What’s so great about meritocracy?

It’s one of the truisms of modern political life that this is obviously the ideal way to structure a society. But there’s a reason why truism and truth aren’t quite the same word.

Nearing the end of Part One of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which is mostly devoted to a pretty fascinating overview of the economic history of Britain and France from the eighteenth century to the present — seriously, it is fascinating, why are you looking at me like that — I was nagged by the recurrence, every so often in the first hundred or so pages, of the phrase “meritocratic values,” used in what appears to be a totally uncritical, non-ironic way, as though the notion of meritocracy as a good worth striving for were totally self-evident. In fact, looking back, I see that on the first page of the book Piketty introduces his thesis, which is that under certain circumstances “capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Then again, why should I be surprised? Anyone who’s heard just about any American politician speak in the last couple of decades is pretty well accustomed to hearing about meritocracy and democracy in the same breath. The basic idea is that in a meritocracy, the power and rewards go to the people with the greatest ability, which is generally understood to be some combination of talent, intelligence, and hard-workingness. It’s one of the truisms of modern political life that this is obviously the ideal way to structure a society — and on the face of it, it sounds fair, doesn’t it?

But there’s a reason why truism and truth aren’t quite the same word, and there’s a case for pushing back against meritocracy as an ideal principle, both on the level of practical politics, and on the level of principle itself.

Some of this pushback has come from the sociologist and novelist Michael Young, who coined the word “meritocracy,” and who’s apparently not at all pleased to see that his satirical exaggeration of what he saw as a pernicious societal tendency is now taken to be one of the guiding principles of modern life.

His objections are subtle, and interesting — they include the psychological effects of a regime where the only explanation for your failure to ascend the social ranks is your own lack of merit, the neglect which will befall the trades and occupations which are judged to be low-status, and the upward pressure on compensation in certain high-status professions whose members are given to believe that they deserve whatever they can get, simply by virtue of the fact that they can get it. They’re all worth reading about. But there are simpler, broader reasons for objecting to meritocracy, even without thinking through all the future implications.

A practical objection is that the system we’ve created for identifying “merit” might not be measuring what we want it to measure. Our educational system is the primary machine we’ve built for sorting the talented from the untalented, but there are a lot of reasons to suspect that it’s not very good at separating class advantage from pure talent (whatever that even is). Even if you aren’t committed to the belief that standardized tests are systematically racist, it’s hard to deny that students from wealthy families have better access to things like tutors, test preparation services, and the sort of stable home lives (or even just physically stable homes) that tend to improve academic performance.

That’s a problem of implementation, of course, one which assumes that a pure meritocracy is an ideal worth striving for. A principled objection would be one that questions the idea of meritocracy itself as a desirable end, something like: why do the talented, the intelligent, the hard-working, the more able, deserve to be rewarded in the first place?

You don’t have to be a skeptic about the entire concept of desert to see problems with linking welfare or resources to talent or intelligence. How can it be fair or just to reward someone for something as arbitrary as natural talent or innate intelligence? After all, being born smart is no less accidental than being born rich. Even diligence, or conscientiousness, or grit might be as much a matter of innate disposition as it is the fruit of hard work and self-cultivation (and where do you get the disposition to work hard and cultivate yourself, and the disposition to cultivate that disposition, etc.?).

Here’s Ben Bernanke, noted radical, making rather the same point in his Princeton commencement address:

3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate — these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

There’s a lot packed in there. It’s possible, though it might take a little longer than a blog post, to sketch an argument to the effect that the requirement that the luckiest “contribute to the betterment of the world” and “share their luck with others” implies a pretty strong component of egalitarianism, if not absolute equality. And meritocracy, as a principle, has nothing to say about equality. Meritocracy is simply a machine for sorting the most deserving from the least deserving, which, when it’s functioning properly, happens to use talent and intelligence as its sorting criteria. And because there’s no common currency between merit and reward, no accepted scale for weighing how much of one is implied by the other, we’re left to our own judgment as to the level of inequality our meritocratic principle demands. On whether the “best” deserve slightly more than the “worst,” or several hundred times more, it offers no guidance.

So if meritocracy is a non-starter as a principle, why are we always banging on about it? Why is Thomas Piketty talking about it as though it’s one of the necessary conditions for democracy?

I suspect that it’s because nobody actually thinks of meritocracy, on its own, as a positive principle. When we say we believe in meritocracy, what we’re really saying is that we prefer it to the alternative. Meritocracy is not an ideal principle of social justice at all, but the antidote to something that we can all agree is unjust: call it aristocracy, call it nepotism, call it the old boys’ club. There may be a philosophical case for the equal arbitrariness of all accidents of birth, so that being born with a high aptitude for learning or a diligent disposition is no less arbitrary than being born a Rockefeller or a Vanderbilt. But I suspect that most of us would agree that there is at least some personal choice involved in developing one’s talents and work ethic, compared to zero personal choice, and thus zero moral significance, involved in being born rich. Therefore even if meritocracy rewards people for reasons which are slightly, or somewhat, or largely morally arbitrary, that’s at least marginally better than rewarding them for reasons which are entirely morally arbitrary.

In other words, meritocracy has enemies both to its left and to its right — but it happens that in our actually existing society one of these camps is a more relevant enemy than the other. We can agree with Ben Bernanke (and G.A. Cohen) that, as a positive principle for social justice, pure meritocracy would be less desirable than some kind of luck-compensating egalitarianism. But in this world, meritocracy is useful precisely in its role as a negative principle, a brake on our slide towards aristocracy — because equality, it seems, isn’t on the menu at all.