Would You Want to Live in a Meritocracy?

 

This college admissions bribery story has me thinking about meritocracy in general. Under meritocratic guidelines, when there’s a job opening up, you just take the most qualified person, and that’s that. Or is that really that?

Lots of the pushback against diversity quotas in education and the corporate world rest on the beneficial outcomes of meritocratic processes. If you’re going to get heart surgery, you want the guy who aced the MCAT, and all that. The whole idea of “white privilege” seems like an attempt to make the success of white people out to be the results of similar deviations from meritocracy. If you had an unfair advantage starting out, maybe you really weren’t the most qualified person for the job that led to the job you now have, etc. It’s not an exact parallel, but the rhetoric is similar. If the left hadn’t made this “white privilege” thing into an impossibly broad race-based smear, they might have had a point.

There seems to be a sort of motte-and-bailey strategy where each side pretends things are meritocratic and that meritocracy is good — except when they can point out how the exceptions to the meritocratic rubric might benefit people they aren’t fond of. (I know this implies a gross generalization, but roll with me here.)

It’s interesting that one thing nearly everyone agrees on is that “networking matters.” Some classes in business school are basically just expensive networking seminars, and probably every college advertises their networking opportunities. Well, if networking matters, we don’t live in a meritocracy. It the best people are getting hired, it doesn’t matter who you know.

If we were to actually restructure society according to the rhetoric of the critics of diversity quotas and legacy admissions, we might end up with something close to pure meritocracy. Family businesses would be illegal. Meritocracy in its pure form actually conflicts with freedom of association. It would require lots of information, which is costly to gather. Expensive and unattainable? If I have this right, meritocracy is starting to sound like other utopian ideals. Networking is a way to get around the information problem, where you make yourself a person instead of a name on a résumé. Unfortunately, some people have extensive networking opportunities and others don’t. This is anti-meritocratic, and the truth at the core of the privilege critique that is lost in the crowds of people who throw that phrase around at everyone successful and can’t help but tack on race to make it seem more insidious than it is.

Are there steps we could take to make society more meritocratic without trampling all over free association? I’m not sure that the problems of unfairness we have today are worse than the remedies would be when executed, but I’m willing to be convinced.

There are 45 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor

    Mickey Kaus has some good ideas about this in a book he wrote about 20 years ago, The End of Equality. He’s no socialist; he’s a moderate Democrat who knows that there’s no rational system of human organization that can make marginally employable people and accomplished, skilled leaders have equal outcomes in life. But–and here’s where Mickey shows his populist side–merit and privilege don’t rule all the time and everywhere.

    I’m 67. I grew up in a competitive, capitalist country. But there were some limits to the competition. Until 1972 or so, nearly every man expected to spend several years in the armed forces, even if your dad was Joseph P. Kennedy. The vast majority of people sent their kids to public schools. In short, there were areas of life, like voting, where Americans took pride in everyone being equal. Money couldn’t buy you everything.

    • #1
    • March 12, 2019, at 8:40 PM PDT
    • 19 likes
  2. ST Inactive
    ST

    An argument can be made that the USMC infantry officers are the closest to a meritocracy that you may find in this US of A; however, even there I suspect that there are and were qoutas.

    Do you want your son led in combat by the best platoon commander or the one that got his gig because of a quota?

    • #2
    • March 12, 2019, at 9:15 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  3. ST Inactive
    ST

    Please don’t suspend me again. I am trying my Lord to behave.

    • #3
    • March 12, 2019, at 9:16 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. ST Inactive
    ST

    Plus most of the non-hackers are weeded out during IOC.

    • #4
    • March 12, 2019, at 9:21 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. ST Inactive
    ST

    ST (View Comment):

    Do you want your son led in combat by the best platoon commander or the one that got his gig because of a quota?

    Stupid question because no one reading this would ever allow their precious seed to be a USMC grunt.

    • #5
    • March 12, 2019, at 10:01 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. ST Inactive
    ST

    Will I get suspended if I were to actually pull off my gloves so to speak?

    • #6
    • March 12, 2019, at 10:02 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. ST Inactive
    ST

    bfn. thnx for this opportunity.

    • #7
    • March 12, 2019, at 10:03 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. DonG Coolidge

    I think you are conflating the ideas of meritocracy with creating an organization. That are lots of reasons why a the optimal mix of organization are not the top performers based on individual competition. An organization has to optimize output at the organization level while minimizing costs and there are lots of reasons to reduce risk. For example, a baseball team could add the greatest homerun hitter. But, maybe the team has a ballpark that is not good for type of player. Or the salary could be better used buying 2 good pitchers. Then there are the “intangibles”.

     

    As for the original question, “yes”, I would like to live in a meritocracy.

    • #8
    • March 12, 2019, at 10:11 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  9. Annefy Member

    ST (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    Do you want your son led in combat by the best platoon commander or the one that got his gig because of a quota?

    Stupid question because no one reading this would ever allow their precious seed to be a USMC grunt.

    Well – one of my precious four is a grunt; another an officer. Do I count?

    My vastly unlimited experience leads me to believe the USMC is for the most part a meritocracy. But my cynicism grows daily …

    • #9
    • March 13, 2019, at 12:14 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  10. Annefy Member

    As for the OP, it’s a complicated question. I understand what you mean about a true meritocracy sounds like Utopian. 

    Too many things to measure and no way to measure them. I’ve had jobs that I excelled at that I was barely qualified for. I can think of no way you could measure the strengths I had.

    • #10
    • March 13, 2019, at 12:22 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  11. MarciN Member

    There are two sides in the meritocracy equation: the people available to perform a job and the requirements of the job. It is just as impossible to produce a perfect set of job requirements as it is to identify a person who has the perfect set of skills and talents. Furthermore, both will change over time because nothing on planet earth is static. Change and growth are built into biological existence.

    I think a true and pure meritocracy has to always be a direction we’re going, not a serious achievable goal.

    When my daughter was going to college in Vermont, one night after I had dropped her off, I ended up driving most of the night back to our home on Cape Cod. I listened to a fascinating discussion on NPR (yup! National Public Radio) about a new law in Vermont that had passed with the objective of equalizing education opportunity in Vermont. Someone or some group had sued the state to force equality in public school funding. The premise of the lawsuit was that a child from town A should be able to get the same education as a child from town B, something that was not happening at that time because town B was spending a great deal more per student than town A. How to fix this problem. We had the same issue in Massachusetts.

    The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state would have to end the towns’ reliance on town property taxes to fund their public schools. Instead, all education property taxes would go to the state and the state would divvy up the proceeds equally so that every town would spend the same on every student.

    Obviously, this idea to create perfectly equal educational opportunities could be debated endlessly. What elements of education are we talking about? How could such equality possibly be achieved? Towns varied considerably in what they had for resources and how they would spend any money that came to them for education.

    In their ruling, I thought the Vermont Supreme Court made an interesting and valid observation. In a nutshell, they acknowledged that equality of educational opportunity was only a vague direction to go in. It could never be achieved.

    Life is messy. That’s a good thing.

    • #11
    • March 13, 2019, at 1:14 AM PDT
    • 14 likes
  12. ST Inactive
    ST

    Annefy (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    Do you want your son led in combat by the best platoon commander or the one that got his gig because of a quota?

    Stupid question because no one reading this would ever allow their precious seed to be a USMC grunt.

    Well – one of my precious four is a grunt; another an officer. Do I count?

    My vastly unlimited experience leads me to believe the USMC is for the most part a meritocracy. But my cynicism grows daily …

    Sorry. You count very much and I love all mothers of Marines. Just wasn’t expecting to see you here so soon.

    Semper Fi Annefy (moms serve too)

    • #12
    • March 13, 2019, at 2:07 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Mendel Member

    As several others have already pointed out, the main problem with desiring a meritocracy is usually a naive worldview that “technical skills” are the most important determinants of success and/or productivity.

    But even hiring managers in highly-intellectual fields like software programming or pharmaceutical research recognize that interpersonal skills are usually more important than technical knowledge and skills for a team’s success, and accordingly view their candidates’ technical abilities more as a simple commodity.

    The fallacy that subject-specific intelligence and talent is the most important criteria for success is that same mentality that thinks the best way to run the country would be to put professors and experts in charge of everything.

    • #13
    • March 13, 2019, at 2:37 AM PDT
    • 14 likes
  14. Mendel Member

    For all of the reasons we’ve discussed here, it rankles me when conservatives rail against diversity quotas by saying “we just want to live in a meritocracy”.

    It’s not because I want to keep the system of diversity quotas and preferences, it’s just that we’re selling people (and sometimes ourselves) a utopia that isn’t possible. And if/when people discover that we’ve been pushing a bill of goods, they’re likely to push back pretty hard.

    The same holds true for arguments praising the free market for letting consumers be “free to choose”. Even in the least fettered market, the consumer is still a slave to the choices made by every other consumer.

    Like so many of our policy goals, the end point isn’t a world in which everyone is happy, it’s more of a “least crappy outcome”. That’s definitely a harder sell, but it’s also the correct one.

    • #14
    • March 13, 2019, at 2:51 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  15. Ralphie Member

    In the book Class, Paul Fussell argues that before the 1950s about 13% of the population went to college verses about 46% ( in the 90s), but that it is still 13% that are actually college educated. He makes the point that we have created a higher education system that is mainly a name game. All the “universities” that we have today, slapping university on a college gives it gravitas.

    A quote from the 1870s: “There are two universities in England, four in France, ten in Prussia, and thirty-seven in Ohio.”

    It matters where you went to college on your resume. Fussell notes that the out of sight rich don’t seem to have the hangups on the ivies that the upper and middle class do. This story kind of follows that arc.

    • #15
    • March 13, 2019, at 5:22 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. Franco Member

    I think most Americans have been sold a completely false, but oddly self-fulfilling, assumption about a “college education”.

    The Bachelors degree was supposed to be the credential that got the graduate a higher-tiered position in management. After everyone’s kid was sent off to college by the 1980’s ( many to study in absurd fields) it had become little more than a basic requirement for almost any type of employment. 

    Somehow, something must be very wrong with a candidate who didn’t go to a university.

    And with that came credential-inflation. All this empowered the academic institutions. They get money from the government ( subsidies) grants and donations from alumni, and income a thriving business in ‘amateur’ sports. And now you need an advanced degree to even enter some fields. Ironically, “education” for example. You have to have a Master’s degree to teach grammar school. How come all our teachers back 40 years ago lacked these credentials yet were perfectly capable of teaching us? And my parents who both had a University education in the 1930’s were tremendously better educated than comparably accomplished students today.

    On the one hand, everyone knows that a degree doesn’t automatically translate into expertise or knowledge. The only take-away is the level of networking connections and the prestige of the University that the hiring company can tout.

    It being extremely difficult to be accepted into an Ivy League school makes the degree carry automatic weight. Again, a sort of self-fulfilling syndrome.

    With grade inflation, together with extraordinarily esoteric and useless electives and/or majors, no one really believes in the worth of a University education, it’s only better than the lack of one. The only currency becomes networking connections, which is why the competition is so fierce to get into elite schools. 

    I’m betting that all of these candidates could have gotten into less prestigious schools, but the parents saw, quite accurately, that there was little benefit in comparison. 

    The black market reveals the true price of every commodity. Here, an degree from an elite school is worth something, the less-prestigious schools notsomuch.

    This creates a sort of protection racket, whereby graduates of elite Universities feel obligated to their sponsors and also to hire and trade with their co-equals. This foments a certain fear of (from insecurity), and contempt for, those not sufficiently credentialed.

    • #16
    • March 13, 2019, at 5:23 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  17. Full Size Tabby Member

    I do not want to live in a pure meritocracy. But I also don’t want the government forcing people to prioritize certain factors over others. 

    When I hired, I didn’t always hire the person with the “best” existing skills. Sometimes I hired a person with lesser skills but a greater apparent willingness to learn and to grow. I have also chosen not to hire a person who had great technical skills but had a personality that would have been very disruptive to the organization. 

    There are times and places at which if you add someone very different from the people already there you will get beneficial other ways to look at the status quo. But there are other times and places at which if you add someone very different from the people already there you will get chaos that will damage the enterprise. 

    If we allowed greater freedom of association (you can hire and serve anyone you want for any basis you want) we would actually end up with a better “meritocracy,” as (eventually) people would associate in ways that would produce good results. The “magic” of the free market. 

    • #17
    • March 13, 2019, at 5:44 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  18. ST Inactive
    ST

    Annefy (View Comment):

    Well – one of my precious four is a grunt; another an officer. Do I count?

    P.S. My mom has her “Mom of a Marine” decal on her car to this day. I asked her once to stop introducing me as ‘her Marine’ because I had gotten embarrassed. I later apologized to her. Sometimes sons should just shut up when mom is talking.

    • #18
    • March 13, 2019, at 5:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Hang On Member

    It all comes down to how you define “merit” and there is no one single definition. Why shouldn’t being able to network not be part of the definition of “merit”. Sometimes it is highly appropriate and sometimes it isn’t. And “networking” is just applied communication skills – and when is being able to communicate with others and communicate well not to show up in a definition of “merit”?

    What should never show up in a definition of “merit” is: what is your race?

    • #19
    • March 13, 2019, at 5:54 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  20. ST Inactive
    ST

    Hang On (View Comment):
    What should never show up in a definition of “merit” is: what is your race?

    Well my friend it does and it has been there since I have been competing for salaried positions. We talk a good game here and there. Then go back to our ivory towers and do nothing.

    not you @annefy may the Lord richly bless you for your sacrifice to this the greatest nation on Earth ever – amen.

    • #20
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:10 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Steven Seward Member

    MarciN (View Comment):

    When my daughter was going to college in Vermont, one night after I had dropped her off, I ended up driving most of the night back to our home on Cape Cod. I listened to a fascinating discussion on NPR (yup! National Public Radio) about a new law in Vermont that had passed with the objective of equalizing education opportunity in Vermont. Someone or some group had sued the state to force equality in public school funding. The premise of the lawsuit was that a child from town A should be able to get the same education as a child from town B, something that was not happening at that time because town A was spending a great deal more per student than town B. How to fix this problem. We had the same issue in Massachusetts.

    The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state would have to end the towns’ reliance on town property taxes to fund their public schools. Instead, all education property taxes would go to the state and the state would divvy up the proceeds equally so that every town would spend the same on every student.

    Obviously, this idea to create perfectly equal educational opportunities could be debated endlessly. What are we talking about? How could such equality possibly be achieved? Towns varied considerably in what they had and how they would spend any money that came to them for education.

    In their ruling, I thought the Vermont Supreme Court made an interesting and valid observation. In a nutshell, they acknowledged that equality of educational opportunity was only a vague direction to go in. It could never be achieved, for about a million reasons.

    If you start with a small child at six years old and examine his or her surroundings and opportunities and family and schools, if you look at what the child has in terms of innate talents and interests, you can see instantly how impossible it would be to achieve pure meritocracy. There are a million variables in that little child’s life and in the life of the child standing right next to him.

    Life is messy. That’s a good thing.

    I agree with Vermont’s Supreme Court. There is a tired old saw from the Left that says “poor kids are not getting a good education because of the low school funding in their neighborhoods.”

    If Ohio is any example, the Cleveland Public School District, whose residents are far below the average economic class in Ohio, spends more money per student than all other 800 school districts in Ohio except about a dozen. On the other hand, Cleveland’s academic performance ranks in the lowest ten of the State, a complete reversal of the spending paradigm. Plus, their teachers salaries are some of the highest in the State’s public education.

    Money is not the most important factor in improving education. Parents are.

     

    • #21
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:23 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  22. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    ST (View Comment):

    Annefy (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):

    Do you want your son led in combat by the best platoon commander or the one that got his gig because of a quota?

    Stupid question because no one reading this would ever allow their precious seed to be a USMC grunt.

    Well – one of my precious four is a grunt; another an officer. Do I count?

    My vastly unlimited experience leads me to believe the USMC is for the most part a meritocracy. But my cynicism grows daily …

    Sorry. You count very much and I love all mothers of Marines. Just wasn’t expecting to see you here so soon.

    Semper Fi Annefy (moms serve too)

    Many of us have kids who are grunts.

    Though I’m not sure if my son will continue to qualify. He’s probably going to be promoted to sergeant at the end of the month. Is a Marine sergeant still a grunt?

    • #22
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:34 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Stad Thatcher

    ExcitableBoy: Under meritocratic guidelines, when there’s a job opening up, you just take the most qualified person, and that’s that. Or is that really that?

    Everyone hiring has their own definition of “best qualified”, and it can go beyond who has the highest GPA or scored the highest on this test or that. This is where intangibles come into play, such as how the interviewee carries himself in the job interview, or how poorly he’s dressed. Is she dressed appropriately for the future workplace, or does she look as if she’s auditioning to be Stormy Daniels’ understudy? Does she speak clearly and succintly, or slur her words and use slang?

    As for heart surgery, I’d want the doc with the best track record, regardless of his test score . . .

    • #23
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:38 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  24. ST Inactive
    ST

    Steven Seward (View Comment):
    Money is not the most important factor in improving education. Parents are.

    Except, you know, racism.

    • #24
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:38 AM PDT
    • Like
  25. ST Inactive
    ST

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    Money is not the most important factor in improving education. Parents are.

    all USMC 03xx are grunts by my definition good sir

    • #25
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:39 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Steven Seward Member

    ExcitableBoy:

    It’s interesting that one thing nearly everyone agrees on is “networking matters.” Some classes in business school are basically just expensive networking seminars, and probably every college advertises their networking opportunities. Well, if networking matters, we don’t live in a meritocracy. It the best people are getting hired, it doesn’t matter who you know.

    You are assuming that networking allows totally unqualified people to get jobs just because they know somebody. While we all know that this does happen in many cases, it is also true that networking contributes to people getting to know about one another’s skills and assets so they can make a more informed hiring decision. Don’t forget that some people give bad impressions while networking, and others will share this information with their colleagues as a warning.

    I am of the opinion that anything that adds to the knowledge about another person for purposes of hiring is a good thing, and networking is just another tool that helps. Outside of our own employment world we do this all the time when we ask our friends and neighbors to recommend a good plumber, a barber, a babysitter, a hit man?!

    • #26
    • March 13, 2019, at 6:42 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  27. Full Size Tabby Member

    Stad (View Comment):

    ExcitableBoy: Under meritocratic guidelines, when there’s a job opening up, you just take the most qualified person, and that’s that. Or is that really that?

    Everyone hiring has their own definition of “best qualified”, and it can go beyond who has the highest GPA or scored the highest on this test or that. This is where intangibles come into play, such as how the interviewee carries himself in the job interview, or how poorly he’s dressed. Is she dressed appropriately for the future workplace, or does she look as if she’s auditioning to be Stormy Daniels’ understudy? Does she speak clearly and succintly, or slur her words and use slang?

    As for heart surgery, I’d want the doc with the best track record, regardless of his test score . . .

    In other words, people (and organizations) are going to have different definitions of “merit,” and so will have different ideas of what a “meritocracy” looks like. 

    Besides hiring lawyers for a large corporation, I have hired church organists. Some of the most technically proficient organists have made poor church organists when they put that technical proficiency above helping the congregation worship. The criteria for the “most qualified organist” were different depending on whether I was hiring an organist for an organ concert or hiring an organist to play for worship services. 

    • #27
    • March 13, 2019, at 7:34 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. Gaius Member

    Sometimes I think meritocracy is a fantasy invented by introverts precisely because we can be resentful of the fruits of “networking.” Should employment be handed out based on some kind of annonymous standardized test for applicants? No, that’s crazy. Should college admissions be determined by test scores alone? Given the alternatives I tend to think so but take my opinion with a grain of salt.

    • #28
    • March 13, 2019, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  29. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    People are rightly skeptical of “meritocracy” because it’s so very difficult to define “merit” universally.

    The core issue with recent college admissions “scandals” is two-fold:

    1. In return for fat taxpayer subsidies, governments require that schools agree to one-size-fits-all definitions of “merit” that schools don’t necessarily agree with.
    2. In order to keep those fat taxpayer subsidies but also prevent government from ruining their schools, the schools are saying one thing but doing something else entirely.

    The least-worst option would be to let schools define “merit” in their own ways, but also to require them to be transparent about how they define “merit” and force them to live up to their own definitions. Then students could apply to schools whose definition of “merit” most closely match their own, and those schools whose definition of “merit” doesn’t attract enough applicants would either need to rethink how they define “merit” or else go out of business.

    Of course, this “sink-or-swim” approach cannot realistically happen without also ending the schools’ dependence on taxpayer subsidies.

    • #29
    • March 13, 2019, at 11:10 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  30. Hank Rhody, on the blockchain Contributor

    ST (View Comment):
    Sometimes sons should just shut up when mom is talking.

    Solid advice, but something that’s real hard to learn. At least it took me longer than it ought.

    • #30
    • March 13, 2019, at 3:29 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
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