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.

And even where we might agree - honesty, for example - it would seem again that our systems aren't sufficiently meritocratic: billionaire hedge-fund scandals are proof that the merit of honesty isn't adequately filtered for on the ascent to Wall Street wealth. Or, maybe that it's our prioritization of multiple merits that is askew. Which should we value more, ambition or honesty?

A third issue pushes us to the brink of modern psychology and philosophy. The question is, how should we attribute merit? Research incontrovertibly shows that traits like talent and self-discipline depend not just on individual choices, but also on genes, childhood nutrition, and upbringing. Psychologist Walter Mischel's famous "marshmallow test" studies suggest that the ability to delay gratification at age six is a stronger predictor of academic achievement and social adjustment in young adulthood than many other traits. Does anyone really deserve credit or blame for merit that is due to influences before they were six-years old? Liberals often ask this question.

Yet, society benefits by attributing merit to individuals. Even if my merit were only 1% up to me and as much as 99% up to other forces, it helps to believe that it's all me for three reasons: First, I'm the part of the world that I have the most control over. Second, it's circularly encouraging to think I'm in control. And third, even 1% every day accumulates like compound interest. Weber's "Protestant" ethic is the belief that virtue manifests as success. And, that belief can only be sustained if we praise and reward individual merit, as conservatives emphasize.

Both views are right. How can this difference be resolved? That brings us to the fourth issue with meritocracy: its tendency to propagate itself. Everyone, liberal or conservative, wants a system that de-emphasizes luck or preordained status in favor of the merit we care about. But as McArdle, Stille, and others lament, one problem is that merit itself is increasingly determined by parental status. The only way to get the benefits of a meritocracy without its flaws is to ensure that everyone grows up in an environment that nurtures merit. The most formalized solution for this (though there could be others), is to provide a broadly defined, high-quality education to everyone. In fact, as Rana Foroohar notes in Time Magazine, countries such as Denmark and Finland that guarantee a strong public education for everyone outdo the United States in social mobility.