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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another defense of meritocracy

Scott Alexander has also noticed the now-ubiquitous bipartisan opposition to meritocracy that I have been documenting forever and has also come to its defense. He makes the important point that merit is not synonymous with wealth and success, and that when we say the best flutes should go to the best flute players (not his example, but he should consider it), we don't mean that great wealth and fame are necessarily attached to the best flutes. In fact, flute-playing is a good example precisely because it is a difficult art, requiring extensive cultivation and whose basis in talent is unevenly distributed in the population, but which nonetheless does not reward its masters with much besides recognition of their excellence in the art. The best flute players are still poor and obscure.

SSC reverses the flute equation in order to eliminate the suggestion of personal dessert implied by saying that the best flute players ought to have the best flutes given to them. What's really happening, he says, is that the best flute players are being assigned to play the best flutes because that's the distribution that benefits everyone most. That's fine for its limited purpose, but we should be careful not to treat flutes as though they precede men in order of priority, and men are mere instruments, created for the sake of playing flutes. Or that all things subject to meritocratic distribution are social goods. Yes, we all benefit when people most skilled at surgery are allowed to perform the operations. But if even the best flute-playing has no social benefit (which is pretty much true), justice requires that the best flutes still go to the best flute players.

SSC also sees that the biggest problem for opponents of meritocracy is that they have no plausible alternatives to it:
The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.
And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.
But his solution is too simple - in order to avoid confusing credentials with actual merit, "Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance." One problem seems to be this is pretty hard to test. Can anyone actually predict the market better than chance, in the long run, for reasons other than chance? How would you know if an 18 year-old or 22 year-old has really done that? They have no track record. Another problem is that for many of these sorts of desirable, high-paying jobs - entry-level investment banking, management consulting, journalism, academia - there would be many more people who pass a test of sufficient background skill or knowledge than any employer could hire. (At least at first, before people started specializing and training extensively to do well on these tests instead of the standardized tests we give high schoolers now.) But if the employer is committed to considering only performance on the entry test, then how can he turn away anyone who scores above the bar? These are thorny problems, and the reason that Goldman Sachs currently hires whoever does best at Harvard is precisely because they're allowing Harvard to answer them (and take the flack for it) for them.

16 comments:

Alex Small said...

Goldman Sachs is a terrible example. They hire for tasks that range from highly measurable (ability to keep a computer network secure and functioning) to fairly measurable (ability to craft legal documents that hit every regulatory issue and clearly address the full range of possible scenarios that the parties to the deal might encounter) to hard to measure (ability to negotiate complex deals with high status individuals who have all sorts of personalities). Industry certifications might work fine for the first. For the second you want to see good grades in law school, passage of the bar exam, and suitable internship experience. For the third, leadership in extracurricular activities at Harvard might actually be as good as any other measure.

Andrew Stevens said...

A nitpick, but the very best flute players in America, while obscure to most people, certainly aren't poor. The salary for an orchestral gig in the top urban orchestras is six figures and they can add any teaching/freelance gigs on top of that. For most people, this is considered a halfway decent living, to say the least.

Andrew Stevens said...

Isn't most of the current case against meritocracy really a critique that our existing institutions are not meritocratic, but in fact cronyist?

Alex Small said...

Sure, but the professional classes can only go so far in making that critique. Because they also benefited from their backgrounds and they are self-conscious about their privileges and connections. Knocking down the concept of merit creates some false sense of solidarity with everyone else, because they're saying "Really, I'm no better, I'm just like everyone else" rather than "I got here by playing a rigged game." One is a form of (false) connection, the other is the airing of dirty laundry.

Andrew Stevens said...

E.g. my critique of investment banking would be that however they were choosing their personnel doesn't seem to have worked very well. Which is why the investment banks don't actually exist any more. Bear Stearns had to be bailed out by JPMorgan Chase, Lehman Brothers failed, Merrill Lynch was bought at fire sale prices, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley had to become bank holding companies so they could draw on Federal Reserve funds and avoid bankruptcy. If that was meritocracy, it was a self-indicting one.

Andrew Stevens said...

My critique of the current iteration of Goldman Sachs is that, given how deep it has its hooks in the federal government, it seems to be a perfect example of cronyism rather than meritocracy. As near as I can tell, Goldman actually makes most of its money now due to its access to extremely low interest Federal funds rate combined with the ability to front-run its institutional clients. I'm not particularly exercised about this, personally (its institutional clients, who are the ones who are being harmed by it, if anyone is, are likely fully aware Goldman is doing this), but it's certainly something the federal government could put a stop to if it so desired.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alex: Yes, I think that's the problem with many white collar type jobs - they consist in a number of skills of which only a few are clearly testable, some are simply a matter of rote like data entry, and many are relatively amorphous personal and social qualities. SSC admits this ambiguity in the follow-up post about promoting the best coder vs. the best manager to software company management. It's true in law and journalism and higher ed as well that only a small component of any job in the field is going to consist of skills that can easily be tested. Even in a profession like accounting, where there already are required on-the-job tests, the results don't fully reveal who is the best person for any but the most narrowly-defined positions.

SSC wants to fix this by doubling down on testing even when we admit the test results are incomplete indicators, presumably because that's still more fair than doubling down on personal connections, charm, or educational pedigree. I'm not so persuaded by this, but it's not crazy. It's an effort to impose order on the necessarily disordered way in which wealth and honor are attained in a society.

Andrew Stevens: Yes, the critique is that our existing institutions are de fact cronyist, but its conclusion is that not that, for this reason, we should try to fix them to be more actually meritocratic, but that we should instead reject meritocracy. Some people - Helen Andrews, basically - at least recognize this contradiction and say we should just embrace the cronyism. The left says we should reject meritocracy and replace it with either utopian egalitarianism or...some kind of vague privilege-checking regime where people who get ahead have to publicly renounce the idea of deserved success in order to hold onto their success.

Withywindle said...

A weak version of the critique: a narrow measure of merit is the prerequisite to every elite position. We should remove the stranglehold of the one Measure to Rule Them All to allow a multiplicity of elites, whose mutual competition will improve the situation of the Ruled at least marginally.

This is a less interesting thesis, but perhaps a more practicable one to put into effect?

Withywindle said...

Multiplicity of meritocratic elites, meant to say.

Withywindle said...

Say that ten times fast!

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, this was what I tried to suggest last time when I said the enemy was not meritocracy but centralization, the concentration of prestige and the perception of qualification into a small group of colleges and universities. But how to decentralize ephemeral things like status and prestige?

Withywindle said...

Sorry, I forgot you'd said that already. Don't know how. But traditional Society did eventually become minor and ignored; not impossible to repeat?

Miss Self-Important said...

True, it did, but not by any conscious effort, right? And we might say it was never really destroyed, but rather its cache shifted to the new elites, more diverse in ethnic background, but still homogeneously graduates of a narrow set of credentialing institutions.

Withywindle said...

See, if we do it consciously next time, we can do it better ... start a grassroots movement only to elect politicians who attended in-state schools?

educatedwhinge said...

You can't do hiring tests anymore because you'd get sued over disparate impact when the racial outcomes aren't even. More employers used to do tests. Per the Supreme Court, they can't anymore (basically). The last places that still test for employment, like fire departments, get disparate impact lawsuits all the time.

So, as you say, employers just outsource the testing to universities who outsource the testing to the SAT, which has the same racial disparities but is beyond disparate impact litigation somehow.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: If we do it consciously, it will be a disaster, as all social-engineering schemes are. Besides, most politicians have attended state schools.

Educatedwhinge: SSC has also addressed this objection.