Plus an overview of the reasonable alternatives that it does have
By MARTIN REZNY
I have recently encountered a decent article about the downsides of meritocracy and a discussion of it by a group of highly skilled people who work in a company that holds this value in a very high regard. Many of whom logically felt the need to defend meritocracy against its alternatives. Or, to be more precise, a version of it called “inclusive meritocracy”.
Now, if the rebranding itself is not already an admission that meritocracy has problems, I don’t know what is. It might as well be called “meritocracy, but, you know, not as mean, hopefully”. It’s basically an attempt to have the cake of best ideas winning without eating the people who don’t have the capacity to have them in the process. The solution here is rather ironic, however — you exclusively hire people who are not only exceptionally skilled in the technical fields, but also possess high EQ and mean well.
In other words, the elite of the elite of the elite. Wow, much inclusive.
And remember, this is what highly skilled, empathetic, and altruistic people came up with when they attempted to fix meritocracy. Not encouraging.
The whole term “meritocracy” originated in a satirical work of fiction from 1958 that argued against a society being run by this principle, but then the elites everywhere embraced it unironically, much to the dismay of the author, Michael Young. Imagine that you write a whole book detailing what you think is the worst idea ever, only to then see it take over the world.
The main argument of the original article was that some experiments have shown that if you believe you’re more skilled than other people, you believe that you deserve a bigger reward than them, or conversely, that people less successful than you deserve to have less. Again, that meritocracy will lead to this effect was obvious from the start. How could it not lead to this?
But I’m not just intending to be a Negative Nelly here. I know that corporate world doesn’t like to burden itself with philosophy too much, but in this case, what I believe is needed is a look at the whole system of conflicted values that interact with merit to see what kind of balance can be achieved.
Because that’s the thing — every idea is wrong, when it is allowed to run rampant. Individual humans are complex creatures with a spectrum of competing priorities that need to be kept mutually in check to achieve any semblance of sanity. Society is just like that, except way more complex.
Let’s Make This Personal
I realize that none of this or what I’m about to say is based on a scientific study, but the fact of logic is that you can’t science values, anyway. I’m sorry, technical people, we will have to do it the old-fashioned, messy way. We will have to have a humane debate. Here are the main competing principles:
- Character — like merit about individual excellence, but not focused on delivering outcomes or receiving material rewards. An excellence of being, not doing. Can devolve into charismatic autocracy based on violence, and it is exclusive also, but at the same time, it’s behind a lot of inspired unstructured liberating progress lead by artists of all kinds.
- Love — directly opposed to merit, as it embraces flaws of people and puts minimal conditions on anyone receiving all the care they need. It’s all about irrational compassion. Can devolve into nepotism and nationalism, which are its most exclusive forms, but its various political forms like matriarchy or monarchy are not necessarily bad regimes.
- Fairness — the most collectivist value opposed directly to character, but also in conflict with merit to the extent to which it is about rewarding some individuals much higher than others, and to love to the extent to which it emphasizes emotion or one’s own family. It considers primarily how chance, upbringing, and other external factors determine success over individual excellence. Can devolve into totalitarianism, especially a socialist one, or a lottery, but can also be the most humane, if grounded.
Do these make sense? There are of course other values that one can bring up, but I believe that these are the main overarching categories of values that are not very compatible with merit. Let’s look at each of these values as if it was a person, since corporate people love demonstrating points on made-up personas, and how they would criticize the meritocratic system:
Oh boy, where do I start? Meritocrats are a bunch of self-absorbed, greedy, humorless hypocrites. Newsflash — no amount of technical skills or money in the bank can make you a good or interesting person. Excellence my balls, it’s just a competition at who’s the goodest boy of them all and deserves the most treats. For goodness sake, man (statistically, probably), stop not saying what you mean, doing only what others want of you, and taking yourself so goddamn seriously. Spoiler alert, good grades, employee awards, and money were all made up to corrupt and control you. Wake up.
I don’t want to be mean, but it really makes me sad how meritocrats expect that people are born to be of use to them, and if they’re not, that they deserve to suffer in poverty. Every person has value, way beyond money, and maybe what you should be doing if you’re so exceptional is trying to find a way how to include people who were less fortunate than you. What else are they supposed to do? Go die out of sight? If that’s too much bother, then please at least stop being so smug about your success. I was wrong, it makes me angry more than it makes me sad. Sorry. I do believe in you.
Let’s look at this logically. If what you want is equal opportunity, but you reward only people who succeed, then the levels of opportunity in the next generation are bound to be much less equal, and so on, until meritocracy implodes into a new form of feudalism. As it is happening today, and just like Plato described in the Republic. You have to have some reasonable measure of equity in the resource distribution. Also, you can achieve much more by cooperation than competition, as in competition, people waste a significant portion of their energy on undermining each other. Since you meritocrats love data so much, feel free to prove me wrong. I bet you can’t.
So that the meritocrats don’t feel left out of the debate, here’s what they can say in their defense against being savaged like this, I imagine:
Look, Chuck, nobody is saying that bad people are good people just because they make money, but at the end of the day, you still have to produce some results. A true meritocrat is not that way because they love themselves and want to lord it over others, they are that way to do what needs to be done in the best way. Including the boring stuff, which is hard.
Lucy, I hear you, meritocrats are not forbidden from having feelings. A true meritocrat, especially a super-successful one, should engage in charity and humanitarian causes, giving back to the society that rewarded him or her so greatly and helping the less fortunate people all over the world. Remember, a world where people couldn’t work themselves up was worse.
And Frank, you make good points, and you’re obviously better read on the classics than I am, but how do you want to make the people cooperate in the first place? Sure, meritocracy and all forms of competition should be kept in check by reasonable regulations, like anti-monopoly or anti-discrimination laws, but you can’t legislate motivation. Reward motivates.
The Annoying Necessity of Compromise
After reading all that, doesn’t it kinda sound like everyone’s right? Well, that’s because that’s how philosophy works. If somebody was simply right, we could just call the whole thing done. No more philosophizing needed, yay! I know I made fun of it a bit earlier, but maybe trying to fix meritocracy by actively counteracting its negative side effects is the best we can do.
Let’s turn the critiques into policies:
- Encourage humor — self-deprecation and satire are effective tools that counteract ego bloat. Corporate cultures often abhor this type of challenge to authority, but as famous comedian John Cleese puts it, you can be funny and serious at the same time, while solemnity is only a mask behind which cowards and scoundrels can seek refuge.
- Punish unethical behavior — technical skills, sales numbers, or other forms of usefulness to a company should not outweigh immoral and/or criminal behavior. See the #MeToo movement for examples. To be clear, you must be careful not to turn it into a witch hunt, it must be fair and evidence-based, and against people clearly causing harm to others.
- Don’t reward conformity — reconsider the types of prizes, awards, or incentives that you’re giving to the employees to make sure that they’re not rewarding disingenuous behaviors like towing the party line, sucking up to the boss, agreeing with everyone, or the like. Instead, make sure to reward constructive troublemaking and originality.
- Discourage superiority — the most needless bad element of meritocracy is being an asshole about your success. This is an important thing for managers to try to identify in the employees (and themselves) and make sure to address at every opportunity. You just need to also ensure that you don’t become a judgmental superior asshole about that, either.
- Avoid discouraging applicants — I know I promised no studies as basis for this, but there is some research showing that certain masculine-sounding words discourage female applicants. As a general principle, you should strive to use language that won’t be interpreted by people like you’re looking for someone with the same skills, but different looks.
- Emphasize empathy in leadership — to mitigate a lot of the damage that profit-chasing corporations cause, some people seriously propose that a more traditionally feminine, motherly approach to leadership is the answer. Allowing more women to assume leadership positions would be the start of that, but it’s not so much about gender as it is about caring.
- Favor cooperation and coopetition — in terms of game theory, not all games are win-lose, many are win-win. Don’t go out of your way to create losers where there don’t have to be any. You can have people compete to determine what the best idea is, even reward the people with the best idea the most, but recognize that everyone was needed.
- Compensate for privilege — there is a lot of debate to be had on what the best way to do this is, but very few would object for instance to supporting skill development, like by providing education, tech, or facilities to people who can’t afford it. The goal should be to make the negative effects of one’s origin irrelevant, a true equality of opportunity.
- Share the profits — if more motivated workers are the goal, then closing the gap between the wages of different positions in the same company is a promising egalitarian way to go about it. People will be rewarded for their work, to the extent to which it succeeded, but also more motivated to cooperate and care more about the success of the company.
Can all of this be done fully 100% of the time? Probably not. But attempting all this constantly, or at least being fully aware of all this, must be objectively better in the end result than the alternative of unchecked meritocracy. I know people hate complicated answers that require a lot of continuous effort from them, but, you know, welcome to reality.
It is by no means an exhaustive list, although it looks plenty exhausting already. It’s also possible that corporations in different fields need to aim for different balances of these competing priorities. For example, in the field where I work (technically), open source software, a much higher measure of collectivism and egalitarianism makes sense than in, say, the entertainment industry, which is all about individual excellence.
I don’t have all the answers, I just happen to have a degree in part in political philosophy. A surprisingly applied form of philosophy, a philosophy that grew up and got a job, but still only philosophy, as debatable as ever. If there’s one point that I hope I managed to demonstrate it’s that there is not, never was, and never will be a single correct answer. Politics of compromise are the realistic approach here, not the politics of #winning.
If this system allowed you to be successful, good for you. Be glad, be proud, but also try to be humble. There was luck involved, there are people just as skilled and hardworking as you, and more, that don’t have your level of success. Yet others were prevented from developing to your level by circumstances like bad parents, disease, trauma, or genetic lottery.
It can be argued that your privilege gives you a certain responsibility for the rest of us, and a responsibility to make sure that others will be able to get the same opportunity that you got in the future. Don’t make everything about yourself, because it’s not. We’re all in this together, and we can’t all be successful under any conceivable system. This merits contemplation.
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