Is True Meritocracy Impossible?

We want a culture that rewards the most capable people, regardless of wealth or background. But when wealth and background play such a big role in our capability, is that possible?

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Meritocracy is suddenly being questioned, with the latest spurt of debate instigated by Ross Douthat at the New York Times. Douthat's claim is that today's meritocracy breeds overconfident leaders prone to destructive hubris, and he holds out Jon Corzine as Exhibit A. Here at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf responds that the real problem is ideology-driven policy-making masking itself as a meritocracy. And Megan McArdle argues that meritocracies are no better than aristocracies in terms of propagating advantages from parent to child, and possibly worse. Here point is that if wealthy parents can give their kids good education (a proxy for "merit"), then merit is just as easy to inherit as money. Thus, social mobility is restricted -- exactly the opposite of what meritocracy is supposed to be about.

Douthat's article has caused the issue to come to a boil, but it has been simmering in the background for some time. Just a few weeks ago, Alexander Stille, also writing in The New York Times, quotes Nobel economist Gary Becker who agrees with McArdle: "I think we have become more meritocratic -- educational attainment has become increasingly predictive of economic success."

Stille calls out that in a meritocracy, the winners are more inclined to believe they earned their status, while sympathizing less with others (a point that Douthat also echoes). For this exact reason, Michael Young, the British Labour Party leader who wrote a satire that coined the term meritocracy, intended it to have negative connotations.

Putting aside the question of whether meritocracies are about who leads us ("cracy" comes from Greek for rule, or power) or about how society distributes rewards, I wanted to take up the debate after touching on this question in a post back in May.

It seems that there are four ways to challenge meritocracy.

First, it's possible to argue that the world isn't yet meritocratic enough. In their 2004 book, The Meritocracy Myth, sociologists Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. do just that. They argue that while merit plays a part in determining income and wealth in America, other factors overwhelm it, and in some cases negate its value.

Second, what do we really mean by "merit"? Most people will agree that merit includes intelligence, diligence, and social skills, and with respect to those traits, it does seem that today's America is far more meritocratic in rewarding those traits than any past aristocracy.

Some would also argue that merit should include aspects of moral character (as McNamee and Miller do, for example). Traits like honesty, compassion, and humility could be important for merit. But, not everyone agrees on which such traits should be include. For example, some Americans will undoubtedly include religious piety in a list of merits, while others would completely disagree. The last sentence of Douthat's op-ed mentions humility as a desirable characteristic of our leaders, and he implies that meritocracies don't value that trait, but that doesn't have to be true in all meritocracies. In many cultures, humility is prized, and leaders are open and self-effacing.

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Kentaro Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Chair Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. He is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. More

Kentaro Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Chair Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, where he teaches and researches technology in the context of social causes. Toyama graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in computer science and Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in physics. He is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology

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