Merit is Meaningless
But meritocracy is important. I'm going somewhere with this.
Next week, I’ll publish a column arguing that meritocracy is good. I’ll argue that the recent trend towards rolling one’s eyes at meritocracy is bad, and that meritocracy is something a just society should want. But first, I need to write this column, in which I argue that merit is a meaningless concept that should be ignored in every context except for one.
That might seem contradictory, and maybe it is. Maybe I’m getting so far up my own ass with semantic distinctions that this column is basically a self-colonoscopy. Nonetheless, I see a big difference between saying that merit is a useful concept — which I think it is — and saying that it’s a meaningful concept, which I think it isn’t. The debate over meritocracy often seems to be pro-merit people arguing that the concept is useful versus anti-merit people arguing that it’s meaningless. As is so often the case in American politics, both sides are sort of right, both sides are speaking past each other, and both badly need to shut the fuck up.
Let’s start here: A society that’s perfectly meritocratic would be hell. Imagine that there was a single trait society valued — call it “M” for “merit”. Everyone agrees that M is the only thing that matters; in this scenario, the One True God — we’ll call him Brad — came to Earth and said “M is all I care about.” Everyone agrees that Brad Is God, and everyone has heeded the Word Of Brad and become singularly focused on increasing their M quotient. Society learns to measure M with precision, and benefits are doled out in perfect proportion to the extent that a person exhibits M.
This society would be perfectly fair. And it would also be a living hell, because it would be perfectly hierarchical. Everyone would know their exact moral worth; remember that M is perfectly measured, so your M-score would be a true measure of your value as a person. Everyone except for the most successful person alive would feel inadequate, and low-M producers would feel deep shame. High-M people would claim to be superior, and they would be right, because the Lord Brad thy God hath declared it so.
Luckily, nothing remotely like this exists on Earth. Though, we sometimes act like it does; some people see money as a proxy for worth. Obviously, this is stupid, but it’s common — when we call someone “successful”, we typically mean “they have a lot of money.” Sorry to get all petulant 15 year-old on you, but did you ever notice that all society cares about is, like…MONEY?
The observation that money doesn’t equate to moral worth — which is trite enough to have served as the basis for every middle-brow comedy movie between 1980 and 1995 — points out just how silly societal evaluations of worth can be. Which is the first point I want to make: What we value is arbitrary. Various traits have held wildly different values in various cultures throughout human history. That proves that most assessments of “worth” are just snapshot evaluations in a constantly changing market.
Consider how valuable “being a huge, muscly oaf” used to be. It used to be key! Being a jacked-up meat pile used to have a million uses, from defending your cave to clearing brush to killing game with a rock. For much of human history, the prime “choose your fighter” option for anyone with a Y chromosome was to be a big, beefy slab of goon.
That was true from The Dawn Of Time until about 1971. In the Information Age, intelligence is suddenly highly valued. I agree with those who argue that we’ve gone way too far in valuing intelligence; calling someone “stupid” is the modern equivalent of performatively removing a white glove and slapping them across the face. “Gifted” children are treated like minor deities for doing well on little-kid IQ tests, which mostly just measure how much drool the kid got on the test sheet (not much drool = genius). Intelligence is a handy tool to possess, but in my opinion it’s the most overrated thing this side of Ted Lasso.
Different people and different societies value different things. A culture might value empathy, conformity, physical beauty, or even aptitude at the bagpipes. In Kazakhstan, you can become a national hero by throwing a dead goat into a well; in other places, that’s frowned upon. If you’re the 50th best baseball player in the world, you’re a multi-millionaire; if you’re the 50th best volleyball player, you drive an Uber. We value different things in different amounts at different times, the market for various traits is always in flux, and to imagine that any given valuation matches any objective sense of virtue is silly.
So, my first point is that society values random things. My second point is that the measures we have for things that we value are often bad. I’ve already thrown shade at IQ tests, which I think are iffy; measuring traits like adaptability or social intelligence is basically impossible. I can’t even begin to imagine how we’d measure — for example — empathy; the best I can think of is a test involving a series of trees with nests of orphaned baby birds located increasingly high on each successive tree, and we would measure how high you’re willing to climb to spit a mouthful of chewed-up worms into the birds’ mouths. But even that is partly a measure of climbing ability and worm tolerance — see how hard this is?
Some fields devote massive resources to assessing specific traits, and even so, their assessments are hit-and-miss. Physical traits are relatively easy to evaluate — you can often see them or use an instrument to measure them — and yet the sports world is full of “can’t-miss” prospects who flamed out and late-round draft picks who turned into All Stars. The wisdom of crowds doesn’t work here, either; Bill Cosby was pretty much universally agreed to be a paragon of moral character until we discovered that actually, he’s a world-historic criminal. Even if we did have a clear sense of which traits matter — i.e. the “Brad Hath Spoken” scenario I described earlier — our measurements are so bad that we don’t really know who possesses which traits. We make assessments because we have to, and because a flawed metric is often better than none at all, but we shouldn’t trick ourselves into imagining that we actually know who possesses which traits with any real precision.
My last point — the third layer in this three-layer cake of unknowable chaos that I’m baking — is that even if we knew what matters and could measure those traits with precision, that measurement would tell us nothing about a person’s moral worth. That’s because it must be true that a person’s moral worth is measured relative to their ability to do good things. That is: It’s not “total quantity of good things you did” that matters, it’s “quantity of good things relative to your ability to do good things.” Boiled down even more: Effort counts.
For example: Consider a person, just an ordinary Jane. She’s an EMT who makes an average income. In the course of her career, she sees the problems with our hospital system and starts a non-profit that gets homeless people access to health care. Because of her efforts, a thousand people get treatment that they otherwise would not have.
Now consider another person: This guy is Joseph D. Paperclip IV, heir to the vast little-bendy-metal-thing-that-holds-documents-together fortune. Net worth at birth: $62 billion. Joey Papers (as his bros call him) spends his life making Paris Hilton look like Jonas Salk; he fucks his way through the Mediterranean in his 20s, starts several stupid businesses that immediately fail in his 30s, and spends his golden years living in mansions that reflect the lowest lows of The Best of Zillow. Shortly before he dies, his financial advisor tells him that a charitable donation would have tax benefits, so JP instructs his advisor to “do something with hospitals”. Because of this, a thousand homeless people get health care that they otherwise would not have.
Obviously, Jane did way better than Joey. But their output of “good” was the same. And of course: I’ve created a hypothetical in which each person’s ability to do good is measurable — I used money as a proxy for “capacity to do good” — but in real life, we don’t know this. A person’s capacity for good stems from a million factors, from health to resources to environment to luck. We can’t know our own abilities, much less other people’s abilities. Maybe Ambulance Jane was a logistical genius, and her modest health care work represented an extreme under-utilization of her potential. Maybe Joey Paperclip suffered severe lead poisoning as a child, and the fact that he didn’t use his fortune to conquer the globe with a robot army represents a major moral success. We don’t know anybody’s baseline capacity, so we don’t know how they performed relative to that baseline, so in a theological sense, we don’t know any person’s moral worth. Even Bill Cosby.
You may wonder: Why all the hand-wringing? Why did I just spend 1,500 words arguing that we can’t really know how meritorious any person is? Especially since I’m going to make a full-throated argument for meritocracy next week — why did I do something very close to saying “before I launch my 50-part YouTube series on origami, I just want to say that folding paper is a stupid hobby for sad losers”?
It’s because I think that people often treat discussions of merit as discussions of worth. I think that much of the opposition to meritocracy comes from people who aren’t comfortable with the idea of declaring some people “better” and some people “worse”. There’s a sense that when we pick someone for a desirable job or a spot in a prestigious school, we’re deciding that that person is superior. I’m trying to be very clear: I don’t believe that. That is emphatically not what would be happening in the meritocratic systems I support — those systems have nothing to say about any person’s worth. To me, assessments made in meritocratic systems have a moral value equal to the practical value of some random person’s review of a muffin tin on Amazon, which is to say: No value whatsoever.
I think that accepting this idea is key to making arguments over meritocracy less about status. We’d probably all be better off if we could accept that decisions about colleges, careers, romantic partners, and countless other things are less about “better” or “worse” and more about “different”. Do people want to go to Harvard largely because it’s hard to get into Harvard? Yeah, definitely. For our societal and psychological health, we should try to let all of that go. We should accept that humans have wildly different proclivities and circumstances, and encourage people to follow whatever path helps them flourish. If we can do that, then it might be easier to accept meritocracy as a useful and fair tool for making certain decisions. And next week, I’ll argue that that’s exactly what it is.
I think this hints at what gets people so enthusiastic about the free market. It's not simply a judgment about good economic systems. The point is that it's very hard (maybe even theoretically impossible) to make objective judgments about merit and value and morality. Instead, allowing people to choose what they find meritorious or valuable by paying for those things, or patronizing establishments they like, or donating to organizations they like, avoids the necessity of having some group of mandarins decide what is worthwhile, based on the shaky criteria of the sort described here.
Excellent perspective. Thanks for this post. I think the word "merit" is part of the problem we have distinguishing between moral worth and everything else.
An everything-else-tocracy probably doesn't cut it.
This was the first thing i read this morning, and it got me off to a good start to my day.