Against Meritocracy

(Warning: Rant Ahead)

We are so smug, so secure in our privilege. The clever ones. We understand the world, and we smirk at people who don’t. “How could they be so dumb as to vote for that?” “What on earth were they thinking?” “I could do a better job than that half asleep.”

And you know what? We’re right. We are the clever ones. It doesn’t matter what your skin colour is, or your gender, or your sexuality. You can be a black lesbian in a wheelchair and if you’re smart, you’re still a member of the most privileged group of all. You can whine about how society oppresses you, but frankly if you live in any advanced society you have no idea what a society designed to oppress you looks like.

Sceptical? So wedded to your “liberal” identity that you can’t accept that you are one of the oppressors?

Meritocracy. Giving the job to the person best qualified for it. The rallying cry for “liberals”, for people who want to overthrow the structures that have oppressed women, people of colour, and LGBTQIA people for so long.

“Meritocracy” is the explicit claim that people in the bottom 25% of the population do not deserve to have well-paid, high status jobs, because of how they were born. In the wonderful world of flexible working and the high-skill workforce, it is the claim that they have no right to have any job at all. If they can’t make themselves cleverer, they can go and starve. This is the stick that “liberals” use to beat “privilege”. And they can’t even see the irony.

Let’s be up front about this. If your ideal systematically excludes 25% of the population from high status positions because of how they were born, your ideal is bad. If this is the explicit basis of your ideal, then it is indefensible. Meritocracy is an indefensible tool of oppression of a large chunk of the population.

So, you’re black. Woop-de-doo. So is the president of the USA. No-one has argued that he should not be president because he is black, whatever the “real motivations” of the birthers might be. People did argue that George W. Bush was too stupid to be president. They did this quite explicitly. Even though it was patently untrue. Yes, sure, there are systemic factors that disadvantage women, people of colour, the disabled. If you look at the statistics, you can see them.

You can see the factors excluding the less able by looking at the hiring criteria.

Nor is that all. I know a few lawyers. I know people who’ve worked in the criminal justice system. Most of the people who end up in the dock are at the low end of intellectual ability. They can’t juggle their lives, and completely fail to come up with good solutions to their problems. Then, when they get arrested, they can’t talk their way out of it, because they aren’t smart enough. They aren’t even smart enough to keep their mouths shut when the police ask them what they did. Because, you know, that’s what “less able” means.

I don’t think anyone collects the statistics. Anecdotally, however, the prisons are full of people of low intelligence, while the smart people get rich in ways that aren’t actually illegal. Because, you know, smart people can understand rules and find the loopholes. Anecdotally, the overrepresentation of people of colour has nothing on the overrepresentation of the unintelligent.

So, what am I suggesting? Should we let dumb people take on important positions? What about the consequences when they make bad decisions? You wouldn’t want someone that stupid doing your taxes for you, after all.

Well, no. The whole of society is structured to make life as difficult as possible for the unintelligent. And then we blame them when they fail and fall apart. They reply to phishing emails, they don’t write in to cancel subscriptions, they don’t read the small print on the contracts. Lawyers and courts prioritise writing those contracts and licenses in legal terminology, to make them “precise”, when most of the population can’t understand it. Tech firms assign many problems to “user error”. Tax law legally obliges you to understand the whole tax code and how it applies to your situation. Even social security will stop your benefits if you make a mistake on the form, and assume fraud if you can’t remember what you were earning a couple of months ago. Because, of course, everyone can remember that sort of thing clearly.

And anyone can climb stairs if they try hard enough.

The privilege of the intellectual elite is the explicit ideology of western society. Failing to enforce that privilege, by failing to hire “the best person for the job”, is grounds for censure at least, and legal action in many cases. Any job with status must be offered to the privileged group. Allowing someone outside the privileged group, or even at a lower level of the privileged group, to gain status over time is deeply dubious, and a sign of nepotism and corruption within the organisation. And, after we’ve restricted the less able to the menial jobs, the ones with low pay and no security, we set up the society they live in as an impossible obstacle course, and then say that it’s their fault when they fall.

And, you know what makes this really unfair? Smart people don’t need any help to enforce their privilege. Put a really smart person in a group with half a dozen people with low ability who have been doing a job for years, and in a few days or weeks she will understand it better than they do. We have the good hands. Being a white heterosexual man might mean that the video game is set to “easy”, but being smart means that you have the cheat codes. If society did nothing to enforce male privilege, it would not exist. Smart people have an advantage in almost any situation. Indeed, even if you explicitly designed society to suppress smart people, they would end up running it. Smart people are smart enough to hide their ability, and dumb people are too dumb to see that they’re being played until the smart people hold the power — and maybe not even then. Other groups might have claimed to be inherently intellectually superior, but smart people are, by definition.

So, what should we do?

First, recognise that meritocracy is morally bankrupt. It is even worse than racism or sexism, because it picks on people who are in a weak position before society does anything. Being good at a job no more entitles you to that job than being a white man does.

Second, completely redesign society so that people in the bottom 25% have a fair chance to get positions of wealth, status, and influence. “Fair chance” means that 25% of people with wealth, status, and influence are in the bottom 25% of ability. Yes, this will mean introducing criteria that are, at least, completely indifferent to how good you are at the job, and will almost certainly require positive discrimination in favour of people who are much less competent.

Of course, doing that in the current state of society would be a complete disaster. Society needs to be redesigned so that people can make stupid mistakes in important jobs without causing major problems.

Is that actually possible?

I have no idea. We could make a start by removing all legal requirements to enforce the privilege of smart people, and reforming some of the more gratuitous burdens, like software licenses and credit card agreements, but that would not be enough to solve the problem.

The final irony? If the problem is ever fixed, it will be smart people who fix it.

Posted in Philosophy.

5 Comments

  1. Without a lot of time to post, unless I misread your early statement it sounded like you were equating meritocracy with liberal policy as a failure; I’m used to seeing meritocracy equated with conservatives, not the other way around.

    It’s certainly fair to argue that intelligence impacts your ability to navigate society, but you seem to be adopting the notion that intelligence is hard coded in, or that nothing can be done about this. It seems to me that a significant factor in this is to improve our educational system, and work to improve cultural standards and perceptions on the value of an education as well as an appreciation for intelligence. As an example, I live in a state (NM) where there’s a serious undervaluing of the educational process and a local cultural perspective that shows a great deal of disdain for education and intellecualism in general. We’re never going to succeed if these core underlying values aren’t changed first, and may in fact do a great deal of harm if we try to fix the “end game” of society to assume that nothing can be done to improve the intellectual lot of people as a whole.

  2. A thought provoking article. I’m not sure if I want to agree completely. (The “merits” that distribute valued positions can be argued about. There is no need to value intelligence, qualifications, performance or wealth. However, my conception of meritocracy may to too close to what Aristoteles apprechiates about Aristocracy.)

    Anyway …

    Thinking further I still I don’t assume that the problem with “the privilege of cleverness” fixed, will provide equal chances. There is (and will be) still the issue with health and illness – especially mental or neurological illness and (neuro)degenerative diseases.

  3. Nicholas Bergquist: Thanks for your comment. I’m not assuming that intelligence is fixed, just that society is biased against people who have less of it, for whatever reason, and that inborn ability is at least a significant contributor. I’m well aware that people can improve, and I agree that we should be doing it. It’s interesting that you regard a state policy of spending $10,000 per student per year on education as a sign of seriously undervaluing education. It may well be, but that just indicates that the value placed on education in the culture as a whole is very high.

    Athair: Thanks for your comment. I agree that the rant oversimplifies the situation; that’s why it has a “rant” warning. It isn’t a full statement of my position, so even I might not agree completely, although I am entirely sincere about the basic idea. The real aim of this piece is to provoke thought about something that I think is important and neglected.

  4. New Mexico has a lot of issues to overcome, including poverty, and the funding per student is not as high as it sounds; nationally every state tends to under-fund, and only a few are actually throwing the money into education….and of those I think only those with a plan and goal are succeeding.

    Bu as you said, you’re post was more of a rant and highly specific toward a certain perception on the value (or lack of it) with a meritocracy. I’m loosely progressive in my belief that there are, indeed, populations which will inevitably need assistance (as Athair points out the mentally and physically disabled, for example) but strongly disagree with the notion that a meritocracy is morally bankrupt, and the answer is not to find a method of equalization that punishes those who are willing and able to work toward greater achievement, and rewards those who don’t, but rather to even out the playing field through insuring that everyone has the right knowledge and skills to succeed.

    As you put it, “It (meritocracy) is even worse than racism or sexism, because it picks on people who are in a weak position before society does anything.” This is the point at which you take action, to reform our cultural values, right here; to subvert the inherent notion that some people are destined for mediocrity and others are destined for greatness due to superior intellect or skill. The solution you postulate does the opposite, permanently reinforcing cultural and societal biases against a population by assuming that our infrastructure via employment can (or should) lower itself to the level of the lowest common denominator, rather than elevate that value instead.

    If we have fixed the “educational and cultural gap” then we will have a much more realistic picture of who fails because they cannot succeed, and who fails because they are not allowed to succeed. Start at the beginning and work from there.

    Afterthought: if the model you propose could lead to a mechanism by which the essential equality of education, prosperity, intellectual and educational opportunities were all a possible reality, I think such a model would be worth considering. But my experience as an employer has been that the workplace is usually the last place you will manage to reform a life time of poor education and failed nurturing; we really, absolutely need to front load the process in youth.

  5. I would certainly agree with you that we need to start the process of resolving these problems early, and that pre-university education tends to be badly underfunded in the USA. I tend to believe that no matter how good the education, there will still be a spread of abilities at the end, although we can hope that the mean and median will be rather higher than they are now. If there is a spread, however, the people at the bottom of the spread are going to constantly lose out in competition with the people at the top.

    I don’t think the solution is going to be levelling down, because that just crushes everyone’s opportunities. Rather, I suspect that we need to greatly diversify the number of routes to secure, stable, and high-status jobs. The advance of technology is having the reverse effect; someone who could have been a valuable manual labourer a century ago can’t compete with power tools, which are designed to be wielded by anyone. I also think that the artificial imposition of such structures is likely to be unstable, even in the medium term. As I said, I don’t have a solution yet. I just have a problem.

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