16 thoughts on “Meritocracy rerun

  1. Realizing that meritocracy is way, way overrated was one of those moments I’ll remember for a while.

    I don’t really buy Flynn’s contradiction, though. To the extent you can separate a time of personal development (“childhood”) from meritorious production (“adulthood”) there’s nothing innately paradoxical about material-elitist values so long as they are exclusive to the latter group. Of course a child is influenced by his parents but all meritocracy theoretically dictates is that any important factor in one’s development and controlled on genetic possibility (hence vulnerable to the Rawlsian critique) be unvaried across social groups.

    For example, I think meritocracy would be well-approximated in a situation where a) all private primary and secondary schools were abolished and b) kids were randomly assigned to schools. This would force kids of the non material-elitist parents to rub shoulders with those who are and hence, if you think there is any value (Charles murray etc etc) pick up that “culture”. It will also force the rich to make sure that all schools are good in the fear their kid may end up at any one.

    There are many critiques to this (social-economic-cultural assortment across geographies) but if you can isolate all the factors that influence future potential, nothing is innately wrong with meritocracy. The paradoxes tend to arise in practice than theory – and largely because real meritocracy is too radical even for self-styled Rawlsians who ironically think meritocracy isn’t fair enough.

    • Ashok:

      Regarding your third paragraph: Yeah, sure, but given resource constraints (i.e., not every kid can go to a good school, not everyone can afford to eat pesticide-free schools, etc.), part of the “ocracy” of meritocracy is that the meritocrats will work their damndest to make sure that their friends get the best jobs and that their kids go to the best schools, eat the healthiest food, etc. Part of “meritocracy” is that kids are not randomly assigned to schools. What’s the point of being a meritocrat if you can’t make sure your kids get the best opportunities possible?

      • I see.

        I think the important difference is whether you approach meritocracy as a model (where the “merit” and “ocracy” are in constant friction) or as a principle. In the latter case you accept that in any social contract there are natural tradeoffs as no optimal model can fit collective governance. In that sense, banning private education is no different from levying a tax.

        Pro-meritocrats would never really militate for a no-tax, purely just deserts system, even though that’s what an extreme meritocracy stipulates. I should revise my first statement. Flynn is technically correct in the contradiction, but I don’t see that (by itself) as any more a meaningful critique of meritocracy than, say, emergence of special interest groups are for democracy. (That is, true by definition of the premises).

        Rather, what damns practical meritocracy is that no one is radical enough to advocate for it. That and perhaps the scientific limitations of determining which non genetic factors – precisely – determine future potential and to equalize that to the greatest extent possible.

        • Ashok:

          I think what you’re talking about is something that might be called “merit-based job assignment,” the idea that more challenging and interesting jobs are given to people who have more merit. But I think that once we bring “ocracy” into it, the assumption is that these meritorious people will get to run things. And at that point they will want to give opportunities to their family and friends. I agree with Flynn that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status—these are the goodies that people with more merit get. We don’t have to call this a “critique” of meritocracy; ti’s rather an observation about this ideal. Meritocrats are given wealth and status, and they’ll use some of that wealth and status to help out their family and friends.

          Finally, I don’t know if this helps, but I will say that I found the Harvard and Columbia students in my classes to be very talented and motivated, and I enjoy teaching such students, even while recognizing that I am perpetuating whatever advantages they have. Also, I do my best (within reason) to use my own wealth and status to help my family and friends. So I’m not saying that all this is immoral, I’m just saying it’s how the world works.

        • Fair enough. I agree with the second Flynn ‘contradiction’ where elite consumption is a necessary byproduct of meritocracy. But I like to think of that more as, say roughly, negative feedback than paradox. Qualitatively, “too much” meritocracy can undo itself, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad goal for a while.

          And if you think of it as feedback, public policy can orient that by diminishing the effect of the negative – that is, make it harder for meritocrats to help their friends (accept that it is not immoral on a micro scale, and that it is natural).

          Btw, I would very much like the idea of “merit-based job assignment” but it seems eerily similar to an old slogan: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” ;-)

  2. That classic piece of social science satire “The Peter Principle” had an interesting take on meritocracy (the Peter principle, for those unfamiliar, is “that in a hierarchy, everyone tends to rise to their level of incompetence”, because you only get promoted if you are competent in your current job). Lawrence Peter, the author, notes that a society with class, gender, or racial barriers will tend to be more efficient because a large number of individuals are stuck, by these restraints, in jobs where they are competent. There may be something to this–women used to only be employable as nurses and teachers and now a woman who is a corporate attorney might, 50 years ago, been teaching high school algebra.

    On a more serious note, the obvious argument against “meritocracy” is that the offspring of the “merited” are given large advantages, so there is a large element of non-merit present in advancement. What I would find interesting is a model if, one posits an initial allocation of IQ’s which are somewhat correlated with “merit” (or use your own measure of endowment), and an assumption of a mechanism for transmission of privilege (private schools, tutors, etc), how much of a role blind chance (in the form of regression to the mean, or, in Galton’s very applicable phrase, mediocrity) plays in the final placement of individuals in the work hierarchy. In particular, can you get similar economic efficiency three generations down the line by simply selecting a random assortment of people in the first generation, and giving some of these people increased rewards as a result of their supposed merit?

    • Numeric:

      Following those principles, in an ideal world I’d be a rabbi, getting closer to God instead of wasting all my work time thinking about statistics.

    • That’s a big extrapolation from “organization” to “society”. In the latter members aren’t really “promoted”. Also note the important (one might say Ignobelious) contribution from Pluchino et al.:

      “Here we show, by means of agent based simulations, that if the latter two features actually hold in a given model of an organization with a hierarchical structure, then not only is the Peter principle unavoidable, but also it yields in turn a significant reduction of the global efficiency of the organization. Within a game theory-like approach, we explore different promotion strategies and we find, counterintuitively, that in order to avoid such an effect the best ways for improving the efficiency of a given organization are either to promote each time an agent at random or to promote randomly the best and the worst members in terms of competence.”


      • I’ll have to look at this, but this statement from the abstract of this paper:

        Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence

        is not an accurate representation of the Peter Principle (at least in his book). It is clearly that the criteria for promotion to a higher position in the hierarchy is competence in one’s current position. There are two things that make this somewhat less than a facile jape–first, it is based on the concept of natural selection, but second, implicitly, there is a recognition that it is very difficult to fire someone but relatively easy to quit promoting a person (like wage rigidity, it violates economic logic, but there it is).

        In any case, there is no “climb” to a position of maximum incompetence–once one demonstrates incompetence, one is no longer eligible for promotion. Once again, the requirement of competence in one’s current position is a societal norm.

  3. I’m a little confused. What exactly are we debating here?

    Especially, this quote by Andrew was puzzling:

    “In a meritocracy, the whole point of having “merit” is that you can run things (“ocracy”), and the point of running things is that you can get good jobs for your family and friends.”

    Is this just about semantics? Is the “-ocracy” suffix the part that offends (perhaps by analogy to other unpalatable -ocraies)? Let’s have a different name for it then.

    Otherwise that quote sounds like meritocracy + nepotism. It doesn’t have to be that.

    Isn’t there a fundamental difference between the -ocracies? Letting a person “run things” because he possesses royal blood or religious credentials sounds a tad different from letting him “run things” because he has “merit” (by way of good surgical skills, or adept with numbers etc. )

    All -ocracies aren’t made equal.

  4. Any opinion/comment on whether a technocracy–things are run by scientists/engineers–would be less susceptible to this problem?

  5. Pingback: The Fine Rawlsian Line | This is Ashok.

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