Meritocracy is Vital
Even if there's a broad-based coalition shitting on it
Meritocracy has become uncool in lefty circles. The concept has been incorporated into the lefty activist “America is a racist hellhole” narrative, and tying merit to race has sapped many liberals of their will to stick to their beliefs. Which reflects possibly the most potent trend on the American left in the past decade: Activists pressuring the NPR crowd to go along with illiberal bullshit by turning everything into an identity issue. It’s been a remarkably successful tactic. If activists started arguing that it’s racist to wipe your ass, a large percentage of MSNBC’s audience would die of sepsis within a month.
I think the turn against meritocracy is a huge mistake. I think we underestimate how potent the concept is, both political and ethically. Politically, I think people feel the effects of meritocracy — or lack thereof — in their daily lives; it’s personal in a way that most issues aren’t. Ethically, it seems obvious to me that meritocracy is good. I'm bothered by how quickly some on the left are willing to shit-can a core liberal principal (plus I’m wondering if there’s any room left in that shit can after due process, proportional punishment for misdeeds, and free speech were also thrown in there). Last week, I argued that the concept of merit is ethically meaningless, but now let me argue that it's also extremely useful.
How do you hire someone for a job? Just pick someone you want to bang? Sure, that’s a classic. Hire your nephew so that your sister-in-law will STFU? Another time-honored tradition. But occasionally, someone will actually hire someone because that person is good at the thing that needs to be done. I’ve heard tales of people looking at as many as five resumes before deciding “this blows — I’m going to just hire the lady who went to college kind of near where I grew up and then play some Elden Ring.”
It’s shocking that we don’t DEMAND that employers: 1) Solicit applications for a job through an open process; 2) Develop meaningful processes for determining which applicants have the right skills; and 3) Hire the person deemed most likely to most benefit the organization. And sometimes, we do demand this, specifically: We demand it when we’ve been passed over for a job in favor of a less-capable person for some bullshit reason. In that moment, we are all meritocrats.
Most people grumble about non-meritocratic processes, though we probably don’t grumble as much as we might. This might be because on some level, we know that unfair systems will occasionally break in our favor. In fact, non-meritocratic systems are the obvious rational preference for anyone who’s lazy, incompetent, or married to Ivanka Trump. I have no shot at becoming a flautist for the New York Philharmonic via a meritocratic process, but the less meritocratic their process gets, the better my chances become. If they get really arbitrary, I just might just weasel my way in, despite the fact that I have no musical talent and my only experience with woodwinds is a few weeks of recorder in fifth grade.
Traditionally, opposition to meritocracy has come from the powerful. Titles, positions, and promotions in virtually every pre-Enlightenment society were doled out according to patronage. Want to be Comte of Ville de Merdedecheval? That can be arranged, for a fee. Want your idiot son to be a General who sends more competent soldiers off to die in blunders so egregious that they’ll be taught in military academies for centuries? If you have enough power, that can and will happen. In more recent times, usually-WASPy old boy networks dominated certain fields, with negative effects except that it gave us Mad Men. The clear connection between power and positions made dismantling those structures a top liberal priority for centuries.
But — as I noted up top — parts of the left have recently turned against meritocracy. Some of us are trying to use hiring decisions to paper over society’s flaws. Because, sure: We live in a world where environmental factors lead to unequal aptitudes, but what if we just pretended that we didn’t? What if we made believe as if everyone is equally good at everything? Maybe we can eschew the painful, generations-long project of creating a society with more-equal access and just engineer results that make us feel good now. And we can undertake this project despite the fact that it requires huge amounts of race and gender-based discrimination. Amazingly, this argument has gained purchase on the left. I consider this a stunning upset; it’s as if MADD decided that actually, a Corona with lime is delicious and refreshing, so feel free to throw a few back before you get behind the wheel.
I understand the impulse to try to right society’s wrongs on the back-end. And I understand the discomfort with unequal outcomes. But with very few exceptions, I’ve yet to see methods for sorting out who gets what that are better than “try to determine who’s best-suited to do the thing.” Other methods are inherently arbitrary; they still sort people into “deserving” and “undeserving”, but they do so according to criteria that have nothing to do with question at hand. They represent someone’s attempt to implement justice despite the fact that: 1) None of us know who deserves what, and 2) Maybe a company’s role is, like, to make Triscuits or something, and not to be the sword wielded by soldiers in the justice crusade.
I think we should basically declare ourselves agnostic on the concept of “dessert”. This was a key point in my piece last week, which argued that meritocracy has nothing to do with which people are “better” or “worse”. We don’t know the specifics of each others’ lives, nor should we. When we try to dole out benefits based on dessert, we encourage a sick competition of sympathy-mongering; it becomes George Costanza’s attempt to win over an apartment board by telling sad stories of his life as a “short, stalky, slow-witted bald man”.
These attempts at achieving justice just don’t work. And there’s another problem: They reduce societal benefit by making everything work less well.
I find it odd that we don’t talk more about the negative effects that non-meritocratic systems have on organizations. It seems like “hire the best people available” would be a no-brainer best practice, about as basic as “don’t accept Confederate money” or “rent office space that isn’t presently on fire”.1 But, incredibly, there’s a debate. People argue that maybe companies should hire people who kind of suck, and let their competitors hire the good people. I’m sort of being a dick for comedic effect here, but not entirely; that description basically reflects what’s happening in many cases.
I would love it if one pro sports team adopted the mindset that’s prevalent at many organizations. Just one team should say: “The first half of our roster will go to the children of the well-connected. You may think this is shitty, but there are powerful people we need to keep happy, so we’re doing it. The second half will be constructed to make our diversity numbers look good. If there are any spots left over, those will go to whoever’s good at the sport.” I think one team should do that. And I think that team should be the Dallas Cowboys.
Obviously, that team would get its brains beaten in. In sports, success and failure are relentlessly measured, which is why it’s probably the most meritocratic field there will ever be. Sports fans care about whether or not a player produces, end of story. If I had a twin brother who played for my favorite team, and he wasn’t getting results, I’d be calling into sports radio every night demanding that they get him the fuck off the field. On a good team, there is no room for sentimentality or social justice or any consideration other than “do you help us win?” In its own way, it’s beautiful.
Most fields are fuzzier; the line between success and failure is not as clear. So there’s space to hire people who are maybe not the best. But that doesn’t make the penalty less real — it just makes it less visible. In my field, entertainment, untalented people get hired all the time. That would be one thing if those hires were the outcome of good-faith efforts that just didn’t get results — it’s often hard to tell who’s a good hire and who’s not — but in most cases no such good-faith effort existed. Bad hires drag down the production, but the effect is shrouded. Whether a TV show hits or misses is determined by a million factors, so the effect of, say, a costume designer who burnt production hours by being a general moron will inevitably get washed out. That allows producers to delude themselves into thinking that they can hire not-the-best people without harming the production. But that is a delusion; they’re reducing their likelihood of success.
All of which is to say: There is both an individual and a societal benefit to meritocracy. On an individual level, we’re afforded the right to be judged according to our ability to do some specific thing, and not according to arbitrary factors, worst of all factors that are decided by birth. This lets us focus on areas where we show aptitude. On a societal level, we benefit from products and organizations that are as good as they can be. Is it a perfect system? No — in a perfect system, an all-knowing being would reward people in exact proportion to their moral worth. This is how most religions conceive of heaven. And that sounds great, and I hope it exists somewhere, but on Earth, we typically have to settle for “best available”, and I think that meritocracy is the best available system that we have.
We tell kids that they can be anything they want to be — “you could grow up to be the president!” is a common one. It’s a load of happy horseshit, to be sure, but only practically so; I could have been president if it weren’t for the whole “being sort of weird around people” thing. What’s important is that there was no arbitrary barrier keeping me from success. The ingredients for success or failure were all within me, and specifically within the part of my brain that makes me generally surly and easily bored.
It was easy for me to accept that I’m not cut out for electoral politics. I’ve had to accept that I’m not cut out for a million things; I’m not particularly good at sports, and when it comes to learning languages, I am — as they say in Spanish — “el shit”. I’ve been on the wrong end of meritocratic processes more times than I can count. Many of those assessments were fair; the assessment that I’m bad at soccer was, unfortunately, bang-on-the-nose. But those assessments don’t cause me mental anguish, because to the extent that they were accurate, they were fair. I now look at them as events that pushed me towards areas where I don’t completely suck.
But being rejected for arbitrary reasons feels very different. I don’t think anybody alive will ever think “Oh, I didn’t get hired because I’m the wrong race — that seems fair!” These situations lead to people feeling blocked and constrained, because, well…they are. It’s the type of frustration that sticks with people. I think the left pays a steep political price when we’re seen as blocking people’s ambitions for arbitrary reasons.
Meritocracy at least gives us a shot at the finding the best person for a job. I understand the desire to create systems that balance out society’s inequities, but I don’t think that those systems work. They’re the new version of “someone with power makes an arbitrary decision,” which has existed since the beginning of time. It’s true: Meritocracy doesn’t solve society’s ills. In fact, it only does one thing. But it does that thing pretty well, which I think makes it a useful tool.
It might sound like I’m arguing that a person’s background — including their race and gender — should never be considered. My position is not quite that extreme. I think it’s practical in some cases to know about a person’s background; basically, someone who showed a lot of hustle to get where they are impresses me more than someone who had every advantage. And race and gender are relevant sometimes; I think the benefits of diversity are often greatly exaggerated, but that’s not to say that there’s no benefit. So, yes, I think light consideration of these factors is appropriate sometimes. However, in both cases, these considerations fit within the “hire the best person” ethic; no adjustment to that rule needs to be made to account for the fact that not every process needs to be 100 percent blind to an applicant’s circumstances.