A meritocracy without merit

We live in a world that idealizes the premise of being a meritocracy: good things come to those who are diligent, and if you just work hard you’ll be rewarded. In reality, this is a blatant lie. There seems to be very little correlation between diligence and actual success, while hard work is rarely rewarded. While we are slowly becoming increasingly aware of this, there are still many who do believe that hard work is an important determinant of success, especially in countries such as the U.S..

But while we tend to think of the idea of a meritocracy as a positive, perhaps over-idealized world, the word originally actually had a very negative connotation: far from projecting some utopia, the idea of a meritocracy can be wielded as a useful tool for the ruling class to explain why the poor should be poor. When we buy in to the collective fallacy that success is simply the result of hard work, it’s easy to scapegoat those who are unsuccessful as lazy, and they have no-one to blame for their failures but themselves. It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to see a meritocracy as something to be desired. But in essence, a meritocracy is nothing but a post-hoc justification for why the existing power structures should stay as they are.

Not so meritocratic after all

It’s easy to see that our society is anything but meritocratic. Getting ahead has never been based on ‘working hard’, it’s based on having wealthy and successful parents that give you a leg up. This is why most people stay in the social class they were born in, and why even in the best ranking countries for social mobility, moving up the social ladder is measured not in years but in generations.

The lack of a true meritocracy is present in all aspects of society. Take sports for example, arguably one of the most merit-based areas of life: we assume that with talent and hard training you’ll likely excel, whereas those who lack talent or slack in training are unlikely to be successful. Yet even here the biggest predictors of success are favorable genetics and growing up in an optimal training environment. With how little control athletes have over these factors, how much of their success is therefore based on actual ‘merit’?

“We actually have shockingly little influence on what makes us successful.”

Outside of sports the picture is often even bleaker. For example, having well-connected parents plays a big role in the opportunities people have access to, getting a job is often based more on who you know then what you know, and hard work has little correlation with income.

The key ingredients

This inherent unfairness and the resulting inequality has many detrimental outcomes to society. It therefore makes sense that there is societal pressure to remove these potential sources of inequality: equal opportunity access to better education, abolish or greatly reduce the scope of inheritance, create more social support for those with a disadvantaged start. Once we achieve all that, we’ll surely have an equal and fair society, right? Right?

Read more about why inequality is detrimental to society.

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. While these measures would certainly help lower the gap as it currently stands, whether they actually create an equal society is debatable. Even if we take away all the advantages that parents or other family members can bestow upon children, people will still have massive innate differences between them that, in the eyes of society will make us inherently ‘unequal’. And yet almost irrespective of what we might excel in, we actually have shockingly little influence on what makes us successful.

I’ve already touched upon sports. Good genes, adequate nourishment and a supportive environment during childhood all have a large contribution to individual success. But it doesn’t just stop there.

Physical attractiveness plays a large role in how successful we are, leading to more jobs and higher salaries. Our physical attributes are of course largely genetic, as can easily be seen by how often children resemble their parents. While there isn’t a single ‘master gene’ of attractiveness, genetics are a large component of our overall appearance. And even if we do currently have access to make-up or plastic surgery to adjust our appearance, attractiveness generally requires more than just some lipstick or liposuction.

But if our physical characteristics are largely based on our genetics, then surely we can still control our own pathways to success through our mental acumen? Again, the answer is no. Just like our physical characteristics, intelligence is largely heritable. And the portion of intelligence that’s not explained through our genes again largely depends on our environmental conditions.

“Even if hard work was the sole predictor of success, some people would still have a genetic head start.”

And genes affect more on the mental side than just our raw intelligence. Mental health factors, such as depression, have innate predictors. Our tendency to identify entrepreneurial opportunities and start a business is for 30-35% explained by our genes. Even the final bastion upon which meritocracy is founded, perseverance, is for 37% explained by genetics! Even if hard work was the sole predictor of success, some people would still have a genetic head start.

The road to success

Now I should note that likelihood does not equal determinism, and it’s not necessarily the case that our lives are set out for us from the moment we’re born. But several likelihoods across a great many factors do add up overall, and collectively paint a bleak picture for how much success can rightfully be explained by ‘merit’.

In part this is because of how our society is structured. While the innate differences between children based on their genetics might be small initially, the gaps between them tend to grow over time. This is because we often praise children whenever they excel at something. Children that have some small innate talent are therefore more likely to receive praise when they make use of their advantage.

And praise is an important motivating factor. When we praise children for doing well, we incentivize them to practice more and become even better. As they practice more, they improve, receive yet more praise, and gain even more incentive to continue practicing. Meanwhile, children that lacked the initial advantage will receive less praise and are encouraged to pursue other interests.

This means that even when the initial differences between children are small, we often set them out on a feedback loop that widens the gap over time. As a result, small differences can really start to add up, and eventually become the difference between excelling or not. Again, most of these outcomes are largely out of their control.

Luck of the draw

All in all, this means that pretty much every potential avenue towards success is in some way influenced by our initial luck of the draw.

To make matters even worse, we need to be lucky with whatever capabilities that we inherit, we also need to be in the right place at the right time. Meticulous handwriting used to be a lot more valuable in the past than it is now, where an analytical mind suited for coding will do much better. It’s great if you are a mathematical genius or chess prodigy, but how will you ever be able to use your talents if you spend your entire life working on the farm. We’ll never know how many Einsteins we’ve had that were ahead of their time or toiled their lives away in a sweatshop.

“When people differ in their capabilities through no fault of their own, why do we base our reward mechanisms on capabilities?”

And on top of that, we also differ in what we enjoy doing. When you enjoy doing something it can barely feel like work at all, whereas something you despise requires a lot of grit do to. What does this mean for who deserves praise? We can’t really choose what we’re interested in, but clearly there is a much greater advantage to be interested in some topics than in others. Is the prodigy who attains top marks without exerting any effort more praiseworthy than those without talent, who need to work incredibly hard just to scrape by? It’d be the equivalent of praising someone for being born into wealth over someone that works two full-time minimum wage jobs just to put food on the table.

All these differences in genes, trajectories and interests have significant repercussions for what inequality means and how we deal with it. If we can acknowledge that a lot of our capabilities and success depends on luck, we need to start reconsidering our attitudes towards inequality as well. When people differ in their capabilities through no fault of their own, why do we base our reward mechanisms on capabilities?

A Meritocracy without merit

Merriam-Webster defines a meritocracy as “a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit“. We’ve just seen that this definition is problematic. A meritocracy that values people based on their ‘merits’ makes little sense. Yet all we need to do to create a justifiable and equitable meritocracy would be to simply remove a few words from the definition. Simply take out the section “of success, power, and influence“, as well as “and merit“, and the new definition reads:

a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions on the basis of their demonstrated abilities

In other words, assign people to jobs based on what they’re good at. Now this stance is easily defensible: it’s hard to argue against having the right person for the right job. Having the most capable surgeons practice surgery makes a lot of sense, as does letting the most capable architects design buildings, and the most capable athletes play sports.

The problem with the old definition lies in the value we assign to ‘merit’, and to reward this with “success, power and influence”. This leads to wide discrepancies in compensation, based on the talents of people that they were not responsible for. When people are at best responsible for a fraction of their success, valuing people based on their merit is nonsensical. If even our capacity for hard work is partially dependent on luck, compensating people for it makes little sense. At that point we might just as well hold an actual lottery at birth to determine future success.

Some try to justify our current system with its massive differences in income based on how much people are ‘worth’ to society. And like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, in some cases we actually do this. For example, surgeons or psychiatrists often have sizeable incomes, but they arguably fulfill difficult, strenuous, and valuable roles in society.

“Assigning jobs based on what people excel in makes a lot of sense, rewarding the genetic lottery winners with ‘success, power and influence’ is unjustifiable.”

Yet at the same time, people such as day traders and hedge fund managers make a lot more money than nurses, janitors or teachers, while the latter clearly contribute more to society. If we really want to differentiate the worth of people based on their value to society, we need a serious re-evaluation of how we asses ‘value’. True value certainly doesn’t come from exploiting financial markets and maximizing shareholder value.

Read more about why it’s a terrible idea to pursue maximizing shareholder value.

Double standards

The other issue lies in the peculiar double standard we apply to physical versus mental heritable characteristics. When it comes to physical characteristics, we seemingly have little issue with attributing them to our genes: e.g. the expressing “having good genes” refers to physical attributes, we’re surprised when children don’t resemble their parents in appearance, we often make assumptions that appearance and origins are connected, etc..

“When we assign genes to mental attributes, we seemingly strike a nerve”

Yet when we assign genes to mental attributes, we seemingly strike a nerve. The assumptions that genes affect our outcomes are suddenly gone. When it comes to the mental side, we’re all too often convinced that we instead have full influence over what happens; from intelligence, to grit, to mental health. This makes no sense. We have ample evidence that mental characteristics are just as heritable as physical ones, and therefore just as likely to be outside of our own control.

We often understandably want to cling to the notion of free will in our decision making. Conceding that we might have less influence over who we are can therefore be confronting. Yet the same premise can be applied to our physical characteristics, where we aren’t bothered by it. We can’t will ourselves to grow 20cm taller, just like we can’t will ourselves to have more intelligence, no matter how much we might want it. We don’t blame people for being short, so why do we look down on people that have lower intelligence, given how hereditary it is? It’s just like looking down on people in poverty for not working hard enough, even though we know the two are often unrelated.

There are two main reasons why we make this distinction between physical and mental. One is due to the possibility of stigmatization, especially with regard to intelligence. For example, research shows that the Ashkenazi Jews as a group have a higher intelligence than average. Imagine what the consequences would be when there is a conclusion that another group of people has an intelligence level that was below average.

The other issue is that our society strongly values wealth and intelligence over all. This makes it very difficult to sell people who lack wealth or intelligence on the idea that they might not be able to ‘fix’ their situation. Acknowledging that there is little these people can do to improve their lot exposes the whole unfairness of our situation. But as long as we continue to live under the collective illusion that hard work results in success, we conveniently don’t have to address the real underlying issues.

In reality, it’s like we’ve all been tasked to build our own house. But some started with a toolbox, prefabricated materials, a clear instruction manual, some friendly neighbors willing to lend a hand, a tray of energy drinks, and the phone number for the IKEA helpline. Others started with some twigs and rocks and were left to fend for themselves. Both can get there, but some clearly have an easier pathway than others.

It’s about time we stopped making excuses for our society based on the false notion of meritocracy. Not only is the concept a blatant lie in practice, even its idealized version would be unjust. What we need is to start recognizing that people do indeed have different skills and abilities, but that most of the time these differences have very little to do with actual ‘merit’. Assigning jobs based on what people excel in makes a lot of sense, but rewarding the genetic lottery winners with “success, power and influence” is unjustifiable. It’s time we took the merit out of meritocracy.


Ron Maas
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