The meritocracy paradox

Image credit: DonkeyHotey

Scales of justice (Image credit: DonkeyHotey, Flickr: Creative Commons)

In polls, an overwhelming majority of people say that they support equal opportunity. An overwhelming majority of people also say that they oppose estate taxes–taxes on inheritance–of any amount. These two sentiments are logically incompatible, at least in their strictest senses. Why the inconsistency? A cynic might chalk it up to people being insincere in their beliefs in equal opportunity, but there’s more to it than that.

Widespread belief in equal opportunity is probably rooted in widespread belief in concepts of meritocracy–you should get what you earn in life; nothing more, nothing less (with the exception that no one should be allowed to be destitute). But you could also derive the concept of inheritance from a concept of meritocracy: people who work hard (on both work and child-rearing) should be allowed to pass on the fruits of that work to their children. In fact, this link to meritocracy probably explains much of the unpopularity of estate taxes, too.

So the paradox lies in the concept of meritocracy itself. We should all get what we earn; but part of what we get and are trying to earn is a good life for our children, and anything we give to our children they get but haven’t earned. We’ve contradicted ourselves. Perfect meritocracy is therefore impossible, assuming our children are part of what we invest in and care about in life (they are). (And I am not the first to notice this, e.g. see discussion here.)

An additional challenge to defining and implementing ‘get-what-you-earn’ meritocracy arises from exploitation–where one person or group accrues wealth or power at the expense of another. While few would consider wealth or power gained through exploitation as legitimately ‘earned’, it can in practice be difficult to disentangle aspects of wealth and power gained from merit (or legacies of merit) from aspects of wealth and power gained from exploitation (or legacies of exploitation). The longer the history of a particular type of exploitation, the harder it is to establish the counterfactual without it (e.g., the new documentary ’13th’ illustrates this issue in the context of racism in the U.S.).

Another way we might try to define meritocracy is utilitarian–e.g., where in the workplace, we would hold that people should be hired, paid, and advanced strictly in proportion to how well they do the job. This definition of meritocracy doesn’t logically contradict itself the way the ‘get-what-you-earn’ definition does, but it, too, is at odds with strict equal opportunity, again because of intergenerational effects. For example, if you’re born to an NHL hockey player, you’re much more likely to become one yourself than is someone who works just as hard as you but doesn’t benefit from the genes, mentorship, and access to coaching resources you get from your NHL parent.

Interestingly though, the degree to which this fact upsets people’s notions of fairness seems to depend strongly on the context. For example, you rarely hear people discount or resent Steph Curry’s groundbreaking basketball accomplishments in light of his having an NBA father (Dell Curry) (and the same goes for other athletes), but successful children of successful businesspeople, politicians, and other intellectual elites are often resented or seen as less deserving of their success. At least in part, this difference probably has to do with the fact that intellectual prowess is harder to objectively measure than is athletic ability. This means that (a) it is harder to identify and eliminate evaluation biases (and therefore it is also harder to eliminate legacies of exploitation) that systemically hinder the advancement of some groups of people in intellectual fields, and (b) it is easier to call into question evidence for partial heritability of intellectual ability by questioning its measurement. As a result of both (a) and (b), it is much easier to erect social and political taboos against suggesting (or investigating whether) differences in intellectual advancement are partly due to genetics (even though the current scientific consensus is that genetics explains roughly 50% of the variance in intelligence).

Why do I bring all of this up? The main reason is that I see the idea of meritocracy–what it means, and how it should be applied in social policy–at the root of many of today’s most bitter political divisions in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.. The logical nuances related to meritocracy I describe above seem central to the concept’s divisiveness, but these nuances are rarely addressed head-on in the public discourse. Instead, I too often see people invoking false dichotomies (e.g., ‘exploitation exists, therefore there are no genetic differences and all intergenerational transfers are illegitimate’, or the opposite: ‘genetic differences exist and some intergenerational transfers can be legitimate, therefore there is no exploitation (or it is not an important factor in advancement)’), or erecting intellectual and scientific taboos. Given that most people share an investment in the idea of meritocracy, open and honest discussions of its complexities, contradictions, and nuances could be a shared project that brings people of all political stripes together and highlights our shared values.

Finally, I want to address what might be the elephant in the room: If concepts of meritocracy fall apart when we get into the weeds, why strive for meritocracy at all? For me, the answer to this question comes down to considering the alternatives.

For example, various forms of Marxism (to each according to their need, from each according to their ability), or equality of outcome, are becoming increasingly popular alternatives to meritocracy among young people. The problem with equality of outcome as an ideal is, in short, that there are so many variables affecting outcomes that you would need an authoritarian state to control them all; and human nature (and history) dictates that people who run authoritarian states tend to enrich themselves and inflict atrocities on their enemies and rivals rather than create egalitarian utopia. Incentives are of course the other problem–if you don’t reward people for contributing to society, they often don’t. This is why institutionalized Marxism has, without exception, led to widespread poverty and violence where it has been tried. Venezuela provides a recent, tragic, example of Marxism’s dangers.

Of course, extreme laissez-faire capitalism is not much better, nor it does it lead to meritocracy by any definition–because it deterministically causes extreme concentration of wealth regardless of differences in ability or work, and it rewards exploitation as much or more so than it rewards merit. Extreme nepotism (another imaginable alternative to meritocracy) also seems broadly undesirable.

Where does that leave us? I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I hope we can have a discussion in the comments (and elsewhere).

But to kick things off, it seems to me like we should want: (i) to incentivize people to contribute to society, (ii) to give our most talented people the space and resources they need to contribute to their highest potential, (iii) to prevent exploitation and limit the compounding across generations of the fruits (and losses) of both exploitation and chance, and (iv) to distribute wealth and power broadly enough that we are not allowing anyone to become destitute, overly restricting our talent pool, or allowing groups of people to feel outside of society (in that they cannot get ahead, and therefore do not feel a need to invest in society’s stability and well-being). If we buy these goals, then we probably have to accept: (a) that governments need to play an active role in preventing exploitation and redistributing wealth to some degree (both directly through taxation and indirectly though investing in public education and infrastructure), but (b) that markets must play an active role in the economy and some people must be allowed to earn more wealth and power than others, and pass some of that wealth and power on to their children. So far, so obvious.

Perhaps more controversially, I think we also have to acknowledge that there is a tradeoff to some extent between enabling excellence and providing equal opportunity. Sports again provide some of the clearest examples of this, where, for instance, countries that perform best in international competitions tend to be those that invest significant resources in developing their very top talent, rather than those that spread resources more thinly across a larger group of athletes (Canada’s recent jump in Olympic performance, following the start of its Own the Podium program, illustrates this particularly clearly). This tradeoff can also be seen in intellectual achievements (research, innovation, business, etc.), where, for example, the U.S. tends to have more of a winner-take-all system than other western countries do, and ends up having less economic mobility and more inequality, but also has more of the top innovators, researchers, and businesses.

To be clear, that there is a tradeoff does not necessarily mean that the U.S. (or any other county) has currently struck the right balance, or even an efficient balance (i.e. a balance from which they cannot simultaneously improve their equality of opportunity and their quality of innovation, research, and business). There is lots of evidence, for example, that inequality of wealth and opportunity in the U.S. has gotten to the point where it is hurting innovation and growth, in addition to social cohesion. But it does mean that reasonable people can come to different conclusions about specific social or economic policies related to meritocracy, redistribution, and equality of opportunity, without some being fundamentally ignorant or unconcerned with the common good.

5 thoughts on “The meritocracy paradox

  1. The more I think about meritocracy, the more I find it disagreeable as a philosophy. Intelligence is mostly inherited, and the remainder seems likely to be determined by one’s environment. Personality traits, such as conscientiousness, also appear to be heritable. Perhaps much of the rest of success can be attributed to luck in opportunities, having safety nets that allow one to take risks, etc. US culture seems to have this romantic ideal of the lone entrepreneur who makes it big off of hard work, without realizing how many others work equally hard (or very close to it anyway) but fail due to circumstances outside their control.

    I do think society should have incentives for people to make contributions, (The post-scarcity economy in Star Trek seems a bit too idealistic), but I’m not sure how to calibrate it. It does seem like there should be a better way to re-distribute money in a way that is more aligned with common values (e.g. education) compared to what we do now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ya, I mean right now it does seem like we are below the Pareto frontier in terms of excellence vs. equal opportunity (too much concentration wealth and too little investment in public education and health care). It seems like you’re suggesting the problem is deeper than that though? What does the end result of the calibration you have in mind look like?


      • As a first step, I would go with limiting the influence of wealthy corporations/individuals on policy. Have more congressional non-partisan offices to analyze policy. Getting rid of the Office of Technology Assessment is a bad idea. Having these offices seems like a small price to pay to stem self-serving and exploitative legislation brought on by extensive lobbying.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think words like “meritocracy” are tautological. It’s almost impossible to disagree with the proposition that people should keep what they merit and it sort of elides the real question. This is why meritocracy is a widely shared ideal — because it doesn’t mean anything concrete. The same way that fairness is a widely shared ideal. Even if you define merit as something like “what I could achieve if I didn’t have to help others,” it only has a workable meaning in a few niche areas where excellence or achievement is very individualized, like sports, and the definition completely breaks down in most regular jobs, which depend on a complex web of supporting structures and, usually, a particular legal environment. A financial lawyer couldn’t make any money without the whole structure of banking laws. Are banking laws a government handout to him? Are they a natural condition? Do these questions get us closer to figuring out how much of a financial lawyer’s salary should be redistributed to others? People in my experience tend to define merit as whatever they happen to possess. Smart people think intelligence is merit. People with big networks think social maneuvering or politicking is merit. People who are hard-working think hard work is merit. To me, the real question isn’t “what is merit?” but “how much should different types of people be paid and/or supported, keeping in mind that some arrangements lead to bigger pies to divide than others?” And there’s no clear consensus on the latter question, although I agree with most of what you said about ideal policy in the weeds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are great points, Andrew, thanks! It’s true that people love to contradict themselves in polls about somewhat vague-sounding statements. One of my favorite examples comes from this YouGov poll:

      – 64% agree or somewhat agree with “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.”
      – 71% agree or somewhat agree with “A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”


      – 68% agree or somewhat agree with “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”
      – 53% agree or somewhat agree with “If any would not work, neither should he eat.”

      Make sense of that, if you can.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s