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Meritocracy Can't Be Bad (Contra Yglesias)

Meritocracy is under fire. Michael Sandel wrote a whole book about why it's bad. Freddy DeBoer, Daniel Markovits, and Helen Andrews all agree. And most recently, Matt Yglesias has joined the debate to explain how and why Meritocracy is Bad.

It feels like whenever I've read or listened to something that opposes meritocracy, it starts with the same intro, something like: "Other thinkers argue that meritocracy is bad, but only to the extent that we do not actually achieve a functioning meritocracy. But my critique is deeper, because I think Meritocracy itself is bad; it's a target we should not aim for, a goal we should not strive for."

And, it seems to me, they usually go on to describe something totally different than my--and I expect, other people's--idea of what meritocracy is, and explain why that's bad. And I'm left thinking, Ok I agree that what you're describing is bad, but what about meritocracy??

I felt this way while reading Yglesias's article (at least the first half). He argues that, look, we actually have a pretty functional meritocracy in America, and it's a huge mess; letting the smartest people hold the highest positions is in fact what we already do, and it's not working out at all. The students and professors of elite universities actually are very smart. Hedge fund managers are smart. New York Times reporters are smart. Etc. Etc.

Our society is great at identifying smart people and giving them important or lucrative jobs. This just turns out to be an outcome that still has some problems.

Smart people are useful, but they can also be cunning and conniving, and as a result they often do very bad things for personal gain. Intelligence is not the thing we should be selecting for; moral virtue, leadership qualities, and character are just a few traits that are just-as or more important. The best thing about Obama was not that he was smart (though he was), but that he was a dignified leader with strong moral standing. The worst thing about Trump was not that he was dumb--in fact, Trump is actually pretty smart in a way, given that he repeatedly skirted the rules to enrich himself in a way that his victims would have no recourse.

...did you see the switch?

We started out talking about meritocracy, and we ended up arguing about whether intelligence should dictate who holds the high-status positions. Intelligence specifically. And while I would certainly grant that intelligence is an important factor a well-functioning meritocracy, it's far from being the final say or even the determining factor in many cases.

I think Yglesias would agree, actually, that intelligence is useful as one of the determining factors for who holds the high-status or high-impact positions. But he argues powerfully that other considerations should take equal or greater weight.

Nobody wants a dumb doctor. But you also don't really want a shrewd doctor who is putting his smarts to use figuring out how to take advantage of his asymmetrical information vis-a-vis his patients to buy unnecessary services.

And I totally agree! 100%! To the extent that the US is putting smart-but-shrewd (read: morally bankrupt) people into top positions, I think that's very bad, both for the people getting ripped off as well as for society at large. But also, meritocracy is great and we should be striving to achieve it. I can hold these two statements both simultaneously as true because I do not identify meritocracy with intelligence alone. I think, probably, nobody really does except in extreme straw-man situations.

I can't speak for everyone, but whatever proponents of meritocracy are arguing for, I can't imagine it's in defense of the shady doctor. Of course nobody wants the morally-bankrupt doctor who rips people off. Of course nobody (aside from the most strident Libertarian) thinks the doctor ripping off unsuspecting patients is good for society. Nobody would recommend that doctor to their friend. Does anyone really feel comfortable holding up an example like that and calling it a successful meritocracy?


My point of view about meritocracy much more closely resembles that of Scott Alexander, from his piece in response to DeBoer:

The intuition behind meritocracy is: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

But this description leaves out many important factors. What if the doctor who aced medical school has suffered a stroke and lost the use of her fingers? Or what if she has 50 medical malpractice lawsuits pending? Or what if she is simply well-known to rip off her patients? Then yeah, I may take the C-. Am I anti-meritocratic?

The doctor I want to conduct my surgery is the doctor that will do the best job, all things considered. Intelligence is part of this, yes, and to the extent that medical school is a proxy for training it's important, but other things are equally important. I want doctors who do good work, who display a high level of intelligence and technical skill and the highly-desirable moral character Yglesias describes, and I want this to determine which doctors rise through the ranks. To the extent that markets tell us who's doing a good job across all these dimensions, I want those best doctors to be given high salaries and lots of prestige. That's a functioning meritocracy.

If my meritorious doctor were supplanted by some smarter doctor who is going to cheat me, that would be a failure of meritocracy. Similarly, if Obama had been opposed by some kind of super-intelligent Trump-like figure (lots of smarts and no moral qualms), Obama's win would still be a meritocratic success. I want the president that will do the best job, not the one that will ruin things for their own gain! I challenge you to find an actual proponent of meritocracy who disagrees!

(Also, I don't mean to pick on Yglesias about the Trump thing; I actually agree with him about Trump not being an idiot. But pointing to Trump as an example of True American Meritocracy because Trump is kind of smart in a particular self-serving way? It kind of proves my point.)

As the world changes, and the job requirements of a successful president change as well (e.g. negotiating with an advanced AI or navigating interplanetary diplomacy), a good meritocracy will update its rankings accordingly. It will not stick to giving people IQ tests and awarding top positions to shady-but-smart people who do a worse job.


Rationalists are sometimes picked on for their biases. But Rationalism is not a fixed set of codes or rules; Rationalism is a journey, not a destination, and The Void is a central virtue of the enterprise. The goal is to do what is best, all things considered. As such, when a bias is pointed out, a good Rationalist will be grateful, even ecstatic! How wonderful, a chance to be a little less wrong tomorrow than they were today!

Similarly, a good meritocracy is not a fixed set of rules or tests for who "should" get the "best" jobs; instead, it's a journey, something to point towards but never attain. Meritocracy is a moving target, but it is one worth aiming at.

I hear you saying: "Yes ok, on this version of meritocracy, America is indeed not one but should strive to be. But this is a trick of definition! You've defined meritocracy as 'whatever is good' and therefore isolated it from any possible criticism!" But no! I've defined it more like, "Whatever is good within the narrow frame of some particular job description." With a definition like this, you can trade off meritocratic goals against other considerations.

Suppose we live in a society with exactly two jobs: doctor and firefighter. At first, maybe we have a very strong preference for having the very best doctors we can possibly have; based on what I've said, a meritocratic medical system is precisely that system which will achieve that. But, we may find that to be absolutely sure we have the best doctors, we train far too many people in medicine rather than firefighting, and all our hospitals burn down. As I see it, this is an example of a true meritocracy, and also a disaster that we want to avoid.

Or take some real-world examples. In the second half of Yglesias' piece he points out some very valid critiques of meritocracy as a singular virtue. He points out that tennis competitions (indeed, all sports and most creative endeavors, to some extent) are extremely lopsided in terms of payouts. Yes, we want to see the best tennis players compete at the highest levels, but this kind of inequality may not be the best societal outcome on-net.

...the basic reality is that it is not great for material resources to be distributed so unequally. The marginal dollar taken out of [world-champion tennis player] Nadal’s hands and given to someone in need will greatly increase human flourishing. There are lots of valid questions to ask about the macroeconomic impact of various kinds of taxes and the optimal design of welfare state programs. But the benefits of an egalitarian economic order are clear, real, and don’t fundamentally hinge on the idea that Nadal or anyone else did anything “unfair” to get where they are.

This kind of Pareto Distribution of wealth appears in all manner of economic environment; it's completely natural, but not ideal. To the extent meritocracy leads to massive wealth inequality, we may want to trade off having the absolute best tennis players possible to having some merely excellent ones, plus a lot fewer poor people. This is a fair criticism, and something to keep in mind as we champion the meritocratic ideal.

Further, in the Race to the Top of the meritocratic hierarchy, people do not start at the same point; luck, good and bad, plays a central role. People's family structure, school history, genetic background, and numerous other factors contribute to where they end up. A pure meritocracy that does not help these disadvantaged people is not something we want either.

Yes, some people come from terrible backgrounds and are able to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps". And yet, such people are just lucky in another way: to be the kinds of people that thrive in terrible environments, or have any kinds of bootstraps to pull on. Sandel (and to some extent, also DeBoer) make the valid point that we sometimes compound insult onto injury, telling people at the bottom of the meritocratic hierarchy that somehow it's their fault society has decided to leave them behind. This is deeply troubling, and should be fought against; to the extent we can have meritocracy without this notion of moral dessert, I'm all for it.


So to be clear: I do want to live in a society that bestows rewards on those people that do the best job; that is, I am in favor of meritocracy. This one goal contains within its purview many subcomponents, including looking for candidates of high intelligence but absolutely not limited to it. But the goal of meritocracy is an ideal, and has to be traded off against other considerations, including equality and social cohesion. Yet, it's a goal worth pursuing.

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