What’s So Great About Meritocracy?

Nearing the end of Part One of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century—which is mostly devoted to a pretty fascinating overview of the economic history of Britain and France from the eighteenth century to the present—seriously, it is fascinating, why are you looking at me like that—I was nagged by what was something like the fourth or fifth occurrence, in the first hundred or so pages, of the phrase “meritocratic values,” used in what appears to be a totally uncritical, non-ironic way. In fact, looking back, I see that on the first page of the book Piketty introduces his thesis, which is that under certain circumstances “capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Then again, why should this be surprising? Anyone who’s listened to just about any American politician in the last couple of decades is pretty well accustomed to hearing about meritocracy and democracy in the same breath. The basic idea is that in a meritocracy, the power and rewards go to the people with the greatest ability, which is generally understood to be some combination of talent, intelligence, and hard-workingness. It’s one of the truisms of modern American political life that this is obviously the ideal way to structure a society—on the face of it, it sounds fair, or at least not obviously unfair. But there’s a reason why truism and truth aren’t quite the same word, and lately there’s been some pushback against meritocracy as an ideal principle, both on the level of practical politics, and on the level of principle itself.

A lot of this pushback, I should say, comes from the sociologist and novelist Michael Young, who invented the word “meritocracy,” and is pretty much permanently aghast at the fact that his satirical exaggeration of what he saw as a pernicious societal tendency is now one of the guiding principles of modern society. (Some of his objections are pretty subtle, and interesting—they include things like the psychological effects of a regime where the only explanation for your failure to ascend the social ranks is your own lack of merit, the neglectful effects on the trades and occupations which are judged to be low-status, and the upward pressure on wages in high-status professions whose members believe they deserve whatever they can get, by definition. They’re all worth reading about. The ones I’ll talk about are simpler, and less subtle, though hopefully also worth reading about.)

One practical objection is that the system we’ve created for identifying “merit” might not be measuring what we want it to measure. Our educational system is the primary machine we’ve built for sorting the talented from the untalented, but there are a lot of reasons to suspect that it’s not very good at separating class advantage from pure talent (whatever that even is). Even if you aren’t committed to the belief that standardized tests are systematically racist, it’s hard to deny that students from wealthy families have better access to things like tutors, test preparation services, and even just the sort of stable home lives (or stable homes) that tend to improve academic performance.

That’s a problem of implementation, of course, one which assumes that a pure meritocracy is an ideal worth striving for. A principled objection would be one that questions the idea of meritocracy itself, something like: why do the talented, the intelligent, the hard-working, the more able, deserve to be rewarded in the first place?

You don’t have to be a skeptic about the entire concept of desert to see problems with linking welfare or resources to talent or intelligence. How can it be fair or just to reward someone for something as arbitrary as natural talent or innate intelligence? After all, being born smart is no less accidental than being born rich. Even diligence, or conscientiousness, or whatever you might be tempted to consider the most morally deserving component of merit, seems to depend, to at least some degree, on innate disposition.

Here’s Ben Bernanke, noted radical, making rather the same point in his Princeton commencement address:

3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate—these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

There’s a lot packed in there. I could, though it might take a little longer than a blog post, sketch an argument to the effect that the requirement that the luckiest “contribute to the betterment of the world” and “share their luck with others” implies a pretty strong component of egalitarianism, if not absolute equality. And meritocracy, as a principle, has nothing to say about equality. Meritocracy is simply a machine for sorting the most deserving from the least deserving, which, when it’s functioning properly, happens to use talent and intelligence as its sorting criteria. And because there’s no common currency between merit and reward, no accepted scale for weighing how much of one is implied by the other, we’re left to our own judgment as to the level of inequality our meritocratic principle demands. On whether the “best” deserve slightly more than the “worst,” or several hundred times more, it offers no guidance.

So if meritocracy is a non-starter as a principle, why are we always banging on about it? Why is Thomas Piketty talking about it as though it’s one of the necessary conditions for democracy? I suspect that it’s because nobody actually thinks of meritocracy, on its own, as a positive principle. When we say we believe in meritocracy, what we’re really saying is that we prefer it to the alternative—and in this discussion there’s only one alternative. Meritocracy is not an ideal principle of social justice at all, but the antidote to something that we can all agree is unjust: call it aristocracy, call it nepotism, call it the old boys’ club. There may be a philosophical case for the equal arbitrariness of all accidents of birth, so that being born with a high aptitude for learning or a diligent disposition is no less arbitrary than being born a Rockefeller or a Vanderbilt. But I suspect that most of us would agree that there is at least some personal choice involved in developing one’s talents and work ethic, compared to zero personal choice, and thus zero moral significance, involved in being born rich. Therefore even if meritocracy rewards people for reasons which are slightly, or somewhat, or largely morally arbitrary, that’s better than rewarding them for reasons which are entirely morally arbitrary.

In other words, meritocracy has enemies both to its left and to its right—but it happens that in our actually existing society one is more relevant than the other. We can agree with Ben Bernanke (and G.A. Cohen) that pure meritocracy would be defeated by some kind of luck-compensating egalitarianism as a positive principle for social justice. But in this world, meritocracy is a negative principle, not a positive one, and equality doesn’t seem to be on the menu at all. I do hope that Piketty gets a little bit deeper into the ways in which meritocracy and equality are incompatible, and I suspect he will, because one of his theses apparently concerns one of the speculative scenarios Michael Young describes, which has lately become a norm—namely, the tendency of CEOs and other “super-managers” to award themselves astronomical sums as compensation for their “talents.” But for now, his uncritical use of the idea of meritocracy is nothing to worry about: he’s talking about negative meritocracy, not positive.


Back to Socialist Basics

Fundamental socialist values which point to a form of society a hundred miles from the horizon of present possibility are needed to defend every half-mile of territory gained and to mount an attempt to regain each bit that has been lost.

This is the late G.A. Cohen, the ex-Marxist egalitarian political philosopher, writing in 1994 about the situation faced by the UK’s Labour Party, which was, as Cohen tells it, in danger of losing its realistic, practical effectiveness as a result of having abandoned its (possibly) unrealistic, impractical socialist values.

Well, say what you want about the tenets of pre-1992 Labour socialism, but at least it’s an ethos. The Democratic Party of the United States, in spite of what you might have heard on right-wing talk radio, doesn’t have any socialist values, or any “hundred miles from the horizon” values at all — and is thus lacking an essential tool which would, in Cohen’s formulation, help it to defend its current territory and regain the territory that’s been lost. In other words, to parlay its momentary electoral advantage into actual progress on the issues the Left holds dear, rather than serving merely to put the brakes on what might otherwise be a more violent rightward skid.

Next time you’re tempted to personally fault Barack Obama for “negotiating with himself” — for asking for a realistic half-mile, rather than an unrealistic hundred miles, and wondering why he only gets about a yard and a half — ask yourself whether this might not be a built-in weakness of the Democratic position: there’s nothing for them over the horizon to point to. There’s no moon for them to ask for, no crazily unrealistic principles to serve as a starting point for negotiation.

The Right, of course, has no shortage of crazily unrealistic principles: keeping only to the domain of economics, the list for American right-wingers in 2013 looks a lot like the list for Tories in 1994:

Considered as practical proposals, the theories of Friedman, Hayek, and Nozick were crazy, crazy in the strict sense that you would have to be crazy to think that such proposals (e.g., abolition of all regulation of professional standards and of safety at work, abolition of state money, abolition of all welfare provision) might be implemented in the near, medium, or long term. The theories are in that sense crazy precisely because they are uncompromisingly fundamental: they were not devised with one eye on electoral possibility.

Twenty-nine years later, of course, they don’t look quite so far from the realm of electoral possibility, at least in the United States, because for twenty-nine years the Republican Party has been pressing them relentlessly, along with other, no less crazy, principles, including the idea that all government spending is pernicious in practice as well as evil in essence, and the idea, given much support by Nozick, that redistributive taxation is tantamount to slavery.

Against this, the Democratic Party’s response generally begins by accepting the terms of the argument, acknowledging the (often spurious) support given for these crazy principles, and countering with a proposal that essentially amounts to “Let’s not be too hasty.” Is it any wonder that today’s Democrats occupy an ideological space that’s to the right of Richard Nixon, when not only socialism and egalitarianism but even the (once perfectly realizable) legacies of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society are ruled out of bounds, not just as realistic destinations but even as distant beacons by which to navigate?

Even if you’re inclined to accept that the Democratic Party counts as leftist in any meaningful way, you’d have to be playing fast and loose with language, history, or both to assert that it’s got any “socialist basics” to get back to. But given the structural impediments to mounting a third-party challenge that can both outflank the Democratic Party on the left and achieve near-term success on a national scale, it might be time the Left helped the Democratic Party to find some socialist values — and if I were a cynic, I might say that this could end up being easier than it sounds: the party, after all, wouldn’t have to struggle too mightily with overthrowing its non-socialist values, because it doesn’t have any values1 at all.

1. At least, that is, values that are “crazy precisely because they are uncompromisingly fundamental.” Now, that’s not the same as embracing values that are crazy precisely because they are politically toxic — as anything making explicit use of the word “socialism” is likely to be politically toxic in a country that doesn’t have a living tradition, as England does, of non-Marxist socialism, not to mention a country where red-baiting is never really out of style. Any values that are imported from socialism would have to be described in more palatable ways: as more strictly egalitarian modifications of liberal orthodoxy, as elaborations on Christian teachings, or both. Cohen, in his other writings, has a lot to say on both of these topics, and so will I.

I like the idea of being fully transparent about influence, if not even confessorial. I’m so bored with the idea of composers being sui generis romantic geniuses; I am obsessed with the idea of us all being inheritors, mimics, state employees, fonctionnaires, craftspeople. I had a revelation a few years ago: the pieces of music that move me most were written by people in the direct employ of the state or the church. Bach, Gibbons, Byrd, Weelkes, Taverner. With the exception of Britten and Adams, I’ve never been as fucked up by any music by a citizen composer than I have by these employees who didn’t have the time to go into the woods and commune with nature etc. Their asses had deadlines, and the responsibilities of the ecclesiastical calendar, and the choir turning up and whatever o’clock, and the music still hits me in the solar plexus.

Nico Muhly

This was written on September 12, 2001, and, in my opinion, has yet to be surpassed — it’s the ultimate cold shower for those moments when, caught up in the rush of current events, we sit down to pen our “what is to be done” essays.

Of course the World Trade Center bombings are a uniquely tragic event, and it is vital that we never lose sight of the human tragedy involved. However, we must also consider if this is not also a lesson to us all; a lesson that my political views are correct. Although what is done can never be undone, the fact remains that if the world were organised according to my political views, this tragedy would never have happened.

Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics


Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Einstein, apparently

Kafka shreds

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls converged so quickly that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run.”

“But you’ve only got to run the other way,” said the cat, and ate it up.

A Little Fable

On reading too much

Paul Dirac, the great physicist, refused to accept the books that Robert Oppenheimer tried to give to him; “reading books, the Cambridge theoretician announced gravely, ‘interfered with thought’.”

The first time I heard this anecdote I was struck by its self-evident absurdity. Reading is thought. And so it is. But it’s not your thought.

I’d be the last to claim that all thought is linguistic, or verbal. Plenty of it is visual, spatial, mathematical, musical. But your internal monologue is a large part of your conscious experience. This seems especially likely for people with a facility for language — exactly the people who, like me, are in danger of reading too much.

If your experience of reading is anything like mine, then what you’re doing when you read is letting someone else write your internal monologue for you. You are not the author of your own stream of consciousness.

Now if it weren’t for reading, your consciousness would be severely limited. We all benefit from being able to think through the thoughts of Shakespeare, and a hundred or a thousand other authors besides. But there must come a point when enough is enough. We’ve only got time to think so many thoughts. Some of them should be our own.

I tend to usually have a couple things going on at the same time, so I can go back and forth between them. I very easily get upset at the things I’m doing, so I have to have something else happening at the same time, so I don’t become completely distraught over what I’m working on. Usually, eventually, almost without fail, all of it gets thrown away anyway.

Jim O’Rourke