Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of debates about how close x is to being a “true” meritocracy — where x is Silicon Valley, elite universities, the United States, or even the world in general. Are these places where the best and the brightest can pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little grit and moxie, or do the old ghosts of wealth and privilege still reign supreme?
Left unspoken in the framing of this debate is the taken-for-granted assumption that meritocracy is a good thing. I wonder how many of the people having these discussions know that the term “meritocracy” actually originates from a satirical essay in which it was used to describe a dystopia. In the intervening half-century it’s suffered the same fate as “the best and the brightest,” another tongue-in-cheek phrase that lost its original irony with age and is now applied with embarrassing sincerity more often than not.
But I’m skeptical—not just that pure meritocracy is possible, but that it would even be a good thing if it were. There is, of course, a logic to the idea that we should apportion roles in a society to those who are best able to perform them. It makes sense that we should give a job to the smartest person and not, say, the tallest person. The problem, I think, comes when we confuse the system that functions the best with the system that is the most fair.
Ignore for just a moment the rampant inequalities that make it impossible to pull a real-world example of a meritocracy — as well as the unworkable matter of how you would even decide what being the “best” at anything even means — and it probably does make sense, in most cases, for us to reward members of society based on the merits of their achievements. But that has nothing to do with being fair to them. It’s just the most practical way to incentivize the rewarded to do things that benefit the rest of us. We have a tendency to frame meritocracy as a matter of justice, when it’s really just a matter of which arbitrary system works best. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about capitalism.)
Yes, strip away the privilege and the randomness and you’re left with the fact that at least some of my “success” — a word which, by the way, I’m incredibly uncomfortable applying to anything I’ve achieved in life so far, but which I have to acknowledge would be considered at least somewhat fitting from most outside perspectives — is because I’m smart and talented and work hard. But I didn’t choose to be the kind of person who works hard any more than I chose to be the kind of person who’s white.
It’s always been odd to me that we see the disproportionate share of six-foot CEOs as the result of unfair bias, but don’t bat an eye at similar articles about those same leaders’ above-average IQs. Sure, I’ll concede that it makes sense for society to reward qualities like intelligence and industriousness when they’re applied for the collective good — but it’s a dangerous path for us recipients of those rewards to start believing we “deserve” them. We may be the lucky beneficiaries of a societally-optimal incentive structure, but we deserve nothing.