s just recognized a market inefficiency and will be rewarded (with money or status), if not he will bleed out.

          • Guy in TN says:

            If by “bleed out” you mean “make less money than we would have otherwise” then yes. But If “bleed out” you mean “go out of business”, then no. We know this because of the many companies that currently exist do incorporate charitable contributions into their business, successfully.

          • Clutzy says:

            If charity is the core of your business, example being building, if your builders are not very good you will go out of business. Wal Mart hires old people as greeters, but the reason Wal Mart is Wal Mart is their logistics and shipping departments. Those greeters don’t get near those departments.

    • baconbits9 says:

      Now, it’s true that the price for things in general has dropped dramatically due to this guy’s fantastic increases in global productivity, but the price for things isn’t zero, which is what your income now is.

      Actually yes, it should drop to zero. You have posited a superman with zero marginal costs to his labor, if he has any marginal cost then comparative advantage still holds and there are employment opportunities for others. If he doesn’t then the marginal cost of goods is zero.

      • Guy in TN says:

        Actually yes, it should drop to zero. You have posited a superman with zero marginal costs to his labor, if he has any marginal cost then comparative advantage still holds and there are employment opportunities for others.

        Just because his labor power is infinite, doesn’t mean the supply of all resources is now infinite. He is not a god, he cannot create space or matter.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Doesn’t matter, the demand for those goods isn’t infinite because we don’t have infinite people, so we don’t need infinite resources. Humans use a fraction of the total energy that hits the earth daily from the sun alone, the issue is in the capture of the energy, not in the total amount available. Likewise we have not mined all of the copper, iron, gold etc in the world and are fighting over who gets to use the limited amount there is.

          The human race is nowhere near carrying capacity in terms of total humans that the resources of the earth could support.

          • peak.singularity says:

            The carrying capacity isn’t limited by the total number of resources either. The issue is diffuse resources, and us consuming the most concentrated resources first.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Roughly speaking (for the example given above where we have a god like being descending on us to steal our jobs) it is determined by the total number of reusable/renewable resources.

            This only sounds silly because we are given a silly premise and asked to think of the logical conclusion.

    • peak.singularity says:

      Isn’t the guy that coined the term “meritocracy” pretty close to “3” ?

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        Isn’t the guy that coined the term “meritocracy” pretty close to “3” ?

        He never specifies, and the book being a satire sometimes makes it hard to pick out his real beliefs, but I think the most reasonable reading is that he falls in camp (2). In the (non-satirical) introduction, he says his intent was to “give both sides of the case”, which suggests that he thinks some kind of balance needs to be struck between conflicting values.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      Ever hear of comparative advantage?

      • Guy in TN says:

        There’s no economic reason to assume that, for a given person, a worker’s individual decline in labor value due to increased total labor productivity will necessarily be offset by a corresponding decline in prices for that individual.

        Sure, the value of their labor won’t be literally zero, just like how after we invented the tractor, the value of plowing oxen didn’t drop to literally zero. But people can still be made worse off, with less purchasing power, than they were before. A “super-laborer” could render other people as working for pennies, with only a corresponding slight drop in the prices of goods.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      Does my logic not check out here?

      No, because I’m not sure you’ve considered the scenario proposed.

      Let’s distinguish between “realistic” and “unrealistic” versions of this scenario and see what each of them would entail.

      In the “realistic” version, Mr Merit can do anything beter than anyone – but that’s it. In practice, this means that if you have a contest between Mr Merit and anyone else in the world for a given position, Mr Merit comes out on top. It doesn’t mean Mr Merit has infinite production capacity, nor does he have more than 24 hours in a day. In fact, we could assume his superpower is being just good enough to be better than the competition – Mr Satisficing Merit

      Mr Satisficing Merit is indeed the top pick for every employer, but if he’s working for Employer A, he’s not working for Employer B – or anyone else. The fact that Mr Satisficing Merit is doing any particular job is better than if anybody else was doing that particular job, but in the grand scheme of things we may never notice his existence. The overall impact of any particular individual doing any particular job is vastly outweighed by all the other jobs making up the economy.

      Mr Satisficing Merit won’t even necessarily be richer than someone of lesser merit doing the same job. He may be able to negotiate up to the top of his pay bracket, but there will only be so much money available to pay him.

      The “no income=no food” situation doesn’t arise here for the same reason that having someone better at your job than yourself doesn’t entail your starvation.

      Now for the “unrealistic” scenario where Mr Merit can do everything better than everybody. Let’s call him Mr Maximizing Merit.

      Leaving aside the fact that this scenario is… well… absurdly unrealistic (and hence probably not worth discussing), it also isn’t much of a social problem.

      For a start, Mr Maximizing Merit won’t be employed by anyone, because – at the end of the day – what could they offer him that he isn’t in a better position to acquire himself? You mention capital owners, but presumably Mr Maximizing Merit is also better at securing capital than the entire capital-owning class – and by securing I mean: acquiring ownership uncontested control of. Ditto for land.

      Trade with Mr Maximizing Merit is right out.* So what happens next? Consider two possibilities:

      a. Mr Altruistic Maximizing Merit uses his powers to provide everything to everybody – because he’s just that nice a guy (and has the means to do so). We thus get a post-scarcity situation where Mr Altruistic Maximizing Merit provides for everybody. Clearly, “no income=no food, etc.” doesn’t arise in this situation.

      b. Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit uses his powers to provide only for himself. He takes nothing from anyone, nor does he give anything to anyone. What do the rest of us do?

      Leave him to it and get on with our lives, of course. Given that we lack his superpower, we simply carry on as before, trading our labour with others of lesser merit such as ourselves. Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit isn’t after our jobs because they’re worth nothing to him; nor does his existence make our jobs unnecessary, because he’s Selfish. Once again, the “no income=no food” situation doesn’t arise, because Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit isn’t interacting with our economy at all.

      You could try to postulate a conflict between Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit and the rest of us for things such as land and capital, in which case either Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit dies quickly, solving the problem, or Mr Selfish Maximizing Merit kills us all, which also solves the problem. Either way, by this time we’ve essentially ascended to the level of theological musings, so what’s the point?

      * If we assume that Mr Maximizing Merit is open to trade, this simplifies to the case of Mr Satisficing Merit, that has already been solved.

      • Guy in TN says:

        The fact that Mr Satisficing Merit is doing any particular job is better than if anybody else was doing that particular job, but in the grand scheme of things we may never notice his existence. The overall impact of any particular individual doing any particular job is vastly outweighed by all the other jobs making up the economy.

        You would certainly notice Mr. Merit’s existence if he took your job. The existence of other jobs in the economy does not negate the fact that, if he took my job, my position is now worse than it was before.

        And we are assuming something like a robust economy here with many alternatives, but realistically that doesn’t have to be the case. There are real-world historical examples of people being pushed into starvation due to having lost their job.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Mr. Satisficing Merit won’t take my job, if he takes a job like mine. He’ll take the job of the top computer programmer in the world. In theory, this could push every computer programmer down one rung and knock the bottom guy out of a job. Demand isn’t anywhere near that inelastic, though, so the additional supply of one programmer, however good, doesn’t really affect me much at all.

        • Guy in TN says:

          I feel like I’m pulling teeth to get you guys to admit that someone could be made worse off by losing their job to someone who is better at.

          • Clutzy says:

            No one denies that, but its also a weird thing to focus on when attacking a meritocratic system. You’d do much better getting that guy a job by restricting immigration and international trade from low cost countries. But those policies also have externalities, as does enforcing less merit-based employment regimes.

        • The Nybbler says:

          I feel like I’m pulling teeth to get you guys to admit that someone could be made worse off by losing their job to someone who is better at.

          Sure they can. But what do you want to do about it? If you re-jigger the rules so instead the better guy loses, that guy is made worse off instead. As is everyone who would benefit from the job being done better. You’re not gaining anything overall by overruling merit; you’re helping the less-meritorious person at the expense of the more-meritorious person and a whole lot of others.

          • Guy in TN says:

            But what do you want to do about it? If you re-jigger the rules so instead the better guy loses, that guy is made worse off instead.

            It is true that the alternative would make the other person worse off. But the degree that he is made worse off could be less than the degree that the other guy is worse off. The utility of a dollar varies from person to person- a machine that nets a billionaire an additional 15,001 dollars, at the expense of 15,000 dollars from a person who makes that a year, does not have an net positive impact on utility. It has negative utility.

            So what do I want to do about it? Well, as I said at the beginning, I’m not opposed to the usage of merit. But we should not assume that maximizing economic value is always the same thing as maximizing utility.

            Charity is one alternative for when these paths diverge. The usage of charity deliberately eschews maximizing economic value by giving resources to people who explicitly didn’t “earn” it. Only a system that allowed for non-meritocratic behavior could have room for charitable giving.

          • The Nybbler says:

            We’re not talking about a billionaire and a guy making $15K and a magic machine. We’re talking about two guys vying for the same position, and one of them being better at the job and therefore getting it.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Right, and of those two people vying for the same job, one would be very poor and the other could not. This is a reasonable real-world possibility.

          • Aapje says:

            @Guy in TN

            If the difference in merit is small, then presumably, in most cases the slightly less capable person would get a job that is a bit less essential and/or has lesser requirements, for a slightly lower salary. That person is not going to be very poor.

            The difference is going to be big between Linus Torvalds and a mentally ill homeless person, but that mentally ill person is almost certainly going to fail very badly if you give him Linus’ job. The very lack of capability that made him homeless is almost certainly going to make him unable to do the job well.

            If there is a huge shortage of jobs and yet high pay for those who do the job, where that pay is independent of how well they do the job*, then it is just as true that favoring A over B is going to result in B not getting that high pay, as the reverse is true.

            * A highly questionable assumption on your end.

            The utility of a dollar varies from person to person- a machine that nets a billionaire an additional 15,001 dollars, at the expense of 15,000 dollars from a person who makes that a year, does not have an net positive impact on utility. It has negative utility.

            Yes and that is why you do redistribution, progressive taxation, etc.

            These have far less negative effect on production and the functioning of society than your proposal.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            Right, and of those two people vying for the same job, one would be very poor and the other could not. This is a reasonable real-world possibility.

            Is it though?

            I mean, Richie Rich could possibly decide to spend a couple of weeks over the summer flipping burgers at Mickey D’s to “build character” or whatever, but it seems to me that when two candidates apply for a given position, we’ll find that they usually have a similar SES.

            This isn’t terribly surprising and is driven by everything from job requirements to pay scales.

            More importantly, not getting a particular job is something that happens to just about everybody at some point in their life, so you can’t point to Bob getting passed over in favour of somebody else as – in itself – an example of some great cosmic injustice. There are other employers and other jobs.

            We’re onto something if we observe that Bob is getting passed over for every job he applies to (and that’s what’s keeping him poor). If that is the case, the question to ask is: “what is wrong with Bob?” and address that.

          • Aapje says:

            @Faza (TCM)

            And if the decision is not made by merit, won’t SES actually become a more important consideration (directly or indirectly), rather than less so?

            Affirmative action gives a discouraging example, with black immigrants being heavily favored over native blacks (mostly descendants from slaves). Yet African migrants have a substantially higher household income than native blacks.

            The argument in favor of AA is that those with the least chance need help, but the actual implementation suggests that the real goal is a different one.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            @Aapje:

            And if the decision is not made by merit, won’t SES actually become a more important consideration (directly or indirectly), rather than less so?

            I’m not sure if that necessarily follows, but I can certainly imagine that once we mandate that “right person for the job” doesn’t mean “will do the best job at it”, it may quickly morph into “is just like me”.

            Affirmative action gives a discouraging example, with black immigrants being heavily favored over native blacks (mostly descendants from slaves). Yet African migrants have a substantially higher household income than native blacks.

            I suspect that a connection may exist between these two issues (other than the obvious one), but I don’t have enough information.

            The argument in favor of AA is that those with the least chance need help, but the actual implementation suggests that the real goal is a different one.

            Incentives tend to work exactly as designed. If you get judged by the number of black people you employ, you’ll be optimizing for the number of black people.

            If we assume that we’re actually seeking to help people who need it, AA turns out to be… not that useful?

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Aapje

            Yes and that is why you do redistribution, progressive taxation, etc.

            These have far less negative effect on production and the functioning of society than your proposal.

            I support taxation and redistribution of course. But in the absence of a welfare state robust enough to solve these problems, I think it is useful for private charity to step in as much as it can. And private charity entails giving money/resources/jobs to people who don’t produce as much value for you as someone else, i.e. they are “less meritorious”.

          • Aapje says:

            @Guy in TN

            Sure, but there is a big difference between: let’s give this low ability person:
            – welfare
            – food/housing/etc
            – a low quality job that is perhaps a bit overpaid
            – less/negative taxes
            – subsidized services
            – etc

            Vs making them:
            – CEO/CxO
            – President/senator/governor
            – Programmer/accountant/doctor
            – etc

            Anyway, IMO the real issue is that we are losing a sense of responsibility, from the well-off to the rest, but also from the not so well-off to those who help them. The system of charity falls apart without it.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Aapje

            I don’t think we’re in disagreement. Remember, at the start of this post I said I was only trying to defend the “merit sometimes” position from the “merit only” position.

            If your position is “we should distribute things like the ability to be presidents and surgeons using merit, but we shouldn’t use merit to distribute literally everything”, that’s my position too.

          • Aapje says:

            Yeah, I think that we are fairly close to agreeing.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          I feel like I’m pulling teeth to get you guys to admit that someone could be made worse off by losing their job to someone who is better at.

          That is because STEM people meet people who are smarter and more get-things-done than themselves ALL THE TIME, and because STEM people have recruiters trying to hire them away ALL THE TIME. And because STEM people know that there no such thing as “purely better” at “their job”. STEM jobs are highly dimensional, and are STEM workers are as well. STEM work is not measured in acre-feet, or computronim-hours, LOC-per-hour, blueprints-per-day, or even “delivered function points per year”.

          When someone shows up who is marginally better at my current exact job, GREAT, I’d help hire them, there is already too much work. And it would still take a year and a half of mentoring before we could smoothly trade work back and forth.

          • B_Epstein says:

            This. Very much this. I’m currently exerting some effort to bring in a very bright guy into our team – to do exactly the same things as I do. This will not threaten my job – it will give me credit, possibly money, and further influence (however modest) over future recruiting. Not to mention somebody to learn from. Incidentally, just being a PhD in a relevant field would not qualify him. Fortunately, he’s an exceptionally strong PhD. Also fortunately (for the world, given that we do important work in ADAS for a company with a huge impact on the market), the decisions are meritocratic and favor people who have spent endless nights doing “gravy” work. But perhaps a popularity contest would be better?..

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          As a purely practical matter, Mr Merit won’t be taking my job, because I live somewhere with a fairly sensible labour law – in other words, I can’t be fired simply because Mr Merit showed up.

          Leaving that aside (I could conceivably be made redundant by Mr Merit’s appearance), how is Mr Merit taking my job different than anyone else taking my job, for whatever reason?

          At least in Mr Merit’s case I have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that my job will be done better by my successor, which is by no means guaranteed if my replacement got my job because:

          – they were the CEO’s nephew, or
          – they were the right sort of ethnicity, or
          – they were the right sex, or
          – they had the right sort of sexual predilections, or
          – they were disabled, or
          – they were poor, or …

          I feel like I’m pulling teeth to get you guys to admit that someone could be made worse off by losing their job to someone who is better at.

          The problem is the “losing your job” part, not the “better at it” part.

  13. g says:

    Scott distinguishes a “mistake theory” view where (1a) meritocracy is all about actual job-competence and (2a) the person evaluating meritocracy is trying to do what’s best overall; and a “conflict theory” view where (1b) meritocracy is all about social class and (2b) the person evaluating meritocracy is trying to do what’s best for their class in rivalry with others. (So of course the mistake theorist favours meritocracy, and the conflict theorist opposes it.)

    It is not necessary to tie the 1s and 2s together like that.

    The following is a perfectly consistent view. (1c) Meritocracy (even if practiced sincerely and as competently as it’s reasonable to hope for) means having a big excess of (already) wealthy, well educated, higher-social-class people in jobs that give power and influence and status and money. (2c) What matters is what’s best overall, and those consequences of meritocracy are bad enough (at least in some cases) to outweigh the advantages that come from putting more-able people in important jobs.

    (Where “meritocracy” means something like “those practices that are currently advocated or defended by calling them meritocracy and appealing to the principle that jobs should be done by the people best able to do them”.)

    This is like Scott’s so-called conflict theory view in that it pays attention to balance-of-power issues and acknowledges that there may be downsides to handing out power, money and status in a way that greatly favours one group of people over another. It is unlike Scott’s so-called conflict theory view in that it isn’t a matter of saying “boo outgroup, yay ingroup, up with Us and down with Them”.

    (The mistake-theory/conflict-theory dichotomy has some real insight in it, but it seems to me way too often to end up in practice being a way to portray those who disagree with you as a bunch of status-monkeys.)

    I’m not sure that the view I called “perfectly consistent” is exactly my view, but only because I think other practices that aren’t called meritocracy and defended in terms of putting the most able people in the jobs that need them are also liable to perpetuate social problems.

    Let’s take a look at the anti-meritocratic pieces linked from Scott’s original “Targeting Meritocracy” article, and see how much us-versus-them seems to be in them.

    “The problem with meritocracy”, in Prospect magazine, by Tom Steinhorst, begins “I was born into the upper middle class, and here I remain”. The article is mostly about a book, “Twilight of the Elites”, by Chris Hayes. Hayes is a TV talk show host and an author, and as such is surely also upper middle class by any reasonable definition. If these people were saying “Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests” then they would be for meritocracy, not against it. Their prescription for reducing the alleged bad effects of meritocracy, at least so far as I can tell from the article, is not to stop trying to give jobs to the people best able to do them but to reduce inequality via progressive taxation; again, that is a prescription that will hurt them personally.

    I can’t tell what First Things article Scott has in mind that says “Meritocracy is killing America”; the tweet to which Scott links seems to have been deleted. So I did the obvious web search and picked the first result, an article called “Toqueville in the Gutter” by Helen Andrews, dated ~6mo before “Targeting Meritocracy”. It’s about a book called “The art of being free” by James Poulos. I think this probably isn’t what Scott was referring to; it has only one paragraph about meritocracy, but that paragraph is critical so let’s roll with it. Its criticism is that meritocracy “makes us look inward, not outward”, teaches that “success lies in constantly refining and supplementing our own talents”, discourages “the risk-taking that so impressed Tocqueville”, so that “we all follow the paths laid out for us, from university to internship and into our careers, each in our own individual groove”. That seems like it has nothing to do with either what Scott calls the mistake-theory view or what he calls the conflict-theory view.

    “Against Meritocracy”, from Feminist Philosophers, takes as its theme (and consists mostly of a quotation from) a post on a blog called “Geek Feminism” that says “A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best” on the basis that it would be one hell of a coincidence if the best of the best at literally everything important were a group composed almost entirely of white men. There’s certainly an element of conflict theory there, but note that the author of that post seems clearly not opposed to giving jobs to the best people to do them; rather, they think that what we call meritocracy isn’t really doing that. (“Targeting Meritocracy” observes that this article isn’t really against meritocracy-in-the-sense-of-best-people-doing-each-job and therefore dismisses it.)

    “Down with meritocracy”, in the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” pages, is by Michael Young, the guy who originally coined the term “meritocracy”. Young was a barrister, a think-tank director, and a minister in Clement Attlee’s government; he is now a baronet. And he is exactly the sort of person a “meritocratic” system would be inclined to put into positions of political power. So whatever us-versus-them might be going on in his thinking is, again, surely not driven by his own personal interests. On the other hand, he was and is very firmly On The Left, so the class interests he wants served may not be his own — but I think there is an important difference between “those people who disagree with me are trying to serve their own class interests at the expense of others” and “those people who disagree with me are trying to serve the interests of the class they think matters more at the expense of others”.

    Vox’s “attack on the false god of meritocracy”, by Andrew Granato, is an interesting case. Granato, by his own description, has received a large pile of financial aid to fund his studies, which he says has given him “a permanent marker of upper-class status and a near guarantee of material comfort”. So he sees (or pretends to see?) himself as a member of the upper classes, and expects to be materially comfortable; to whatever degree he’s sincere about that, opposing “meritocracy” is against his own interests and those of the class to which he now belongs. (Where was he before all that publicly-funded fancy education? Somewhere in the middle, he says: “for most of my childhood, my family’s income was close to that of the median American household, which was $56,516 last year”.) His complaint about meritocracy is that it means there is a small elite that gets all the power, status, and money. (A side complaint is that, given how the system works at present, membership in this elite can to a great extent be bought, but he says that even if that were fixed the fundamental problem would remain.) I think Granato’s article is one to which Scott’s argument in “Targeting Meritocracy” applies: what bothers Granato is giving all the power, money and status to people with fancy educations, and he hasn’t really argued against what-Scott-calls-meritocracy. So score one for old-Scott there. But Granato’s article doesn’t seem like it fits with Scott’s newer analysis that anti-meritocrats are conflict theorists trying to promote their own class interests. Granato is doing rather the opposite of that.

    Scott’s last citation in “Targeting Meritocracy” is the book “Against Meritocracy” by Jo Littler. I don’t have her book and my (admittedly cursory) attempts haven’t found out anything interesting about her own social class. But I did find some reviews and other things written by her, and so far as I can tell her overt position (as always, she might be insincere) isn’t “meritocracy puts the wrong people in power” as Scott’s conflict-theory analysis suggests but “meritocracy is alleged to improve social mobility but the real phenomena that get called meritocracy actually reduce social mobility and act as a smokescreen for increasing social inequality”. That position could itself be a smokescreen, for Littler’s (hypothetical) wish to promote her own class interests at the expense of others, but I don’t see any good reason to think it is; she is pointing to alleged consequences of trying to be meritocratic that allegedly are bad for society overall.

    My impression at present is that Scott is flatly wrong about why people disagree with him on this. It is not because he is a mistake theorist, nobly trying to work out what is best for society, while they are conflict theorists, basely pursuing their personal and class interests and trying to harm everyone who’s on the other side. A lot of the people who write against “meritocracy”, including most of the ones Scott himself cited in his original article, are themselves part of the upper classes whose interests meritocracy tends to promote; their objection to it is generally not that it promotes upper-class interests, as such; they are claiming that “meritocracy”, in every form in which it has ever actually been practiced, promotes inequality and division and social immobility. Those claims might be right or wrong, but they are mistake-theory claims and not conflict-theory claims.

    • peak.singularity says:

      Wow, impressive digging !
      But didn’t Scott at some point acknowledged himself this issue – that conflict-theorists ( aka “populists” ? ) are not going to bother debating him anyway ?

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      “The book was, in other words, intended to present both sides of the case – the case against as well as the case for meritocracy. It is not a simple matter and was not intended to be.” – Michael D. Young, not sounding even a little bit like a conflict theorist.

  14. Tatterdemalion says:

    “Merit” is a really unhelpful word here, because it conflates “ability” and “moral deserts”.

    There are (at least) two arguments one might make in favour of things that could be called “meritocracy”:

    1) People who work hard deserve to have better lives, so we should give first choice of jobs to people who have demonstrated that they are hard workers by getting good “test scores” (FS very loose VO “test scores”).
    2) We want jobs done well, so we should give first choice of jobs to people who have demonstrated that they will do them well by getting good “test scores”.

    In the original “Targetting meritocracy” post, Scott dismisses the first as a weird misunderstanding. but I think this is the core of the problem – I think he’s wrong, and lots of people really do believe it; in SSC-terminology it’s a weakman not a strawman, and a dangerously common weakman at that.

    I think that the first is a bad argument but the second is a good one. I am in favour of “meritocracy” in most circumstances because it will produce the best results – I think the “do you want your liver removed by the person who will do it best or the person who most deserved the chance to be a surgeon?” argument is unanswerable.

    But I think it’s really important not to conflate this with justice. How good you are at most of the things we employ people for correlates far more strongly with factors beyond your control – your genes and the opportunities and upbringing your parents gave you – than it does with anything like “how much effort and sacrifice for the benefit of others do you make?”.

    So while I think the thing called meritocracy is generally good, I think the word is one to avoid.

    • eric23 says:

      I think this is the key point.

      We want the best possible surgeons to become our surgeons. Even if this means that surgery careers are limited to those with a background that enables one to become a good surgeon. Which excludes many people.

      That doesn’t mean that surgeons have to get rich while the rest of us starve, though. We can have a progressive tax policy, so that surgeons don’t earn drastically more than the rest of us.

      Of course, restricting surgeons’ income is likely to to deter a few talented people from becoming surgeons. But I expect this will have less impact on surgeon quality than would switching to a “non-meritocratic” method of choosing surgeons.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Of course, restricting surgeons’ income is likely to to deter a few talented people from becoming surgeons. But I expect this will have less impact on surgeon quality than would switching to a “non-meritocratic” method of choosing surgeons.

        Less impact, yes, but that’s because the impact of switching to a non-meritocratic method of choosing surgeons would be enormously bad. Eliminating or greatly reducing market incentives is orthogonal to the method of gatekeeping or choosing, but it also has a terrible track record.

        • eric23 says:

          That’s why you reduce market incentives *by a little* (through progressive taxation), not a lot. That has a pretty good record.

          • The Nybbler says:

            If you don’t want surgeons to earn drastically more than e.g. cashiers, you’re going to need to reduce market incentives *a lot*. Salary.com tells me a surgeon makes $400k a year average, whereas a retail cashier makes $23.5k. So your tax bracket for surgeons will need to be somewhere in the 90% range to have surgeons merely make double what cashiers do.

          • eric23 says:

            What matters is not the number of dollars, it’s the subjective standard of living. Both the surgeon and the cashier drive a car to work. Both can rent or buy an apartment. In Europe, both have guaranteed health care. Even in the US, both get social security. Both can read the same newspaper and participate in the same political debates should they choose. Both generally feel that they have to work a job (OK, female surgeons who can quit to raise kids are an exception) and don’t feel that they can live a life of leisure. Both spend lots of time on a smartphone. Both do their shopping in similar chain stores or on Amazon.

            Of course there are differences too. The surgeon’s house will be much nicer than the cashier’s flat. Same with their cars and vacations. But these things don’t really prevent the surgeon and cashier from meeting in the public square as peers.

            In the US specifically, there are more consequential differences – like the cashier will likely be cheated by their employer and gouged for basic medical treatment in ways the surgeon will not. But these are exactly the things which can be fixed by adjustment of basic social policy. Taxes may need to be raised a bit, but definitely not to 90%.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Now you’re just shifting definitions and introducing side issues (like crooked employers) as a distraction.

      • ana53294 says:

        Of course, restricting surgeons’ income is likely to to deter a few talented people from becoming surgeons. But I expect this will have less impact on surgeon quality than would switching to a “non-meritocratic” method of choosing surgeons.

        Restricting a good surgeons’ income to the levels of an average working class Joe is impossible. It was done in the USSR, but the thing is, there are more Joes that need surgery than good surgeons, and each of those Joes wants the best, or at least the best surgeon they can afford.

        You’ll just go from white payments to black/grey payments. The best surgeons will be paid in kind/favours/envelopes/purebreed puppies/sex, whatever.

        Even ordinary doctors where paid under the table. It still happens in the public medicine sector in Russia (not for private clinics). Nurses got paid, too.

        I really don’t see how you will artificially lower prices when demand is high, without creating inefficiencies like in the USSR.

  15. JohnBuridan says:

    How pessimistic should we be about class issues? How true is it that people are incapable of thinking and acting for the common good over their narrow class interests?

    The defeatism of much class based analysis is dreadfully immobilizing.

    • I ask the question from the other side: How reasonable is it to expect individuals to work for the good of their class rather than for the good of themselves and the individuals close to them?

      My objection to class theory is that it skips over that problem.

      • Hoopdawg says:

        It is obviously not reasonable to expect individuals to work for the good of anyone but their own and their immediate surroundings. That’s pretty much exactly where class theory comes from, and classes themselves are just groupings of such individuals into clusters.

        The prescriptive theories based on class (which, as a concept, is perfectly useful purely descriptively) usually call for the abolition of classes – i.e. equalizing society such that no stratum of society is in conflict with another stratum. And, in the short term, for the lower classes to achieve class consciousness – i.e. (a critical mass of) individuals realizing that acting together in solidarity is in their own immediate interest.

        • It is obviously not reasonable to expect individuals to work for the good of anyone but their own and their immediate surroundings. That’s pretty much exactly where class theory comes from, and classes themselves are just groupings of such individuals into clusters.

          Individuals and those close to them might be ten people, twenty, perhaps thirty. Classes, as the term is usually used, involve millions.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            There is an individual living under the rule of feudal lord. This individual is bound by law to the land he occupies and forced to work for his lord.

            There is another individual living a thousand miles away from the first one. He is also bound by law to the land he occupies and is forced to work for his lord.

            Class theory postulates that any such individuals, based on the similarity of their circumstances, can be grouped into, well, a class. (“Serfs”, in this example.) It quite obviously does not postulate that they do or should love each other how they love their immediate family.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Individuals and those close to them might be ten people, twenty, perhaps thirty. Classes, as the term is usually used, involve millions.

            Consider gender politics. I am part of the grouping called “men”. If there is some proposal that benefits women at the expense of men, and I am acting in my self-interest, you would expect me to oppose this proposal.

            But if you were to try to predict my future behavior in regards to voting on gender laws, merely saying that I’m going to act in my “self-interest” isn’t particularly illuminating. Because there is a certain aspect of my self is it that is driving force here, my gender, that is where all the predictive power lies. Modeling me as “acting is in the interest of my gender” is significantly more specific than just saying “acting in my self-interest”, which could refer to any number of personal aspects.

            “Class interest” works the same way. That a person’s class comprises of possibly billions of other people, is no more relevant than pointing out that there are billions of other people who share my gender. The class analysis says: Predictive power lies in expecting people to act in the interests of whatever economic class they occupy. (Not that people are putting their class above themselves.)

            I don’t subscribe to a strict class analysis myself, precisely because it relies on the rather dubious assumption of people always acting in their own economic self-interest.

          • The class analysis says: Predictive power lies in expecting people to act in the interests of whatever economic class they occupy. (Not that people are putting their class above themselves.)

            I don’t subscribe to a strict class analysis myself, precisely because it relies on the rather dubious assumption of people always acting in their own economic self-interest.

            Whereas I reject it because it depends on the rather dubious assumption that individuals will act in their class interest rather than in their own economic self-interest.

            Suppose someone proposes legislation that will benefit every member of my class by ten dollars, at the expense of members of a different class. Getting the legislation passed requires every member of my class to donate at least a dollar to the lobbying effort. Having it pass is in my interest but donating a dollar to get it to pass is not, since that dollar will increase the probability of passage by much less than ten percent.

            Hence, if I act in my economic self-interest, and everyone else in my class does as well, nobody donates and the legislation fails. That’s the opposite of the conclusion that comes from the assumption that individuals act in their class interest.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            David, you just posited that spherical capitalists in the vacuum will not spend money on passing pro-capitalist legislation, then called the theory positing the contrary dubious. Yet, in our reality, capitalist lobbying does exist and is eminently successful.

            We probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that I don’t realize I am assuming it.

          • chridd says:

            Whereas I reject it because it depends on the rather dubious assumption that individuals will act in their class interest rather than in their own economic self-interest.

            Class interest doesn’t always conflict with self-interest, though. Even if people don’t act in their class interest in your hypothetical lobbying scenario, there will likely be many other situations where the cost is low enough and the expected benefit is high enough that supporting one’s class interest is in one’s self-interest. For instance, if someone is choosing whether to vote for someone who promises every person in their class ten dollars at the expense of another class over someone who doesn’t (assuming all else is equal and they’d vote anyways), then it would be in their self interest and their class interest to vote for that candidate.

            (I don’t know enough about actual lobbying to know whether the expected benefits outweigh the costs enough to be worthwhile to some people from a self-interest perspective.)

          • Guy in TN says:

            What’s going on here:

            David is interpreting the “class interest argument” to imply that people would act in the interest of their class over the interest of their self.

            Hoopdawg and myself are the interpreting the “class interest argument” to mean that people are going to act in their self-interest, with class-membership being the particular aspect of themselves that has the most explanatory power (as opposed to gender, race, nationality, ect).

            These are fundamentally different arguments.

          • @Hoopdawg:

            Lobbying by teachers exists. Lobbying by the auto industry, including the UAW, exists. Lobbying by professors exists. Lobbying by lots of special interests exists.

            But it isn’t lobbying by the capitalist class in favor of the capitalist class. The steel tariffs hurt the auto industry, including capitalists who own stock in it. Airline regulation, prior to decontrol, hurt fliers, including ones who were capitalists.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            Yet, in our reality, capitalist lobbying does exist and is eminently successful.

            What?! There’s lots of lobbying for specific capitalist interests, but there’s no lobbying for capitalism. There are political donations by rich ideologues, but that’s not “lobbying” in any conventional sense.

            Class interest may exist in that weaker sense, wherein rich people often find certain ideologies flattering and promote those ideologies.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            There’s no lobbying for capitalism needed because capitalism is already the default. But there’s plenty of lobbying for and by the capitalist class as a whole (lowering taxes is an obvious example). And even if there wasn’t, even if all lobbying was done for and by particularist interests, and even if lobbying was the only tool employed to influence policy, and thus society – as long as the sum total clearly benefited the capital owners (as it does right now), the point about class divisions would stand.

            But of course there’s no need to go into that hypothetical, because the actually existing propertied class simply is, in a significant part, a close-knit clique, with the upper echelons literally befriending each other and high-level management and government officials.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Classes are just as liable to coordination problems as any other group. However, the assumption, which you dispute, is that upper classes have some special advantage of having more coordination problems solved than lower classes. Is that right?

        • More precisely, that they have a large enough advantage so that individuals act in the group interest rather than the individual interest.

          What you call coordination problems I would call market failure. In this particular case it’s the public good problem, and I don’t expect it to be solved for a public of millions or tens of millions of individuals.

          The groups that have the relevant advantage are not classes but concentrated interest groups. The concentrated interest group that, for example, gets auto tariffs includes individuals of a variety of different classes, and similarly for most others.

          • JohnBuridan says:

            So at the national level what is the largest bloc that you believe influences national elections (either through explicit coordination or systematic incentives)?
            People over 55?
            Lawyers?

  16. rahien.din says:

    The belief that some people are mistake theorists and others are conflict theorists is nonsensical – because it puts two philosophies in conflict! It is just conflict theory redomained from sociology into philosophy. So to the degree one believes in the “mistake vs. conflict” conflict, they do not actually believe in mistake theory.

    When your compatriot says “These policies hurt me and therefore we are in conflict,” the correct response is to say “Maybe we have made a mistake,” and try to get into the other person’s perspective in order to find a better way.

  17. Protagoras says:

    Based on etymology, aristocracy and meritocracy should mean about the same thing. They do not, because aristocracy is older and over time the word has evolved to describe rule by the kind of people who in fact ended up on top in those systems rather than any abstract idea of who would genuinely be the best people. I guess I’m inclined to agree with Scott that having the most competent people doing especially critical jobs is important enough for it to be worthwhile to keep trying to do this better, but there seems to be plenty of history supporting the people who see meritocracy as just rebranding of an ancient scam.

  18. block_of_nihilism says:

    I think this is a false dichotomy, no? I mean, if I am a conflict-based thinker, I still want the most “merited” individuals from my class in powerful roles. The high-merit individuals will be the most likely to use their power effectively to advocate for our class interests.
    Maybe some of the confusion or argument comes from an unclear definition of “merit.” Personally, when someone says meritocratic, I immediately think of metrics like test scores, grades and other academically-oriented achievements. However, true merit=/= intellect/test-taking. A good definition of merit must include non-academic characteristics like conscientiousness, morality, and communication skills. We don’t just want our leaders to be smart, we want them to be honest and able to figure out what actually needs to be done to successfully complete their tasks. Again, if I am approaching this from a class conflict perspective, if we choose leaders who aren’t honest or conscientious, they will be more likely to be corrupted by their power and abandon their fidelity to their class.
    I think people coming from either conflict or mistake-theory perspective can agree on this. Obviously, the hard part is measuring attributes like honesty…

    • eric23 says:

      I think this is a false dichotomy, no? I mean, if I am a conflict-based thinker, I still want the most “merited” individuals from my class in powerful roles. The high-merit individuals will be the most likely to use their power effectively to advocate for our class interests.

      That gets us to the inherent fuzziness of class definitions, and consequently, of all of conflict theory.

  19. Darwin says:

    I think there’s a milder version of the ‘conflict’ account of this process, which is the ‘structural inequality’ account.

    This goes something like: independent of their aptitude or effort, rich people are more likely to get the checkmarks on their resume that let them do well in a ‘meritocracy’ than poor people (Ivy leagues, afterschool programs, opportunities and networking, mentorship, etc). That means they’re stochastically more likely to rise to the top of such structures than similar-aptitude poor people, just by dint of how the system works.

    And even if those rich people are genuinely smart and benevolent, they’re simply very familiar with the life experiences and problems of rich people, and very unfamiliar with the life experiences and problems of poor people. Even without meaning to, it is very likely that they will have a tendency to notice and respond to rich-people-problems when they encounter them more than poor-people-problems simply because they are aware of them and immediately recognize them due to their life experience, and similarly it is very likely they will be more effective at solving rich-people-problems than solving poor-people-problems simply because they understand them better and have thought about them more over the course of their life.

    Again, this is all assuming the rich person is totally smart and benevolent, and it’s relative to a similar-aptitude-and-benevolence poor person in their position. It’s simple easier to notice, understand, and solve things you have more lifetime experience with, for all the normal reasons.

    I think this structural account, which doesn’t rely on anyone intentionally committing class warfare or consciously trying to screw other classes or take spoils for their own, is probably the most accurate account of how the generally great idea of ‘meritocracy’ can produce unexpected negative results, if left unexamined.

    Similarly, I think a parallel account of structural racism, which doesn’t presuppose any intentional racism or hatred on the part of anyone in the system, gives an accurate account of how the generally great idea of ‘classical liberalism’ can produce unexpected negative results, if left unexamined.

    In a ‘we have noticed the skulls’ way, I think the best forms of progressivism (and we could disagree about how common they are) are the ones that recognize the power of these ideas (meritocracy, liberalism, capitalism, etc) but also notice the places where structural problems with how these ideas are implemented cause bad outcomes, and try to reform that implementation.

  20. Deiseach says:

    I think part of the problem is “what is merit?” It should be “smart and competent, no special considerations” but often it works out to “went to elite insitution therefore must be meritorious, at least is demonstrably One Of Us”. As often, it gets turned around to “has got the job, therefore must be smart and competent”. Is Dominic Cummings smart and competent, or has he got his position because he’s riding the right coat-tails? It’s possible for it to be “some of A, some of B”. Without his introduction into Tory politics as Gove’s protegé and running Boris’ successful mayoral campaign, would he be where he is? And if you don’t believe Boris’ tenure as mayor of London was a good one, then you could well believe that Cummings getting him elected is not a sign of “smart and competent” in the sense of “for the good of the people”.

    I think it is possible to argue that “meritocracy” as it is instituted is not what it aspires to be, and that one can believe in hiring on merit while still opposing the current system.

  21. The original Mr. X says:

    From a conflict theory perspective, this is bunk. Good government officials are ones who serve our class interests and not their class interests. At best, merit is uncorrelated with this. At worst, we are the lower and middle class, they are the upper class, and there is some system in place (eg Ivy League universities) that disproportionately funnels the most meritorious people into the upper class. Then when we put the most meritorious people in government, we are necessarily seeding the government with upper class people who serve upper class interests.

    This seems like a straw man to me. Pretty much all the criticisms of meritocracy I’ve come across are along the lines of (1) It tends to reduce the sense of civic responsibility and noblesse oblige amongst the upper classes, and (2) It results in all the most talented and capable members of poorer neighbourhoods leaving their communities to go to university and get jobs in finance or similar, which is good for the people leaving but bad for the (far more numerous) people whom they leave behind.

  22. Godfree Roberts says:

    Confucius figured out how to run a meritocracy 2500 years ago and Chinese governments have been refining it ever since.

    The current government is the most Confucian, most meritocratic government in the country’s long history.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The Chinese examination system is based largely on arbitrary exams; it is only meritocratic in as much success on those exams is connected to merit.

      By contrast, the much-maligned meritocracy in computer programming is about actually writing the code.

  23. Purplehermann says:

    If you assume conflict theory, what kind of government would you create so as to artificially have it function as if mistake theory were correct, and function well within that reality?

  24. Charlie Lima says:

    “Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct.”

    I would dispute this. Neither of these categories is immutable and we have to look at the cost to society of maximizing them.

    For instance “smart” is not a fixed trait. You can certainly do enough drugs to lower your intelligence. Certain contact sports might also allow one to reduce their intelligence. Okay, fine we say no to (too much) drugs or things that lead to head trauma. How about folks who are sleep deprived? Whether or not their IQ drops, the reality is that their functional intelligence that can be brought to bear on some task is less. So our meritocrats should get a solid eight hours right?

    Yeah, but what about parenting? Do we really want to demote women within the social-economic hierarchy just for having kids? Should we implicitly discourage breastfeeding by highly meritocratic women so that they do not become functionally dumber via sleep disruption? Or should we go after pregnancy itself as a sizeable fraction of women will perform worse on most measures of intelligence while in the throws of gravid nausea?

    And then let us consider the competency side of the equation. You certainly can become more “competent” by adopting a lot of antisocial behaviors. The mob, for instance, is much more competent at securing loan repayment than the bank. Likewise, lying on paperwork is far more competent in many cases. Doctors who fail to actually perform a review of systems and just lie about it in the note can actually see their patients and close out the charts quicker than those who actually perform the CMOS required dog and pony show. And of course there is always out-group ostracization. Mocking, belittling, and harassing the out-group, be it atheists, Muslims, Evangelicals, people of color, LGBT+ folks, or foreigners, can quickly improve in-group cohesion and allow for more competent task completion when the bigots (or those feigning it) greatly outnumber the out-group.

    But beyond all that, we have the problem that “competency” can become an arms race. Take medical school. We want the most competent people to go to medical school to become doctors and save our lives. Yet what makes you competent? Increasingly, it is a gap year. Go work as a scribe for a year. Go teach in the inner city. Execute some mice and blender their brains in a research lab. Do anything that gives you more cultural competency and decision making practice. Yet, the average age for first year medical school students is not 23; we are up to 24. And that includes a bunch of accelerated kids entering at 21. Now the most competent people getting into medical school have, on average, two years worth of experience improving their competency. Society has a physician shortage. Yet we are having people spend time doing other stuff to become more “competent” so they can place higher in the meritocratic system that solely allots positional outcomes. Maybe I am wrong, but it looks like we are off to the arms race here.

    And lest we forget, there is a pretty strong correlation between “competency” and “able to work longer hours”. Let’s ignore the part where that means placing those with disabilities that interfere lower on the meritocratic ladder. What happens when people have children? It makes a manager much more effective if they can stay after work randomly for 30 minutes to deal with a minor crisis on a Wednesday, so having children you have to manage after school hours becomes a liability. Likewise, an analyst who can be called it any day of the week to work out the impact of some surprise event is more competent than one who cannot drive to work on a Saturday. And, of course, tech folks who take off 6 months in 2 years fall a little bit behind and are less competent, so we want to rank lower the ones who might have kids or sick parents.

    Maybe you mean that having the smartest and most competent people is tautologically the best setup excepting those cases where the smartest and most competent option is to be racist among racists. And where it means discriminating against pregnant women. And where it values delaying family formation. And where it leads to Molochian arms race to gain access to training.

    But then what is actually left?

    I cannot support meritocracy as actually practiced because it results in gross injustice even without corrupt, faulty, or dubious measurement processes. Like most things in this world, merit becomes pathological when it is followed without qualification. It is just too easy to enter into some sort of Molochian spiral where we spend too much time and effort becoming meritorious and too little actually effecting progress.

    • Do we really want to demote women within the social-economic hierarchy just for having kids?…

      …What happens when people have children? It makes a manager much more effective if they can stay after work randomly for 30 minutes to deal with a minor crisis on a Wednesday, so having children you have to manage after school hours becomes a liability. Likewise, an analyst who can be called it any day of the week to work out the impact of some surprise event is more competent than one who cannot drive to work on a Saturday. And, of course, tech folks who take off 6 months in 2 years fall a little bit behind and are less competent, so we want to rank lower the ones who might have kids or sick parents.

      In a market economy if you work less, you get paid less. And that’s probably how you’re going to behave in your own personal life. If you pay someone to mow your lawn and you notice only 3/4ths of the job is done, you aren’t going to accept “well, I have to take care of my kids, I guess you can hire someone else to do the rest of the job or do it yourself.” If you think people should be paid for having kids there are ways to do that like child benefits that don’t result in a bunch of unexpectedly half-mowed lawns. But what I see is a demand to get to the same outcome without recognizing what it is. The desire is to work less and get paid the exact same amount, and and then deny that there’s any difference at all between you and your longer-working co-worker. The status of people who take care of kids for a living is low and so you don’t want to say it’s what you’re doing, you want to say ‘I’m doing this other, high-status job.’

      Take medical school. We want the most competent people to go to medical school to become doctors and save our lives. Yet what makes you competent? Increasingly, it is a gap year. Go work as a scribe for a year. Go teach in the inner city. Execute some mice and blender their brains in a research lab. Do anything that gives you more cultural competency and decision making practice. Yet, the average age for first year medical school students is not 23; we are up to 24. And that includes a bunch of accelerated kids entering at 21. Now the most competent people getting into medical school have, on average, two years worth of experience improving their competency. Society has a physician shortage.

      You’ve got the causation backwards, you seem to be thinking that “merit” caused the arms race and the arms race caused the shortage. The shortage is the result of the fact that we allow physicians to self-regulate and they imposed that shortage by restricting how many could graduate. And then the arms race arose as people competed for the artificially scarce good.

      • Charlie Lima says:

        In a market economy if you work less, you get paid less. And that’s probably how you’re going to behave in your own personal life. If you pay someone to mow your lawn and you notice only 3/4ths of the job is done, you aren’t going to accept “well, I have to take care of my kids, I guess you can hire someone else to do the rest of the job or do it yourself.” If you think people should be paid for having kids there are ways to do that like child benefits that don’t result in a bunch of unexpectedly half-mowed lawns. But what I see is a demand to get to the same outcome without recognizing what it is. The desire is to work less and get paid the exact same amount, and and then deny that there’s any difference at all between you and your longer-working co-worker. The status of people who take care of kids for a living is low and so you don’t want to say it’s what you’re doing, you want to say ‘I’m doing this other, high-status job.’

        Snort, right working less. Said only childless people, ever.

        Truth is we live in a society with old age benefits funded by new workers. We have a market economy that requires at least a steady long run population to maintain investment prices. Absent new workers, i.e. kids, the whole edifice crumbles. Japan has shown quite nicely that diminishing total fertility diminishes economic growth. Given pretty much every effective altruism pitch I have ever heard, maintaining robust economic growth is by far the most effective thing we can do to improve the lives of everyone.

        And no it is not just about child rearing. It is about the fact that simply being pregnant diminishes effective intelligence (worse performance while vomiting) and competence (worse performance status-post c-section).

        And we could go on with such things. People who have been raped, typically, need a little bit of time off. Do you support moving rape victims down the meritocratic ladder?

        After all, they can take the same FMLA time off as pregnancy so I am sure your lawn won’t be fully mowed.

        You’ve got the causation backwards, you seem to be thinking that “merit” caused the arms race and the arms race caused the shortage. The shortage is the result of the fact that we allow physicians to self-regulate and they imposed that shortage by restricting how many could graduate. And then the arms race arose as people competed for the artificially scarce good.

        I said nothing about causation because it is an utterly immaterial and irrelevant red herring.

        We live in a world where there is a shortage, full stop.

        We now face a choice, either give med school slots to more meritorious individuals and exacerbate the shortage. Or give them to less meritorious individuals who will work longer and not exacerbate the shortage.

        You can pine for some fantasy where the AMA, the AHA, LCMS, and ACGME all go poof in the night, but that is unlikely to happen. Massive coordination problems taking on entrenched interests tend to not be easy or even doable lifts.

        Changing admittance criteria at an individual medical school? I’ve done that.

        Given that we live in world with misregulated rules about physicians, does unfettered meritocracy improve or worsen the situation? Everything I’ve seen suggests the latter.

        But what the heck, let’s wave the magic wand. Poof, we graduate exactly as many physicians as society needs.

        Is it better for society to have physicians “train” for two years doing other things? Well how productive is a pre-med scribe? Market wages suggest not all that much as physician wages are roughly six times greater. Again, going back to effective altruism, should we not want people working at their most productive potential as soon as possible for as many years as possible? Imagine a medical school offered all its applicants who “need” gap years a deal where they donate $100,000 within two years of finishing residency to whichever non-profit is to of the effective altruism heap that year. Who is worse off by that trade? Not the other medical students, they all can get the same deal. Not the people who pay the money, they come out net ahead. Not the medical school. They get the same number of alumni who will donate the same or more money. Not the lives saved by a nice cool $100,000 donation to a highly effective charity.

        So tell me again, who is better off having most (or worse all) physicians work for two years in low productivity settings? If they are better off, exactly when does the length of the gap stop serving meritocracy? Why take two years? Why not 10? Or 20?

        The claim is that meritocracy is tautologically true. That is idiotically strong and should hold even when we consider the long run viability social security or posit a world where the AMA will keep physicians misregulated for all time.

        I cannot back unfettered meritocracy because it too easily becomes a Molochian spiral.

        • Snort, right working less. Said only childless people, ever.

          Not sure what your point is. In a market economy, work is about providing some benefit to the person or institution paying you. Taking care of your own kids or cleaning your own house or washing your own care is not ‘work.’

          Truth is we live in a society with old age benefits funded by new workers. We have a market economy that requires at least a steady long run population to maintain investment prices. Absent new workers, i.e. kids, the whole edifice crumbles. Japan has shown quite nicely that diminishing total fertility diminishes economic growth.

          Not rewarding high-performers and punishing low-performers also diminishes economic growth. I offered child benefits as a solution here. You didn’t explain why your solution is better. Is it the status thing?

          We now face a choice, either give med school slots to more meritorious individuals and exacerbate the shortage. Or give them to less meritorious individuals who will work longer and not exacerbate the shortage.

          You can pine for some fantasy where the AMA, the AHA, LCMS, and ACGME all go poof in the night, but that is unlikely to happen. Massive coordination problems taking on entrenched interests tend to not be easy or even doable lifts.

          It’s not a massive coordination problem. All the government has to do is enforce existing laws against anti-competitive practices. And if you lobby to that, you’re not screwing over people who work hard. I have no desire to alleviate a shortage by doing that, even if it would be effective. Put your political capital into targeting the people who are really guilty.

          So tell me again, who is better off having most (or worse all) physicians work for two years in low productivity settings?

          No one. The credentialist-signalling spiral is enormously non-productive. But you can attack it on the grounds of meritocracy, that the requirements are arbitrary and not relevant to medicine.

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Not sure what your point is. In a market economy, work is about providing some benefit to the person or institution paying you. Taking care of your own kids or cleaning your own house or washing your own care is not ‘work.’

            No, in a market economy work is about converting person-hours into a useful consumption and investment goods. The Antebellum South had numerous people working without getting paid. Slavery was an economic arrangement in market economies since before we had words for “market economies”. Nor do we limit our consideration of market outputs solely to those with monetary remuneration today, Wickard v. Filburn established that whatever your own idiosyncratic definition of a market economy, the one which American policy is written and adjudicated under is one which encompasses many activities without the exchange of money.

            And this makes sense. Suppose I work at a clinic is that part of the market economy? What if volunteer to be there? What if I have a contract to be paid, but the clinic stiffs me? What if elect to give back my pay to keep the clinic running? It is nonsensical to define work only by remuneration which may or may not occur after the fact.

            Further, market economies have numerous externalities where the market rewards inefficient behavior in the long run. We do not live in a frictionless world of perfect information. Pollution has long been a case where market transactions have long term costs on society.

            Disincentivizing child bearing and child rearing is similarly a long term negative externality. And I note you keep dodging the racism question. If a salesman, working in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, has a bunch of racist customers he can be much more competent by espousing racism. Do you support employers giving bonus points to employees who are racists in areas where the customer base is racist?

            Not rewarding high-performers and punishing low-performers also diminishes economic growth. I offered child benefits as a solution here. You didn’t explain why your solution is better. Is it the status thing?

            Because I am not debating optimal policy. I am contending with an allegedly tautologically true statement. A tautology, by definition, is true in every possible instantiation.

            If it is always best to have the “smartest and most competent” have the best and most powerful positions, then it should be the best in a world without child subsidies. It should be the best in a world full of racist customers. It should be the best in a world with irrational medical licensing.

            If you arguing that meritocracy is superior only if we have childcare subsidies to offset the effects on childbearing, then you are conceding that Scott is wrong and its not tautologically true that it is best to reserve the top positions for the “smartest and most competent”.

            Settle your response first. Is Scott’s tautology valid? Are you preferred to defend meritocracy as best regardless of national level policies or the culture in which it is embedded?

            If you agree that Scott is wrong and meritocracy is not tautologically true, then we can argue if a specific instantiation of meritocracy is better than some other arrangement. But Scott advocated for a far more wide ranging position.

            No one. The credentialist-signalling spiral is enormously non-productive. But you can attack it on the grounds of meritocracy, that the requirements are arbitrary and not relevant to medicine.

            But they are not arbitrary to medicine. Medical students who worked as scribes have more exposure to pathology. They are more familiar with medications. They can complete the documentation required for learning medicine much more efficiently than physicians straight out of college.

            Or take another example. Bilingualism is beneficial to physicians. Learning Spanish lets you treat many patients more efficiently with neither the expense or the inevitable shortcomings of translators. Learning French as well makes the practice of medicine better for yet another set of patients (e.g. Haitians and West African Emigrants). But then there is Russian, Chinese, Malay, and all the rest.

            Yet in both cases, it takes time to improve your competency. Spending a year scribing or taking immersive language classes is a year not practicing medicine.

            Suppose a year scribing makes you a 2% better medical student. Per the market economy, a physician is about six times as useful as a scribe to society. Physicians typically start their careers around 30 and retire around 65. The cost of substituting one year of scribing for one year of medical practice is then around 83.3% of a physician’s yearly utility. Suppose our scribe maintains his 2% edge throughout his entire career. He has 34 years being 2% better than the straight out of college student. Okay so over the course of his career the scribe generates 68% of a physician-year worth of utility. Having the pre-med scribe for a year left society and the student BOTH worse by 15.2% of a physician-year. Or using market value, somewhere around $46,000 worth of utility vanished.

            If I have two pre-med students in front of me, ceteris parabis, the bilingual one or the one who scribed is the more competent candidate. Given the shortage of slots in medical schools this has resulted in a lot of students spending years of labor becoming more meritorious. Yet their gains make them only marginally better than the competition.

            And this is with purely useful skill acquisition. In the real world the line between “relevant” skills and experience is murky so will have some costly signals that fail to improve performance.

            And again, Scott’s contention not that these things don’t matter or could be done away with by some clever policy, but that they cannot, tautologically, matter.

            I just don’t see it. Absent a bajillion epicycles, meritocracy is not an automatic optimization for an economy, let alone a society.

          • Wickard v. Filburn established that whatever your own idiosyncratic definition of a market economy, the one which American policy is written and adjudicated under is one which encompasses many activities without the exchange of money.

            Nonsense.

            Wickard v. Filburn wasn’t about whether growing crops to be consumed on your own farm was economic activity but about whether it was interstate commerce — more precisely, whether regulating it was part of regulating interstate commerce. If Filburn had exchanged his grain for cattle from another state, no money involved, there would have been no question but that it was interstate commerce.

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Sorry I missed this earlier:

            It’s not a massive coordination problem. All the government has to do is enforce existing laws against anti-competitive practices. And if you lobby to that, you’re not screwing over people who work hard. I have no desire to alleviate a shortage by doing that, even if it would be effective. Put your political capital into targeting the people who are really guilty.

            Medical education is specifically exempted from such laws by congressional statute. The entire NRMP is giant collusive conspiracy and was found to be such in court.

            Yet section 207 of the Pension Funding Equity Act of 2004 specifically exempted this from all federal judicial review.

            In order to eliminate the bottleneck on training physicians, congress would have to override this statute. Doing so requires overcoming the combined lobby of the AHA, the AMA, the LCMS, the ACGME, and the AAMS. You know the people who got a law changed in under two years while they were being sued and who had been found to have engaged in a “single overarching integrated antitrust conspiracy”.

            Again, though this is irrelevant to the tautological claim Scott made. If having the smartest and most competent people get the best positions is tautologically true then it must be true even when congress rewrites laws to protect a “single overarching integrated antitrust conspiracy”.

          • Disincentivizing child bearing and child rearing is similarly a long term negative externality… it should be the best in a world without child subsidies

            You could that homosexuality has this same negative externality though I doubt you’d do so. Sure, people can’t choose their sexuality, but could choose to live as heterosexuals and have kids anyway. It’s probably true that meritocracy leads to lower fertility rates. Look at how they went off a cliff in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. But the cure is much, much worse than the disease. I support more child benefits because of the problems you point out, but I wouldn’t be deeply offended by a return to the age old wisdom of “can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em.”

            And I note you keep dodging the racism question. If a salesman, working in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, has a bunch of racist customers he can be much more competent by espousing racism. Do you support employers giving bonus points to employees who are racists in areas where the customer base is racist?

            No I don’t support it, though I don’t think it was particularly common in that era. I object to the assumption that the alternative to meritocracy is happy randomness. In reality the alternative is decisions being made on the basis of who’s related to who, who’s friends with who, and who is willing to mouth the dogmas of the ruling ideology. You want a world where employees feel free from pressure to mouth ideological dogmas? Then promote the idea that they are there to do a job, and should be judged on how well they do it.

            Settle your response first. Is Scott’s tautology valid? Are you preferred to defend meritocracy as best regardless of national level policies or the culture in which it is embedded?

            It’s invalid in the case of areas where conflict theory applies and you don’t support the goals being promoted. He said as much. It’s also invalid in the case of subsidies, since it can lead to more efficient methods of extracting subsidies. The solution is to get rid of the subsidies.

        • peak.singularity says:

          Given pretty much every effective altruism pitch I have ever heard, maintaining robust economic growth is by far the most effective thing we can do to improve the lives of everyone.

          I’ll have to disagree – it’s about as dangerous at this point as letting free a paperclip maximizer because it’s so effective at making paperclips.

          Is it better for society to have physicians “train” for two years doing other things? Well how productive is a pre-med scribe? Market wages suggest not all that much as physician wages are roughly six times greater. Again, going back to effective altruism, should we not want people working at their most productive potential as soon as possible for as many years as possible?

          It’s not that simple – you want to have the best citizens, not just robosurgeons, and having people being confronted to very different situations early on is good for their growth. (Though doctors can easily do both, by joining Doctors without Borders immediately after they graduate, or the like…)

          • Charlie Lima says:

            It’s not that simple – you want to have the best citizens, not just robosurgeons, and having people being confronted to very different situations early on is good for their growth. (Though doctors can easily do both, by joining Doctors without Borders immediately after they graduate, or the like…)

            But again, if being confronted by different situations is good, at what point does being confronted with more become problematic?

            I can totally buy that a year spent elsewhere before medical school is a good trade-off. But I am at least twice as skeptical that two years provides a similarly good tradeoff. Three or ten? Just not buying it.

            Ceteris parabis, a pre-med with no years of outside experience is inferior to one with a single year. Yet the single year exposure is inferior to the two years of exposure and so forth. At some point, the utility gained from yet another year is less than the utility from practicing medicine for a year.

            Yet at that point we face a pre-med with (n) years of outside exposure and a pre-med with (n+1) years of exposure. The (n+1) student is more meritorious. Yet society is better served by accepting the (n). Looking only at smartness and competency while ignoring the costs of raising (or maintaining) smartness and competency leads to exactly these sorts of conundrums. One candidate can legitimately say that they sacrificed one more year for hard work at improving their competency, yet society would be better served if they hadn’t delayed their medical education.

          • Jiro says:

            One candidate can legitimately say that they sacrificed one more year for hard work at improving their competency, yet society would be better served if they hadn’t delayed their medical education.

            If you kill one person and use his organs to save five people, society is better off, yet most people outside of a few weird utilitarians don’t support it.

            Most people won’t even support a version that is a closer analogy, where we don’t kill him ourselves, we just treat him in such a way that voluntarily killing himself and donating his organs is better than staying alive under our regime.

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Most people won’t even support a version that is a closer analogy, where we don’t kill him ourselves, we just treat him in such a way that voluntarily killing himself and donating his organs is better than staying alive under our regime.

            You seem to be missing a point here. Suppose I have two candidates, Billy and Bobby.

            Billy(n) is just slightly better than Bobby(n) on the criteria to get into the bottom tier medical school. Bobby(n) knows this and is a year ahead in school. So he elects to spend a year scribing. Now Bobby(n) is in and Billy(n+1) is out.

            Billy(n+1) spends the next year scribing. He now bumps out Billy (n+2) and Bobby (n+2). Billy(n+2) knows that Bobby(n+2) will scribe for the year so he scribes. Billy(n+2) bumps Bobby (n+3), Billy(n+3) and Bobby(n+2).

            At the end of the day Bobby(n) is the only candidate better off. Everyone else is worse off. Every candidate from henceforth onward will lose ~$270,000 in lifetime earnings. Society will lose a bunch of physician man-hours.

            But it gets worse. Bobby (n+x) realizes that scribing does not cut it, so he does a year of scribing and a year of research. Now he beats Billy (n+x+1). Henceforth, everyone loses two years of their career as a physician as the new standard is two years of becoming meritorious.

            This is a textbook coordination problem. Everyone would be better served by some simple sortition mechanism rather than consuming real resoures (physician-years and lost wages) to end up at in the same rank order. Just like with Scott’s parable about aquaculture, everyone has incentive to spend resources becoming meritorious, yet if everyone does it (and that is what is happening right now), everyone is worse off.

            A far better option would be to have a meritocratic sortition. Figure out some measure of merit, score people using some strictly monotonic function, and then give out lottery tickets in proportion to their score. Moving from a 239/300 to a 240/300 would be worth something (say a 0.3% chance at getting the coveted position), but not literally the 100% difference it can be now with floor functions.

            Meritocracy has costs for figuring out how much merit each applicant has. It has costs when applicants spend time accruing merit rather than actually doing the highly important job to which they aspire. At some point, these costs exceed the utility gained from being slightly more meritocratic.

            Likewise, we should be very careful about what counts as meritorious, otherwise we risk rewarding acting racist in racist societies and sabotaging your peers (e.g. the cutthroat nature of things like AOA or class rankings in medical school). And certainly some allowance should be made for people whom tragedy befalls. After all, rape does cause trauma which can impair competency, do we really want to rigidly adhere to standards that result in rape victims being demoted?

            Like most things in life, rigid adherence leads to problems. More likely everyone in society would be better off with some mix of meritocracy, sortition, plutocracy, democracy, and all the rest. Should our society be 80% meritocratic? Probably. 90%? Maybe. 95%? Unlikely. 99%? Almost certainly not.

            Meritocracy cannot be tautologically the best mechanism. Not unless you think rape victims should be demoted or denied opportunities should they become less competent.

          • Aapje says:

            @Charlie Lima

            Good points, although your arguments don’t really reject meritocracy, but merely trying to maximize it; just like many arguments against capitalism are far stronger arguments for social-democracy or such, than they are arguments for communism.

            PS. I believe that traumatized people should get treatment so they can restore their merit as much as possible, but that we shouldn’t accept their incompetence when doing a job, where we wouldn’t do so for others.

          • Jiro says:

            You seem to be missing a point here. Suppose I have two candidates, Billy and Bobby.

            The point of the utilitarian organ murderer example here is that killing him and taking his organs is a clear benefit to society, yet we don’t kill him or encourage him to kill himself–because “it makes society worse off” isn’t an excuse.

            So we shouldn’t accept that as an excuse when saying “one candidate sacrificed more but it’s worse for society” (with the implication that we should make sure the candidate doesn’t get the benefit of his sacrifice).

            This is a textbook coordination problem. Everyone would be better served by some simple sortition mechanism rather than consuming real resoures.

            This is also true of the guy who selfishly refuses to kill himself and let society save five people with his organs. If only we had a coordination mechanism to ensure that such people did kill themselves, society would be better off. But we don’t have one, and we don’t want one.

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Aapje:

            Capitalism is not tautologically the best way to organize an economy. There are times and places where even the most capitalistic states use command economics most notably their militaries. Capitalism is generally the best way to organize an economy.

            Meritocracy is not tautologically the best way to organize a social hierarchy. Meritocracy is generally the best way to organize a social hierarchy.

            Jiro:
            So we should be sexist in our admissions policies? And give women who sterilize themselves bonus points towards admission?

            After all, pregnancy is one of the leading reasons for delaying medical school graduation. And, per you, it would be unethical to not respect the sacrifice made by the women who underwent hysterectomies to improve their chances at medical school admission?

            If we are looking at who will do best at completing medical school with the least resources expended per student, then not getting pregnant is huge. Further hysterectomies are better birth control than implants or IUDs which are better, in turn, than pills or condoms.

            At most, we should reward sacrifices in proportion to the degree which they better your performance on the job. Becoming 0.01% better than the next candidate should not give you a 100% leg up. This is why I like a scaling sortition function. It rewards people for becoming more meritocratic, but rewards them only to the degree that it actually matters.

            Take the simple Step 1 example. If it takes 60 hours of extra studying to raise 1 point on the exam we could either follow strict meritocracy. We could reward 60 hours of studying with all the perks of the best residencies for that 60 hours. Or we could reward it with an extra 1% chance of getting the best residency in a sortition.

            Giving 100% would be somewhere in the ballpark of rewarding 60 hours of labor with $180,000 (e.g. the difference between radiology and the next most remunerating field of emergency medicine). Giving a 1% increase the odds has an expectation value of $1,800. I submit that being rewarded with $30 per hour is much more rational than being rewarded with $3000 per hour. Some people would undoubtedly think $30/hr is worthwhile compensation for their time. Some would not.

            And again, how exactly would you treat a rape victim? Do you actually just measure their competency and let the chips fall where they may? Do you delay measurement and placement for treatment and impose lifetime earnings penalties in the hundreds of thousands of dollars? Should we reward people who sacrificed things to lower their odds of being raped (e.g. paid more to live in neighborhoods that have less rape, never went out on dates, never drank alcohol)?

            Demanding that society never do anything that invalidates the sacrifices one candidate makes seems like just another silly absolutist statement. Demanding that we give maximal reward for trivially useful sacrifices is just utter nonsense.

        • Charlie Lima says:

          You could that homosexuality has this same negative externality though I doubt you’d do so.

          Oh, I would definitely say so, though it is diminishing in magnitude as fertility science allows increasing decoupling of reproduction from heterosexual intercourse. Of course, I just happen to think the numbers don’t work out for it to be a net negative. Homosexuals are a small enough percentage of the population, enough of them have children, and we would be forcing them to do things they actually wish to avoid to move the needle significantly.

          In contrast, our current meritocratic regimen results in the average woman being unable to have as many children as she desires without giving up an awful lot. It just so happens, that if women’s desired fertility were achieved all our demographic issues for the budget would all vanish in the night.

          I understand you think subsidies is the preferred policy; do you think that having child rearing subsidies is necessary for meritocracy to be superior to other options? Do you think childcare subsidies are sufficient to make meritocracy superior to other options?

          No I don’t support it, though I don’t think it was particularly common in that era.

          It was. A wide number of black owned businesses formally backed segregation out of fear of losing their customers if they backed civil rights. Likewise the second KKK was joined by many as way to network; which was pretty effective when you had places like Indiana where a fifth of the population was KKK and membership was skewed toward the wealthy and influential.

          You are looking to hire a salesman in Indianapolis in 1926 to sell cars. You have two otherwise identical candidates in front of you, but one is a member of the KKK and the other is a Catholic. Around one third of your customers are in the KKK at this time. You know that Klan members are less likely to patronize things “tainted with Popery”. You know that the members of the local Klanton are more likely to patronize one of their own. You expect that the KKK candidate will be more competent at selling cars.

          You, as the dealership owner, are trying to be strictly Meritocratic. Do you hire the Catholic who will sell fewer cars or you hire the Klansman who will sell more?

          In reality the alternative is decisions being made on the basis of who’s related to who, who’s friends with who, and who is willing to mouth the dogmas of the ruling ideology.

          Nonsense. The alternative to tautological meritocracy includes the full spectrum from hereditary castes to meritocracy mediated by civil rights legislation. My marker is down on pragmatism. Some meritocracy, some sortition, and some networking and nepotism.

          I believe that meritocracy can, and under current policy does, lead to a bunch of wasted talent and effort. Take, for instance, Step 1 for medical students. Residency programs have been using Step 1 award the most prestigious residency slots. Step 1 measures things that are of practical importance to being a physician and a passing score is required to move forward with training. It is valid, measuring legitimately useful knowledge. A passing score is around 194 out of 300 with changes some years to the next. National average is around 228 with a standard deviation of around 20. Students may not retake the test.

          Initially, medical students just studied their normal curricula and then took the test. Then people began to offer Step focused review guides. These boosted scores maybe 5-10 points, but that was the difference between getting a “good” residency and getting a “bad” residency, this became more important as prestige specialty programs began instituting minimum score cutoffs (e.g. 230 or 240). So the weaker students started dumping more and more money into test specific review materials. Then the stronger students started doing the same thing. Along the way the medical schools got in on the act. Some started trimming the curriculum to afford more “dedicated study” time. Some restructured the entire curriculum to teat to Step. Now we have students spending thousands of dollars out of loans at 5% interest for highly engineered review materials and even skimping on their actual curriculum (after medical schools have trimmed instruction time by up to two months for this purpose already) to study for Step.

          This happens because medical students are under a severe form of meritocracy. Scoring higher than the other guy matters. The margin does not. Once one person elects to burn resources (e.g. time and money), then everyone must. We are well into the point where goosing your Step score has diminishing returns on your skills as a physician. There are stories that this arms race has killed patients. Finally, this year, it was announced that Step 1 would become pass/fail because everyone realized that it was becoming counterproductive.

          Yet throughout its entire existence Step 1 was meritocratic. The material on the test was written by experts in their field regarding what they believed was useful knowledge that physicians should comprehend. Programs were simply evaluating people for who scored higher on a validated instrument.

          The problem is that ranking medical students is hard. Actual ascertaining if Billy or Bobby is more meritocratic requires a lot of time and effort to accurately gauge. All that happened was that Billy and Bobby began letting their core competencies decline in order to do better on the meritocratic examination. Whatever Billy did, no matter how long term counterproductive, to do better on the validated meritocratic examination, Bobby was forced to do as well or lose out.

          Ranking and information gathering is not free. Everyone glosses over in meritocracy how many real resources will go towards to placing candidates into a ranked order list. Yet this can, and has, resulted in arms races all with completely validated instruments and noble goals. If it costs X resources to differentiate between Billy and Bobby, but the efficiency gained by picking the more meritocratic candidate is < X, then a rational society should just use sortition to award the more prestigious/powerful/whatever position to the winner and spend X on something more useful or desirable.

          Likewise, in the real world there will always be a parental drive to give advantages to one's own children. Absent some above board mechanism, the parents will resort destructive options (e.g. rewriting the admissions standard in ways that just so happen to favor their kids, like how Harvard's "diversity" push somehow favors legacies at the expense of first generation Asians). Obviously, the worst such impulses should be curved, but like with any antisocial behavior extirpating it completely eventually becomes too costly.

          Again, you keep dodging the point. Suppose you agree with the goals of a meritocracy. Assume that there is no conflict nexus. Under those assumptions, is meritocracy tautologically correct?

          I submit that gathering information in a meritocracy has costs. At some point, gathering information to correctly rank two or more closely matched individuals requires more resources in information gathering than is gained by appropriate ranking after placement. In such situations, when the resources consumed by ranking exceed the benefits of ranking, then we should resort to sortition rather than strictly adhere to meritocracy. I hold this even when I agree with the goals being promoted and I hold this even in the absence of conflict theory being applicable.

          • Aapje says:

            This happens because medical students are under a severe form of meritocracy.

            Yes and no. Those students are under a partial form of meritocracy. Buying extra education that others cannot afford is not meritocracy.

            Evaluating students primarily on a far more limited set of skills than they need for the job is not meritocratic, just like it would not be meritocratic to select chess players primarily on how fast they can move the pieces, but not on how well they make their moves.

            I agree with you that sortition after an initial meritocratic selection can be a good solution. However, it is then not a good solution because extreme meritocracy is inherently bad at dealing with your example, but because there are practical limitations that make it impossible to do extreme meritocracy well.

            PS. Extreme meritocracy in itself is bad when more is spent on proving ability, than is earned back by having a more qualified person do the job.

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Most medical students pay for their schooling with debt. Anyone with an acceptance to medical school can pay for all of their tuition.

            Buying dedicated Step training, like from DIT, is helpful but you are not scored higher for the training, you are scored higher for getting better at the examination, some of which is useful, albeit all but trivially so, for being a physician.

            The best example is taking a prep course in microbiology and having some company which has, quasi-legally, figured out which histology is most beneficial to memorize. Histology is indeed useful for medicine, but outside of pathology and oncology, few physicians will ever look at cells again.

            Further once one person pays a sum of money on memorizing things they will be looking up or learning thoroughly in residency if they actually will use it … everyone must.

            And this will crop up in anything that measures job performance. Want to hire a better writer? Well taking courses on writing is helpful, taking courses on how to write for formalized writing evaluations is better.

            Because ultimately meritocracy works with limited information. If you need a God’s-eye-view of job capability, meritocracy is no more useful than communism. At some point we have to look at how meritocracy functions in the world. And there are a lot of cases right now where meritocracy heavily encourages spending more on gaining/proving ability than could ever be recouped.

            Indeed, when you are looking at relative scales, a lot of things spend resources and do not even effect the rank ordering. Once one guy gets a leg up, everyone does it, and you have a new, inferior equilibrium for everyone.

          • Aapje says:

            Because ultimately meritocracy works with limited information.

            Everything works with limited information. That merely means that judging people is imperfect, not that it is useless.

            If you need a God’s-eye-view of job capability, meritocracy is no more useful than communism.

            Communism is not an antonym of meritocracy, so I don’t think this statement makes sense.

            Both capitalism and Marxist-Leninism tends to have meritocracy as the ideal. The difference is that the former tends to incentivize meritocracy to a fairly large degree, while the latter tends to disincentivize it.

            And there are a lot of cases right now where meritocracy heavily encourages spending more on gaining/proving ability than could ever be recouped.

            Again, I’m not disagreeing with you, but this is pretty much a general counterargument against overdoing things that are good in moderation.

        • gbdub says:

          It is not that raising children is not “work” or that it is not “valuable”.

          It’s that raising children is not work that has direct value to your employer at your day job, so expecting to be compensated at the same rate by your employer for the smaller amount of work you can accomplish for your employer while you engage in child rearing is unfair to your employer and to your fellow employees who did not choose to raise children (or who already did, but either way, are currently providing more direct value to the employer).

          So perhaps this is a tragedy of the commons situation, where everyone is to some degree free riding off the willingness of parents to make more humans while not really receiving much in the way of direct compensation for doing so.

          But the solution is to have society collectively agree on / provide benefits to parents, either to offset their lost income or to decrease the burden of parenting, not to advance the fiction that all employees are equally valuable, even the ones that are putting in less work because of their (very understandable and commendable!) desire to not be shitty parents.

          The funny thing is this seems like an area where the “egalitarian” argument starts to sound like a defense of traditional family roles. Like, if everyone is expected to raise a family, then everyone working together to cover for the employee with young kids is a bit easier to swallow – after all, you’ll need that safety net (or have already used it) when you raise your own.

          But if having babies is entirely a matter of choice and personal preference, well then expecting accommodations for your child rearing AND the same pay as the people who don’t choose to have children seems like asking to both have your cake and eat it.

          • One of my standard talks is on the problem with externality arguments. With a complicated issue like population or climate change, there are both positive and negative effects, they are sufficiently uncertain so that we do not even know the sign of the sum. Those who believe the net is negative make generous estimates of negative effects, conservative estimates of positive ones, conclude that the net is large and negative and we should therefor act to prevent the change. Those with the opposite view apply the opposite bias.

            The economic theory that supports taxing negative externalities and subsidizing positive ones is basically correct, but in practice it gets used to support whatever people are already in favor of.

            All of which is a response to the demonstration of my point in this thread.

            So perhaps this is a tragedy of the commons situation, where everyone is to some degree free riding off the willingness of parents to make more humans while not really receiving much in the way of direct compensation for doing so.

            When I wrote an article on population issues almost fifty years ago, the unquestioned orthodoxy was that having a baby had a net negative externality. I was taking a radical position in arguing that there were both positive and negative effects and I could not sign their sum. Now you take it for granted that there is a positive externality.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            When I wrote an article on population issues almost fifty years ago, the unquestioned orthodoxy was that having a baby had a net negative externality.

            Quoted to signal-boost, because “overpopulation will make the world uninhabitable and having children will be a privilege subject to rationing” is a trope I grew up with.

            How quickly people forget…

          • Charlie Lima says:

            Gbdub: Remember we are not discussing optimal methods for supporting children and their parents.

            Scott’s remarkedly strong assertion was, “Since meritocracy means promoting the smartest and most competent people, it is tautologically correct. The only conceivable problem is if we make mistakes in judging intelligence and competence.”

            Tautologically correct propositions are defined as those which are true under all possible instantiations (e.g. something like b^2 + b = -1 is tautologically false for all real b). This means that Scott holds that the “correct” way to order society is meritocracy regardless of if children are a net positive to society or a net negative. He believes that it is correct if we subsidize child rearing/have supporting social systems but also if we tax child rearing/have social shaming norms.

            Scott is no holding that there is one particular way to make meritocracy work. He is not holding that some ways of doing meritocracy are more practical than others. He is holding that all ways which promote the smartest and most competent people are correct.

            So suppose we, hypothetically if needed, lived in a world where child rearing was a net public good. Suppose we also lived in a world where “competency” had a large component of “being flexible with work schedules in a manner utterly unworkable for raising children.” In that world would meritocracy be “correct”? Would it correct to demote women who had children?

            I understand, you can tack on a few epicycles, like childcare subsidies or the assumption that child rearing is a net negative, but that is not a tautologically correct system.

            At the end of the day, there are real costs to maximizing your competency and intelligence as measured. There are real costs for searching for the best people once the measurement is done. And there are real costs with measurement error (in both precision and accuracy), which Scott at least acknowledges.

            Sometimes, under some (not particularly outlandish) assumptions, the costs of strict meritocracy are greater than the benefits. Under some set of assumption there are questions of coordination and perverse incentives even with optimal measurement of intelligence and competence.

            DF:
            The single biggest thing I know is that women for the last generation have consistently expressed consistent desires for more children than they end up having. The average woman has half a child fewer than she wishes.

            Nor do I have to make large assumptions about the long term effects of low fertility. Japan has shown quite easily that it creates long term fiscal issues.

            Nor is the question one of laissez-faire economics. The government subsidizes and uses meritocratic measures that encourage people to consume 4 to 10 years of life and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to either increase merit or accurately measure it. It further holds liability standards remarkedly high for all other methods of assessment, yet somehow the meritocratic universities can basically discriminate against Asians heavily.

            Going to policy neutrality would mean changing our measures of talent (a known meritocracy problem), but also might stop subsidizing the pursuit of marginal gains in real competency.

  25. white_squirrel says:

    There’s a great discussion about “meritocracy” in Starship Troopers that nails it on the head:

    Service men are not brighter than civilians. In many cases civilians are much more intelligent. That was the sliver of justification underlying the attempted coup d’ etat just before the Treaty of New Delhi, the so-called ‘Revolt of the Scientists’: let the intelligent elite run things and you’ll have utopia. It fell flat on its foolish face of course. Because the pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility.

    Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.

    I’m not advocating we utilize a system of government where the franchise is only extended to veterans. But the general sentiment expressed in the above is basically correct. You need leaders who are both capable, and willing to put “the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” Leaders who are virtuous and “dumb” aren’t very useful. Leaders who are smart and motivated by self interest (or sometimes ideology) are dangerous. The solution is to think about meritocracy more broadly than in terms of raw ability, not do away with it.

    With that said, I don’t really buy the class interests argument. I’ve never seen politicians or executives make decisions based on what’s good for their class. In fact, they do the opposite pretty frequently. Self interested behavior on the other hand…

    • Worley says:

      My observation is that politicians can often by classified by the classes whose interests they work to advance. What’s noticeable that often the politician is not a member of that class himself. As Doonesbury said decades ago about some union leader, “He takes care of the working class. That’s how he avoids being a member of it.”

      • white_squirrel says:

        Politicians often do represent some type of factional or class interest, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. Ideally they would act for the greater good, rather than for the benefit of some specific class.

        There are rational reasons why voters support factional candidates. Policy making is so complex that voters can’t possibly understand all of it. For example, maybe .1% of the population has an informed opinion on whether we ought to use the supplementary leverage ratio in banking regulation. But it’s a hugely important question. Having an agent who understands these things, and will in theory act in your best interest makes a degree of sense.

        One problem is that factional politicians are often (to a greater degree than normal politicians) charlatans, and voters generally don’t have the ability to supervise them for the same reason that makes factional candidates attractive in the first place. Marion Barry is probably the single most egregious example I can think of, but there are lots of others. And even when they aren’t charlatans, the desire to help their own constituents has a nasty habit of morphing into a desire to hurt someone else. At best, it tends to manifest in attempting to preferential allocate resources to your constituents, regardless of the justice of actually doing so.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Could you say more about Marion Barry?

          • white_squirrel says:

            It’s a bit hard to do him justice.

            He was the Mayor of Washington D.C. for four terms in the 80s and 90s. During his third term, he was caught on video in an FBI string operation smoking crack in a hotel room with a woman who was not his wife and eventually went to prison. After his release from prison, he was elected to a fourth term as mayor.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            What are you even saying about him? Was he a charlatan? What does adultery and drugs have to do with it?

            What made him attractive? What made the voters unable to supervise him? What does “supervise” even mean? The reelection shows that the voters didn’t care about the adultery and the drugs, so what is the failure of supervision?

        • Having an agent who understands these things, and will in theory act in your best interest makes a degree of sense.

          Given that most of the people affected by his actions will never know whether he harmed or benefited them, what makes it in his interest to act in their best interest? If it isn’t, why do you believe that the theory you describe has any connection to reality?

          • white_squirrel says:

            The theory is that if you select the right type of agent (for example someone from a particular class background), they will be loyal to their class and work on behalf of its interests. This isn’t a totally ridiculous notion, but as you allude to, it doesn’t necessarily work in practice.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      It shouldn’t surprise us that fictional governments work a lot better than real ones, because the author is free to stack the deck as much as he likes.

      The idea of military service selecting for willingness to put “the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage” – especially in the context of discussing ways to allocate political power – runs right smack into what real-world military dictatorships are like (generally: pretty bad by most metrics).

      If you make the military part of your political system, what you will get is politics in the military – moreso if you make it the fundament of your politics. I propose that politics is like a prion diease: it turns everything it touches into more politics.

      Worst case scenario, you’ll have a crappy political system and a crappy military (because of all the political bullshit). Best case: just a crappy political system, because generals aren’t exactly used to the grunts telling them what to do (which is a prerequisite if you want your government to serve people qua individual human beings and not a hive-like entity, where individuals may be freely sacrificed for the common good).

      • peak.singularity says:

        Hmm, but IIRC, in Starship Troopers, military is NOT part of the political system – it’s that only people who have been through the military (and left it ?) can have political power (including voting) ?

        But I guess that this would still put too much political power in the military – since IIRC, you had to get through successfully, dropping out will preclude from getting citizenship ?

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          Essentially, you get two choices:

          a. Either everyone simply does their stint in the service, as part of the standard civic duty package – in which case you get yer bog-standard republic/democracy with something-close-enough-to-conscription-it-doesn’t-make-a-difference,* or

          b. Only a select minority of the population actually serve in the military – and hence acquire the capability to participate in ruling. What you get is a military ruling class and a civilian ruled class. The fact that your military officers (it’s always the officers) have to resign before running for government won’t change their class membership.

          In option B you don’t even get the benefit of selecting for the better military-adjacent traits, ‘coz the sociopaths you want to keep out of government will simply do the service and use any means at their disposal to ensure this is as safe and convenient as possible. That’s how politics ruins your military.

          ETA:
          * Israel comes to mind.

          • In Starship Troopers, you have to have volunteered for the military or some other activity that involves serving the society at significant risk to yourself and have completed your service and left, in order to vote. People currently in the military don’t vote, nor do those who have never been in the military or equivalent.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            As I’ve already said, the fact that you have to leave the military before you can participate in politics changes exactly nothing.

  26. Part of the problem with the discussion of “Meritocracy” is the “cracy” part. By analogy with “democracy” and “aristocracy,” it ought to mean “rule by.” But when we describe a society as meritocratic, we are talking about how people get sorted to roles, not just to the role of ruler.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      The “cracy” part is precisely the problem. It is not controversial that people get sorted into roles, that’s just division of labor. The controversial part is that some roles give people (undue?) power over other people. (This is, quite obviously to me, not meant to be limited to a singular specific role of the ruler. A mere bigger salary, and the resulting bigger wealth, is enough to give person more power under the current system.)

      And I think you’ve just pointed out that, semantically, the people who are “talking about how people get sorted to roles”, without considering the resulting power relations, are not really using the term correctly.

      • eric23 says:

        What power do programmers have over people? None, except somewhat higher salaries. But that can be fixed with progressive taxation.

        • peak.singularity says:

          Everyone with a job has some power. Tautologically so, you change the world doing your job – for some people a tiny bit, for others much more. Some of the programmers end up with enormous amounts of power over other people : see the book “Weapons of Math Destruction” for instance.

          • Jiro says:

            That kind of programmer power is not the kind that people who want programming to be less meritocratic are complaining about.

          • peak.singularity says:

            You’ll have to give me examples then, because I don’t really have an idea about who you are talking about ?

          • Jiro says:

            People complaining that programming is too meritocratic normally mean that there are too many men and “whites” (meaning whites+Asians) in programming. They want programming to be less meritocratic because they want women and underrepresented minorities to get programmer salaries and control programming-related projects without having to demonstrate merit.

            The fact that the military depends on programmers is irrelevant to their concerns.

          • peak.singularity says:

            “Weapons of Math Destruction” is not about the military, but about the social effects of “algorithms”.

            Something has to be done about these issues.
            I’m not sure what, but I don’t believe that forcing “reverse-discrimination” at the level of hiring can have a positive effect here (or anywhere).

          • Aapje says:

            To what extent do programmers even come up with these algorithms or the goals that they try to meet?

            If the shareholders demand maximizing ROI and that is increased substantially by denying loans to people living in low SES (= often black) neighborhoods, then it seems rather naive to think that women or non-whites are simply going to somehow not implement these algorithms, with no repercussions.

          • B_Epstein says:

            Also, the alternative is not “magic justice angel makes the decisions”. It’s back to the humans who made the situation unequal and discriminatory in the first place. Like, if some crime prediction dataset was heavily influenced by a million decisions made by racist cops, those biases might very well seep into an algorithm’s decision-making. But that’s a poor argument for letting the cops keep making the decisions instead! This kind of pattern, “humans suck -> data is biased -> algorithm is biased -> beware the algorithm”, without really considering the obvious counter-points, is why “Weapons of Math Destruction” is a bad book.

            Also also, it’s not only about increasing ROI. Accurate, though “unfair”, predictions matter. If you decide to make the algorithm include some “affirmative action” (say, increase some alert threshold for blacks), how much is OK? How important are the mistakes you will cause vs. your sense of justice? Who qualified programmers\ their bosses to come up with the appropriate corrections? That seems to me a serious overreach and a betrayal of trust. “Look at our algorithm! It is accurate, just as you all asked and paid us to make it, except for anything tinged with politics. Then, it does something else but it’s alright ’cause we’re on the right side of politics”.

            To the extent that this line of thought calls for caution and deliberation in compiling datasets, designing algorithms and interpreting their decisions, it’s a valuable message and well worth attention. To the extent it calls for refusing ML-based assistance and actively rejecting its potential (and thus, for now, keeping the power in the biased hands it was in from the get-go), it’s harmful and irresponsible.

          • peak.singularity says:

            The programmers (and the project leaders and the CEOs) are going to be very careful before implementing algorithms that have a negative impact on society if it means being put into jail and/or being forever stripped of the right to exercise their job.

            This kind of pattern, “humans suck -> data is biased -> algorithm is biased -> beware the algorithm”, without really considering the obvious counter-points, is why “Weapons of Math Destruction” is a bad book.

            Uh, this seems to be a strawman ?

            The issue is mostly about democracy : if give people in power even more power (and an opaque form of power), don’t be surprised it leads to abuse !

            See also the very similar discussion here :
            https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/02/14/addendum-to-targeting-meritocracy/#comment-853681

          • B_Epstein says:

            And who’s going to pay for the negative impact of the lack of those (again – highly accurate, if unfair) algorithms? That lack is what you’ll get if you threaten developers with jail. And you still haven’t told me how will the decisions be made. Humans not relying on (evil, biased) data and algorithms, right? Do those humans go to jail for their (numerous and even more biased) mistakes, currently? If not, how is remotely reasonable to demand programmers to pay so much more?

            We want those decisions because they matter, and we want them done well. As for allocation of power – the power to tell actual, real-world data to shove it and to alter its implications is certainly anti-democratic. Suppose that people from a certain neighborhood (yes, a black one) are extremely likely to commit crimes. Now, maybe it is because of years of structural discrimination. No argument here. Still, what is the poor programmer to do? Quit their job? Artificially alter the (correct, if regrettable and unfair) conclusions? Lie to the user? Lower the odds a bit – by how much? That’s a lot of power, too, and power that does not come with any kind of obvious connection to reality.

            Strawman – sadly, no. Really, really no. That’s a type of argument “WMD” provides a number of times.

            ETA – ah, you’re cheating. So far, some arguments were presented for some negative effects of possibly biased algorithms. But you sneaked in “negative impact on society”, which implies that the total effect is a negative one (even compared to the sucky status quo, I presume). That is a much bolder claim, one that I don’t believe you or Cathy O’Neil are actually in position to make.

            In retrospect, much of what I was trying to say, and of my objections to WMD, can be rephrased in these terms. The cons are colorfully described. The pros are cast aside with a few obligatory words. The ultimate net impact calculus is not even attempted (but you would expect a programmer to do it? And endorse one taking it on themselves?)

          • peak.singularity says:

            Humans can be accountable for their decisions.
            The main issue is probably how these “algorithms” are opaque and how it becomes easy to just say “the accurate and “fair” algorithm said so – now shut up”.
            In the US, these algorithms have been deployed for nearly a decade now, and the negative impacts have already been documented (see the other references). They *are* the new status quo. And it’s worse than the previous status quo.

          • B_Epstein says:

            I’m forced to repeat myself. Some negative effects have been documented. That’s not nearly enough to claim that the total net result is worse than before, all things considered. The linked discussion certainly doesn’t support so strong a claim.

            But I admit to not reading Automating Inequality. Perhaps it lends more support to this view. I’m not optimistic, though. Just the title is enough to raise my suspicions. Inequality is a bad metric to focus on even from your (and O’Neil’s\ Eubank’s) point of view. If algorithms do indeed increase inequality (rather than perpetuating the inequality already in place from bad decisions made by humans who were usually not at all held accountable, contrary to your statement), then what’s the negative impact? Whatever the answer X is (say, poverty, violence, misery), “automating X” would be a more accurate title, less loaded with further assumptions.

            As a complete aside, unlike 1984, Gattaca is a great world, somewhat distorted by the movie not ending in the statistically likely way: a sneaky criminal dying from a heart attack in a crucial moment and failing an exorbitantly expensive mission that is implied to be important for humanity. And of course, there’s totally a gene (well, a bunch of them) for the human spirit.

          • B_Epstein says:

            Quite apart from the disease, I’m puzzled by your proposed cure. You want more diversity at the price of meritocracy, right? Or to say it better, perhaps, you want the actual merit to take diversity into account? But most problems leading to the negative effects won’t be affected whatsoever, if not made outright worse.

            Opaqueness – certainly, many modern ML tools are hard to interpret. But if you think that it’s by design, to avoid culpability or to be able to discriminate freely, then I’m sorry – that’s utter nonsense. People really really want nice models accessible for human understanding and intuition. Easier to debug, easier to improve, easier to sell – witness the fact that most work on interpretable deep learning\ AI comes from the big players. It’s just that we don’t have a lot of those, and most people who aren’t Cynthia Rudin believe that such transparency has to come at the price of performance.

            Illusion of objectivity – I guess you could make an argument that improving diversity would make people believe the algorithm more, not less, actually making the problem worse.

            Abuse by users (e.g., police) – why would increased programmer diversity help here? Quite the opposite, I’d imagine, given the existing power structures.

            The only point on which your suggestion makes any sense to me is the inherent biases in available data. Yes, perhaps a more diverse range of programmers might be more careful about those. But there’s only so much that can be done by different people using the same data – and on this point in particular we can return to my recurring argument. Going back to the humans that made the data biased in the first place can’t be an improvement, in this aspect at least.

            ***

            I wholeheartedly support educating the population about strengths and weaknesses of algorithms, and designing more transparent and ‘accountable’ algorithms. If you don’t think that the vast majority of developers would agree, I believe you’re failing the ideological Turing test here.

          • albatross11 says:

            I rather liked Scott’s comment in another thread about how AI bias usually seems to turn out to be about ML algorithms that failed to somehow meet mutually contradictory requirements, like “price default risk accurately in interest rates” and “offer all racial groups the same interest rates.”

          • Aapje says:

            @peak.singularity

            1. Treating people in poor neighborhoods (accurately for the group level) as being bad at repaying debt makes it harder for people in those communities to escape poverty, which is a harm.

            2. Treating people in good neighborhoods (inaccurately for the group level) as being worse at repaying debt than they are makes it harder for people in those communities to afford a house, which is a harm.

            People commonly disagree whether 1 or 2 has more negative impact on society and there is no scientific answer to who is right. Ultimately, you cannot achieve neither of these negative impacts unless you eliminate certain subcultural differences, which is very difficult and which many people don’t want.

            You argue that making 1 illegal (and thus mandating 2), reduces negative impact on society. However, this is nothing more than a belief based on your ideology and/or values. It is not fact.

            Your argument would be a lot stronger if you would argue that you are willing to make more responsible people suffer for poor behavior by other groups, to benefit the latter; or such, rather than falsely (implicitly) claiming that your personal beliefs/values are universal, while ignoring the harms that your solution entails.

          • Aapje says:

            @albatross11

            Exactly. Arguably the resulting argument is rather racist, boiling down to: ‘you are allowed to discriminate against (poor) whites who have shitty habits, but not (poor) blacks who have shitty habits’

          • The Nybbler says:

            Humans can be accountable for their decisions.
            The main issue is probably how these “algorithms” are opaque and how it becomes easy to just say “the accurate and “fair” algorithm said so – now shut up”.

            The opacity argument is a red herring. Most of the algorithms it is deployed against aren’t particularly opaque. The much-maligned COMPAS algorithm (for assessing recidivism) is not a machine learning model but a linear regression model, and nearly all its power turned out to be on two variables — age and number of previous convictions. This is a downright transparent algorithm.

            The algorithm for determining if someone qualifies for a conventional loan is pretty clear too, except that it depends on credit score. Credit scores are proprietary, and small swings seem to be rather random, but the inputs into them are known and their broad behavior is also known.

            There are some fairly complex and opaque algorithms in use; possibly these one people have the most contact with are credit card fraud detection algorithms. But these aren’t the ones books like “Weapons of Math Destruction” complain about.

            Anyway, if you tell programmers and data scientists and their bosses that they’re going to go to jail if people don’t like the results of their algorithms, based on vague criteria they clarify after the fact, then of course all these people are going to go back to predicting the stress on tubular fluid distribution members or the growth of crystals in various conditions.

            Then you’ll be back to people making decisions more or less arbitrarily. Mission accomplished?

          • Jiro says:

            “Weapons of Math Destruction” is not about the military, but about the social effects of “algorithms”.

            I stand corrected, but that’s not relevant.

            The point is that in the context of meritocracy in programming, the people complaining about meritocracy want money, control (over other programmers, not over society), and status to be taken from programmers and given to them. The kind of power relations you are talking about is completely irrelevant to their concerns.

  27. Peter Gerdes says:

    I don’t buy this analysis since I think most of your opponents **believe that a *truly’*meritocratic system would promote members of the lower classes just as often as members of the upper classes** so conflict theory can’t explain the opposition. Of course, as a matter of actual fact genetic, environmental and parenting factors would probably mean the children of the upper classes would have an advantage (perhaps partially counterbalanced by less drive/grit/whatever) but still likely to do far more to put people from lower classes into positions of power.

    Seems to me the analysis in the comments to the original piece got it mostly right. What’s really going on is that in a free society a meritocratic society is one in which we offer greater rewards (financial but also status) to the most capable. After all, if we didn’t, then the most capable would instead use their abilities to get the easiest or least stressful jobs. While this isn’t technically part of the concept of meritocracy this kind of differential compensation seems necessary to implement the system.

    Even though I’m a through-going utilitarian (and indeed believe Rawls obviously jury-rigged his veil of ignorance to avoid ending up there) lots of people are intuitively Rawlsian and that analysis does suggest that (other things being equal) it’s bad to give some people more than others. That’s even going to be true with some plausible assumptions (the elite aren’t utility monster lites whose greater abilities give them a greater capacity to enjoy the good life) on a utilitarian theory.

    Now we can explain the responses by the simple and well-supported fact that most people voice political views to signal their values and tribal affiliations. They aren’t being incredibly stupid merely conveying their **quite reasonable** view that ideally everyone deserves the same quality of life. At some level this is no different than what’s going on when people who have no idea about the actual effects of the policies strongly support affirmitive action (harm or benefit?) or the importance of talking about discrimination in STEM (doesn’t that further deter women) or oppose prostitution and organ sales. Since they don’t actually get to make the call they respond in the way that best conveys their values not with what makes the world best.

  28. Worley says:

    I think this problem has been unusually intense over the past few decades. Back when I was a boy, it was written that IQ was poorly correlated with income, happiness, or any other measure of successful life outcome. The data for that was probably from the 1960s or 1950s. And it was believable; e.g., one of the best-paid jobs in the world was working the production line at GM. But once the current wave of globalization really bit in, given what workers in the rest of the world could supply, well-paying work started becoming strongly correlated with the suite of cognitive skills that IQ measures, and the sort of intense education which demands those skills (and which also raises IQ).

    This led to a situation where a single, fairly narrowly-defined class (1) had a monopoly on the well-paying jobs, (2) ran the gatekeeping institutions (like colleges), and (3) staffed the bureaucracies that set a large part of government policy. Note that the high-IQ class didn’t drastically change what it was doing, but the position of everybody else changed, leading to everybody else looking on them as having become a power elite. (However this effect was intensified by a drastic increase of various sorts of “gaming the system” to help their own children succeed in this narrow way.)

    One consequence of this is the rise of Trumpesque politics, where “working class” voters attempt to elect a despot whose job is to circumvent the institutions staffed by high-IQ people which constrict success to high-IQ people.

    Another consequence is the rise of baroque but highly intense debates over superficially unimportant questions like “What is the difference between the average IQs of various ethnic groups, and what are the causes thereof?” When there’s a narrow set of skills which makes people prosperous, the degree to which those skills are congenital or learned, and the exact manner in which those skills access opportunity loom very important.

    Fortunately, the last few years of job statistics in the US suggest that the long-term trends are moving toward a broader prosperity. Demand for labor is outstripping supply, and wages at the low end are rising faster than they are at the median. If we again have paths to success that are based on different qualifications than the ones needed to staff the bureaucracies and other gatekeeping institutions, the masses will stop seeing that class as monopolizing opportunity.

  29. Guy in TN says:

    A dialogue:

    a: “Meritocracy” implies that we should hire the most competent people. We should not have a system where we hire less competent people.

    b: And what are these people competent at, exactly?

    a: They are competent at achieving whatever our desired results are, of course.

    b: Whose desired results? I may desire different outcomes than you.

    a: And that’s okay. What matters is that for a particular person, the most “meritocratic” outcome is whatever is most in line with their goals. So if I’m a manager of a grocery store and want, say, the fastest grocery-bagger, then the person who bags the groceries fastest has the most “merit”.

    b: But you aren’t usually just looking at single factor. You are also looking at things like friendliness, how they dress, punctuality and such, right?

    a: Sure. And if you are the manager, the criteria you are looking for might be something different. Thus what “merit” entails is different for different people, but these are the things I’m looking for.

    b: And you are looking for these factors because you don’t have just one goal, but a suite of goals that you want to be fulfilled. You want him to be fast, friendly, attractive, and so on.

    a: Yes.

    b: And not all of these goals are directly related to the grocery-bagging business. You want him to have a good sense of humor, not just because you want to retain customers, but because you have to see this guy every day and talk to him.

    a: Yes. Its true that my goals, my “desired outcomes”, extend beyond that which is directly-related to grocery-bagging.

    b: So what if my desired outcome is something like: I want to help more people with disabilities. So I purposefully select for someone who is disabled, who perhaps bags groceries slower. In this case the disability is part of my suite of criteria, no different than you adding in “has good humor” in your hiring criteria.

    a: Well, I guess. I personally wouldn’t, but if that’s what you want to do as an employer…

    b: But if purposefully hiring someone who is bad at bagging groceries over someone who isn’t can still counts as “meritocracy”, what does it even mean to be non-meritocratic? I’m always going to be hiring people who advance my goals. Maybe my goals are “help poor people over rich people”. At the start of the conversation, if I had said “I think we should hire slow-bagging poor people over fast-bagging rich people”, would you really have said “well, no matter what you do, it’s meritocracy?”

    a: [this is where you respond, dear reader]

    • Plumber says:

      @Guy in TN says:

      “….this is where you respond, dear reader”

      Okay, my response is suspicion, to quote @Protagoras upthread: “Based on etymology, aristocracy and meritocracy should mean about the same thing. They do not, because aristocracy is older and over time the word has evolved to describe rule by the kind of people who in fact ended up on top in those systems rather than any abstract idea of who would genuinely be the best people…

      …there seems to be plenty of history supporting the people who see meritocracy as just rebranding of an ancient scam.

      Yeah that said it right there, as every time I see the word “meritocracy” I mentally swap it out and replace it with the word “aristocracy”, or “the undemocratic post 1970’s caste system and casino economy” and your trying to rebrand aristocracy/meritocracy as “stuff we like so it thus has merit” seems an unworthy enterprise. 

      Leave aristocracy for the weirdos who want a clone of James the second to rule, and encourage democracy instead.

      • Guy in TN says:

        Leave aristocracy for the weirdos who want a clone of James the second to rule, and encourage democracy instead.

        I’m with you man. Glad to see someone else defending democracy on this board, it’s usually a lonely endeavor.

        For what it’s worth, the only thing I’m torn over is whether “meritocracy” is a meaningless buzzword, or whether its “real” and very bad.

      • Vegapunk says:

        …there seems to be plenty of history supporting the people who see meritocracy as just rebranding of an ancient scam.

        Your analogy is being pushed to the point of silliness. Yes, typically aristocracies don’t work well in practice. It is a worthwhile exercise to consider why this occurs. Marxist hate and envy of the better off aside, aristocracies run into problems because the laws for the Lord are different than the laws for the common man. The issue of different laws for different people is always abused and in an aristocracy, this is baked in. When equality under the law is a consideration the importance of an aristocracy dims and they simply become colorful people with fading fortunes going to exclusive parties. Maybe this irks the envious, but it is pretty low on my scale of outrage.

        Pursuit and elevation of virtue is pretty much the polar opposite. The idea behind meritocracy is that we are elevating the capable. This is far from giving them a special pass that gives them immunity to laws that affect you. In fact, part of being virtuous is that they actually are careful followers of those laws.

        The idea of Plato’s philosopher king was not that once the king was on the throne, he was free to let his passions run wide and do as he wished. The idea was to have an individual bound more tightly by virtue and discipline than the law bound the common man. Equality under the law is as serious and important a concept as equality of circumstance is a vapid one.

        You might have a point if was argument that the most capable should be immune from the enforcement of laws, but I don’t see that as part of Scott’s thesis.

        • Guy in TN says:

          Objections to economic inequality are not driven by “hate and envy”, anymore than you objecting to a thief is driven by “hate and envy”. Economic inequality affects me. It makes me worse off than I would be otherwise. Objecting to it is not “envy”, anymore than a slave objecting to his master is based off of “envy” of his master’s freedom.

          Whenever I see the “left is driven by envy” this trotted out, the charitable interpretation is a failure of the ideological Turing test. Less charitable being simply no more than a drive-by smear of your ideological opponents.

          • Swami says:

            Guy,

            Could you expand how inequality affects you? I would like to respond, but it might help if I understood your view better first.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Sure. Let’s say there are two loaves of bread:

            If the law is one that enforces economic equality, we each own a loaf, and we both eat it.

            If the law is one that enforces economic inequality, and one person owns both loaves, then the other person is forced (using the threat of initiation of violence) to not eat the any of the bread. In extreme cases, this person might die of starvation.

            The decision to enforce economic inequality, in this case, literally killed someone.

          • Clutzy says:

            But you are assuming the loaves, which is classic question begging.

          • Guy in TN says:

            It would be question begging if Swami had asked “will loaves exist”?

            But he didn’t, so it isn’t.

          • Aapje says:

            @Guy in TN

            I’m confused. Swami didn’t ask about loaves at all. You refused to answer him anyway, since you answered a question asking how you specifically are impacted, by how someone could theoretically be impacted.

            This still leaves it entirely unclear whether you consider yourself entitled to a loaf that you don’t have or whether you are upset at others not having the loaf you think they should have (or both).

            I also agree with Clutzy that your theoretical scenario completely ignores that production of loaves of bread is costly in various ways, where financial compensation is a rather good mechanism to ensure that production happens in the first place.

            Nobody has any loaves is more equal than Bob has two loaves and Jack has one, but is it actually better? Or as we’ve seen under communism, the supposed solution just means that comrade Bob has 1 loaf and Jack has half a loaf, because the solution to inequality can’t actually function, so you still have inequality, but everyone is worse off.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Aapje
            I took Swami’s “you” to mean “a generic person”. Not me, Guy in TN personally. And anyway, it would be easier for Swami to understand how economic inequality affects me in my messy complicated personal life, if he first understands how it affects people in a simplified form.

            This still leaves it entirely unclear whether you consider yourself entitled to a loaf that you don’t have or whether you are upset at others not having the loaf you think they should have (or both).

            For Swami’s narrow descriptive question of “how does inequality effect you”, my moral theory of distributive justice shouldn’t be relevant, but I’ll expand on it since you asked.

            In the case of the starving man, I think he should be entitled to the bread. In the case a person who has ample income, he should not be entitled to it, because we have to maintain an incentive for bread making.

            I also agree with Clutzy that your theoretical scenario completely ignores that production of loaves of bread is costly in various ways, where financial compensation is a rather good mechanism to ensure that production happens in the first place.

            The question of “does this policy increase production” is a different one than “does this policy affect you”. If you want to go the route of “yes, this makes you worse off, but it increases total society-wide production”, then own that argument, and don’t describe objections to such a proposal as “envy”. I mean, slavery could increase total society-wide production, while making individual people worse off.

          • Swami says:

            Thanks, Guy.

            I agree that you are assuming the loaves. In a world where loaves have to be produced (our world), there is no incentive to produce if those who don’t produce get an equal share of anything produced. Indeed, this world is intrinsically unfair because those who produced did an unfair amount of work, effort, investment or delayed gratification.

            Thus, choosing a world where loaves are forced equally is a world with few if any loaves. Thus you would be much worse off to choose that world over our own. You would be harmed if you chose to live in such a world.

            It is still your choice though. I can only warn you to think first before you choose. History hasn’t been kind to those who made this mistake.

          • Guy in TN says:

            I’m also assuming the existence of people— you all could have just as easily dinged me for that, but whatever.

            When crafting a response, I sometimes omit clarifications for brevity and legibility’s sake. Long-time readers will know that I support the creation of the political institution called “property”, and therefore do not support pure economic equality in the strict sense. In my response to Vegapunk, I should have said ‘the degree of economic inequality makes me worse off”, since I am in agreement that perfect economic equality would in fact make me worse off.

            This still works for my bread example: the starving person doesn’t have to receive the entire loaf not to starve. But there is a degree of economic inequality in which he does starve, and thus he is made worse off at that degree.

          • Swami says:

            Seems to me that the degree of inequality is totally irrelevant all else equal. The key has nothing to do with the abstract ratio between those with most and those with least and everything to do with the absolute level of those with the least.

            That shifts the conversation from inequality to poverty. It doesn’t matter how many billions or trillions the top one percent have, as long as there are loaves of bread for those at the bottom. And history has shown that a positive sum environment which optimizes loaf production creates lots of bread for even those at the bottom (who can at the worst get charity from those with more).

            Inequality does not cause harm. Indeed, it generates wealth which is then used to reduce the harm intrinsic in an entropic universe.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Swami

            Seems to me that the degree of inequality is totally irrelevant all else equal. The key has nothing to do with the abstract ratio between those with most and those with least and everything to do with the absolute level of those with the least.

            I feel like this is just a causality game. You know, poverty doesn’t actually kill anyone either, it’s usually starvation. And people don’t normally kill other people, bullets and swords do.

            If you can posit that starvation is related to poverty (and earlier, related to economic equality), then I will posit that poverty is also related to excessive economic inequality.

            Inequality does not cause harm. Indeed, it generates wealth which is then used to reduce the harm intrinsic in an entropic universe.

            I’ve already clarified that the question isn’t one of the existence vs. non-existance of inequality, but the degree of inequality.

            In my bread example, does this excessive inequality not result in the death of someone? You argue that splitting the bread perfectly evenly also would cause death- which I agree (i.e., equivalent to absolute communism.) But you haven’t tackled the question of splitting the breads in some other proportion (i.e., equivalent to taxation and welfare in the social democratic state).

            My argument is that the latter is superior to not splitting the breads at all.

          • Guy in TN says:

            And I’m still conceding too much with this point.

            In a world where loaves have to be produced (our world), there is no incentive to produce if those who don’t produce get an equal share of anything produced[..]Thus, choosing a world where loaves are forced equally is a world with few if any loaves. Thus you would be much worse off to choose that world over our own.

            You are assuming that if the loaves were split evenly, there would be no incentive to produce bread. And thus both people would starve to death.

            But this can’t be true. Not starving to death is one of the primary drives for human behavior. So no one is going to knowingly take an action that results in them starving to death. No one is going to say “oh dang, I gotta share all my bread. Guess I’ll just die instead”. So the idea that people are just going to stop producing loaves, even if they are being split evenly, is just simply biologically wrong.

            Now, of course they are going to produce less loaves than they would otherwise. But human well-being is not measured in the amount of loaves produced, so that’s not really a persuasive counter-argument. Ten pounds of bread split evenly between two people produces more utility than eleven pounds in the hands of one person, and the other one dead.

          • Swami says:

            Thanks for such a clear and interesting argument, Guy.

            The point is that inequality can go up by the wealthy having more loaves, or by the poor having fewer, or some combination of both. In whichever case, the poor are only harmed if they have less. This, can also occur, btw, if inequality goes down and both the wealthy and poor become poorer. Thus, inequality is insufficient to determine if anyone is being harmed.

            The key is poverty, not inequality. What is important is whether those worst off have enough loaves or not. Inequality is a distraction. It is a bad barometer of welfare for the poor.

          • Swami says:

            “…no one is going to knowingly take an action that results in them starving to death.”

            This is not true in a complex world with extensive division of labor and exchange. Everyone stops being exploited by the lazy, and this destroys global supply chains, which no longer supply the food, energy, housing and so on. This leads to downstream causality of less and less and less until the system collapses or someone takes over and forces the serfs to produce.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            And history has shown that a positive sum environment which optimizes loaf production…

            You mean like the heavily regulated “Golden Age of Capitalism”, of course? We certainly haven’t had growth rates like that before or since.

          • peak.singularity says:

            Yeah, sorry, but this statement :

            Inequality is a distraction. It is a bad barometer of welfare for the poor.

            just seems to be “historically false” at this point…

          • Aapje says:

            @Guy in TN

            In the case of the starving man, I think he should be entitled to the bread. In the case a person who has ample income, he should not be entitled to it, because we have to maintain an incentive for bread making.

            But that is a case against (too much) equality: you are arguing to keep people who don’t produce poor enough to incentivize people who can produce, to do so.

            This is the socially-democratic capitalist solution. There is a welfare net, but to get the good stuff, you have to earn it.

            I mean, slavery could increase total society-wide production, while making individual people worse off.

            That is doubtful, because it has the same problem as communism, but to a greater degree. You cannot actually accurately judge talent, without having people apply that talent as best they can. If you provide an incentive to not apply that talent, the talented will just pretend to be untalented.

            But there is a degree of economic inequality in which he does starve, and thus he is made worse off at that degree.

            Yet no Western country is anywhere near this, where people threaten to starve to death because they have no access to the most basic food. In fact, I’m pretty sure that this wouldn’t happen even if you’d end all welfare, as more wealthy people would surely pick up the slack with soup kitchens, as they already do in part, for people with no access to welfare or such.

            If you can posit that starvation is related to poverty (and earlier, related to economic equality), then I will posit that poverty is also related to excessive economic inequality.

            Starvation is objective, but poverty is subjective. As society gets richer, the standard for non-poor goes up, so the relation between starvation and poverty becomes weaker and weaker.

            If you want the standard for non-poor to go up further and increase redistribution or such to raise up the quality of life of the poor, it seems counterproductive to focus on starvation. You are playing into the hands of those who want a minimal safety net by doing so.

            But this can’t be true. Not starving to death is one of the primary drives for human behavior. So no one is going to knowingly take an action that results in them starving to death. No one is going to say “oh dang, I gotta share all my bread. Guess I’ll just die instead”. So the idea that people are just going to stop producing loaves, even if they are being split evenly, is just simply biologically wrong.

            You just incentivized corruption. Why would the baker tell you that he produced 1000 loaves if he can just report 900 loaves, trading the other 100 for goods?

            Even if you somehow stomp out that trade completely*, the baker could still simply eat his own loaves secretly.

            Even if you somehow manage to prevent that, what will happen if the baker produces 1000 loaves where he could produce 2000, while you have 1800 mouths to feed? You are not going to let the baker starve, because then everyone dies. So you’ll give a loaf to the baker anyway.

            Anyway, what Swami said is true anyway. The causal chains are so complex in reality that people will cause severe problems by not producing enough or by otherwise doing a bad/mediocre job, without feeling that guilty about it, because the causal link is unclear and/or because blame can be laid on many. They can also simply rationalize their mediocre performance as the best that is possible.

            The shop/distributor won’t feel that bad about doing a poor job, because they won’t get enough loaves delivered. Because they aren’t incentivized to sacrifice, they won’t do better and they’ll rationalize that choice as inability. They might be right in part anyway, because they probably won’t get the means to do that much better. The drivers won’t feel that bad about high transport losses, because the baker is not producing enough anyway. Because they aren’t incentivized to sacrifice, they won’t do better and they’ll rationalize that choice as inability. They’ll be right in part anyway, because the roads are going to be poor, the trucks often break down, etc. The bakers won’t produce as many loaves as they can, but they’ll have a shortage of flour to blame. Their tools will be shit and can be blamed. The flour mills won’t produce as much as they can, the farmers won’t produce as much as they can, etc.

            It’s death by a thousand cuts.

            * Unlikely, since the police has an incentive to take loaves to look the other way

          • Swami says:

            Singularity,

            Why are you suggesting inequality being a bad barometer is “historically false at this point”.

          • peak.singularity says:

            From Turchin’s work. But I’ve seen that you’ve already been there and are not exactly impressed ? And of course arguing one way or the other would probably require devoting whole careers at this point, hm…

      • peak.singularity says:

        https://www.ecosophia.net/the-end-of-the-dream/

        The fact of the matter is that we’ve had seventy years of increasingly intrusive management by highly educated experts, and the world has gotten worse. Machiavelli pointed out that people will forgive the murder of their parents before they will forgive the confiscation of their family assets, and thus it should have come as no surprise that the flashpoint turned out to be economic. The neoliberal economic policies that were supposed to bring prosperity to all brought impoverishment and immiseration to most, while allowing a privileged few to wallow in kleptocratic absurdities: that was where the match met the fuse and the fuse led straight to the powder magazine.

        […]

        It was probably necessary at some point to explore the possibility that an elite of human beings, equipped with the kind of education and expertise we know how to give them, could do a better job of managing our collective affairs than all of us, using the clumsy but functional methods of representative democracy, can do on our own. (We’ve already tested out the competing claims of charismatic dictatorship and bureaucratic socialist totalitarianism, and the results are in: those produce mass murder and other ghastly human rights abuses on a far greater scale than representative democracy does.) Our seventy-year experiment has proven that a managerial elite with the best educations we can give them can still be catastrophically stupid and cause huge amounts of pointless and unnecessary misery. That’s worth knowing—but at this point the experiment has run its course.

        The loooong American Affairs Journal article linked from there as an example of the “managerial elite” desperately clinging to the current state of affairs has something that I felt was a reference to “Voldemort” as a desperate (?) scare tactic ?

        • Plumber says:

          Thanks for sharing those two links @peak.singularity, they were mighty fine reading!

          • peak.singularity says:

            Thanks, I was a little apprehensive of posting them here, because they are likely to go totally “against the grain”, but where else than in a post saying –

            This resolves my confusion about why people disagree with me on this point. It reinforces a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: if people seem slightly stupid, they’re probably just stupid. But if they seem colossally and inexplicably stupid, you probably differ in some kind of basic assumption so fundamental that you didn’t realize you were assuming it, and should poke at the issue until you figure it out.

            ?

            I’ve learned a bit more about this American Affairs Journal since then :
            https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/298148/the-new-millennial-american-right
            So, it would seem that “the new right” seems to be divided between :
            – The above “American Affairs” : “insiders” (?), return to “traditional Conservative values” (including support of the working class) (?), Marco Rubio…
            – And those that went “full-Donald” : “The American Mind” (commissioned a five-part series of essays from C.Y.), “outsiders” (?), Josh Hawley…
            (No wonder that the first would snipe the second…)

        • B_Epstein says:

          …but this is getting absurd. There are ways in which “brought impoverishment and immiseration to most” is an interesting claim, but in many other ways this is demonstrably false (certainly if considered globally). Just stating it as a fact with not a word of justification is a red flag (pun not intended but left in place).

          I’d also question the obviousness of the belief that elite “meritocrats” have ruled the world with increasing intrusiveness in the last 70 years, as opposed to the rise of democracy, sometimes in its worst forms (mob rule). Probably true in same ways, false in others. Perhaps the original statement describes accurately, say, the Fed, but surely the process by which we select political leaders has become less about merit and more about popularity contests, for better or for worse? And no, this isn’t a new trend illustrated by Trump. Reagan might be a good example (for all that I personally am ambiguous about his presidency).

          An interesting debate could be had about these points, but the author simply asserts whatever they want to be true for the sake of their argument.

          The example the author uses, MSG, fits the same pattern. Good for the author that it’s clear to him that every single study showing MSG is not particularly harmful is written by shills for the industry. I guess it would be too much to ask for evidence?.. FWIW, professionals in the field that I personally trust don’t agree, and are not known to me to be shills. Their opinion is basically “yes, some people react a bit to MSG. Some to milk or cabbage. Not much of a story here.”

          Mighty fine reading?

      • Suppose things are set up in your workplace so that the people who end up doing plumbing are the ones who are good at it, rather than the ones who get licensed because their relatives are on the licensing committee.

        Would you describe that outcome as meritocratic or anti-meritocratic?

        I think it is what most people mean by “meritocratic,” and don’t see why you identify the word with something entirely different.

        One of the points made in The Bell Curve was that America had become increasingly meritocratic over the 20th century (I can’t swear that they used that word, but I think they did), and one result was that status correlated more closely with ability, with the undesirable consequence that those higher up not only believed they were smarter than those below them, they were usually right, which reinforced the belief. The authors contrasted that to a past when the students at state universities were about as smart as the students at Harvard, they just didn’t have as rich parents.

        • Plumber says:

          @DavidFriedman,
          I suppose, but arguably the old pre-I.L.W.U. “shape up” method of hiring was more ‘meritocratic’ than the hiring hall, I still think the post ’34 method is better for human dignity, and things like “local hiring initiatives” and The City and County of San Francisco reserving some entry level jobs for residents of Hunters Point still have my support even if it means not hiring the very “best and the brightest”.

    • Bugmaster says:

      You are (or, at least, should be) absolutely free to hire whomever you want, according to whatever criteria you want. However, so does the guy in the store across the street. If you hire people according to who is the most disabled, and he hires people according to who sells the most groceries, then he’ll run you out of business (all other things being equal).

      This may sound grossly unfair to you, but consider the fact that many people (perhaps yourself included) have the goal “get my groceries as efficiently as possible”. By hiring people who are bad at selling groceries, you are failing to fulfill that goal. In general, a fully meritorcatic system is better at optimizing everyone’s goal satisfaction, as opposed to just yours (I will, however, grant you that a system where you are the God-Emperor is more beneficial to you personally).

      The next obvious objection might be, “ok, so you’re saying that disabled people should just suffer then, you monster” — but that is not so. Disabled people (and those who sympathize with them) do have goals, and that means that people who meritocratically gain positions of power must be at least somewhat good at fulfilling those goals. This means that they have no choice but to allocate some resources (in the form of tax money, donations, volunteer labor, or whatever is most efficient) to helping disabled people — otherwise, these administrators are suboptimal at their jobs, and will be replaced.

      I will grant you that our current system of economics and government is far from perfect at achieving this; however, the choice between “perfection” and “nothing” is surely a false dichotomy.

      • Guy in TN says:

        If you hire people according to who is the most disabled, and he hires people according to who sells the most groceries, then he’ll run you out of business (all other things being equal).

        Walmart has made a conscious effort to hire people with disabilities for decades, and they do not appear to be going out of business. Same with Goodwill. The “all else being equal” part must be assuming things that are, in reality, never equal.

        This may sound grossly unfair to you, but consider the fact that many people (perhaps yourself included) have the goal “get my groceries as efficiently as possible”. By hiring people who are bad at selling groceries, you are failing to fulfill that goal. In general, a fully meritorcatic system is better at optimizing everyone’s goal satisfaction[…]

        Sorry to cut you off here, but what is a “fully meritocratic” system in this context? You seem to be implying that fulfilling my goal of “hiring the disabled” does not qualify a valid goal for merit purposes. So how do you decide which goals of mine are valid to be fulfilled, and which goals of mine I should selflessly surrender in the name of meritocracy?

        “I want to hire someone to bag groceries” ✓
        “I want to hire someone who dresses well” ✓
        “I want to hire someone with a good demeanor” ✓
        “I want to hire someone who is disabled” X

        • Bugmaster says:

          Walmart has made a conscious effort to hire people with disabilities for decades, and they do not appear to be going out of business.

          Is everyone working at Walmart physically disabled, including the people whose job it is to manually move heavy things around all day ?

          what is a “fully meritocratic” system in this context

          A hypothetical idealized system where (in this specific case) every grocery-bagging job is occupied by a person whose primary skill is bagging groceries, and who is maximally capable at this task (as compared to the rest of the population).

          You seem to be implying that fulfilling my goal of “hiring the disabled” does not qualify a valid goal for merit purposes.

          I explicitly stated the exact opposite in my comment, above. You are the one who decides what goals to have; the job of the hypothetical idealized meritocratic system is merely to ensure that as many goals as possible are fulfilled by people who are as good as possible at fulfilling them. If your goal is to help disabled people, then the system will ensure that you’ll have the best doctors, the best engineers, the best social workers, etc. Is that so wrong ?

          (And yes, I do acknowledge that ideal systems don’t exist in reality, but neither do frictionless surfaces or one-dimensional lines, and yet we still use them in engineering, so…)

          • Guy in TN says:

            We must be talking past each other, you have lost me.

            At the start, you say that a “fully meritocratic” system is one where:

            every grocery-bagging job is occupied by a person whose primary skill is bagging groceries

            Which indicates that an employer selecting for non-directly-related-to-grocery-bagging criteria would be non-meritocratic, in your opinion. But then, in the sentence that follows, you chide me for interpreting you as suggesting this, and seem to be contradicting your earlier statement:

            I explicitly stated the exact opposite in my comment, above. You are the one who decides what goals to have; the job of the hypothetical idealized meritocratic system is merely to ensure that as many goals as possible are fulfilled by people who are as good as possible at fulfilling them.

            So, for “meritocracy” purposes, which is it:

            1. Do I get to decide what goals I have, whatever they are, and hire people to fulfill those goals? (rendering the most meritorious person for the position as perhaps not the fastest grocery-bagger)

            2. Do I only get to select for something narrow like “grocery bagging”, and cannot select for other things? (rendering the most meritorious person for the position the fastest grocery-bagger, regardless of any other qualities they have)

      • mtl1882 says:

        You are (or, at least, should be) absolutely free to hire whomever you want, according to whatever criteria you want. However, so does the guy in the store across the street. If you hire people according to who is the most disabled, and he hires people according to who sells the most groceries, then he’ll run you out of business (all other things being equal).

        This may sound grossly unfair to you, but consider the fact that many people (perhaps yourself included) have the goal “get my groceries as efficiently as possible”.

        I think the problem with meritocracy is that it pushes things into a black or white way of seeing things. Well, not exactly meritocracy itself, but our attempts to aspire to it. It’s just really hard to assess these things, especially across domains, and it involves obvious value judgments in most cases.

        One of Guy in TN’s points seemed to be that common sense says that very few grocery baggers are hired for being the absolute fastest/best at the physical act of bagging groceries. They are hired for being reliable, presentable, and pleasant to customers, and they are then expected to learn how to bag well. If they are godawful at bagging, they will then be fired. They have to be good at it. But you’re not optimizing for bagging speed–you’re optimizing for satisfied customers. A maximally fast bagger would probably be off-putting to customers, especially because some people are fussy about how things are bagged and want time to give instructions. And a minority of customers, but an unusually loyal group of them, like to interact with the employees and love nothing more than a chatty, pleasant bagger. The point being that while most people are looking for efficient (or not stressful, perhaps) grocery shopping, that isn’t necessarily achieved by hiring people solely on bagging skill. (As a teen, I bagged groceries for a while, but they did not test my skill in this area ahead of time.) There are several considerations that go into the choice, which vary with circumstances. This isn’t like selecting a relay team, where if you take your eye off the speed factor for a second in selecting members, you’re finished.

        Somehow this became a discussion about “If you hire people according to who is the most disabled, and he hires people according to who sells the most groceries, then he’ll run you out of business (all other things being equal).” I don’t think the argument was hire “the most disabled people” with no regard to the job at hand. Just that it wasn’t absurd on its face to consider hiring someone who had a disability that made them slightly less efficient at bagging. This is especially true if, for example, someone popular in the community has a developmentally delayed teenage son who would like a job, which is probably how a lot of the programs for special needs baggers at Walmart or Stop & Shop started. Most things aren’t otherwise perfectly equal. No one proposes such programs for surgeons or NBA players. But if you need someone to help out at the office, it’s far from insane to select your reasonably competent son, who needs to earn money on his college vacation, rather than someone who can demonstrate a slightly higher competence level in office management. This is an example that most people will likely not dispute, but I’ve seen some really weird things happen in larger organizations because of a failure to understand that you don’t have to be constantly maximizing the hell out of marginal competence in administrative roles (which is often hard to accurately assess and easy to BS) to make a smart decision and stay successful. This is in many ways a signaling issue, but meritocracy tends to drive signaling behavior, probably related to its desire for comparable and legible ways of assessing performance, and some other things. It tends toward sending the message that considering anything else is irrational, or even immoral, and will lead to ruin. Over time, the portrayal tends toward making it seem like organizing files for a family business and being an Olympian operate according to the same dynamic of marginal excellence in optimizing for one goal.

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      b: But if purposefully hiring someone who is bad at bagging groceries over someone who isn’t can still counts as “meritocracy”, what does it even mean to be non-meritocratic? I’m always going to be hiring people who advance my goals. Maybe my goals are “help poor people over rich people”. At the start of the conversation, if I had said “I think we should hire slow-bagging poor people over fast-bagging rich people”, would you really have said “well, no matter what you do, it’s meritocracy?”

      a: As a general guideline, whenever we talk about maximizing a metric without also outlining the constraints – as in: given a set of ranges for parameters X1, X2 … Xn, find the maximum value of Y where Y = f(X1, X2, …, Xn) – our reasoning is fatally flawed.

      It should be obvious that even if you set the constraint “bagger must be a disabled person” it is possible for candidate A to be a better bagger (by pure job-related metrics such as speed, reliability, people skills, etc.) than candidate B – even if both have the exact same disability – for any number of reasons (e.g. candidate B simply doesn’t care much for the job).

      The choice between disabled candidate A and disabled candidate B can absolutely be meritoratic, so I don’t see how this objection stands.

      That said, the choice of constraints is a political decision that absolutely deserves discussion. If you say “I think we should hire slow-bagging poor people over fast-bagging rich people”, I might observe that even poor people want their groceries bagged in an efficient fashion – especially since their time is likely to be more constrained than that of rich people.

      This touches on the issue of meritocracy to the extent of asking to how much worse do we want to make things for everybody (even grocery baggers buy groceries), just to make a minority better off? And how is that different from the proposition that aristocrats deserve to be elite (monetarily too) by reason of good breeding?

      • Guy in TN says:

        This touches on the issue of meritocracy to the extent of asking to how much worse do we want to make things for everybody (even grocery baggers buy groceries), just to make a minority better off? And how is that different from the proposition that aristocrats deserve to be elite (monetarily too) by reason of good breeding?

        I mean, someone is going to reap the rewards of capital ownership, right? You don’t have to jump to the logic of “aristocratic good breeding” to conclude that the store manager should be made “better off” by the store than an equal citizen who doesn’t manage a store. Giving the store manager a greater reward than a non-store owner is an incentive for people to be a store manager.

        (I’m surprised it’s me who is having to make this point!)

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          But there is nothing magical about “capital”, all it is is having a surplus after consumption.

          It is not immediately evident that a store manager is better off than someone who does not manage a store (what does that hypothetical person do for a living?), nor is it the case that you need to be a special kind of person to be a store manager – it’s a job that people recruit for, like any other.

          It’s not even the case that you must be part of a select group to become a store owner. In my nine-to-five I deal mostly with small businesses, started by people saving and investing. These “capital owners” have much less in common with one another as a class than they do with non-class members who are part of their social circle.

          The point you’ve missed is that disability – much like aristocratic breeding – is a matter of circumstance, rather than choice. You can choose to become a store manager, you can choose to become a business owner. You can’t choose to become an aristocrat and whilst you could technically choose to become disabled, you won’t subsequently be able to choose not to be disabled, so please don’t do that.

          When we say “aristocrats deserve to be elite”, we’re saying that certain people are entitled to something based on pure circumstance – and that this should be at the expense of everyone else, you can’t be elite without relegating everyone else to inferior levels.

          When we say “disabled people should be given jobs even though we have other candidates that would do the job better”, we’re also saying that certain people are entitled to something based on pure circumstance – and that this should be at the expense of everyone else (both the candidates who were passed over in favour of the disabled person, and the customers who must deal with inferior service*).

          Do you see the symmetry now?

          * If the disabled person offers superior service, then recruiting them is clearly the meritocratic choice.

          • Guy in TN says:

            When we say “disabled people should be given jobs even though we have other candidates that would do the job better”, we’re also saying that certain people are entitled to something based on pure circumstance – and that this should be at the expense of everyone else

            Okay, I think I understand what you are getting at here. That “disability” is a thing people often acquire by circumstance, and that by rewarding it, it is no different from rewarding aristocrats for being born in the upper tiers of society.

            But…what is the alternative? Isn’t ability also a trait that people largely acquire by circumstance? Intelligence has a genetic component, as does height, strength, speed, ect…isn’t this just “aristocracy” all the way down?

            It would be very unreasonable to expect employers to solve the innate/learned biological dichotomy, and only reward people for traits they have “earned”.

          • Faza (TCM) says:

            The alternative is to play the hand you were given to maximum effect.

            If someone is very tall, that’s as much a matter of circumstance as anything. We want that guy working where one needs to reach high places, not the guy who’s five-foot tall in his heels and hat.

            What about someone like the late Stephen Hawking? I think that by any stretch of the imagination it must absolutely suck to have his circumstances. Nevertheless, he’s probably done more for humanity than any of us ever will.

            Lou Gherig’s disease didn’t stop Hawking, but it does not follow that we should push for all Lou Gherig’s disease sufferers to become theoretical physicists, nor even that we should evaluate them more favourably as theoretical physicists than anyone else.

            Rather, we should be looking at what someone can do, at least as well as the next guy, and ensure they have the opportunity to do that.

            It is really pretty simple: everyone benefits if we maximize the social value contributed by everyone. Yes, this means some people’s contributions will be more valuable than others and we want to reward them sufficiently well that they will want to continue contributing.

            What we want to avoid is rewards in excess of contribution, because that makes us all worse off. That goes for both the elites and the downtrodden masses. There’s a reason why Marx considered the lumpenproletariat a reactionary class.

            (Aside: For someone avowedly anti-Marxist, I do reference him a lot. Hmm.)

            How do we maximize contributions? By getting people doing what they’re best at and having the right person for the job. We don’t always get it right, but that’s what we should be aspiring to.

    • Jiro says:

      But if purposefully hiring someone who is bad at bagging groceries over someone who isn’t can still counts as “meritocracy”, what does it even mean to be non-meritocratic?

      Because meritocracy applies to you too. If you hire someone who’s bad at bagging groceries, customers will hate your store. You yourself will have lost in the also merit driven competition of creating value for customers.

      Suppose that instead of preferring disabled baggers, you preferred baggers who acted as your personal servants 40% of the time and bagged groceries 60% of the time. This would have exactly the same effect as preferring disabled baggers, except we’d all understand why your grocery store deserves to fail.

      • Guy in TN says:

        @Jiro

        Suppose that instead of preferring disabled baggers, you preferred baggers who acted as your personal servants 40% of the time and bagged groceries 60% of the time. This would have exactly the same effect as preferring disabled baggers, except we’d all understand why your grocery store deserves to fail.

        I’ve pointed out to others that actually-existing stores such as Walmart and Goodwill do make a point to hire disabled people, and they are not failing.

        So the usage of the word “deserve” in “deserve to fail” here is telling. Is it your position that such stores ought to, in a moral sense, place maximizing profits over helping disabled people? And that customers should choose to punish stores that don’t? And our failure to do so as a society, is our failure to be “meritocratic”?

        • Jiro says:

          I’ve pointed out to others that actually-existing stores such as Walmart and Goodwill do make a point to hire disabled people, and they are not failing.

          Such things work like donations to charity. Companies don’t fail because they donate to charity, because the donation buys status or pays off blackmailers, which benefits the company.

          Furthermore, even if doing something is a net loss to a company, it doesn’t directly cause the company to fail–rather, it causes the company to be a little less competitive on a statistical level which results, in the long run, being slightly more prone to failure. The company may still succeed; it’s just a little less likely to succeed.

          So the usage of the word “deserve” in “deserve to fail” here is telling. Is it your position that such stores ought to, in a moral sense, place maximizing profits over helping disabled people?

          My position isn’t “ought to in a moral sense”, it’s “no reason not to, in a moral sense”. We already are unconcerned when stores that hire less performing people go under–for some categories of less performing people.

          • Guy in TN says:

            If deliberately hiring disabled people can still be categorized as “meritocratic” under the rationale that the store must be “buying status”, in what way could an employer ever be said to be acting non-meritocratically? I feel like we are approaching the real of non-falsifiability here.

          • Jiro says:

            What would be non-meritocratic would be hiring someone despite being less able to bring money to the company. Public relations is still a form of bringing money to the company; hiring disabled baggers is like buying newspaper ads.

            It’s also possible for the employer to just be mistaken about merit, such as if the disabled baggers don’t improve the company’s image but the employer thinks they do.

            If the employer hired people who only bagged groceries 60% of the time because the remainder of the time they acted as his personal servants, I’d call that non-meritocratic. Even hiring the disabled because he personally likes the disabled is non-meritocratiic, and is equivalent to skimming money out of the cash register to donate to the disabled. When I said that hiring the disabled brings financial benefits to the company I was specifically addressing why Wal-Mart does it; this company might not be doing it for that reason.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Jiro
            Like I get it, that if an employer chooses to hire the disabled person over the non-disabled, the value the disabled person adds for the employer must necessarily be greater than the value the non-disabled person adds. And therefore the disabled person could be said to be the most “meritorious” in this scenario. This is logical.

            But this also renders the concept of “meritocracy”, as in, “employers should hire people with the most merit” as a meaningless statement. It’s no longer possible for them to do otherwise. Humans are always going to be trying to maximize their value- they don’t need reminding of this. If an employer appears to not be maximizing the value of his company, it’s probably because he is instead maximizing his personal value.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Sorry for the double post- I didn’t read your response before I sent that out.

            If the employer hired people who only bagged groceries 60% of the time because the remainder of the time they acted as his personal servants, I’d call that non-meritocratic.

            Why would you describe an employer hiring someone to maximize the benefit of himself as non-meritocratic? Is that not just as much of a “job” as working for his company?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Even hiring the disabled because he personally likes the disabled is non-meritocratiic, and is equivalent to skimming money out of the cash register to donate to the disabled

            Where else is the store manager going to get the money to donate to the disabled, if not from the profits of his company?

            You seem to be implying that meritocracy necessarily omits the possibility of even private charity. Am I reading you correctly here?

          • Clutzy says:

            I think the case of a disabled bagger/old person greeter is also one where difference between “best bagger” and “fairly competent disabled person” is not all that great. And its probably better to put Mr. Best bagger at a more important position, for instance at WalMart, in logistics. Also. besides the PR win, disabled people have advantages for employers compared to the marginal teenage HS dropout, they don’t run their own lives often, and don’t go to parties, so its pretty likely that your bagger is going to show up. The grocery store by me has a workforce problem because of this issue. Its only consistent employees are old black ladies.

          • Jiro says:

            But this also renders the concept of “meritocracy”, as in, “employers should hire people with the most merit” as a meaningless statement.

            No, it doesn’t. Hiring the disabled person may be more in accord with the employer’s preferences without also making more money for the company.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Jiro
            In the case of an employer who owns the store, you can’t really parse out actions that “create economic value for the store” vs. “create economic value for the owner”, since the reason the store even exists is to create economic value for the owner.

            Like, this reasoning would imply that it would also be non-meritocratic for the store owner to use his profits from the store to go on vacation. By spending money that the store generated on a vacation, he is failing to maximize the value of the store, and instead maximizing his personal value. This seems silly.

            If hiring a disabled person is what the employer prefers, then it necessarily creates more economic value for him under the standard classical economic framework. Even if that economic value doesn’t manifest itself in the form of money, and even if it decreases the value of the store.

          • Jiro says:

            Like, this reasoning would imply that it would also be non-meritocratic for the store owner to use his profits from the store to go on vacation.

            Of course merit depends on what things you’re trying to measure. So an employer who is very good at taking vacations has more “merit” (in the area of taking vacations) than one who is bad at it. He’s better at achieving some specific goal (in this case, his own goal). Likewise, a murderer who is better at murder than someone else has more “merit” when it comes to ability to do the job of murdering.

            But the useful merit to measure in this context is whether something is good at making profits for the store. The store is going to stay alive and compete based on how it does in the market, not on how well it does at providing vacations. The owner cares about that, but nobody else does, while the store’s suppliers care about the store’s ability to buy goods and the store’s customers about the ability to sell them.

  30. Phil H says:

    This comment would have been better left under the original meritocracy post, but here goes:

    Even if meritocracy works on the model that Scott was originally thinking about, I still don’t think it works, for two reasons. One is that the merit is too underspecified.

    Say a group of people have the necessary skills for their job, and those skills have been measured as competence level C, so that they are placed in the appropriate level: surgeon level 4 perhaps a surgical resident), programmer level 2, manager level 1 (CEO of big company?). The idea that within those levels, there is significant variation in quality means that each person actually has a competence level of C+X, where X is some x-factor that makes some better and some worse. The problem is that X will be composed of some job-specific skills c and some general skills g. If they are general skills, is there any reason to prefer this practitioner in a professional context? Conversely, if they are specialist skills, is there any reason to think this practitioner should have more power? Whatever this x-factor is, there is no reason to believe that it does the thing that meritocracy theory wants it to do.

    The second issue is to do with power, because meritocracy is explicitly about power. When Scott characterises it as how you choose your surgeon, he is simply incorrect in how it works. If there is a best surgeon, meritocracy doesn’t say he should get the most patients. Meritocracy says he should get the most *power*. Meritocracy stands in direct conflict with democracy. And I would argue that the most successful areas of our society are precisely those areas in which power has been effectively delinked from any kind of technical merit. Engineering, science, medicine… these are all areas where brilliant people can, when they choose, continue to be brilliant at their subject through their whole career, and not be shoved into a role of power, Peter Principle-stylee.

    So, I’m far from convinced that meritocracy makes much sense even on its own terms, even on Scott’s “mistake theory” reading. And that’s entirely on the theoretical level, before we even get into the practical problems that necessarily arise around any meritocratic system.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Regarding your first objection (C+X), it seems to more related to the implementation of meritocracy, as opposed to the concept itself. Yes, if we commit to manually placing everyone at the appropriate level based on a single evaluation, we are bound to make mistakes. However, traditionally, meritocracy is implemented using a stochastic process that continuously sorts and re-evaluates applicants. For example, a programmer might start as a junior intern. If he does a good job, he might get promoted to full-time, then to senior, then to tech lead, etc. He might also choose to quit and become a musician, instead, if he has a better aptitude for it — and as he leaves, someone about equally qualified will take his place. Obviously this process isn’t perfect, but it’s better than a one-time permanent assignment.

      As for your second objection, I’m not sure what you mean by “power”. The best surgeon in the world doesn’t get the most political power; he just gets more money, and perhaps more say in which patients he gets to treat.

      • Phil H says:

        Yep, that’s the problem with meritocracy – that the “power” part of it is unspecified. If the best surgeon in the world gets money but no power, then that is not a meritocratic system. It’s just a system that rewards good work.

        What kind of power a meritocratic system might give is open to question. One of the most common ways of doing it is saying, only people with top exam scores (high merit) get to work in government (high power). But money can also give power; and sometimes institutional seniority gives power. Bringing those kinds of power into a meritocratic system is a whole other challenge.

      • Charlie Lima says:

        Why exactly are we assuming that C is a constant? Obviously we believe that education (e.g. literacy and numeracy) increases the value of C to some degree. So too does physical exercise (e.g. being able stand for a long time with arms holding weights against leverage is exceedingly helpful for surgery).

        Is everything that increases C good? I would say no. Expressions of out-group ostracism in the bad old days of Dixie made car salesmen more effective at relating to racist customers and selling cars. Joining the Klan, for many business men was seen as increasing C. Likewise, “loan officers” for the mob are somehow far more competent at getting money back from debtors than traditional banks. Meritocracy that looks only at C as measured against some task will encourage a lot of destructive behavior at the margin.

        Is everything that increases C cost effective? I would also say no. It is better for hair dressers to be bilingual as they can serve more customers more easily; C goes up when you take time off to learn Spanish. But C also goes up when you take time off to learn French. And German. And Chinese. At each step, C is increasing, but but ever more marginal amounts. At some point we want people to stop increasing their C for doing some job and actually do the job.

        Or consider the monetary cost. Suppose the best place to learn law is at Yale. A budding lawyer would then increase her C by more if she attends Yale than UCLA. How much? After all flights from LAX to JFK are not exactly cheap, oh and of course there is the $30,000 per year difference in tuition. How much should our pre-law invest to increase her legal C by what might be a very small amount?

        At some point the value-above-replacement drops below the cost-of-raising-C. Absent some non-meritocratic limiting factor we can very easily get caught in Red Queen scenarios that do little but marginally increase C at the expense of actually performing useful work.

        • Phil H says:

          In my reply, C was meant to be the amount of competence required to do a particular job. For example, the amount of competence required to be a lawyer is precisely the ability to pass the bar exam. No more, no less. That is relatively constant.

          In my model, the actual level of competence any given worker would be C+X. The C has been tested by their employer at the time they entered the profession (perhaps in a formal exam, or perhaps through an interview, or a minimum level of experience). The X is the surplus competence that they bring to the job.

          Your point about Dixie car salesman is the same as mine – that salesman’s X is a pretty negative thing.

  31. dogday says:

    The thing is ‘you lot’ think it’s this or that when it’s more than likely this and that.

  32. kpauldueck says:

    I think this is only like one half of the objection to meritocracy.

    The other half comes from three other ideas.
    1) That the variation that we are choosing from when we are ordering the meritocracy doesn’t meaningfully affect our goals. Like we could prioritize picking tall people if the goal is to reach the moon, under the idea that such people are closer, but this wouldn’t make us meaningfully closer to one-upping Neil Armstrong.
    2) Actual meritocracies might suffer from key under street light syndrome, where people are ranked and chosen based on legible merit distinctions of limited application to actual goals. Worse if meritocracy becomes the justifying assumption of such organizations, they face inherent incentives to obfuscate their actual suitability to the goal in question in favor of their chosen metric.
    3) That the perhaps inapplicable talents from 2 and the perhaps intractable goals from 1 might intermix into a destructive hubris.

    None of these are objections to the perfect meritocracy in theory. Of course the guardians ought to rule, but how are we to produce such people? Most of our post-Plato political advances have come from creating better methods for ruling ourselves in spite of our lack of good people, the actual holy grail of just making good and great people remains elusive. I think the point of objecting to the meritocracy is to insist on that fundamental political humility.

  33. Philo says:

    Meritocracy sounds good only in the presence of an assumption about motivation. If the people in positions of power/authority are motivated to use their power/authority for The Good, then, yes, we want the most competent (“meritorious”) people in those positions. But if not—if their motivation is towards neutral ends or even towards The Bad–then there is no reason to prefer competence, no reason to endorse meritocracy. Motivation is more important than competence.

    (I apologize if this comment is redundant: I haven’t read the preceding 229 comments!)

    • The original Mr. X says:

      I agree with this. A highly competent but ruthlessly self-interested person is likely to be a worse leader than a virtuous person of middling competence. And the way modern institutions are set up, ruthlessly self-interested individuals are precisely the sort of people who tend to rise to the top.

  34. gallowstree says:

    The conflict vs. mistakes model probably does account for some of the strident disagreement. It doesn’t really capture my objection, which is basically that the effect size of distortions from our meritocracy heuristics (standardized testing, credentialing, licensing, etc.) are much bigger than the effect size of true ‘innate merit’ variations when it comes to the allocation of occupations and social/financial capital.

    A reasonable response is to try to design better heuristics, but heuristics will inevitably degrade over time due to metric targeting, capture by winners/elites, etc. The only real benefit of the meritocracy system seems to be the degree of cultural buy-in, whereas a system that truly embraced the arbitrariness of life (weighted random admissions to college/trade schools, etc.) would seem to lack legitimacy.

    • The Nybbler says:

      It doesn’t really capture my objection, which is basically that the effect size of distortions from our meritocracy heuristics (standardized testing, credentialing, licensing, etc.) are much bigger than the effect size of true ‘innate merit’ variations when it comes to the allocation of occupations and social/financial capital.

      If this were true, there would be enormous numbers of people working in retail or something who would actually be really good at law or computer programming or surgery or the like. At least in computer programming, many attempts have been made to find such people… and while they find some, they never find many.

      To say that the effect size of the distortion is greater than the ‘innate merit’ variations is to say that the system we have is little better than chance, and I don’t think the world we live in matches that world.

  35. back40 says:

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=8600

    Our elites behave as though they are heavily infiltrated by beings hostile to the interests of ordinary humans. They hide behind a mask of humanity but they have alien minds. They are predators and exploiters, cunning at hiding their nature – but sometimes the mask slips.

    Nothing about this is in any way wrong, once you realize that “lizard” is code for “sociopath”. Sociopaths do, differentially, seek power over others, and are rather good at getting it. The few studies that have dared to look have found they are concentrated in political and business elites where drive and ruthlessness are rewarded.

    “Lizard” is actually a rather clever code, if you happen to know your evolutionary neuroanatomy. Oversimplifying a little, humans have an exceptionally elaborate neocortex wrapped around a monkey brain wrapped around a lizard brain. The neocortex does what we are pleased to consider higher cognitive functions, the monkey brain does emotions and social behavior, and the lizard brain does territoriality/aggression/dominance.

    What is wrong with sociopaths (and psychopaths – these categories are not clearly distinguished) is not entirely clear, but it is certain that their ability to experience emotions is damaged.

  36. Freddie deBoer says:

    Perhaps Scott, the commenters, and the “rationalist” community writ large will someday reflect on the fact that they all respond to questions of meritocracy from the assumption that that are among those with merit. Would be much, much more fruitful than the discussions happening above.

    • Null42 says:

      That’s every movement, though. The leftist woke intellectuals think they’ll guide the revolution, their enablers think they’re woke not like those nasty Trump voters, libertarians imagine they’ll be rich someday, Trumpists think they’re the real Americans, fascists think they’re the master race…

      I just chucked the whole thing and vote for whoever I think is good for me now. 😉

    • Plumber says:

      @Freddie deBoer says:

      “Perhaps Scott, the commenters, and the “rationalist” community writ large will someday reflect on the fact that they all respond to questions of meritocracy from the assumption that that are among those with merit…”

      To me @Scott Alexander while he has some very interesting ideas (that I appreciate him sharing) also has some (what look like to me) obvious blind spots that I ascribe to his social class and (especially) his youth, as for “rationalists”, unlike our host’s works, I just don’t have the patience to read much of the work of Eliezer Yudkowsky (too opaque in meaning for me without being poetic enough to enjoy as verbal music) so I hardly know what “rationalism” means, but yes this commenter thinks he has some merit by virtue of being a human being, and the exacting of I.Q. over all other virtues annoys me.

      • and the exacting of I.Q. over all other virtues annoys me.

        I don’t think I know anyone who exacts I.Q. over all other virtues. Do you? I expect both Hitler and Stalin had pretty high I.Q.’s.

        I do think that IQ is at least an approximate measure of intelligence. Intelligence isn’t a virtue in the moral sense, but it’s a virtue in the sense of a characteristic that it is useful to have. Certainly not the only such characteristic.

        • peak.singularity says:

          Aww, come on !
          Maybe not directly being about virtues, but we’re so proud of our intelligence !
          I would probably give my left arm to avoid losing of IQ points.
          And I’m fairly sure that would be a much harder bargain for someone “outside” the “rationalist community” ?

      • Purplehermann says:

        @Plumber is there any virtue that is more important and as hard to change as IQ?

  37. alchemy29 says:

    I think anti-meritocracy is a valid position and it’s not because I care about “my tribe” and not “their tribe” (actually I benefit a lot from meritocracy). I think meritocracy taken too far might make society worse.

    Here is one argument – meritocracy results in people with a lot of intellectual capital moving to cities where they can maximize their earnings (New York, San Fransisco) and it results on brain drain in rural communities, poor communities etc. And it damages poor communities more than it helps big cities and big companies, because a lot of intellectual capital is spent on zero sum games (particularly in the financial and legal sectors).

    The US didn’t used to be meritocratic. People general stayed put, smart people built or improved local businesses and yes there was a bias towards hiring people who have connections to the area, family friends, old acquaintances. There are exceptional individuals whose intellectual capital would be wasted by staying in a small town – Einstein, Terry Tao. But that is not the majority.

    Here’s a second argument. Suppose a company or school can take someone with an intellectual capital value of “10”. With training they can turn them into an 11. But instead they could take someone with a value of “5” and turn them into a 9. A company’s best interest is to hire the first person, but society clearly wants the second scenario to happen.

    Here’s a third argument. It may be better to take the “5” because in long term they will benefit the company or society more than the 10 would have. For example, it’s likely that black doctors have improved the care of patients with sickle cell disease because they are more likely to know people with it, live in communities affected by it, and finally practice in communities that have higher prevalence of it. I realize this topic makes a lot of people upset, I fully expect any replies to this comment to only address this point, but I’m leaving it in against better judgement. I think my first two points are more important.

    There is an obvious free market argument argument for meritocracy – efficient allocation of labor. But it doesn’t account for externalities. Which one is more important? I don’t know.

    • Clutzy says:

      The problem with your scenario, is there is no company, school, etc out there that can consistently turn 5s into 9s.

  38. Null42 says:

    So who thinks the reaction against meritocracy (stopping using test scores, etc.) comes just as the last generation of meritocrats got into power and now wants to let their reverting-to-the-mean kids take the slots at Harvard? Anyone?

    • mtl1882 says:

      The problem is that meritocrats are usually unable to acknowledge the actual problem, so the reaction against meritocracy itself does not come from there. But there is definitely a big reaction coming from these parents. However, they usually base their argument on the fact that test scores aren’t good measures of merit, or somehow evade the issue. Many of their kids test very well, but even that only gets you so far—Harvard just doesn’t have enough spots to accommodate them all, and that’s the real sensitive subject. They just can’t break the framework , because their own self-worth is wrapped up in it. The truly “smart” ones already know merit is not synonymous with an Ivy League degree, and aren’t as insecure in their own status, so while they’d like their kid to go to their alma mater, they are a lot less hysterical about the whole thing. The people who truly argue against meritocracy in college admissions, instead of complaining about the effects of unhealthy/unrealistic competition or trying to redefine merit, usually are interested in the history of education.

  39. Walter says:

    I think it’s that you are a progressive and so are your critics, and I think this may be a ‘water is invisible to fish’ sort of situation.

    The left’s basic prob with meritocracy is that for that to exist there would have to be merit. But merit is just privilege. You think that you get to be a doc because you have credentials and studied hard. But if we were switched in the womb and I had your genes and your upbringing I’d be you, and I’d be the doc. What’s being rewarded isn’t anything intrinsic to you or me, but the circumstances that led us to this place. There’s no ‘merit’ to our difference, you just had the privilege of existing in a way that led to flourishing. Piling another reward on someone the world has already given so much to is grotesque.

    This is a lot more bald faced than the usual framing, but that’s the animating spirit. Letting people vote for being born on the right side of an imaginary line is evil. Imprisoning people for growing up in a culture that doesn’t encourage law abiding, same. Electoral college. Body Shaming stuff, there it is again. Measuring things is and will always be invalid.

    If you read progressive critics one thing you’ll very rarely see is a straightforward assertion of quality. “This book is very good, better than other books”, sort of deal. Instead the focus is on hardship overcome, on barriers broken and wokeness points. If you haven’t checked out the bruha over America Dirt, it’s representative. The book doesn’t change, but it is first transcendental and then odious, as the opinion over the author’s degree of privilege shifts.

    This isn’t super surprising, in the ‘incentives are the channels cut into the ground before the rain comes’ kind of way. There are far more losers than winners for any given meritocratic concept. Ergo, it is adaptive for a party or tribe to cater to those who’ve lost out. One easy product to offer them (and heck, the winners too! People are kind when it doesn’t cost them) is the idea that they didn’t deserve their defeat.

    Like, I’m not saying you are wrong about the conflict theory/mistake theory thing. You get a hefty dose of ‘the judges are biased’, ‘the cops hate this or that group’ in the mix as well, sure. But I believe that if your project is to get progressives on board with meritocracy your real enemy is the privilege argument, and you won’t find a way around that in that community, because it is the mortar, the spine.

    • Purplehermann says:

      Pretty sure you missed the point: scott’s meritocracy isn’t about who deserves what jobs/power/etc. It’s about who would fo the job best. It’s really nice that the guy with an iq of 80 and shaky hands managed to get into med school, but he’s not who i want operating on me. Not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because he’s just probably not great at it.

      Just World Fallacy?

  40. hnau says:

    Rounding this down to mistake vs conflict theory seems wrong.

    I don’t have to be a conflict theorist to find this framing of government’s purpose and design laughable:

    The government exists to figure out how to solve problems. Good government officials are the ones who can figure out solutions and implement them effectively.

    And I can assert that the “meritocratic” approach is fragile, dangerous, and deceptive– sensitive to small errors and vulnerable to adversarial co-opting– without thinking that the purpose of government is to serve “my class interests”. Maybe I consider safety (in the same sense as “AI safety”) to be more important than efficiency in a government. Maybe I don’t trust the kind of mindset that meritocracy (and rationalism!) encourages and would rather be governed by someone more like Nassim Taleb’s “Fat Tony” character.

    Scott, the idea/post you were missing wasn’t conflict vs. mistake theory. It was Seeing Like a State.

  41. Baeraad says:

    Yes, it is partly that, but there is also the fact that some of us genuinely do not share your belief that we live in a world with wide gulfs between Dumb People (TM) and Smart People (TM). The overwhelming majority of people, in point of fact, seem to us to be clustered around the mediocrity line.

    So sure, if you can genuinely find an overachiever – as opposed to someone who just comes across as an overachiever because he runs around shouting a lot – then by all means promote him. And if you can genuinely find a dumbass – as opposed to someone you’ve decided is a dumbass because you don’t like him so now everything he says sounds obviously wrong to you – then by all means fire him. But 90% of the time, you’re dealing with people who are functionally identical in terms of performance, so if you have gotten it into your head that we live in a meritocracy where the objectively superior people get rewarded over the objectively inferior people, you’re going to end up deciding who to promote and who to fire based on irrelevant statistical blips at best, based on personal bias at worst.

    So you’re right that it’s a matter of differing premises, but at least in my case, you’re still not reaching far enough outside of yours to fully understand where I’m coming from.

    • J Mann says:

      Another feature of a meritocracy is that if you reward performance, you encourage performance.

      If you have a pool of runners who basically identical but are running for a paycheck, and you give the biggest check to the fastest person, then almost everybody who chooses to run at all will probably run faster than if you give everybody the same amount.

  42. kaathewise says:

    This post is perfect in the ratio of its volume to one of the comment section.

    It must be among the most efficient in inciting discussion.

  43. Akhorahil says:

    I’m sure Lex Luthor was highly qualified to be president of the United States.

    It’s just that he’s evil, so it’s still a bad idea.

    • Murphy says:

      I kinda liked the Lex in The Metropolitan Man. He’s still somewhat evil… but there’s a *reason* he’s trying to figure out a way to kill superman.

      So there’s some talk about the idea that if Superman has a mind similar to a human, even if he is perfectly good… what are the odds of him simply having a psychotic break one day.

      the result of which would probably be casualties that would dwarf the Great War by a large margin. If Superman was telling the truth about the culture that he came from, his society wasn’t much further advanced than humanity, and so likely hadn’t grown past degenerative diseases and hereditary defects. Even if Superman were perfectly good in some abstract sense, the onset of a mental disease might be just around the corner.

      Worse, if Superman’s powers weren’t the result of engineering and carefully controlled science (a hard pill to swallow) then no one had made sure that they were safe, and perhaps some day something internal to him would simply unravel, unleashing enough energy to destroy an entire hemisphere. If Superman was to be believed, his powers had come from seemingly nowhere, and yet everyone simply trusted them as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

      Estimates were difficult to make, given Superman’s silence. His second interview with Lois Lane had provided little illumination. Nevertheless, numbers could be pulled from thin air in order to get a sense of things. There was the possibility that something would happen that was completely outside of Superman’s control which would result in Superman destroying the Earth. There was the possibility that Superman could simply have a bad day and decide to kill a large number of people, which many people seemed to think was absurd. There were also failure modes which didn’t involve the destruction of humanity but would nevertheless result in an effective end to humanity as Lex Luthor knew it, the most probable of which seemed to be that Superman would turn into a tyrant. When these probabilities were multiplied together, the final very rough estimate was that Superman had a one in ten chance of bringing about a global scale human catastrophe of some kind in the next thirty years. Even if the odds had been one in a hundred, Lex would have taken a similarly extreme course of action.

      Similarly, in superman Red Son Lex isn’t *good* but still wins and leads humanity to an unprecedented age of peace and stability. Not because he’s good but because he can and his ego demands it.

      • Jiro says:

        There was the possibility that something would happen that was completely outside of Superman’s control which would result in Superman destroying the Earth.

        I would think that even Lex Luthor, as biased as he is, is smart enough not to fall for Pascal’s Mugging.

        • moonfirestorm says:

          I would think that even Lex Luthor, as biased as he is, is smart enough not to fall for Pascal’s Mugging.

          What’s the incidence of schizophrenia in the general population?

          Quick search says ~1%, which puts you orders of magnitude above Pascal’s Mugging territory with just that, and you could probably stack up a whole bunch of other potential dangers.

          Maybe the response to that is that you have no idea of knowing what Kryptonian susceptibility to schizophrenia is, but I’m not sure starting with the human baseline is that crazy an idea, given how similar to human Superman is in many observable ways.

          • Jiro says:

            Quick search says ~1%, which puts you orders of magnitude above Pascal’s Mugging territory

            That’s the percentage who have it, which isn’t the same thing. You’d need to figure out what percentage of people 1) seem perfectly normal for some time despite extended contact with the public, 2) develop it (or successfully concealed it), and 3) cannot be recognized as developing it until it’s too late. It’s like objecting to the existence of corporate executives, or the president, or to Luthor’s own scientists, or to Luthor himself on the grounds that one of them could go insane and threaten a lot of people.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Ah, good point. And I don’t remember the exact Superman timeline, but I think he’s past adolescence before he emerges as a hero, so he should be past most of the danger points for developing it.

            Is dementia a more plausible risk, maybe? I don’t think you can diagnose it 30 years ahead. Although I really want to read the comic where senile Superman is the major threat the world faces.

          • Jiro says:

            Is dementia a more plausible risk, maybe?

            That’s subject to the same objections:

            1) You really are concerned with the risk of uncaught dementia.

            2) I could just as well ask “what if Luthor gets dementia?” Luthor is a scientific genius who no doubt has many things that could cause catastrophes, but Luthor doesn’t kill himself based on this.

          • Erl137 says:

            I could just as well ask “what if Luthor gets dementia?”

            I don’t think this is quite right.

            Suppose Lex Luthor gets dementia. Down in his plague basement is a vial of hypersmallpox, that would kill one out of every three humans. Dementia!Lex wanders over to his super-secret basement elevator. He inputs the key code for his Los Angeles apartment instead. The elevator doesn’t unlock. In a fit of irrational rage, he punches the door, then forgets about the whole thing and wanders off to make lunch.

            Suppose Superman gets dementia. Dementia!Supes thinks he’s meeting Lois Lane for lunch in Metropolis. Unfortunately, he’s in Tokyo, giving a talk. He “takes off” straight down, crashing through the Earth’s core, setting off massive volcanoes in both cities. Then he forgets the whole thing, and wanders off to Smallville to make lunch.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            1) You really are concerned with the risk of uncaught dementia.

            I don’t think that’s quite right: schizophrenia is a lot more treatable than dementia, and my retraction was part that and part that the rate for Superman specifically to develop schizophrenia is much lower because he’s past a lot of the danger ranges.

            2) I could just as well ask “what if Luthor gets dementia?” Luthor is a scientific genius who no doubt has many things that could cause catastrophes, but Luthor doesn’t kill himself based on this.

            I think the “uncaught” applies quite well to Luthor, but not necessarily Superman.

            If Luthor or the people around him see dementia coming on, they’ll try to treat it, but there’s a good chance they’ll just slow its progress. By that time he’s going to be removed from positions of power, likely with his own consent. By the time he’s totally lost connection with reality, he’s not in a position to do anything dangerous, because all of his power was external, it can be removed from him (with his consent) inside of a day, and with it removed he’s not capable of doing dangerous things. Maybe he turns the toaster into a ray gun or something, but the thing that gives him the power to do that is also the thing that’s degenerating, so odds are he’ll get halfway through it and forget what comes next.

            If Superman or the people around him start seeing dementia coming on, they’ll try to treat it, but there’s a good chance that they’ll just slow its progress. At this point he’ll probably consent to being removed from power, but all of Superman’s power is internal: you can’t just change the access codes and put him under care, he can smash through the walls whenever he feels like it. Without something like Kryptonite you can’t remove his ability to destroy a city because he thought it was Brainiac. Even with it you probably shouldn’t be confident that you can keep him under control, given how often he overcomes Kryptonite in one way or another.

            As soon as you detect Superman’s dementia you’re racing the clock for a way to keep him under control, with no guarantee that you’ll have a workable solution by the time you need it. Luthor’s argument is that instead of starting when you detect it, you should start working on the solution right away.

          • Jiro says:

            I can easily think of scenarios where Luthor’s dementia results in him releasing the hypersmallpox rather than forgetting how to get to it.

      • J Mann says:

        It’s perfectly rational to try to find out a way to kill Superman. If nothing else, the existence of one friendly Kryptonian implies the possibility that you’ll meet some unfriendly Kryptonians down the road. (Which is why Batman does it).

        I don’t think its a good idea to publicize the idea or to try it, however. What’s a bigger risk – that Superman will damage the Earth or that some other super-threat will arise that only Superman can stop?

  44. J Mann says:

    Scott has probably covered this in his writings on conflict vs mistake theory, but in my experience, I think conflict theory people tend to convince themselves that the underlying facts support their argument from a mistake theory viewpoint as well.

    So if the wrong sort of people are becoming CEOs, doctors, union heads, or government officials, then it’s also true tha the filter is wrong, and that it’s not picking (on average) people who are better at doing those jobs.

    Look at CEO such and such who did a bad job, or its well known that current CEOs optimize for the wrong values, or look at this study about blind orchestra try-outs! If I believe that the system is broken because it doesn’t reward people of my class sufficiently, I probably also believe that it’s objectively true that my class has more merit than the system recognizes.

  45. TJ2001 says:

    To me – Assuming there is actually a “Mistake vs Conflict” divide is being fairly naive… And I have been fairly naive myself until recently… I think both strategies are used continually and seamlessly by the same people….

    Let’s be clear – “Getting the right things done” is mission critical….. But this means you need the right sorts of people in your organization at the right levels of the organization. In general – the lower levels are responsible for “Doing Actual Work,” the middle levels are responsible to make sure all the right work gets done, while the upper levels are responsible for leadership, direction, and strategy.

    Since the leaders are too few to rule by sheer brute force or to simply do all the work themselves – they must use persuasion and manipulation to ensure the organization accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. The key thing here is making sure you get the persuasion and manipulation pointed in the right direction….

    My own mistake (and I think the mistake of many others like myself) was thinking that the Leadership was *Not* intentionally appointed to be maximally manipulative and persuasive. But that’s the only way they can get anything actually done… And since this is their *Actual* JOB – I think you will find the good ones can seamlessly operate in “Conflict” and “Mistake” Modes simultaneously depending on the situation, the specific people they are dealing with, and the end they are trying to accomplish…..

    So for example – if the fellow’s goal is error correction – he kicks into “Mistake mode” and heads the group back in the right direction… If on the other hand – it’s to galvanize “Us” against an existential threat from “Them” – they switch into “Conflict mode” and head us off in that other direction instead…

    I think in this paradigm – the biggest problem for “Leadership” then is making sure they don’t use the wrong technique – aka galvanizing everybody around something when error correction is needed or vice versa…

    • TJ2001 says:

      Then our job “Picking leaders” is to make sure we choose the fellow can seamlessly skate between the modes of persuasion/ manipulation/ leadership as the situation dictates and who is likewise willing to “Error correct” himself when it becomes clear that the existing strategy is not producing the intended results…

      Like say for example it may be necessary to “Gaslight” your opponents so that they galvanize into conflict and do NOT error correct themselves on failure. The goal here is to make them double-triple down on their failure rather than correct and push forward… Or you may use an opposite strategy where you manipulate your opponent to “Error correct” after a success against you instead of galvanizing around their own winning strategy which is working….

  46. Walter Sobchak Esq says:

    Michael Lind on Reviving Democracy by Aaron Sibarium on January 29, 2020 at the The-American-Interest.com:

    The Cold War may have ended, but the class war rages on—or so Michael Lind argues in The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. TAI assistant editor Aaron Sibarium recently sat down with Lind to discuss this argument, and what it means for democracy in our populist era. This is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

    Aaron Sibarium for TAI: You have a new book out: The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. What is the new class war?

    Michael Lind: It’s the conflict that has broken out between the college-credentialed, university-educated managerial and professional class, which dominates Western democracies on both sides of the Atlantic, and the high school-educated working class of all races and national origins, which is about two-thirds of the population. I argue that there was a kind of class peace treaty, or what political scientists call a “settlement,” between capitalists, managers, and the working class for a couple of decades following 1945 that broke down in the late 20th century, largely as a result of the atrophy of the institutions that had amplified the power of less educated working-class people. The most important of these were trade unions, churches, and other religious organizations, as well as local mass membership parties—parties of political machines at the local level.

    As a result of that breakdown, there’s just been a shift of power and influence in all three realms: the economy, the culture, and government. And I argue the frustration this has created on behalf of much of the population has ultimately led to a lot of the populist rebellions we’re seeing: the election of Trump, the Brexit vote in Europe, the Yellow Vest revolts in France.

    AS: Part of the story here is the rise of a “managerial elite,” as you call it, which differs in important ways from the elite it displaced. What are the distinct features of this managerial class?

    ML: I don’t claim any particular originality here. I follow James Burnham, a one-time influential American Trotskyist who became one of the founders of postwar American conservatism. In his book The Managerial Revolution written during World War II, he argued that the Marxists were wrong. The two major classes in the Western world in the 1940s were not workers and capitalists, but workers and managers. Because at that point, thanks to the rise of large corporations, there was what Berle and Means in their classic study of the corporation described as separation of ownership and control. And you had this bureaucratic corporate executive class who were not necessarily the biggest shareholders. Particularly nowadays when shared ownership is widely dispersed and fluctuating, it’s kind of a legal fiction to say that the shareholders are the owners of the corporation, and that the managers are merely passive agents.

    So that was the argument. Burnham argued—and I follow him—that the managerial elite includes far more than corporate executives. It includes professionals, experts of all kinds, civil servants, and also the military, which he argued would become increasingly influential in societies. Meanwhile, only one-third of the working class was ever industrial workers—the rest were service and clerical workers. But at present, as a result of automation and productivity growth, most new working class jobs are in hospitality and leisure, healthcare and retail. And those tend to be very poorly paid and very non-union jobs. So the migration of employment from the unionized manufacturing sector to these sectors has contributed to inequality.

    • peak.singularity says:

      Heh, Lind again…

      Or is technocratic populism a contradiction in terms?

      ML: I think it’s a contradiction in terms, because if you believe as I do that the root of populism is a power deficit, then it’s not a matter of getting the right policies. You actually have to redistribute power, and redistributing power to working class people means they have the power to be wrong and support dumb things. And their representatives have the power to make bad decisions.

      So I don’t think you can come up with a kinder and gentler version of technocratic progressivism where you just do better polling or you’re just more benevolent and more sensitive to working-class people. You have to talk to them.

      Wow, thanks, I *really* have to get that book now !

      • Akhorahil says:

        Interestingly, Andrew Yang has been called exactly that – a technocratic populist.

        • peak.singularity says:

          The “populist” probably comes from his $1,000 a month “Freedom Dividend” plan ?

          ML: Well, universal basic income has always been rejected by pro-labor people and by social democrats on the theory that if the working class has power through collective bargaining and other means to force employers to pay a living wage, then you don’t need a universal basic income. If you work 40 hours a week—and there’s dignity to work—then it’s profoundly humiliating to say that a few rich CEOs are the only productive people in society, and everyone else is some kind of parasite. But to bribe them into silence, we’ll just pay them off—this is utterly abhorrent to the idea of the dignity of labor. It’s abhorrent to the idea of a democratic Republic. Instead, you have an aristocracy passing out charity to people.

          I’ll admit that I have been hyped about UBI about a decade ago, especially after learning of the successes of pilot projects in the 60’s/70’s, and even more so when it actually started to show up in politics (which I didn’t believe to be possible !)
          But I’ve been wary of it lately, for mostly the same reasons…

          Still, it just seems to be a good continuity of progressive taxes ? There are pretty nasty traps resulting from overlapping government handouts, coming from a multiplication of them, and resulting in actually reduced purchasing power with increased earnings ! Sounds like “flattening out” most of them into a progressive negative tax should help ?
          And bonus points from removing the degrading “bureaucratic hoop-jumping” that they often require…

          • Hoopdawg says:

            The thing about dignity of labor is that it’s gone. Back when society rested on its productive output, there was pride to be had in your hands’ work, but nowadays the productive jobs are increasingly outsourced to second- and third-world sweatshops, the jobs that replaced them are mostly bullshit in one way or another, and I don’t expect, say, the millions working in the US health insurance system not to realize they’re essentially parasites. (And as for sweatshops, sewing “This is what feminist looks like” t-shirts for rich westerners isn’t particularly dignified either, and I don’t suppose it can make you feel like you’re contributing to society – not your own, at least.)

            So, let’s bring on the UBI and hope for the best.

    • peak.singularity says:

      unless there are institutions that represent the policy preferences of working-class people, those people are going to be ignored.

      So in theory, yes, you could have had a bipartisan consensus that did not push elite-friendly globalization policies, that did not push elite-friendly immigration policies, that did not push elite-friendly environmental policies such as in France. But there’s a reason why the elite-friendly policies always prevailed: the absence of actual checks and balances. So I simply don’t believe in the possibility of a benevolent elite unless members of the working class have something beyond the vote.

      Yeah, remember how the Yellow Vests started :
      – On one hand the price of oil was rising, so rural people (which also tend to be poorer) started to feel that they couldn’t afford long-distance transportation (which is very important in rural areas) any more – which had to be by car because the people taking decisions lived in the big cities – so rural train and bus networks falling into disrepair weren’t noticeable to them. It’s telling that the protests started on roundabouts !
      – On the other hand the government has shown that it didn’t care, by introducing yet another tax on fuel where only 10% went back to poor people transportation needs. And planes weren’t taxed *at all*.

      P.S.: Hopefully the Citizen’s Convention on Climate will be listened to this time, instead of being dismissed, like previous “consultations of citizens” were…

      • Aapje says:

        Not just rural people, but also suburban people. Basically, white lower/middle class people were pushed out of Paris and some other cities by rising prices in the good neighborhoods and really shitty circumstances (violence, discrimination, lack of shops serving their needs) in the banlieues.

        This gradually worsened the situation of many, requiring long commutes and high transport costs, while (real) salaries were stagnant at best.

        The fuel tax was a flash point, creating severe anger in many people at the same time, enabling a coordinated response.

    • peak.singularity says:

      I don’t like the term “middle class.” For the majority of people in the United States, I use the term “working class.” The classic word for that is “proletarian,” which sounds kind of Marxist, but it comes from ancient Rome. It meant a propertyless wage worker, who has to earn a living by working for wages. Today we talk about the home-owning majority, the property-owning majority, and so on. But in practice, unless you have paid off your house mortgage loan completely, you’re renting it from the bank. And the same is true of your car—you’re renting that until it’s completely paid off, if it ever is. So the property-owning majority is kind of an illusion.

      […]

      So we really have a majority of people who could not live for more than a few weeks without a wage, without turning to the state for unemployment insurance. They would be destitute in old age without Social Security. And this is one of the reasons that there’s a class division in attitudes toward entitlement policy.

      Yeah, I arrived at a similar conclusion myself a couple of years ago when trying to figure out what the hell “rich” *really* meant.
      In a society that claims to be both democratic and capitalist, the goal should probably be to reduce as much as possible the number of proletarians : those people that can’t *afford* to take a year off. (Remember how a new company generally takes 2-3 years to start to become profitable ?)
      Note that this can also be helped by reducing your spending (if you’re able to), which also goes against the logic of consumerism…

    • peak.singularity says:

      So we have these large corporations, and they should be regulated.

      IMHO he’s not going far enough into the issue of transnational corporations.
      When you have corporations that are more powerful than whole small countries, what hope there is for democracy ?
      The GAFAMs are probably too far gone now to be “saved”, (and cannot be realistically split), they will have to be completely shut down, or at least locked out of being able to do damage to other countries, a bit like Huawei was kicked out of the USA.
      Hopefully the GAFAMs getting kicked out of Europe is not too far out !

  47. dlr says:

    What about a third theory, that the government exists to advance the interests of the government; that government exists to advance the interests of the people running the government? I would say that anyone working for government is part of a single class, not ‘the upper class’ or ‘the middle class’ but ‘the wielders of government power class’. Or you could consider them as a powerful special interest group, perhaps the most powerful special interest group in America today.
    I would think that government employees core common interest is not to advance the goals of ‘the upper class’ or ‘the working class’ or ‘the middle class’ but to advance the goals of ‘the governing class’– by expanding the size and scope of government; by making government employees more powerful and less accountable to the public or their elected representatives; by making it harder to pin-point wrong-doing or incompetence by government employees; by making it harder to fire or discipline government employees, regardless of the nature of their wrong-doing; by increasing their compensation, in terms of wages, benefits, perks– on and off the job– and by increasing their status. These are all perennial goals of government employees. No matter what other side goals they are pursuing, they will always, constantly, be interested in advancing these goals.

    • Purplehermann says:

      Doubt it, what do they actually gain?
      There is a chance of being switched out every couple years, so they want to not get switched out.
      They want money, but they don’t vote themselves more (maybe bribes work)
      Maybe to be known as amazing people?

      So their job, money and fame.
      What else? Their power growing isn’t personal power usually, so it has to be a tool to get something else done. These are the goals of all policians as far as i can see.
      Their incentives seem to work like this: do things your voters will appreciate, do things your sponsors will appreciate, do things that will get a lot of attention.
      Getting the governing class to work together for these things doesn’t seem easy to me. Alliances based on similar objectives would work, objectives based on alliances much less so

      • Aapje says:

        You seem to confuse politicians with government employees, which is like confusing the CEO and other CxO’s with lower level employees.

        Most government and semi-government employees are not really at risk of being replaced by a new administration, unless their excessive wrong-doing or incompetence becomes known.

        The goals that dlr gives are typically the goals of unions, so it’s not a weird claim.

        Their incentives seem to work like this: do things your voters will appreciate, do things your sponsors will appreciate, do things that will get a lot of attention.

        That’s only for politicians. Government employees don’t have voters or sponsors & they typically don’t want attention.

  48. gin-and-whiskey says:

    Mt main issue with your original TM post is that you built it on a poor foundation, namely “programmers.”

    Now, I’m not an expert but one thing which seems reasonably clear even at my low level is that programming is, well, relatively testable. You can code a table or not. You can read someone else’s program or not. Your programs work, or not. And so on. Given a few expert level programmers who are a bit anal about testing, you can evaluate a LOT of people, with relatively high accuracy and speed:

    But then you go on (for example) to this:

    Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance.

    How on earth do you propose to IDENTIFY these people? This is not simple.

    Same for a neurosurgeon: Until they have performed a ton of the surgeries and have a pool of data,it’s quite hard to distinguish between a “good” and “not quite as good” one, and we don’t really have a great way to tell. The same applies to lawyers, teachers, etc.

    Most things are not programming: they have some sort of long-term and/or highly-complex testing mechanism. Meritocratic processes are the proxy for the tests.

  49. sa3 says:

    Meritocracy is tautologically correct; it’s just that some people are lumping it in with other ideas. Or they’re really Marxists and they believe that all individual differences in talent and productivity are either non-existent or irrelevant, which is objectively wrong. The idea that the better people should do better is pretty non-controversial. The main issues are how much better they should do (CEO pay multiples) and how efficiently the system really rewards the better people (who becomes CEOs and why). In other words it’s a quantitative question, not qualitative. It’s not ‘meritocracy good or bad’ so much as it is ‘does meritocracy work and how well/not well’.

    Meritocracy is absolutely cited by everyone who’s done well in life, regardless of how. Trump thinks he’s an example of meritocracy. That doesn’t invalidate the concept – it invalidates the person abusing it to justify themselves. If we threw out every idea that was misused we’d have none left. Point being, stick to the strict concept; critiques of things like meritocracy are pretty much always critiques of something else pretending to be critiques of meritocracy to get attention. I don’t think you were particularly unfair to any side of the argument in your prior post. As some others have pointed out, it’s just hard to measure.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      Meritocracy is tautologically correct; it’s just that some people are lumping it in with other ideas.

      That’s a repurposing of the word “meritocracy”, which was invented to describe systems in which society is stratified based on academic achievement. It’s a relatively common way of using the term nowadays, but it’s most definitely not the original definition.

    • peak.singularity says:

      Or they’re really Marxists and they believe that all individual differences in talent and productivity are either non-existent or irrelevant, which is objectively wrong.

      Well, I’m not even sure what “Marxist” even means at this point, but do they think that ? Because Socialists certainly don’t. Heck, even Communists are probably going to have an issue with that… (“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”)

      The idea that the better people should do better is pretty non-controversial.

      Seems like it’s going to be controversial to your hypothetical “Marxists” ?

  50. enkiv2 says:

    I have an alternative explanation, from a ‘mistake’ point of view, that nevertheless comes out as anti-meritocratic.

    TL;DR version: most ‘meritocratic’ systems are iterative games with a large variety of ways to win a single session, because early wins can protect you from later losses, the most consistently successful people have nothing in common except for early luck & later protectionist behavior. This means that ostensibly-meritocratic systems almost immediately become entrenched aristocracies controlled by people who aren’t much good at anything because they are insulated from responsibility by wealth.

  51. Alex M says:

    It’s good to see you questioning your own assumptions Scott, but I don’t think you’ve gone deep enough yet. For starters, why are you assuming that we live in a meritocracy? It seems obvious to me that we do not. We live in a world where the elite perpetuate systems that keep themselves in power. They tell themselves that it is a meritocracy to rationalize away their own unearned privilege: it is easier and more flattering to convince yourself of the narrative that your money and power comes from “merit” rather than “I kissed ass to the right people” or “my parents made sure I attended the right elite college and made the right connections.”

    If government systems are based around merit, then why is the EU seemingly in a process of slow-motion collapse? You’d think that somebody would have seen the refugee crisis coming before implementing the Schengen agreement. Or take climate change. Somebody might have had the brains to point out that the Paris agreement would never work because an agreement that has no system to punish noncompliance and enforce compliance doesn’t provide the right incentives. Obviously our elites are not as smart as they think they are. They tell themselves that they operate under mistake theory but in reality they operate under conflict theory and use motivated reasoning to rationalize their self-interested motives as “being in society’s interest.”

    A lot of times, this self-perpetuating system is completely subconscious, making it even harder to perceive. For example, take Tesla. Elon Musk has a habit of working 80-hour weeks and hiring people who do the same. Most of the reason he has to work 80 hour weeks are because he (or somebody on his management team) makes a mistake, then they have to work rapidly to correct it. Because they are working crazy hours, mistakes are more likely to happen, so they get trapped in a vicious cycle. If I told Elon Musk “Hey, you’re doing things in a backwards way, and you can be more efficient” do you think I’d ever g