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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Meritocracy and the false sense of entitlement

I have an essay offering a non-comprehensive defense of meritocracy coming out shortly available here (it was bound to happen sooner or later), but among the things I couldn't discuss there for space reasons was an argument I hear everywhere that goes something like this:
Meritocracy is an especially terrible way of selecting our "leadership class" because it makes those selected by it believe that they're uniquely deserving of their positions because they earned them through their own talent and hard work, when in fact they mostly stumbled into them through some combination of luck, money, and parental machination on their behalf. They did not "build that," but meritocracy deludes them into believing they did. As a result, meritocrats have false confidence in their ability to rule and they mess stuff up for everyone else in appalling and irresponsible ways, like the housing bubble in 2008. Plus, they are insufferable, entitled jerks. 
This strikes me as superficially logical, but untrue for the following reasons:
1) Talent is a matter of luck. If you actually believe that you got where you are b/c you have natural talents that others lack, you'd have no more reason to see your lot as a matter of great personal desert than if you got there b/c you were born into it or won it in a lottery. In fact, if you had to buy your position, you might have more reason to believe you earned it, since you earned the money to buy it. (Unless you merely inherited that money, in which case, back to luck.) So oligarchy would be more open to this criticism than meritocracy.

Now, if by a false belief in desert, these critics mean that meritocrats believe they're qualified for positions they really aren't qualified for, or treat their positions with insufficient humility, then it's still not clear why this would be different from other regimes and other ways of distributing positions. It's not as though the rulers in an oligarchy or aristocracy feel unqualified for their positions and consequently discharge them with greater humility. Every regime legitimates its rulers and the means by which they rule. In an aristocracy, people believe that good birth qualifies a person for rule just as ardently as we believe that great talent does.

Recall how the soldiers react to seeing the czar in War and Peace. They feel that they are in the presence of divinity. No one yells, "What's the big deal? He's just Alex, a regular guy who had the good luck of being born into the royal family!" Democrats say that to aristocrats. But the aristocrats say to the meritocrats in return (as also occurs in War and Peace), "Why should that guy be in charge? His only qualification is that he had the good luck to be able do well on an exam!" Each sees his own way of selecting people for ruling positions to be based on the most relevant qualifications. It's just that those qualifications happen to be entirely incompatible.

2) History fails to demonstrate that meritocrats are uniquely inclined to screw things up for everyone else. Nearly all rulers, no matter how they are chosen, have demonstrated a great knack for this. It is a problem of rule simply, not to be solved by different means of selection. Nor are meritocrats clearly more irresponsible or less conscientious than other rulers. (Think of the top 10 atrocities committed in the last century and I doubt that any of the ones on your list will have been perpetrated by Ivy League graduates. Just sayin'.)

Ross Douthat and others have located this criticism specifically within American history, arguing that before the Epoch of the Irresponsible Meritocrats was the Epoch of the Noble WASPs, who understood the gravity of their responsibility to others and ruled accordingly. Now, I don't mean to swat at the WASPs, who seem commendable in many ways, but it's easy to applaud the people who pulled us through past crises b/c we know they were successful. It's much harder to know if the people navigating us through current crises will be successful, b/c such is the nature of the present. Also, please remember McGeorge Bundy, a WASP who irresponsibly got us into the Vietnam War and was also a great promoter of meritocracy. Also, what a name.

Only in the narrowest of terms - as a criticism of those elite college grads (not a few of them, either) working in high finance - does this claim seem plausible to me. It's possible that investment bankers and hedge fund managers etc. have behaved irresponsibly in the past 20 years. But even then, I'm not sure this should be attributed to their educations or upbringings more than to their chosen line of work. Isn't it possible that finance lends itself to this kind of irresponsible detachment and sense of entitlement, regardless of how its practitioners were educated or selected?

3) As a matter of personal disposition and character, are meritocrats bigger or more arrogant assholes than anyone else in America? I don't really know. For one thing, this claim seems to be leveled at quite different groups of people.

First, there are the frat bro types, often the larval stage of the mature finance bro. These people may have boorish tendencies, but they're not really meritocrats either. People hate them for reasons having little to do with their test scores and grades, and often because they believe they're advancing through meritocratic institutions and channels without the requisite qualifications, but through some combination of old boys network connections, wealth, or sociability that are all the antithesis of meritocratic. So it's a weird thing to say you're against the meritocracy b/c it produces frat bros when in fact frat bros are actually a holdover species from a previous era trying to adapt to a meritocratic ecosystem.

Second, there are the pointy-headed "managerial liberals." These types are accused of lacking sympathy or empathy or even basic knowledge of the people they're managing. They're arrogant b/c they believe politics is a science, and they can just manipulate data to obtain optimum social efficiency. Like that take-down of Cass Sunstein. You know what I'm talking about. I laughed too, and I certainly think you can criticize this approach to politics (as you can criticize people for writing, frankly, too many books), but is the problem with Cass Sunstein that he personally lacks empathy? (I mean, maybe, I don't know him, but it seems beside the point.) What this criticism seems mainly to amount to is that a particular subset of meritocrats - centrist, social science-beholden liberals from about 1980-2012 who clearly meant well - have not hit upon a good method of translating their good intentions into public policy.* Let's think of better methods. Ok.

Finally, there is the very broad group of "elites." The anger against them is like the criticism of managerial liberals, but more diffuse. This criticism is partisan in the sense that the right likes to use it against the left at the moment, but also bipartisan, generally leveled on behalf of those out of power in various ways (not just government, but also culture and business, etc.) against those in it. That means it's also leveled by meritocrats not yet on top against those already on top (ie, twentysomething writers from liberal arts colleges against fiftysomething editors from liberal arts colleges, or twentysomething unemployed leftists against fiftysomething Obama administration officials).

In a sense, those in ruling offices are entitled. They're entitled to rule - to edit, or nudge. And we tend not to like being ruled, even though we select our rulers ourselves. As Hobbes said some years before the creation of the SAT, "Hardly anyone is so naturally stupid that he does not think it better to rule himself than to let others rule him." This is a problem for the stability of all regimes. Maybe the very fact that the younger generation of meritocrats behaves this way demonstrates the point I'm arguing against - meritocrats are entitled assholes who believe they have a special right to rule and rule now, and consequently an impatience to overthrow the establishment and replace it with their own anti-establishment establishment.** But the complaint is not limited to younger meritocrats in any case.

Are our elites rotten? Well, as an elite myself (that's right, bow to me, minions!), I would say I am not rotten. It is true that I am not personally very empathetic, but I'm in the bottom half of my milieu with respect to such interpersonal skills. Most of the people who accuse the elite of being rotten are at least as elite as I am, if not more, and I'm sure they would say of themselves, "I am not rotten either!" So who's rotten? Well, not that woeful mass called the people, that's for sure. The long-suffering people. Who are they? Who knows? Anyone who's down and out at the moment, I guess, or who's given up trying to put on the appearance of dignity and order. Other people, but also my people, when that's convenient. The people are never entitled, arrogant assholes. The elites always are. Let's replace them with the people, or more specifically, the spokesmen of the people who first identified the problem with the elites. That will solve the problem. But here the problem is not specifically meritocracy, but rather the instability of democratic rule itself.

On a personal note, based on my acquaintance with a number of meritocrats, many of whom have political ideas that I think are foolish and sometimes nefarious, they are not by and large a mean or arrogant lot. I especially would not say that anyone I've met, whatever his other personal failings, believes that he is some kind of self-made hero, dependent on and obliged to no one. That particular claim about meritocracy - that meritocrats are at an individual level deeply self-satisfied about their achievements - has always struck me as entirely wrong. They seem on the contrary to be deeply insecure and anxious. Look at the acknowledgments sections of books and articles and - dear God - PhD dissertations. These people thank everyone they've ever met for helping them along the way! Pages and pages of acknowledgments! Sometimes you think, ok this is actually just a brag sheet to demonstrate how many famous people you know, but most of them are not famous at all. They're like, "Thanks to my girlfriend's sister's dog for cuddling with me during those cold, lonely January nights when I was thinking of giving up on everything." This is superficial evidence, sure, but the deeper evidence is only available through personal interaction.

Perhaps this does not harmonize with your perceptions?

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*It is worth noting that the criticism of managerial liberals from the left is undertaken entirely by meritocrats on behalf of meritocrats, socialists with high SATs.

**It is also worth noting that most of the arguments against meritocracy in the past 20 years have come from its own products. Pointy heads butting into each other. Maybe that makes it all the more damning, and that's often how these people frame it. "I was there! I saw with mine own eyes the terrible, terrible corruption! The debauchery! The delinquency! The people who didn't invite me to their parties! Reader, it's so much worse than you, as an ignorant outsider, could ever have imagined!" I always wonder how this logic works, b/c it seems to be self-discrediting. That is, if, as the claim of anti-meritocratic meritocrats goes, the modus operandi of the meritocracy is to find a million secret ways to perpetuate the class privilege and position of the elites, then isn't any denunciation of it from within its ranks always ultimately another form of perpetuation and self-aggrandizement? Or is the hope of this kind of criticism that, when the revolution comes for all the other Yalies, you will be the sole Yalie spared and even elevated to the leadership of the insurrection? Because, you know, they're probably gonna need someone really smart at the top to get things done.

44 comments:

Alex Small said...

What really galls me about critiques of meritocracy is that the loudest critics in my workplace were generally born a few rungs above me. I was raised by a single mother with a decent middle-class job and an income that was pretty close to the national median, in a part of the country with a cost of living close to the national median. Plenty of people above me, plenty of people below me. I was told that if I studied hard I could climb. So I studied hard, I got myself a scholarship to a fancy university, I studied more, got into a really good PhD program, did OK, got a professorship. Now I find myself working with faculty colleagues who wound up in the same place as me but were born well above me, and they know all the right jargon for discussing privilege and inequality and they know how to explain that meritocracy is all a big lie.

Well, maybe it's a big lie when your parents have a lot of money, but it sure wasn't a lie for me while I was studying my way up. It was explained to me that I was in a place where I could rise or fall, and luck would play a role but work would also play a role. So I worked. What was I supposed to do? Recite the word "privilege" until somebody was impressed?

Also, for all the problems of technocratic elites, most critics of meritocracy believe that there's some Best Practice that will select a better (more effective, more informed, more compassionate, etc.) leadership class. Replacing cognitive tests with selection based on the right menu of extracurriculars or whatever is still meritocracy, only with more field trips.

Withywindle said...

It's the contempt and hatred more than the entitlement. They certainly seem to correlate, and with meritocracy, though it may not be causation.

Let me put it a different way: the meritocratic elites around the globe seem to share common deformations toward arrogant entitlement, contempt of the masses, and policy solutions that disguise elite self interest in technocratic language. I'm willing to believe some elites aren't so bad--the East Asians, Israel. But if meritocracy can be separated from these correlating evils, I want to see practical advice about how we can get from here to there--from our own rather horrible meritocrats to the marginally better ones elsewhere.

I should say that I've been aware of the paired arrogance and contempt since at least when I was in high school. The trouble is 1) my high school classmates turned out to be far more typical than I realized; and 2) they're now old enough that they're running the country.

And to repeat: of course I had that arrogance and contempt too, and still have it in too much of my heart. What was unsettling then--and has become horrifying now--is that so few of my classmates saw any problem with the attitude. I was ashamed of myself; they weren't.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alex: Well, it may be true that those who have invested least in the system themselves are the least invested in it? That's what Aristotle says about money-making, that those who inherit it value it least (which is correct). But the system actually does extract a great deal from elites in terms of work demand, so it's not really true that when your parents have a lot of money, you don't have to do anything more. (Unless your Lori Loughlin's kids.) Still, there is a great deal of guilt going around that, when coupled with the insecurity and anxiety that is natural to an elite in a socially mobile society, can make the system seem too terrible too perpetuate. I do think that even those at the top of a meritocracy are tired often wish for relief. Maybe if we smash the meritocracy in the name of the poor and minorities, we will win at least a good night's sleep for ourselves in the package. More security and comfort for everyone! (At what cost and to whom? Let's think about that question later.)

Withywindle: I haven't met many members of the global meritocracy, so my observations are limited to Americans. But what, concretely, is more arrogant about them than others, besides their political disagreements with you? "Contempt of the masses" is natural. Who could love something that is literally called a "mass"? Not even the masses love themselves qua masses. But it should be distinct from a real lack of charitableness for individuals, or a desire to destroy people. You might say, well, they do wish to destroy the people whom they accuse of wrongthink, but that isn't their actual intention, since they wish only to root out the wrongthink and improve the people previously suffering from it. That's not so different, I assume, than what you would like to see happen to them, that they would have their minds changed. (And sure, there are probably some really bloodthirsty and eliminationist elements among them, but there are similar such among the non-meritocratic opposition, so it's hard to say that eliminationism is the result of meritocracy.)

I can certainly believe that your high school was full of arrogant assholes (although I thought you liked your high school?), but I don't know if we want to use 16 year-old boys as our standard measure for mature character. The question would be whether now that they are old enough to be running the country, they are still the same 16 year-old boys?

Finally, there is a question about what alternative to meritocratic selection can make better elites for us?

Alex Small said...

Oh, I agree that the system makes them work. When I look at the critics of meritocracy in my environment, I see people who definitely got a leg up but still had to do something with it. Legacy admissions got them into a fancy undergraduate school, but Mom and Dad can't write your PhD dissertation. Dad's connections in the industry got them their first consulting gig, but they had to produce once they had it. And so forth. What we have is a system that seeds some people into a better spot in the tournament bracket, but they run into real competition pretty quickly.

(Though I do chuckle at the guy who argued that placement tests mean nothing because when he started college he tested into a lower math class than everyone else. Of course, he was a legacy admit and the others got in on grades and test scores, so...)

I like your point about wanting a night's sleep. They seek a system that will afford them more reasonable work hours instead of constant performance hurdles to advance, provided that they bring some visibly diverse people along with them for the ride. They'll sleep easily in multiple senses. Of course, as you've noted before, De Tocqueville observed that egalitarian systems have the most competitive grind, so what they really want is not a truly open and egalitarian system, but a system that affords a respite to elites who demonstrate virtue. This amounts to noblesse oblige (in doses that are compatible with a healthy work-life balance) rather than a standard of constant competition and performance.

Andrew Stevens said...

Withywindle: you just wrote an entire blog post about how you should be made king! Even I would never claim that - I'd be a horrible ruler. (Indeed I think Plato's entire idea of a philosopher king is completely wrong-headed and that Lenin more or less demonstrated that.)

MSI: sorry to have to correct you, but it's "desert," not "dessert." (I know, I know, I am a completely insufferable asshole. Guilty as charged.)

Andrew Stevens said...

As Jonah Goldberg just said recently, "I never signed up to be a rightwing version of everything I can’t stand about the left." Which is of course what Michael Anton and Donald Trump want the right to be.

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, I think you are basically right about all this. I will mention my own two refinements.

1) I get a lot of "this guy's got a degree from Harvard, he must know what he's talking about." And I will reply, "Yeah, but if you look at his accomplishments other than getting into Harvard, it's pretty clear he's not very bright." Harvard and Yale pretend that all their graduates are the Ross Douthats of the world, people selected for their actual talent and abilities. Well, about 30% of them are. But the other 70% or so were mostly selected for the wealth of their families and only in part due to their abilities. I believe I can demonstrate this pretty well statistically - i.e. by the lack of socio-economic diversity at those institutions. Also, check out the inordinate percentage of these people who come from the top 1% wealthiest families. You think that can be explained by genetics? Well, if so, I'd have a hard time absolutely proving you're wrong, but nevertheless I'm pretty damn certain you are. (For one thing, very few of the people in the top 1% of wealth would also be in the top 1% of intelligence themselves.)

2) The whole point of the book The Best and the Brightest was that hiring "the best and the brightest" and ignoring actual experts (since they're not as smart) is a dumb thing to do. The people Goldman Sachs were hiring were not even educated in finance. Goldman Sachs believed that as long as they got the smartest people (and they outsourced that task to Harvard and Yale and see point 1 above), they could train them up in these things. And it turns out Goldman Sachs and the others weren't that good at training them up, at least not by the time they'd been doing it for a long time. I am a generalist myself for the most part, but I revere the specialist in his own field. This was also exacerbated by a "Young Turk" culture in that field. They did not have nearly enough old grayhairs around to provide adult supervision.

Withywindle said...

Andrew: Do you mean my historian nationalism bit? I wouldn't have described it that way.

MSI: Contempt -- yes, the explicit desire to make decisions for people they consider inferior. To abrogate democratic deference. And the desire to treat them like evil children, to be brainwashed into agreement, rather than treated as equals to be persuaded.

Sixteen year old boys and girls.

I see ever more authoritarian contempt in the actual policies of our elites; so, no, I don't think they've grown beyond this. I think they're deforming the country to fit teenage arrogance.

No, I was changing the question for you--how do we alter meritocracy to produce better elites, not how do we eliminate it.

Andrew Stevens said...

I mostly meant the third bullet point of "I Am a Miscellaneous."

Miss Self-Important said...

Alex Small: It may be an impossible pursuit, that night's sleep. The costs will be higher than they imagined. When everyone works less, everyone gets less. They think they'll be ok with it - a chance to focus on what really matters! But I'm skeptical that they'll enjoy what really matters when it can't be had with all the side pleasures to which they've grown accustomed.

Andrew: Yes, it is. My bad. Fixed.

Maybe I've asked this before, but if you think that intelligence and skill are at least partially heritable, wouldn't there always be a disproportionate number of rich offspring at the top? Maybe not as high as now, but higher than their percentage of the population.

Withywindle: I wasn't aware that you were a radical libertarian. How far does democratic deference go? Would you allow people to change their genders? To use heroin legally? To get abortions? To refuse to enforce immigration laws?

Andrew Stevens said...

Probably, but not anywhere close to the rates of admission at Harvard and Yale. For one thing, intelligence and income are positively correlated, but it's not that high a correlation and intelligence and wealth are only very slightly correlated. For another, regression to the mean makes heritability not nearly so strong. Two highly intelligent people who have offspring together usually have offspring less intelligent than either of them. (And two fairly unintelligent people usually have offspring more intelligent than either of them.) Sure, the offspring of two highly intelligent people are going to be on average smarter than the offspring of two below-average intelligence people, but not as much smarter as people generally suppose. Hidden in the genes of those highly successful (or unsuccessful) people are an awful lot of genes which are just average. We all have a lot of genes, after all (tens of thousands per person).

Of course, admissions at the top Ivies are not solely concerned with intelligence and appear to be looking for people who will be economically successful. Using economic success of parents as a proxy certainly isn't a bad measure (particularly since the children are much more likely to be economically successful via inheritance), but there isn't a very strong correlation between talents and skills of parents and their children.

Let's just take economic background which includes it all - inheritance, environment, genetics, etc. How many children of the top 20% end up in the top 20% themselves? 37.8% of them. 20% of those would get there just by random chance. More than half of them end up in the middle quintiles and 11% of them end up in the bottom 20%. There's definitely an effect, but it's not huge. And keep in mind that this includes everything. (Stats from the Pew Trust - <a href="https://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2012/EMPReportsUpward20Intergen20Mobility2008530pdf.pdf>link here</a>.)

How much of Harvard and Yale's class is from the top 20%? About 70% of them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ack. Forgot the closed quote and then forgot to preview. This is the link.

Andrew Stevens said...

"20% of those" was infelicitously phrased. I meant to say that random chance would predict that 20% would end up in the top 20% if economic success of parents meant nothing whatsoever. So there is only an "excess" of 17.8% from the top 20% who end up there because of something having to do with their parents (genes, environment, inheritance, schooling, etc.).

This works the other way too. Approximately the same percentage of children with bottom 20% parents end up in the bottom 20%. The excess is actually pretty small.

Andrew Stevens said...

Or, in other words, when we ask, "What is the cause of economic immobility? Is it genes, environment, inheritances, social policy, what?" the correct answer is, "Actually, there really isn't that much economic immobility to explain at all, certainly not nearly as much as exists in the popular imagination."

This doesn't surprise me a lot since my parents were in the bottom 20% and I ended up in the top 20%. (This happens to 7.4% of the children born in the bottom 20%.) One of my brothers did as well. The other two ended up roughly in the middle (and one of those was wicked smart).

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to make myself absolutely crystal clear: I do not object to the admission policies of Harvard and Yale, I am not concerned about the "fairness" of who is admitted there. I do object to the exaggerated respect people give to graduates of those institutions. Most of them are not especially talented nor especially skilled and they earned admission through a decent, but not extraordinary, amount of skill/talent combined with the wealth of their parents. I think you are making an enormous mistake if, like the investment banks, you take "Ivy League degree" as a proxy for talent and skills. There is a correlation between talent and Ivy League degrees, but it's not especially strong.

Jerome Corsi has an Ivy League degree, Donald Trump has an Ivy League degree. These men are both morons. This doesn't even begin to cover the large amount of obvious mediocrities who get jobs purely because they received an Ivy League degree and do those jobs barely competently, if even that.

Andrew Stevens said...

I.e. the last great President we had was our last non-Ivy League President. Since then we've had five straight Ivy League Presidents. One of those (H.W.) was competent and honest, one (Clinton) was competent and dishonest, and the last three of them (W., Obama, and Trump) were all incompetent, though W and Obama were at least (generally) honest.

If you ask people on the left why they believe Obama was competent (almost none of them will argue that Carter was), it mostly boils down to "look at those Ivy League degrees." In fairness, Obama is actually a very good writer. He was just a bad Senator and a bad President.

Andrew Stevens said...

Yeah, I know, here I go again. The nut just won't leave you alone.

Talent is a matter of luck. If you actually believe that you got where you are b/c you have natural talents that others lack, you'd have no more reason to see your lot as a matter of great personal desert than if you got there b/c you were born into it or won it in a lottery. In fact, if you had to buy your position, you might have more reason to believe you earned it, since you earned the money to buy it.

This actually raises an extremely interesting philosophical issue. There are a decent number of philosophers who do not believe in free will and believe people are never ultimately responsible for their actions. One of the arguments used is: A) your genes are a matter of luck, B) your environment is a matter of luck, and C) there is nothing other than genes or environment. So it's all luck. QED.

My question is always "Who am I then?" What is this creature which is not responsible for anything? If there's nothing left once we take away genes and environment, then there's nothing to hold irresponsible either. I have never received a satisfactory answer to this question. (Though most philosophers do believe in free will, so it's only a question for the minority of them that don't.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, that's fine. We agree, more or less, on all this. In the article, my main argument is that meritocracy is only survivable when it's decentralized, which is to say, when a handful of credentialing institutions are not the only road to remunerative employment and social status in the country. I think that would address your complaint about the automatic deference given to Ivy League grads, though perhaps not in high finance, which is a pretty concentrated if not exactly centralized industry.

I just ask this to clarify whether you're arguing that fair meritocracy would perfectly reflect the socioeconomic profile of the country as a whole, or that even a fair system would still result in a disproportionate number of children of the elite remaining there, just not as disproportionate as the admitted class of Harvard.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that problem came to political theory as "luck egalitarianism," an effort to figure out what you are responsible for if you're not responsible for anything. I leave it you to look into the answers if they interest you.

Andrew Stevens said...

I just ask this to clarify whether you're arguing that fair meritocracy would perfectly reflect the socioeconomic profile of the country as a whole, or that even a fair system would still result in a disproportionate number of children of the elite remaining there, just not as disproportionate as the admitted class of Harvard.

The latter. But I think the disparity between the Pew Research numbers and Harvard clearly shows an extremely biased tilt toward the wealthy by Harvard - even if we were just looking at who is most likely to be economically successful for whatever reason and didn't care a whit about talent/skills/intelligence, etc. It's not just that Harvard doesn't care exclusively about talents/skills/intelligence, but it actually cares a great deal more about favoring the children of the wealthy.

I've never heard the phrase "luck egalitarianism" (coined in my lifetime, so no real surprise - I'm not particularly good at keeping up with thoughts of the last 20 years or so). The "luck egalitarians" aren't as extreme as some of the free will philosophers. In fact, they clearly accept free will since they are willing (as I am) to accept that people do make conscious choices and that they should at least bear responsibility for those.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sorry, I said "free will philosophers" when I meant to say "anti-free will philosophers."

Andrew Stevens said...

If we were entirely looking at talent/skills/intelligence, it would be much closer to matching the socioeconomic profile of the country of the whole than it would be to matching Harvard's current distribution. (Let us assume that 37% would be from the top 20%, surely the top number. 20% would then only be 17% different from the correct number instead of 30% off.)

Again, I have no objection to schools which exist for the children of the wealthy to hobnob with each other. My objection is to pretending that those schools are actually devoted to meritocracy, when that is plainly false and insupportable.

Andrew Stevens said...

"As a whole," not "of the whole." Not my day.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

With the caveat that I up-for-baby read this, so not as carefully as ideal...

YES, oh my goodness, yes, this is something that has been bothering me for years - this notion that meritocratic elites are unique in believing themselves entitled to their status. How has that become a truism, when even casual familiarity with any other system (or just... watching Downton Abbey!) reminds that those at the top always think that's where they belong. I've written about this in terms of privilege discourse - the notion that meritocrats are unusual for not realizing they're privileged. Which, if anything, they're unusual for even possibly seeing their privilege as a problem.

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew: Yes, the luck egalitarians are trying to do some applied philosophy with the idea of luck that draws on the pure philosophy, not work out the fundamental problem of the will. I don't follow analytic philosophy closely, so I don't know how valuable or interesting this work is.

Is the problem just that elite schools pretend to be purely meritocratic? Or isn't it also that the country has begun to demand that they become so? Instead of just shrugging and saying, "Not for me. I'll go to the University of Iowa instead"? It's true that, in a way, Harvard started it all under James Conant. But I don't know if his aim was ultimately to create a hierarchical national system of higher ed w/ Harvard on top, or just to change the orientation of his own institution. At this point, meritocracy in the elite colleges seems to be at least as much a demand-driven project as a supply-driven one. People seem to care A LOT about every little instance of Harvardian malfeasance, even though it obviously affects them not at all.

Phoebe: I think there actually is a problem specific to democratic regimes at work here. We may have a harder time legitimating any rulers of any kind (even calling them "elites" implies this), b/c it seems like we should not need to be ruled by anyone, being all equal in principle. So while it's true that every regime's leaders feel entitled, ours have the hardest time with this entitlement because the grounds for it always seem so thin in a democracy. (With one exception: people elected with huge majorities of votes, since when all of your equals voluntarily endorse you, probably you are truly the best there ever was?)

Alex Small said...

"I've written about this in terms of privilege discourse - the notion that meritocrats are unusual for not realizing they're privileged. Which, if anything, they're unusual for even possibly seeing their privilege as a problem."

Indeed, I'd like to see a study of how usage of the word "privilege" correlates with SAT score or college ranking or some other measure of the ostensible educational meritocracy. I have a wager...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

MSI,

That could be. I think it's also that there is *some* social mobility, if not as much as one might imagine. And the mobility isn't just upward, so meritocratic elites can't actually be sure that their kids will do as well as they have. And generationally, for various reasons (housing costs vs salaries sort of thing) the kids could well wind up doing worse even if they're not burnouts. This is, I think, what Tiger Mom-ism is about ensuring against, on some level. It's not just about reaching for the very top, although it's certainly that as well.

Alex,

I would like to see SO MANY studies on "privilege," and a few are trickling in. That would be a fun one!

Alex Small said...

With the increasing demand for detailed "diversity statements" in faculty job applications, and even (seriously) Graduate Certificates in Diversity and Inclusion (e.g. https://rackham.umich.edu/professional-development/dei-certificate/), academia is arguably saying that the most meritorious professorial job applicant is the one who is most able to critique privilege.

Imagine a world where Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley engineers are all able to recite the exact right jargon about privilege, and are convinced that their understanding of privilege makes them more worthy of the job than the un-inclusive heathens who didn't recite the right shibboleths. It wouldn't be so different from the children of the Soviet elite, who could discuss class struggle in all of the right jargon.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually there's a lot more social mobility than people typically imagine. That was my whole point above. Less than 40% of the top or bottom 20% stay there in the next generation and we'd expect 20% to do so purely from random chance. Yet to hear people talk, you'd think that 80% of the top and bottom of the distribution was born there. Only about 1/5 of rich people and 1/5 of poor people don't "deserve" to be there (whether due to genetics, social oppression, inheritances, and all other factors which might perpetuate immobility combined). 80% of both the rich and the poor are there for reasons other than being born into it (which, of course, can include good or bad luck).

The anxiety of the elites that their kids won't stay there is very, very real. Most children of the elite don't stay in the elite.

Andrew Stevens said...

Of course, they're only doing relatively worse than their parents (each compared to their respective societies). A fairly large majority of people end up better off in absolute terms than their parents. That's been true for generations in the U.S.

Andrew Stevens said...

Harvard tries to keep the children of the elites in the elite and they do decently at that. The average Harvard student ends up roughly as well off as his parents were. (Though Harvard only takes 4.5% from the bottom 20% and 9.2% of their graduates end up there, so they do a fairly terrible job of keeping their students out of poverty.)

MSI: I'm not saying Harvard is doing anything wrong. Harvard has always taken 70% of its kids from the top of the income distribution of their parents. How else could they pocket their fat fees and fund their enormous endowment? I agree it's a cultural problem; that's what I've been saying all along. Ivy League schools receive far more respect than they deserve from the culture at large. We should stop giving them that respect. It's hard to blame Harvard because they have a better reputation than they deserve!

Out of elite schools, the best of them are MIT and the University of Chicago. Both of them are also far too skewed toward the wealthy to realistically be called meritocratic institutions, but they are better than the Ivies.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm really just asking to go back to the attitude of the 1980s. The Ivies had a good reputation, but it was also understood that most of their graduates were there because their parents could write their names on a big enough check. This is just as true today as then, but you don't hear people point that out anywhere near as often.

Alex Small said...

Just saw your piece today. Good work.

Coincidentally, I also came across this article:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/6/28/18677988/yesterday-movie-the-beatles-music-meritocracy

They use a sweet little romantic comedy with nice music as a jumping-off point to grind the familiar axe against meritocracy. They do so because offering this critique of meritocracy will prove that they are worthy of a continuing career in opinion writing.

Miss Self-Important said...

Thanks. I'm on an island with limited internet and didn't even know it had been posted.

Yes, this: When you make the point that chance events matter, people insist on hearing you as having said that those are the only things that matter,” Frank told me. “That’s not the message. The people who win generally are very good. If you’re not very good, you generally don’t win. What’s true is that being very good isn’t by itself enough to win.”
Is there anyone honest with himself who doesn't believe that luck had some part in his life outcomes? And once you accept this, what next? No one should bother trying to become good anymore?

educatedwhinge said...

Complaints about 'meritocracy' are just polite complaints about the Asian transformation of the education system.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hot take. But what's the evidence? Is anti-Asian sentiment animating both Ross Douthat and Chris Hayes? Plus, wasn't this transformation actually more closely-timed with the Jewish transformation of the education system, in the 1950s-70s?

Gabe C. said...

Long time reader, occasionally commentator. Really enjoyed your article and these additional thoughts.

I was wondering what you thought of the critique of the "managerial liberal" class that their issue isn't so much a lack of empathy but that they are essentially reformists in an era that calls for radical change, and that indeed the meritocratic system that elevates them will tend to elevate reformers over radicals. I think that's what the article you alluded to is getting at with "the refusal of this proud steed of technocratic managerialism to engage with new circumstances."

In other words, rather than an argument that they are bad at translating ideas to policy. It's that they are particularly poorly suited to it in these times.

I can foresee at least two responses to that argument 1) if this meritocracy is so reformist, why is it every time I go to a NYC DSA party everyone went to U Chicago, Reed, or an Ivy, 2) how is this different than any other elite which is going to generally fight to preserve its power and privileges regardless of changing circumstances. Appreciate any thoughts you have.

Andrew Stevens said...

Gabe: This is a common opinion on both left and right these days, but what is the evidence that we live in "an era that calls for radical change"? Given, you know, that 21st century Americans are the luckiest people ever to walk on the face of the planet.

Miss Self-Important said...

Gabe: Is that a criticism of meritocracy though, or just of the current leadership class, regardless of how it got there? Would a leadership class educated or selected differently be more amenable to radical change?

Gabe C. said...

Andrew: I was just positing it for the sake of the question. Fortunately or unfortunately I'm a stereotype of a pretty self-satisfied bourgeois with vaguely neo-liberal inclinations, so I don't tend to be too alarmist about crises. But as you say, the left has climate change, the right has declining religiosity/deaths of despair, the center (if that still exists) has increasing social and political polarization, etc. Personally, climate change is probably the only one that makes me think we might need some radicalism, but I'm not totally convinced by any of the cases that we are in a unique crisis that requires radical change.

Rita: I was trying to get at an argument similar to one that Mike Konczal made in Dissent commenting on Chris Hayes' book on meritocracy. This is in the context of teaching Rawls (but I think you still hear versions of it from the left): "It is almost impossible to get elite students to understand that there could be other ways of thinking about society than as a hierarchy of talent, with rewards allotted as such. If the point of politics is merely to get the best people into the most important positions, then it is beyond its scope to help those at lower stations, let alone empower them. At most, this kind of thinking leads to a neoliberal politics of pity and charity—of means-tested welfare—and the hope that the children of meritocracy’s losers might get a different roll of the dice."

You probably have more experience teaching Rawls than Konczal! But in other words, I think the idea is that educational and social expectations of meritocracy collapse political questions into just the question of "who has the merit to rule" (which you mention) when there are broader and more radical questions about the regime that we should be encouraging. Maybe "who has the merit to rule" is the most important question in a representative democracy, but is there some connection between the (cliche, contestable) comment that many advanced/neo-liberal countries seem to have shrunk the acceptable realm of political action with the rise of the ever-more all-encompassing meritocratic educational system.

Miss Self-Important said...

This is funny, b/c when I teach Rawls, my students generally find it a stifling way of thinking about society, but I emphasize very different things. When it comes to the question of who deserves which positions, they do tend to believe that we just need the ubiquitous "more level playing field" and then all will be fair and good. They rarely seem to imagine how much radical change would be required for an actually level playing field.

But I don't think it's quite right that we collapse all "what should we do?" questions into "who is the right person to do it?" Don't we publicly dispute the substance of policy all the time? It seems to me that, at least among people who follow politics, they first determine their position on Issue X, and only then select whom to vote for based on that. What we should do comes before who should do it.

Or is your objection that the acceptable or imaginable responses to Issue X have themselves narrowed due to meritocracy? I would need an example to think that through, since a wide or narrow array of options is relative. You'd also have to fill in chain of causation from meritocracy to narrowed field of political options. Why would the former result in the latter? Historically, the rise of the administrative state occurs at the same time as the rise of meritocracy, and I'd be more inclined to blame political rigidity and path dependence on administrative centralization than on meritocratic selection, although as I mention in the article, meritocracy tends towards centralization itself.

But to go back to the students' inability to think about society as other than a hierarchy of talent - my question has long been, what other ways are there to think of it? What is the alternative to meritocracy that is still consistent with liberal democracy? (Obviously, eg, communism is an alternative, but if replacing meritocracy means replacing our regime, then we seemingly have a bigger problem on our hands than previously imagined.)

Gabe C. said...


I do agree that the arguably narrowed horizons of modern policy-making in liberal democracies is a bit of an over-determined problem (assuming we grant the premise). Meritocracy might be part of a package of social changes that lead to our present predicament but I doubt it's a root cause.

I also tend to agree with you when it comes to meritocracy that "there is no alternative!" Maybe it's the joke about the liberal who is too broadminded to take his own side in an argument, I want to leave open the possibility for an alternative even if I can't see a plausible one yet.

Thanks for talking through that with me. Appreciate you taking the time.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actual solutions to climate change are impossible even with radical change here in the U.S. A totalitarian world government wouldn't even be able to get China or India to agree to what would be required of them for meaningful change without armed revolution. Are we really going to nuke Chinese coal plants?

Andrew Stevens said...

I really only meant to say "bomb" rather than "nuke" which would be overkill even for the most extreme environmentalist.