Lamentably common misunderstanding of meritocracy

Tyler Cowen pointed to an article by business-school professor Luigi Zingales about meritocracy. I’d expect a b-school prof to support the idea of meritocracy, and Zingales does not disappoint.

But he says a bunch of other things that to me represent a confused conflation of ideas. Here’s Zingales:

America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous [emphasis added]. In a word, it was a meritocracy.

That’s interesting—and revealing. Here’s what I get when I look up “meritocracy” in the dictionary:

1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.

Later, Zingales writes:

The fundamental role of an economic system, even an extremely primitive one, is to assign responsibility and reward.

Huh? Again he seems to be conflating economics with morality, in a similar way as when economists Mankiw and Weinzierl implied that the state only has a right to tax things that are “unjustly wrestled from someone else.” Zingales in the above quote is taking the economic functions of prices, wages, supply, and demand and transmuting them into to the morally-loaded terms “responsibility” and “reward.”

Finally, in his praise of meritocracy, Zingales doesn’t seem to be aware of the concept’s self-contradicting nature. As James “Effect” Flynn has pointed out,

The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

To put it another way, Zingales talks a lot about the threat to meritocracy from business capturing government regulation or from pitchfork-wielding hordes raising the marginal tax rate, but he doesn’t consider some much more direct effects of meritocracy such as this.

Why bother?

Why do I interrupt our usual flow of deep statistical insights with an analysis of the flaws of what is, ultimately, a pretty run-of-the-mill reminder from Zingales that the free market is a golden goose that must be coddled lest it decrease its emission of eggs? Surely lots of people misunderstand meritocracy—why pick on Zingales or even bring up the topic?

It can’t simply be that Tyler Cowen favored Zingales with a link. Cowen provides dozens of links a week and I wouldn’t have time to read, let alone comment, on all of them.

No, my reason for bringing up meritocracy (again) is because I think it’s important. I am bothered when pundits such as Zingales set up a self-contradictory ideal which conflates accidents of birth, talent, achievement, success, riches, and power—not to mention “hard work” and “virtue.” We all know that these traits don’t always go together in the real world, but it’s also a mistake to think that they could all go together. As a political scientist, I think it’s important to use my (small) megaphone to remind people of this and to correct people when they’re confused about it.

46 thoughts on “Lamentably common misunderstanding of meritocracy

  1. You’ve got a still louder megaphone over at the Monkey Cage. You could go a long way to correcting just these sorts of misconceptions and moral errors by featuring more political theory research over there.

  2. Your comments about Zingales’s elision of morality and meritocracy seem very apt, but I would like to address one matter you raise in passing. You ask, “Why pick on Zingales?” When did academics become so protective of one another that pointing out the logical flaws in someone’s publication is considered to be picking on him? I don’t believe you’re unique in this attitude. On the contrary, that kind of professional comity seems to be the standard these days. And the result is that sloppy thinking (and sloppy research) is shielded from the critical analysis and discussion that might benefit the original writer and would almost certainly advance the state of knowledge.

    And let it be noted that I do not make this observation just to pick on you.

    • Rob:

      I’d never heard of Zingales but in this case I think he was functioning more as a pundit than as an academic. I asked, “why pick on ZIngales?”, not out of any reluctance to criticize but rather to give myself the opportunity to explain why I’m discussing this topic here. After all, there’s always “something wrong on the internet,” so it’s worth exploring why I am spending the time to address an obscure opinion piece by someone I’d never heard of.

  3. “2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria”

    Why are intellectual criteria any more valuable than, say, muscular criteria or the ability to gather social capital or the ability to catch a lot of fish? Doesn’t the nature of a meritocracy depend on rising to the top on the basis of the greatest societal need at the moment, which may not be intellectual critia at all?

  4. Although I agree with Flynn and you about meritocracy generally, I don’t think Zingales has a misunderstanding of meritocracy, merely a different understanding. His argument can certainly be interpreted more sympathetically. His assertion that a meritocracy benefits the hard working and virtuous is not inconsistent with either of the definitions you supplied so long as you control for talent in your analysis.

    To recap, the definitions are:

    1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
    2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

    The first is a system that benefits the hard working and virtuous because between people of equal talent the hard working and virtuous are likely to achieve more than the lazy and vicious.

    The second is also a system that benefits the hard working and virtuous because intelligence is not a fixed trait, but can be improved (within limits of course) by had work. So again, between people with the same intellectual potential, those who are hard working and virtuous are likely to be more intelligent than those who are not.

    Of course, there are no meritocracies in the real world, but I don’t think Zingales misunderstands meritocracy.

      • Andrew, do you admit the point for hard work then?

        As for virtue, the four cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. I think that, all else being equal, people who possess these virtues would achieve more than people who don’t possess them.

        • Brad,

          The case for hard work is stronger than the case for virtue but I still don’t see hard work as central. Hard work is relevant under any system. For example, in an aristocracy, the aristocrats who work hard will succeed more than the lazy aristocrats.

          • Andrew:

            While it is true that hard work is relevant in any system, it is more important in a meritocracy than in an aristocracy.

            In an aristocracy lazy aristocrats will still have more success than lazy non-aristocrats. So in an aristocracy family membership is more central than hard work, but in a meritocracy hard work is more central than family membership.

            As Roemer’s work (links above from Hector) implies, a meritocracy still would not provide equality of opportunity in a strong sense, but it would be more equal than an aristocracy. GA Cohen makes a similar point in his book ‘Why not socialism?’

            I agree with your stance on meritocracy in general. I just think Zingales has more of a point than you allow. That is, I think his argument may be, even if it is ultimately unsound.

        • For an interesting comparison, consider the 7 heavenly virtues, as described by Christianity over a century ago:
          chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility

          While temperance, diligence, and patience definitely help somebody achieve economic or political power and prosperity, there’s reason to believe that charity, kindness, and humility actually hurt your chances. For instance, if you’re charitable, and you make $100,000, you’re giving away $15-30,000 of that, which hurts your ability to save. If you’re humble, you aren’t going to be able to advertise yourself as well as somebody who’s prideful, so you’re going to get less lucrative work. If you’re kind, that makes it harder for you to do the stepping over people that’s very commonly needed to advance in a corporate environment. (Chastity is more-or-less neutral economically provided you’re reasonably smart about birth control and avoiding divorces.)

          • Nooo, this is all wrong- you need to see this through the ayn rand bizarro world lens. If you give away $15,000, you’re being selfish. If you want to help others, you should really do is invest the money and make $1,000,000, then give away $15,001. Or even better, true kindness is giving nothing at all, so that the moochers don’t learn to become dependent on you.

        • I think the better point is that the system is full of janitors and burger flippers who work their butts off. Hard work correlates with advancement only for a narrow slice of the middle and upper-middle class, while the rest get what they got.

          As for virtue, are we talking Confucius, Jesus, or Nietzsche? (lol)

        • Al Capone, Joe Bonnano, Prince John, Bernie Madoff, Kenneth Lay, William Randolph Hearst, Long John Silver, Jimmy Hoffa and many other quite Non-Virtuous people in history prove this statement wrong:

          “As for virtue, the four cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. I think that, all else being equal, people who possess these virtues would achieve more than people who don’t possess them.”

          The whole idea of meritocracy rests upon the premise that:
          A) People are moved ahead only by talent and achievement in some manner
          B) There is a level playing field that equates to All Men Are Created Equal
          C) That the concept must apply evenly across the board in all disciplines and aspects of life.

          None of these conditions are met.

          Ergo, while merit exists and people can move ahead based on them, they are just as likely to get ahead in underhanded, deceitful and even illegal means. By the measure of meritocracy as an ideal, financial acheivement is really all that’s being measured in the conversations where it comes up. It also seems to be used as a rationalization to heap scorn and disdain on those who are not “successful” in whatever measure is being used as being either lazy, incompetent, or unwise.

          Meritocracy cannot account for nepotism, cronyism, protectionist policies, spite, vengeance, jealousy or starting financial or social status, which are clearly subjects of at birth conditions, which have absolutely nothing to do with merit.

    • Early America can’t be a meritocracy because only male WASPs could make it to the top (the top being political, religious and academic leadership). The talent of most ethnic groups (e.g. Blacks) and women was wasted.

  5. Can any one think of a more meritocartic country than the US? I can’t think of one. Zingales points out exactly the laws / institutions that make this difference. Other sociopolitical structures are more or less constant across countries and that’s why you observe the “Facebook case” exception, even in the most meritocratic of societies.

    • Anonymous:

      No, you’re missing the point. Sam Lessin (of “How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job” fame) is a perfect example of meritocracy. His dad had lots of merit and got the rewards for it. One of the rewards was for his kid to have a sexy job. Meritocracy in action! But it has nothing to do with “virtue,” which was my point about where Zingales went wrong.

    • Keeping in mind that, as Andrew said, this is a side issue, isn’t social mobility a good indicator of meritocracy. If so, the US is less of a meritocracy than it used to be.

  6. @zbicyclist: Very good point about muscle power versus brain power. The whole notion seems circular. If we think of the winner of any competition as the one with the most achievement, then everything’s a meritocracy by definition (1).

    If we dole out rewards by lottery, those who achieve the most luck get the money.

    If we elect politicians based at least in part on how rich they are or how rich their lobbyists are, we can call it a meritocracy if we think money is doled out by merit.

    The closest thing we have to a real meritocracy is professional sports, especially non-team sports, where it’s relatively easy to measure who’s better over a long series of trials. But even then, it’s hard to compare a great defender with a great offender in sports, or a baseball player who hits for OBP rather than slugging percentage. Or a pianist who excels at Bach versus one who excels at Chopin versus one who plays in a rock band.

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  8. There is a tight link between statistics and the concept of meritocracy. The distribution of personal incomes has two branches. Lower ninty per cent of incomes are distributed according to quasi-exponential law and the top ten are charaterized by a Pareto distribution. In physics and other natural sciences, a power law distribution usually manifests a realization of so-called self-organized criticality (SOC). For example, sizes (magnitudes) of earthquakes are also distributed as a power law (Gutenberg-Richter law). SOC implies that the power law distribution arises only from the decaying propability of a given size to happen and does not depend on “merits” of the size. When applied to income (wealth), SOC indicates that the distribution of higher incomes is the realization of probability only and does not depend on “merits” of the owners.

    When statistics and physics are applied to economics, no meritocracy is possible. The Society for the Study of Economic Inequality has published my paper on thsi topic ( which is subtitled “The probability to get rich”.

  9. Recently saw a study that showed that family was far more important in USA, than e.g. in Demmark. This was done by looking at growth companies / top companies, and examining how many of these were family based. Far less in Denmark than in, e.g., US.

  10. G W Bush was elected leader for his intellect?

    American slaves all got rich?

    US Middle classes have not progressed in wages in 3 decades. Their “hard work” has increased productivity by 60% over that time.
    Hard work is not very often smart work.
    Smart employers employ their share of lazy people – they find ways to get by with the least effort – ie efficiency and delegation.

    Why is merit /achievement only measured in money? You don’t think of Albert Einstein in how much cash he made.

    • A simple, virtuous and hard working janitor, or dishwasher will NEVER become a leader in a “meritocracy” if the “merit” rewarded in anything other than being saintly, but that is not in fact what people who speak about meritocracy advocate; for the “merit” they want to advance is intelligence. An intelligent person of high ambition, low virtue, and quick wit will be highly rewarded if they find a crackerjack solution to a problem that replaces the need for any labor (hard work) with some nice machine.

      I think it should always be noted on any commentary on “meritocracy” that the term itself was invented by the British sociologist Michael Young, and he meant satirically. He wrote a scathing commentary about it back in 2001 in the Guardian newspaper.

      I recommend everyone read it.

  11. Interestingly the term was introduced in a satirical essay by Michael Young. It seems the common ussage is in opposition to what he intended…

    I discovered this while reading the book “How to lose friends and infuriate people” which is a very funny book written by his very different son. The book talks about Young’s days working in New York for Vanity Fair and his ammusement at people who take this sort of job seriously and his own general irresponsibility. Its worth reading and a lot better than the movie.

  12. I agree with Brad that you’re being a little hard on Zingales here. All I think he meant is that a meritocracy is a place where merit can flourish. Of course, it would be great if *only* merit could flourish, but no one has a recipe for that world, not least of all because it makes it incumbent on some set of people to decide what *merit* is, and then we’re back to an oligarchy defined by the guys who define what *merit* means.

    So all Zingales is saying is that virtue and hard work are among the things which make up merit, and a relatively open system of voluntary exchange (lots of qualifiers and empirical arguments to be had in that clause, but that’s not what we;’re arguing now) gives scope for those things to work no matter who you are. As mpledger points out, that wasn’t always true, or even close to it.

    Andrew: you’re right if you mean success=f(hard work, virtue, other pure merit variables) + meanzeroepsilon. But I think all Zingales is arguing is that the partial derivative of f with respect to all merit variables is positive in a meritocracy. That’s his definition, and it’s not entirely different from the dictionary definition, at least the first one. At worst, there’s a big error term which makes the results hard to measure ex post. And I don’t think you disagree with that.

    • Jonathan:

      I don’t think of “virtue” and “hard work” as being part of the variables that makes up the class of “merit” variables in meritocracy. My impression of “meritocracy” (supported by the dictionary definition as well as the Michael Young essay) is that it’s about talent and intellectual criteria, not virtue or hard work. In a meritocracy you can be an asshole but if you can do the job, you get the perks (one of which, as noted above, is that your kids can get good jobs).

      • Well, that’s where we disagree. As Bob Carpenter points out, there are certain cicularity problems to defining merit, but I make it (again from the dictionary, roughly equivalent to ‘deserve.’ “The quality of being particularly good or worthy, esp. so as to deserve praise or reward.”) I think hard work *deserves* reward and I think virtue *deserves* reward, ie hard work and virtue *merit* reward. These are not the only components of deservingness, of course; intellectual prowess, physical prowess, and talent are components as well. Now we can all differ on what *deserves* to be rewarded; if you could justify a position that the only characteristic that deserves to be rewarded is the accomplishments of your ancestors, then I guess aristocracy would be synonymous with meritocracy — it’s just that I don’t think anyone could make the ancestor argument with a straight face. Your dictionary definition presumes a definition of “talent,” which I think is broad enough to include a talent for hard work or a talent for virtuousness.

  13. “(one of which, as noted above, is that your kids can get good jobs).”

    No offense, but I think you’re confused.

    Using your supplied definition, with my emphasis:
    “1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of —their achievement—
    2 : leadership selected on the basis of –[their]– intellectual criteria”

    A perk that involves someone else “moving ahead” is at odds with this definition because it applies the merit of one individual to a different individual and in the process, operates outside of the definition supplied. Thus, by definition, if one perk is gaining a job for your kid, even if “achieved”, then you are no longer in a meritocracy, because you and your kid are operating outside of that system — one’s achievement is determining the others success. In other words, in my view, the system requires that most of humanity to be in it. If we are delineating different systems for different people in society, certainly same family but different generation is too close of a relationship to claim the system exists at all. Especially because this relationship is tied up in the definition of a different system — aristocracy.

    Although I understand that you take odds at the idea of retroactively assigning moral standing to the outcome of an economic race. Society has agreed to the use of a meritocracy to divvy up risks and rewards and assign values to time, talent and skill. Society ratifies this agreement because it is believed to be moral. In other words, morality is essential. To suggest the system is not moral is to throw into question the entire bargain. If the system is not fundamentally moral… or believed to be moral, that system will be abandoned — revolt.

    • This strikes me as a cartoony representation. Who is this society person that keeps making these agreements?

      Morality is used by the institution of the state to maintain power. At best, there are mechanisms for the state to accommodate notions of morality to placate the public. Most of the time, morality is just a myth to control the public. Think for example of the notion of justice. Justice is only applied when there is the power to apply it.

      In short, I hope that _you_ are guided by morality, but social institutions are not. Morality and a tendency towards morality is the wrong lens through which to understand the world.

  14. I think the main problem I have with the criticisms of “meritocracy” that frequent on this blog is that I have the impression (possibly mistaken) that “merit” is correlated with better performance. For example, if someone is a gifted intellectual at a certain subject, he would be better at teaching a subject than someone who isn’t.

    Maybe there are studies out there that indicate that there ISN’T any real comparative advantage for hiring a non-gifted over that of a gifted. And that seems possible…at some point, diminishing return must kick in and the higher you go up the Merit ladder, the lower actual “gain” you get for each additional rank in “merit”. I just don’t know the relevant literature on this topic.

    I do suspect however that if merit does not lead to better performance, this can be used as arguments in favor of nepotism and random selection as a way of choosing people as opposed to selection based on merit.

    • I’m not saying that meritocracy is necessarily a bad idea—for one thing, I obviously have benefited from it! What I’m saying is that (a) it’s not about “virtue,” and (b) the concept of meritocracy is self-limiting (as explained by Flynn).

    • As zbyciclist pointed out, it is absurd to believe that merit is well-defined as a 1-dimensional concept. Even the idea of a “ladder” is one dimensional.

      Outcomes and strategies in the world are high dimensional. One circumstance’s benefit is another’s detriment. As a concrete example – consider the characteristics of impatience, intensity, anger, single-mindedness … these are all life-saving “virtues” on a battlefield. Within a marriage, they aren’t.

  15. (a)I am a bit confused about your insistence to treat virtue and merit as distinct notions. Isn’t merit a characteristic of something valuable for the society? And, isn’t a life worth living (a virtuous life) the epitome of being of value to the society? I view merit (at least in the consequences of its application) as contained/defined by virtue.

    (b)The claim that meritocracy is self-limiting may be valid only if you assume a non-contaminated, closed system. Flynn’s argument remind me of Marx’s argument of why capitalism is self-destructive. In practice, the byproducts of meritocracy are/may be canceled out by the society’s degree of emphasis on the virtuous life.

  16. Maybe they were thinking of virtue in the sense some think Machiavelli meant it?

    Mansfield, Harvey C. Machiavelli’s Virtue (1996)

  17. Wow, lots of comments on this one. Anyways, it seems like Zingales’ argument is coming more from a Burkean/social-conservative view of markets that’s at odds with the “libertarian” justification of wealth distribution. Specifically, the way Nozick formulated the justification in his Wilt Chamberblain vs. brain surgeon parable.

  18. What I’ve picked up from the discussion is that there are two distinct definitions of ‘merit’ here.

    On one hand, you have Andrew’s interpretation, which seems to be one of talent and capacity.

    OTOH, you have the virtue crowd. They interpret ‘merit’ to be traits of hard work and virtue.

    Neither of these definitions is inherently wrong. It’s just a question of which we’re talking about.

    IMHO, it’s simply naive to think that hard work and virtue will get you anywhere. People working three jobs to get by certainly are working hard, but they’re hardly part of any kind of ruling group, which is the meaning of the suffix -cracy.

    Working hard may help one’s chances of getting ahead, but this is by no means a sufficient condition. Nor is it completely necessary: having the right relative, or connection, in the right spot can be a great career advancer

    And please, don’t anyone try to tell me that being virtuous is even a necessary, let alone sufficient, condition for getting ahead.

    So, if you’re defining ‘meritocracy’ as the rule of hard-working, virtuous people, then sorry, we don’t have one. What we’ve got is a plutocracy. People with money run the show, and buy the amount of gov’t they need to keep tilting the playing field ever more in their favor. And we’re already more class-bound than any country in Europe, including the UK. And I thought we had a Revolution to get away from exactly that sort of system.

    • Gus:

      As part of “the virtue crowd” I think you’ve misinterpreted us. My definition would include talent and capacity as well as virtue for these are the traits the most successful people would have in a meritocracy.

      I also argued that hard work would get you somewhere in a meritocracy, not that America (or Australia where I live) is a meritocracy. There is no meritocracy anywhere. There probably never has been a meritocracy. There probably never will be a meritocrcy.

  19. What’s really silly in the Zingales argument is the assumption that the free market system is a meritocracy.

    Meritocracy is best understood from an Aristotelian perspective. We celebrate certain virtues in sport, science, etc. A meritocratic system promotes the individuals who best exhibit these virtues. By definition, therefore, a meritocracy rewards the virtuous.

    Suppose we go with Zingales and assume that the free market system is a meritocracy. This requires that we identify the virtues we wish to celebrate with the qualities that best promote success in a free market economy. Hard work may be one of these virtues, but so would be greed, rich parents, and being born in the right place in the right time. So if Zingales wishes to be consistent he should consider greed, luck, and rich parents as virtues that are as worth celebrating as hard work.

    p.s. if we accept that gender and racial bias remain important, then Zingales should also celebrate the `virtues’ of being white and male.

  20. I adore your continual returning to this topic, because the idea of meritocracy bugs the heck out of me, too, and I actually do think there’s a statistical issue buried here.

    Merit, in my mind, refers to how deserving a person is of a reward. In concrete cases where we have particular rewards to dole out, we assign merit by some kind of measurement. “Merit aid” in American colleges, for instance, is a function of (among other things) performance on standardized tests and high school grades. So far so good. But these measurements themselves have at least two components — how hard did you work? and how hard did you HAVE to work? And we don’t take independent measurements of those things when we are handing out the rewards. To pick on Brad above, nobody at the scholarships office is “controlling for talent” — they’re trying to SELECT for it. And of course that’s what they do! Colleges don’t care about rewarding virtue any more than football fans do. They want to reward success, because successful students may become successful alumni and, if you’re lucky, deep-pocketed donors. Yeah, they probably don’t want someone who cheated her way to the top, but that’s setting a pretty low bar for virtue.

    I’m construing this in terms of college because it makes the issues pretty concrete, but I would be surprised if the rest of the world operated under different rules here. Success and virtue are hopelessly confounded — hopelessly, I say, because why would we measure something that, at bottom, does not matter to the people who hand out the rewards?

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