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.Published in