The entire idea of a meritocracy may be a myth

We often apply this term to the process of electing government officials, but in theory it should apply to pretty much all aspects of life. Do the best, brightest, hardest working, most honest and moral individuals rise to the top in American society? Do we live in a true meritocracy, or does it all come down to other factors beyond our control? These are the questions being tackled this weekend by Dr. James Joyner. He is prompted to pondering these things by Robin Hanson.

A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.

Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related.

Joyner appears to agree up to a point.

Of course, defining “merit” and “success” will be controversial here, with reasonable and intelligent people disagreeing, sometimes quite broadly, as to what they mean. Several of Hanson’s commenters, for example, treat possession of extreme talent, even “genius,” as evidence of merit when it’s just as easily dismissed as luck. It’s not obvious why being extremely smart is any less a matter of happenstance than being pleasingly tall or attractive. Indeed, our appearance is much more within our control—through diet, exercise, grooming, and the like—than our intellect.

For that matter, even the qualities that I identified earlier as more obvious signs of merit—hard work, persistence, and delayed gratification—are highly influenced by factors outside our control. A substantial amount of those attributes are hard wired through some combination of genetics and early nurturing.

As far as Hanson’s point goes, I see no reason to argue, but it doesn’t seem to speak to the reality of modern life as much as how our own perceptions of reality are shaded by personal experience. You rarely meet anyone who honestly complains about how lazy, stupid and undeserving they are. Clearly we would all like to think of ourselves as deserving of success. And when we fail to achieve that to any substantial degree, it’s only natural to think that the system is rigged and others must be doing better because of lucky breaks or insider advantages. Conversely, successful people probably do see the system as being just and merit oriented, even if they are humble about it to a certain degree in public.

But do the best really succeed by and large while the incompetent fail? On this point, politics may actually be the worst possible example imaginable, given the folks who seem to wind up in office at every level. But it’s not difficult to imagine that this is because of the hiring process involved in such positions. Industry should provide a much better case study. To succeed in business of any kind, whether you aspire to run a bank or dig a ditch, results and the bottom line are all that matter. If you are good at your job, you might just get ahead. If you fail to deliver you will soon be gone. If you’re exceptionally good at it, you will generally rise above your competition. And the decision to hire you will generally be made by a small group of people – or even a single person – whose own jobs depend on making good choices in the hiring and promotion game.

Politicians are pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are hired by roughly half of the nation’s population that bothers to show up and vote. They are rarely held accountable for their failure to produce as long as they look good on television and can deliver some slick talking points. The entire political process is almost antithetical to to the idea of meritorious reward.

But I think the question isn’t done justice if we pretend that those “outside factors” don’t frequently come into play for those who succeed, or that highly qualified, hard working people often fail to be noticed. Good looking people do better in interviews and in any job where you have to deal with the public. Joyner is correct is saying that you can exert some control over that through grooming and attire, but only to a degree. Sorry to say it, but some people are born with, shall we say, faces that are probably not destined for magazine covers. (I count myself firmly in that category.) Being born wealthy or into a family with a lot of power and influence certainly doesn’t hurt either. It can open a lot of doors for you, and while it may not mean that a well heeled incompetent person will thrive over the long run, it can at least get them in the door. A lot of less well placed people may never even get a chance to go to bat in a highly competitive field.

And does luck every play a factor? It would be foolish to claim otherwise. Again, luck may not carry you far, but it can at least help you get your foot in the door.

So do we live in a meritocracy? In the long run, yes. Most of us not in government work do. But it’s not a perfect one and there are always exceptions. And let’s face it, nobody ever guaranteed you success in America.. just a fair shot at trying for it.