Thursday, February 02, 2017

The meritocracy can neither be fixed nor destroyed

When I stopped blogging due to moving/starting job/endless sickness, I had a few half-written posts which I want to get back to even though they're old news now. This one is from last June.

I don't think I will ever get tired of thinking about the problem of the meritocracy, and evidently neither will Helen Andrews, since she had an(other) essay about it in The Hedgehog Review. It's good, and you should read it, at the very least for the great morsels of irony that Helen has dug up, including this wonderfully revealing quote from a product of our pedagogy's current elevation of "critical thinking":
“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”
In the past, I've agreed with many of the arguments Helen makes (for example, here and here). But now, having been provoked to it, I will double-down on my view that our meritocracy is defensible, and not by being converted into an outright aristocracy, as Helen suggests.

1)    Helen finds the origins of meritocracy in 19th-century British civil service reform, where it's introduced to replace patronage. But for Americans, civil service is not where meritocracy most matters. Civil service jobs are competitive and do draw Ivy League meritocrats, but we don't really imagine our bureaucrats as America's smartest or most impressive people. When high-achieving adolescents dream about going to Yale, I don't think they dream of a subsequent illustrious career writing arcane cable television regulations for the FCC. That may well be what they end up doing and even enjoying, but it's not what young meritocrats' dreams are made of. Their dreams are full of tech start-ups, finance, medicine, research, journalism, social justice projects, and the arts.

All of which is to say, our meritocracy isn't literally the rule of the meritorious, as the name suggests. We are still ruled, politically, by the mediocrities who predominate among our elected officials. It's not even clear that we want Phi Beta Kappa types in office, except for those of the Democrats who are themselves Phi Beta Kappa types. Meritocracy matters most for us in the private sector, in society broadly understood.

That means first of all that meritocracy is not a simple historical phenomenon for us with a concrete beginning in a law passed in the 19th century and a possibility of an equally concrete end in a future law overturning the first law. Meritocracy is instead an abstract principle governing and legitimating selection for pretty much every job and position in America. As a result, "reforming" the meritocracy cannot be a matter of changing the rules governing employee selection in federal agencies. It's a matter of changing our entire culture; indeed, our entire political regime.

Consider this argument from Democracy in America:
[Rulers in ages of democracy and skepticism] must especially strive to banish chance, as much as possible, from the world of politics. The sudden and undeserved promotion of a courtier in an aristocratic country causes no more than an ephemeral impression, because the whole complex of institutions and beliefs forces men to progress slowly along paths they cannot leave.

But such events give the world possible example to a democratic people, for they urge it on down in the direction whither all its emotions are anyhow leading. So it is chiefly in times of skepticism and equality that particular precautions are required to prevent the favor of prince or people, which comes and goes at random, from taking the place due to merit or duties performed. One must hope that all promotion will be seen as the reward or effort, so that no high position should be too easily acquired and men of ambition should be obliged to plan well ahead before they reach their goal. [Emphasis mine]
Tocqueville suggests meritocracy is a necessary accommodation to democratic conditions. What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

2)   The reason that no one can come up with an alternative to meritocracy is not because they can't imagine "what it would be like not to believe in it." It's true that it's hard for a 21st C. American to imagine life in a feudal aristocracy. But the bigger problem than the limitations of our imaginations is the limitations of our political philosophy. 

There are a limited number of workable principles for distributing social goods. A regime can distribute social goods like influence and power according to birth, wealth, need, virtue (or, in the Christian era, grace), or lottery, or all or some of these in combination. (There are other principles of distribution like strength and beauty that can be used for some goods, but few regimes determine who rules by principles like these. However, Herodotus does claim there were societies in Africa where rule was determined by height.) The principles of distribution which a regime admits define it. Socialism is defined by distributing most social goods according to need. Democracy in the strict sense does it by lottery. Aristocracy does it by birth and wealth. We are democrats in the loose sense, so we reject most of the above principles. That's why Helen can't find anyone who can imagine an alternative to meritocracy. It's not because we can't imagine other practical ways of distributing social goods, but because all the other ways offend our democratic sense of justice. The only alternatives that get any traction with us are those which push democratic principles even further than we've yet allowed: lottery and need.

Meritocracy is much older than Victorian civil service reform. It's an updated version of Aristotle's 'best flutes for the best flute players' principle, distribution by aptitude. We have tried to get as close to the justice of 'to each what is fitting' as possible, to match each individual with the life and occupation for which he is best suited by nature and most desires to pursue. But aptitude is a hard thing to reliably identify and measure, so we rely on imperfect but somewhat more objective proxies for it - intelligence, past experience. Aristocracy has the same problem: in the strict sense, aristocracy is distribution according to virtue - rule by the best people, the aristoi. But virtue, like aptitude, is hard to identify from the outside. So regimes that aim at virtue soon find themselves relying on more concrete proxies for it: birth and wealth. But poke the aristocrat hard enough, and you will find that what he values for its own sake is neither birth nor wealth, but the virtue that he thinks flows from them or which they outwardly indicate.

And just like the aristocrats had to contend with the shortcomings of their chosen proxies, our present difficulties with meritocracy show us democrats the problems with our proxies. But what they don't show us is that our principle of distribution - to each what is fitting to him, or what he has the most aptitude for - is unjust. Is it? I don't think so, but even if you do, demonstrating that would require a very different argument from the one which Helen or any other meritocracy critic has offered.

The critics of meritocracy whom Helen cites are all just trying to adjust the proxies we use, claiming to have found better ones. They probably haven't, but their unwillingness to propose entirely different principles of distribution only demonstrates their underlying commitment to liberal democracy over socialism, radical democracy, oligarchy, or aristocracy. Do we really want them to abandon this commitment?

3) "Embracing the label" and acknowledging that our elites aren't representative of the country, as Helen suggests we do, is in fact something the Social Media Left has already done. It's what all the privilege-checking amounts to: the demand that you acknowledge that you are of the elite, that you can never speak for the people (who constitute a majority of minorities), so that what you say should be regarded as having no value to the majority, and would be best not said at all. And acknowledging your privilege means acknowledging your responsibility to facilitate the speech of the unprivileged. That is the special work of meritocrats, according to the Left.

This solution forces elites to own up to their status as "separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities," as Helen describes them. And it consequently requires them to shut up, so as not to annoy the people so much. What it doesn't do is allow the elites to openly rule, which would seem to be the primary incentive for them to "embrace the label" in the first place. In fact, it does the opposite: it openly subordinates them to the people, who have the only legitimate voice in public life.

Given this grim result of "embracing the label," it's not surprising that Ivy League grads continue to "think of themselves basically as working stiffs" instead of aristocrats. Hard work and self-making continue to be the basis of public legitimacy. To announce that you are an aristocrat is to immediately render yourself irrelevant and even poisonous (I'm sorry, "toxic," as social media likes to say) to public life. Until our regime actually becomes an aristocracy (and this is how we know it's not), there will be no benefit to anyone from following Helen's advice, unless you think that public discourse improve if everyone with an elite college degree, including Helen, were to stop participating in it.

Now, many people claim that we're already an aristocracy. Mobility is down, inequality is up. Regime change has already happened, only our terminology lags behind it. But the problem with our elites runs deeper than their inability to call themselves aristocrats. They also do not feel like aristocrats. They instead feel very unstable and very afraid. In a true aristocracy, you are born to your status, but our children of Ivy Leaguers still have to work for theirs. Nobody feels secure even at the top, and they demonstrate their insecurity by going to extreme lengths to keep their kids afloat. If they were aristocrats, they would have to do no more than keep their kids alive to assure their future high status. It may be that their fears of falling are statistically unjustified since most of them will not fall, at least according to current models of the recent past. But there is no assurance of that for any of them individually, and that is what prevents us from seeing our society as an aristocracy. Precisely because "ethnic balance" is "important to meritocrats," they have "engineered it into the system," and "geographic diversity" has "struck them as important," so they'd "ensured that it exists." And this engineering and ensuring mean that there are many qualified would-be meritocrats in the wings, and no parent can be certain that his own children, no less his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will out-perform these aspirants, and everyone has to work maniacally to stay in the hallowed circle, with those closest to the center working more frantically than the rest. If this is an aristocracy, then no aristocracy in history has ever been so frightened and insecure without the immediate prospect of an actual guillotine hanging over their necks.

4) The real problem is not meritocracy, it's centralization. It's not that there are tests or pre-requisites or requirements to write insipid personal statements for employment or for university seats. Despite the shortcomings of these methods, they're still better than distributing these things by any other selection principle. The problem is that the number of "good" universities and employers is rapidly decreasing, that a handful of schools and companies are monopolizing all the young talent in the country.

We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Perhaps you are thinking, as Helen indeed suggests, that meritocracy leads to centralization. And perhaps you are right in the long run, but at least in the US, meritocracy long preceded centralization. If Tocqueville could already observe the principle of meritocracy and its necessity under democratic social conditions in the 1830s, then we must at least admit that it takes a good long while for meritocracy to issue in nationally-centralized pipelining. Maybe it's not even ultimately inevitable. We had quite a long run there when a college (or even high school) degree didn't determine life prospects at all, a degree from any post-secondary institution was worth a lot (and there was a remarkably large number of very good post-secondary institutions, as there in fact still are), and no more than 100 people in the entire country even conceived a desire to attend Yale each year. What if we had never adopted the Progressive understanding of science and expertise but still stood fast behind our belief that "all promotion be seen as the reward or effort"? Would we be where we are today?

How to undo the centralization of the past 120 years is of course no easy question. But I'm not sure it's actually harder than converting our essentially democratic meritocratic elite into a self-recognizing, class-defending aristocracy, as Helen suggests. And, one of the benefits of trying is that we would not necessarily have to sacrifice our regime in the process.


Helen Andrews said...

Has it really been five years?

In all that time, in every post, I inevitably get the feeling we’re talking past each other. Usually around the point where you bring up the flute. A big part of the disconnect, I think, is that your definition of meritocracy is much broader than mine.

So to try a lateral attack: In principle, does capitalism qualify as a meritocracy? You might say yes. The market doesn’t care where you come from or who your father was, it only cares how you perform.

On the other hand, no capitalist would ever argue that success in the market is a proxy for virtue. Sure, if your business failed, it’s probably because you made a mistake somewhere. But even genius businessmen fail all the time. Nine times out of ten, most of them. Willingness to take risks is what makes them good businessmen, and risk means failures.

And everyone totally understands! If a manager sees a business failure on an applicant’s resume, he does not assume that the guy is an idiot. Quite the opposite, in some cases. This is why capitalist America has always been “remarkably indulgent toward businessmen who go bankrupt,” to stick with Tocqueville, since you brought him up.

The free market is strict, unforgiving, and colorblind—but still not a proxy for merit, and not a meritocracy.

In the same way, I don’t believe aristocracies see birth and wealth as proxies for merit. “Poke the aristocrat hard enough, and you will find that what he values for its own sake is neither birth nor wealth, but the virtue that he thinks flows from them or which they outwardly indicate.” Really? I would have said that most of them understood birth and wealth to be essentially arbitrary. God showed grace toward them, the way they show grace to their subordinates, and the whole business is, in a word, gratuitous.

This doesn’t mean they want to reallocate power in a less arbitrary way, any more than a capitalist wants failed entrepreneurs to be subsidized. The system may be imperfect, but it's still better than the alternatives. It just means that they ought to operate with a little magnanimity, within the limits of the system.

A broader sense of what falls outside the definition of meritocracy would be a necessary first step toward accepting that meritocracy could, in fact, be destroyed.

P.S. “They also do not feel like aristocrats” — this is a great point. Half the pathologies of the meritocracy would be cured tomorrow if they would only ease up on their status anxiety and just relax. Instead of "Embrace it!", I could just as easily have written: "Chill out!"

Withywindle said...

The trouble is that meritocrats deserve their success, and never suffer non-meritocratic sorrow. Therefore they must be made to. Anyone who becomes a Successful Meritocrat (definition TBD) should be forcibly sterilized, with sperm or eggs set aside in a frozen bank. Every five years, 100 people chosen from the telephone book get to vote on a meritocrat. A sufficient number of up votes, and they are allowed one child; a sufficient number of down votes, and they are lobotomized. There will be no appeal to the decision for any reason whatsoever.

We can start a pilot program in Wisconsin, and make the beta version go national.

Miss Self-Important said...

Helen: Is capitalism a meritocracy? I see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure if it is for the purposes of our debate. If you mean free market competition directed by an "invisible hand" instead of human intention, then I would probably say no. The problem with capitalism as a parallel is that the principles determining distribution in a free market are supply and demand (qualities of things), not virtue or aptitude (qualities of people). Aristocracy is the only regime that claims to be ruled by virtue. Meritocracy claims to be ruled by aptitude. Capitalism (insofar as it is a regime) claims to be ruled by demand, which is orthogonal to both virtue and aptitude, largely b/c demand is impersonal, unlike the others. I suppose that's why relatively free markets are possible in both aristocracies and democracies. But in any case, there are no proxies for demand like there are for virtue and aptitude, unless maybe substitute economic mechanisms like central planning.

To the degree that capitalism is meritocratic in the sense I think you're trying to get at, it's only a component of a larger meritocracy. That is, the personal ability to meet demand well is a kind of aptitude, what we call "business acumen," but that's only one kind of aptitude, the kind possessed by the class classically known as "merchants." A fuller meritocracy would also use aptitude to distribute other jobs, offices, and goods.

Is it really true that aristocrats defend their rule by appealing to its arbitrariness? I imagine you've read more of the Victorians than I have, so where do you see that? In 16th/17th C political treatises, aristocracy is either not defended but just taken for granted, or its arbitrariness is used to de-legitimize it.

One way I think you're mistaking my argument is when you conflate merit and virtue, or use them interchangeably. I don't think they're interchangeable at all. Someone with great aptitude for any given task may have no virtue at all, unless you define virtue as simply the ability to perform the task, which is not how aristocrats (or I) define it. That's why I think you're right to point to a deep and substantive difference between aristocracies and meritocracies (which are really democracies), but the difference is not that one is open about the arbitrariness of its distribution while the other hides it. Aristocracies elevate one human ideal - the virtuous man ("gentleman") - and meritocracies another - the technically competent or even brilliant man ("genius"). The genius may well lack any recognizable humanity, but no matter. "I send the rockets up/I don't care where they come down/That's not my department/Said Werner von Braun."

So there are real costs to embracing meritocracy, but also costs (arbitrariness, greater misery for the more numerous poor) to embracing aristocracy. I'm not for meritocracy because it's any kind of absolute good, only because I think our political and social circumstances require it in order to guard against even worse ways of distributing social and economic goods.

I agree with Tocqueville that we can't really go back to aristocracy from democracy. We can only go forward into despotism. And a great deal of what you advocate - emphasizing the arbitrariness of meritocracy, downplaying the role or legitimacy of desert and effort - is identical in substance if not intention to the efforts of the left to intensify the centralized regulation of everyday life in order to correct for bad luck but really all inequalities, since all inequalities are, on this account, unfortunate products of bad luck. We will never get the aristocratic magnanimity you want out of this argument, but administrative micromanagement.

Miss Self-Important said...

Finally, no one can "chill out" until we actually become an aristocracy, with advance guarantees of our children's future (high) positions in society. Statistical probability of that is all we have now in our slightly sclerotic meritocracy, but that is not enough. We need concrete institutional protections and especially changed inheritance laws to turn the meritocratic class into an aristocratic one. Without that, there will always be enough ambient downward mobility that meritocratic anxiety and arms-racing will continue to be justified.

Withywindle: I hear the executive branch has many openings for people with bold new policy visions...

Helen Andrews said...

I don’t think my point about capitalism came across. It’s actually much simpler than the (interesting) issues you bring up. Let me try to be more plain.

The fundamental reason you think we need meritocracy is legitimacy. The ruling class needs to be able to explain why they deserve to rule, and the people need to believe that the winners in their society really do deserve their place at the top. Otherwise people will revolt against the whole system.

That’s what I disagree with. I don’t think that’s how legitimacy works!—and capitalism was my counterexample.

Even people who love capitalism know that it’s riddled with arbitrariness. It’s not just that the most successful businessmen aren’t the best men, they’re not even the best businessmen. Mediocrities find themselves in the right place at the right time (Zuckerberg), and Drucker-level geniuses do everything right only to discover that the dogs don’t like the dogfood. The guy shopping in the Barnes & Noble Business section knows this, and yet it does not make him think capitalism is any less legitimate. And I don’t just mean he thinks it’s the optimal way to order an economy, I mean he genuinely believes in the system, so much that he wants to devote his life to it.

Another example would be war. Battle is partly a test of the commanders’ merit. Generalship is a skill. Napoleon certainly thought so—and yet he also said give me generals who are lucky. Victory is sometimes determined by freak strokes of chance, a thunderstorm, a lucky shot. This does not mean Napoleon thought war was an illegitimate way to conduct geopolitics!

Basically, you think that unless its rule can be justified on a clear rational basis, people will feel about their ruling class the way Salieri felt about Mozart. I agree that we would need some form of meritocracy if the world were made up of Salieris, in order to prevent people from being outraged at the unfairness of their social system. But I think Salieri was a psychological outlier. So was Tom Paine.

None of this is an argument for aristocracy. There are plenty of those, but I'm not making any right now. I’m definitely not suggesting that aristocrats “defend their rule by appealing to its arbitrariness,” as you put it.* I'm just trying to persuade you that it is not obviously illegitimate on its face, since the obvious illegitimacy of all non-best-flute-to-best-flautist-matching systems seems to be your main reason for thinking meritocracy indestructible.

Living sanely in this fallen world means accepting that Fortuna is capricious. Indeed, this is the secret to being able to “chill out,” whether you are a subordinate non-aristocrat or an anxious meritocrat.

* Battle actually was defended by appealing to its arbitrariness, oddly enough. Deciding irresolvable disputes by hazard—drawing straws, for disputes between people; staged battle for disputes between sovereigns—was a way of putting the outcome in God’s hands.

Helen Andrews said...

P.S. Before you decide that aristocracy means "greater misery for the more numerous poor," just give our globalized meritocracy a couple more decades . . .

Miss Self-Important said...

Ah, ok, that does clarify a lot. In that case, yes, I do think people will rebel against rulers they deem to be illegitimate. They won't do it under all conditions, but specifically under conditions of equality. This is also Tocqueville's point - under conditions of inequality (both legal and economic), people accept the social and economic position into which they're born as unchangeable. But when legal and economic conditions become equal, social hierarchies no longer appear inevitable or acceptable. Then they rebel if their rulers cannot demonstrate their legitimacy. That is precisely why Tocqueville makes the argument I quote in the post about the need to "banish chance" from the distribution of offices and positions in a democracy.

Do we not see such rebellion now in the populisms of the left and right, directed against "neoliberalism" or "elites"? No one is asking meritocrats to become further entrenched, or permanent and hereditary, as in an aristocracy. They want them removed and replaced.

Or do you think that current levels of economic inequality are already so extreme that they've moved us into the moral or intellectual paradigm of the aristocracy, and that people once again see the position they're born into as hopelessly unchangeable?

While I do think that a perfect regime with a perfect flautist meritocracy might be perfectly just, I don't think we're going to build such a regime on Earth. I can imagine other acceptable principles of distribution, but my argument is that they're not appropriate for our political and economic circumstances. I accept that arbitrariness and luck play a role in every regime, but first, I don't think it's sufficient to defend aristocracy. Aristocrats may accept that their birth status is a matter of luck, but the regime cannot be defended on those grounds. It needs a positive defense, like Aristotle's grounding in virtue. Perhaps a lack of one is why early modern criticisms of it made such effective inroads? Second, isn't the inevitable role of luck also an argument in defense of an imperfect meritocracy? It suggests to us that we should not perfectly "level the playing field," as my students earnestly insist will solve all social problems, or expend too much effort to make sure that every child is perfectly matched by his tested IQ to an appropriate educational institution and professional outcome.

I stil think capitalism doesn't quite serve your argument, b/c the winners of capitalism are not exactly our rulers. We can still be free and independent if other people are richer than us. But the meritocrats are our rulers. Also, many people plainly do think Zuckerberg is a great genius and prophet of our time, so you may be in the minority in your assessment of his merit.

Helen Andrews said...

The current revolt against elites proves my argument more than yours. If having a solid rationale for your right to rule was what gave a ruling class legitimacy, the Davoisie would have it in spades. They’d be the most authoritative ruling class in history! But that’s not what we see.

What you think they should do now, to re-establish some kind of authority, depends on whether you are able to break out of the meritocratic mindset. I think they could claw some of it back by developing more aristocratic qualities—by demonstrating a sense of duty and self-sacrifice as opposed to self-dealing, by behaving with nobility as opposed to craven meanness, even by cultivating a bit of glamour.

Instead they have doubled down on the only kind of legitimacy they know. “Look, proles, we’re not perfect, but we really can prove with mathematical precision that at every step of our careers we advanced because we were the smartest, most hard-working people available. We can show you documentary proof! We promise we’ll put more money and more hoops into our massive selection machine so that your future rulers will be even more meritocratic than us. Hey, where are you going with that tumbrel?” It could work, but somehow I doubt it.

Miss Self-Important said...

But do people generally believe that the current meritocratic class is really qualified, or lives up to its own rationale? It seems to me that those in revolt view the institutions and practices which meritocrats claim have qualified them with great suspicion. Elite colleges are bastions of PC lunacy, with distorted admissions standards and academic priorities. Or, from the left, elite colleges are bastions of privilege, with a vested stake in excluding the marginalized and reproducing racial/economic/familial status. And everything that follows them is equally tainted - the internship racket, the even more prestige-obsessed graduate and professional school pipelines, the high-status careers in journalism, academia, government. Real talent, which meritocracy is supposed to detect and elevate, is completely drowned in this system. Is that not the most common line of anti-meritocratic criticism?

In any case, I can get onboard with this reformulated demand to develop aristocratic qualities (vs. regime change into an aristocracy, which would require fundamental changes in the law). That is a very Tocquevillian suggestion, to temper democracy by consciously injecting aristocratic qualities into it, and distinguishable from the one you make in the HR piece. But I would honestly like to know, how can I make myself noble and glamorous?

As a doubler-down myself, I think this is a poor articulation of the double-down proposition. I would put it more like this: "Look proles, our filtration system has admittedly become pretty corrupt. The impetus behind it remains good, but we need to make some changes in execution. First, universities are for academic study, so the only criteria for admission are high school educational attainment and test scores, and the academic demands upon admission will go way up. You want to study dance or business administration or football or anything that was not an academic discipline by 1950? Too bad. Find somewhere else do it." Then we might see the competition for elite university seats sink as people with more practical interests and ambitions fan out to other sorts of institutions or find alternative ways to accredit themselves, thereby decentralizing the recognized sources of merit and widening what has indeed become an absurdly narrow pipeline to contain all the kinds of skills, bodies of knowledge, and human qualities that it now purports to channel.

Even if my precise suggestion is not likely to be heeded, do you more broadly think the centralization of the meritocracy's command centers to a few institutions over the past 40 years has contributed to the discontents that you describe? Or is it just because it's unlikely to be heeded that you think we just have to accept this centralization, and try to change the self-perception of the people in those elite institutions instead?

Alex said...

It strikes me that there are at least three different angles for a critique that meritocrats are insufficiently representative:

1) Unrepresentativeness means that the competition isn't truly fair, because talent is presumably uniform in its distribution, so unrepresentative results reflect unequal distributions of the resources used to cultivate talent.

There's a lot to be said here about talent vs. skill, equal opportunity vs. equal outcomes, helping people early vs. helping them catch up, etc. But the core idea is that lack of representativeness comes from unfair competition, and the ultimate goal is to make the competition more fair, which implies an acceptance of the basic meritocratic idea and a desire to improve it on its own stated terms.

2) Representativeness gives more meritorious outcomes. We've all heard of the research showing that more diverse groups are more effective, make better decisions, etc. While there are apparently problems with much of that research (e.g., taken at face value the idea is still to form a more perfect meritocracy.

3) Representation is a distinct goal, co-equal with merit. Or, if you prefer, it gets its own weight in the merit calculation, so it is part of merit but distinct from and co-equal with other measures. Even if the fairest possible competition made an entire profession properly representative, if each particular office or department hiring from that profession was not appropriately diverse then the organization's legitimacy would be in question.

My read of the academic pulse is that the true motivations are a mixture of 1 and 3, 2 is a figleaf with questionable empirical support, but 1 leaves more room for compromise than 3. I think that the compromises that 1 enables have driven some in the academy more towards 3.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alex: Yes, this sounds right. But the implication of adherents of #1, that a truly fair competition would issue in perfectly proportional representation of all groups in every profession, no less every possible position, is obviously wrong. Perfectly fair competition has not apparently issued in an equal number of female felons as male felons. Other differences in preference and circumstance among individual members of groups will continue to stand in the way of perfect proportionality. That, and mathematical impossibility. So embracing a standard of organizational legitimacy grounded in proportional subgroup representation not only distorts the meaning of merit in that organization, but would also delegitimize organizations for no other reason than their having insufficient resources to attract scarce minorities relative to richer or more desirably-located employers.

Within academia, that means most colleges without the luck of being well-endowed and located in a major city will have to be deemed illegitimate. But that just means fewer overall employers to solve our PhD glut crisis. So ultimately a self-destructive idea for academics to trumpet.

Alex said...

Your comment on felons is amusing but also dismaying. It's dismaying because its implications (sexed and/or gendered differences in preferences governing free choices) are only permissible for discussion as long as we limit our analysis to things that reflect poorly on men.

I've seen, on numerous occasions, statistics showing that gender distributions in certain fields of study are actually more skewed in Scandinavia than in countries that nobody would mistake for egalitarian. I would never argue that these less enlightened societies are models to emulate. But I am searching for a way to raise the possibility that a society with less freedom, more parental authority, and less material wealth will drive daughters to prioritize fields seen as practical, prestigious, and remunerative in ways that freer and more prosperous societies won't. But to raise the issue is to suggest that freely made choices play a role in unequal outcomes. And that is verboten.

Miss Self-Important said...

I pick crime only b/c it's hard to see how there might be structural barriers to committing it that would account for this disparity. Of course, on the flip side, given perfect freedom of action, there will likely always be a higher proportion of women than men caring for children, either their own or other people's. Freely made choices are exactly what will always undermine perfect proportional representation, but not just the verboten types of choices like working less to have more time for childcare. Even more politically-innocuous but still confounding choices like geographic location will play a big role, potentially an even bigger role than now under conditions of perfect competition.

Alex said...

True. If free choices under perfect competition will foil perfect representation then the only way to achieve perfect representation is to elevate it to a value preference co-equal with merit (however defined). So the institutions that are less desirable for certain groups, e.g. because of geography, will have to pay a salary premium to those groups. You can't justify that under identity-blind merit considerations, but you can if identity becomes a valued consideration.

The frustrating thing is that it's verboten to note this in anything but the most approving manner.

Miss Self-Important said...

Doesn't this already happen to some degree, especially in industries where the subgroup pipelines are not delivering enough candidates to allow every organization to reach perfect representation? That's the problem with the outlook of your #3 group: they work against their own industry's or profession's overall interests by demanding irrational outlays by those institutions which are often least capable of making them - in academia, for instance, that would be small, rural colleges with smaller budgets that are already strained by competitive pressures from vastly richer and more desirable schools in other areas, like student services. Then these schools fold, and there are fewer academic jobs for everyone, minorities and not.

Alex said...

I doubt that salaries for diversity hires are the main driver of small rural colleges folding. More like the death by 1,000 paper cuts from countless "moral imperative" expenditures (which would include spending to achieve representation), regulatory mandates, risk-averse decisions to spend huge amounts to mitigate small risks, etc.

Academic institutions probably shouldn't be run like businesses, but they also shouldn't be run as social engineering projects.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, I don't think anyone ever went out of business just from trying to lure some minority job candidates to their undesirable location. I'm just saying that it adds to the other financial strains such colleges are under in their efforts to compete with their richer counterparts who set the moral imperatives. And for that reason, it's ultimately not such a great policy for academics to push.