Dear Silicon Valley: Meritocracy Is an Ideology Too

The central political value that animates Silicon Valley is neither libertarianism nor progressivism. It's meritocracy.


For some liberals, last week's Senate panel on corporate taxes might have caused a double take. As Apple CEO Timothy Cook testified about its global tax avoidance practices, Republican Senator Rand Paul stood up to defend the company. Huh? Isn't it liberal Democrats who are supposed to support Silicon Valley tech companies? Google chairman Eric Schmidt has deep ties to the current administration. Hillary Clinton's State Department asked favors of Twitter, and it complied. Obama is the first president ever to appoint a chief technology officer.

Just a week earlier, George Packer kicked off an interesting conversation about Silicon Valley's politics in The New Yorker. Based on observations about tech oligarchs bypassing traditional politics, Packer suggests that there's a deeply libertarian streak running through the Valley. Writer Steven Johnson disagrees, noting that Bay Area residents vote overwhelmingly Democrat, and suggesting an alternate narrative of "peer progressivism," in which fiscally liberal citizens solve societal problems in a decentralized, (digitally) networked way.

Packer and Johnson both throw insightful darts, but neither has quite hit the mark. That's because the central political value that animates Silicon Valley is neither libertarianism nor progressivism. It's meritocracy. Meritocracy can appear to be socially liberal, because it doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, religion, politics, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, or nation of origin. And, meritocracy can look libertarian because it abhors anything -- be it government, social convention, or four years of college -- obstructing talent's rise to the top. And where do these forces intersect? In immigration reform, where the meritocratic impulse is to crush both nationalist and unionist opposition to importing high-end skill.

But while meritocracy is a vast improvement over discrimination by traditional prejudices, it still privileges some people over others. And in Silicon Valley, privilege is heaped upon individualistic entrepreneurial capacity.

Where does that leave progressivism? Well, one thing to note is that as much as young liberals may love their digital gadgets, tech companies -- as corporations, not as aggregates of employed individuals -- are just as politically promiscuous as other corporations. As if to underscore this point, The New York Times ran a story a few days ago about Google's lobbying efforts, which lean slightly Republican. Susan Molinari, Google's chief lobbyist in D.C. is a "brassy, well-connected New York Republican who served seven years in the House." Large corporations -- even Silicon Valley darlings headed by privately left-leaning CEOs -- are equal-opportunity peddlers of political influence. As Packer notes in a follow-up article, technology companies are just like oil companies in being another special interest.

But putting aside corporate political straddling, are Silicon Valley's values ultimately aligned with liberal values? Here, it's useful to extrapolate to what might happen under a Silicon Valley meritocracy. Wealth and power would go to the smartest, most entrepreneurial people while less smart, less capable people would be jobless or relegated to low-paid labor. Under a tech-industry meritocracy, the axis of inequality would differ from more traditional discrimination by class, race, or religion, but the fact of inequality would remain, and possibly be aggravated. In fact, Packer's article amply demonstrates how this is already true in and around Palo Alto.

But don't we want our decision makers to be smart, productive people? What's wrong with a world in which greater intellects hold more power and win greater rewards? At least two things: First, intelligence and productivity are important, but they're secondary virtues, compared with goodness and sincerity. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions marred by stupidity, but bad intentions backed by brains are hypersonic jet transport to fire and brimstone. The difference was on full display when Cook testified. The Apple CEO is undoubtedly very smart, and on the Senate panel, he revealed a razor sharp social intelligence to boot. Yet, the words that came out of his mouth must rank with "we didn't know tobacco was bad for you" in their insincerity: "We not only comply with the laws, but we comply with the spirit of the laws. We don't depend on tax gimmicks." Really?

The second is that a meritocracy can be just as bad as any other "-ocracy" in reinforcing inequalities unless each generation ensures a fair distribution of merit. Unfortunately, American institutions for nurturing merit -- such as its system of formal education -- are only becoming less and less egalitarian. Public school funding remains linked to local property taxes, causing cumulative disadvantage; private schooling is becoming the default for rich, "meritocratic" parents, who then care less about what happens in the public system; college is increasingly unaffordable for even the firmly middle class.

So, are Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires are ultimately different from other millionaires and billionaires? On the one hand, as Alec MacGillis astutely calls out at the New Republic, there is their great hypocrisy: How can tech firms lobby for immigration reform on the basis of insufficient homegrown talent, all while avoiding the taxes that would foster homegrown talent? But Steven Johnson is also right: There is a strong progressive core among elite tech politics. The problem so far has been that private values don't seep through into public-facing corporate policy. Will tech titans use their newfound influence in politics to restructure a fairer base of merit? Or will they, like robber barons of previous generations, rig the game to reward their own "merit"? The jury is still out. But, I hope for once that their hearts win out over their brilliance in catering to "shareholder value."