Is meritocracy overrated?

There once was a time when meritocracy was seen as a vehicle for overturning racism and the advantages of a privileged background. Now it is seen as a mechanism to maintain the racial disparity in the status quo and preserve privilege.

Not too many posters here think that we ought to live in a Harrison Bergeron dystopia but we are well down the road towards saying that disparity in outcomes is proof of racism s we ought to keep moving the goal posts until the disparities disappear. And THIS notion seems to have more than a little support on this board.

Is this the part of the of thinking that is alienating poor white voters and now threatening to alienate Asian votes?

No. Disproportionate inequality of outcome, inequality of outcome that *originates *from inequality of opportunity, that is what most people oppose. What you call “moving the goal posts” I call actually addressing the inequalities of opportunity that result in inequality of outcome that cannot be explained away by the vagaries of fortune.

Meritocracy can be over-rated. If you look at college admissions GPAs and SAT scores aren’t a full measure of what students merit attendance at a school. On the job there are sometimes isolated positions where the ability to perform a task with the greatest speed and accuracy are a true measure, but there are far more where consideration must be given to a person’s ability to work with others and go beyond strictly drawn activities. An employer may even need to strategically diversify the workplace to make attractive for hiring in the future. Even in athletics where more than ever stats can be used to rate a player’s value to a team the factors of teamwork have to be incorporated in.

OTOH, when the rules are wishy-washy, where the perception of favoritism exists, meritocracy is a simple way to disperse those perceptions and create a standard of fairness.

But back to meritocracy, the problem in not using it as a sole determining factor is the lack of clear standards for other components of a decision to admit, hire, promote, etc. It’s fine for schools to try to encourage diversity but if that diversity looks like a quota system, or just conserving some level of favoritism then it can cancel out whatever just place meritocracy may have. The alternatives to meritocracy also have to have the appearance of fairness.

There’s the idea of a meritocracy, which is that the best people for the job are chosen based on their merit, not because of their noble titles, color of their skin, etc… Ideally this gets you the best people for the job, all else being equal.

Then there’s fairness, which is a related, but distinct idea. It’s where the “all else being equal” comes in. Right now, in many places there are substantial barriers against various groups that set things up such that our existing theoretical meritocracy is less all-encompassing, and more aimed toward choosing the best white, middle to upper class person for the job.

The rub is that there are barriers that are directly generated due to racist or classist governmental policies, or due to the legacies of similar policies in the past. And there is the reverse of that; the Ivy League bias against Asians is a good example.

And then there are situations where groups just may not do what they need to “win” in a meritocracy. For example, my wife and I consider the well-being, education and development of our children to be of paramount importance, and as such, we put a lot of effort and resources into that. Our kids don’t have the best vision, so we spend a lot of money on glasses and eye exams and what-not. We read to them every night. We make a concerted effort albeit often unsuccessful, to limit screen time. We make special efforts to feed them right and teach good eating habits. And so on… Is it fair to screw our children around on behalf of kids whose parents did not put in the effort?

That’s where meritocracies get sticky; Asian families clearly put a LOT of effort and resources into academic success. Why should some Asian kid be denied a Harvard slot that they essentially earned, just because some non-Asian kids didn’t put in the work? That’s the real issue with most attempts to fix perceived issues with meritocracies; they invariably end up fucking some person who was a better candidate on behalf of a lesser candidate with some kind of sob story. Anecdotally, I recall my university having a “provisional student” program, where they took some kids who didn’t quite make it into the school and who were perceived as possibly not being able to go to college otherwise, and they’d give them provisional status, and make them come to summer school to get acclimated and remedy their academic shortcomings. A noble idea, except that every one of those provisional students represented a student who did make the grade and was being denied a spot at the school they qualified for on behalf of someone who did NOT qualify.

My choice would be to set the meritocratic system up as monolithic, impartial and strict, and then spend the effort trying to level the starting field, instead of trying to tweak the system itself.

The term meritocracy originates as the title of a dystopian sci-fi novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, written in 1958 by the English socialist Michael Young who contrasted it with democracy. His idea was that in a democracy social hierarchies were flattened and all people were regarded as equal, while in a meritocracy inequalities were regarded as justified by those in power having greater merit, by whatever meaningless criterion they themselves decide.

If anything I think he was overly optimistic, thinking merit would at least be measured in some objective manner, such as examination and testing, when it fact it’s more down to sensibilities and presentation.

The problem with “merit” is that it is often defined by those who have acquired power through a non-merit-based system.

Take the executive director of a non-profit. He or she has been in that position for decades. They were hired by a friend of a friend who overlooked the fact they did not have a college degree or experience in the nonprofit sector.

Now this executive director needs an assistant. He or she could hire someone that has the same credentials he or she had when they were first hired, but how would that look? Most of the applicants have college degrees and years of experience in the field. So isn’t it only fair to have a college degree and years of experience be minimum requirements?

Imposing that rule is great for narrowing the candidate pool. But is it really the best way to find the “best” candidate? If the most important job duty of the assistant executive director is coordinating staff and clients and keeping the organization running smoothly, then you can find the relevant skillset among folks without college degrees and/or the nonprofit background. The executive director is proof of this.

Truth of the matter, people use “credentials” as proxy membership cards. A college degree at the “right” school signifies nembership in the “right” group…the same way that a friend’s good word about you can get you a job. “He’s a good ole boy.” “She is one of us.” They work well as a way to reduce the applicant pool. But to find the best people, you probably need to spend more than a few minutes to with your applicants and actually get to know them. Ain’t nobody got time for that…

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If you’re talking about merit, then having “put in the work” is irrelevant. The hard-working fish trying to climb a tree comes to mind. Nobody cares how hard you work, unless they’re trying to make moral judgments about you - which is not what a merit system is about.

In this particular case we are talking about the fact that 2/3rds of the public school kids in NYC are black and hispanic at the same time, 2/3rds of the kids at the top magnet school is Asian with only 10% black and hispanic students.

What inequality of opportunity do you think is causing this?

True, but if preparation has any bearing on how well one does on tests of various sorts, or in being good at something, then putting in the work is vital.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you deserve anything for putting in the work; you can certainly still do that and suck relative to other people at whatever task it is.

This is exactly the criticism of the NYC effort to diversify Stuyvesant. The problem didn’t start the moment the kids take the test. The problem built up between kindergarten through 8th grade and they want to get rid of the test because there is a huge disparity in who scores well on the test in 8th grade. Noone has mentioned trying to fix k-8, they just want to change the entrance requirements to one of the most demanding academic environments in NYC.

As I said before, the concept USED to be how we fought that good ole boy network. Now are you’re saying that we shouldn’t have either? What is the alternative?

If that degree is a membership card then shouldn’t we try to make the attainment of that membership card more meritocratic so that so that fewer good ole boys get the membership card?

The notion that letting straight white men spend more time with applicants to get to know them more would lead to fewer straight white men getting hired seems counterintuitive to me. ISTM that it would get more straight white men hired, just perpetuate the status quo.

True. I will never be an NFL running back no matter how hard I try unless DeBlasio becomes commissioner of the NFL. But most humans are not separated by enough in terms of ability that the lazy rabbit can win the race against the steadfast turtle.

It’s caused by structural racism. Structural racism is where 2/3rds of the public school kids in NYC are black and hispanic at the same time, 2/3rds of the kids at the top magnet school is Asian with only 10% black and hispanic students.


Whether or not it is “overrated” sort of depends on what one is hoping to achieve by a system, don’t you think?

As a sole criteria I think it is overrated as both means to produce the best team that is able to produce the overall best results, and as a means to achieve social justice. Those two goals may overlap some but are not the same.

It is the best way to get the individual most “qualified” for the particular position as a matter of tautology. But of course in actual practice what is labelled “merit based selection” is biased by implicit factors. That needs to be factored in.

For the sake of the best team I believe that meritocracy alone can result in a team without the diversity of perspectives and experiences that provides added value to team performance.

For the sake of social justice it used solely can ignore unfair playing fields and structural factors that perpetuate disproportionate outcomes.

In practice for all three desired outcomes meritocracy informed by a conscious and explicit effort to create a diverse team will produce the best results. IMHO.

Does the NBA know this?

How many of those perspectives do you need?

How many students at one of the most competitive high schools in NYC (where 40% of the students happen to be poor) must be of a particular race before this perspective kicks in? Does it have to mimic the proportion of students of that race in the general population?

Is it just race or do we also need diversity of perspective on sexual orientation, gender identity, political ideology, income, immigration status, height, weight, beauty, urban/rural upbringing, etc?

I am mostly talking about teams in which the product is ideas and the customer base is itself diverse.

And yes in that sense the NBA does know that. The complete team within the NBA is not just the players on the court, but those who market and deal.

Also please note. I believe that the first cut should always be based on meritocracy. But the final decision is informed by a preference for a diverse set of eyes.

And “need”, for that goal, is not a word I did or would use. But more often than not, I believe, be of benefit.

For High Schools I think the performance of the team is less the goal than is being informed by social justice. It does however I think change for colleges.

OK… Why? Sounds like a post-hoc rationalization to me.

High Schools, along with public education in general, are not thought of as competing with each other to produce products. Oh there is some that occurs with average test scores and such, but the main focus of the public education system is the general public good.

Colleges OTOH are in more direct competition with each other, both to produce intellectual products (research, intellectual ideas, students with future accomplishments including some who might donate as alums), and for a large diverse pool of highly qualified applicants who they ideally have their choice of.

You’re mostly right, but it’s your results that count. Your “work ethic” is, in a well-known phrase, “not worth diddly-squat”. In fact, if anything, the person who gets equal results from less work might rationally be considered the better candidate.

It could perfectly be considered fair, yes. After all it’s not those children fault if they had shitty parents. It would be unfair if the point was rewarding parents by giving better prospect to their kids when they have done good parenting, but it’s not supposed to be fair for the parents, but fair for the kids.

And of course, it’s not even only a matter of parents unwilling to put in the effort. After all, the parent could be not very bright, working two jobs and still having a very low income, so lacking the intellectual ability, the time and the financial means to do what you do.