The Problem Isn’t the ‘Merit,’ It’s the ‘Ocracy’

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Two weeks or so ago Liam Bright posted the following tweet:

Liberal technocrats give us literally no reason at all to think their interests are aligned with the great majority of people, yet when they are attacked as a governing class they stress their credentials and competency. But it’d be worse if they’re doing bad stuff efficiently! [1]

In very few words Bright has summarized my problem with arguments in favor of meritocracy. Take, for example, a recent post by Nathaniel Givens in favor of “real meritocracy:

When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate.

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve.” It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League.

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the way that everything else that goes into college admissions–especially the litany of awards, clubs, and activities–tilts the game in favor of kids with parents who (1) know the unspoken rules of the game and (2) have cash to burn playing it. An expression I’ve heard before is that the Ivy League is basically privilege laundering racket. It has a facade of being meritocratic, but the game is rigged so that all it really does is perpetuate social class. “Legacy” admissions are just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

What’s even more outrageous than the fiction of meritocratic admission to the Ivy League (or other elite, private schools) is the equally absurd fiction that students with Ivy League degrees have learned some objectively quantifiable skillset that students from, say, state schools have not. There’s no evidence for this.

So students from outside the social elite face double discrimination: first, because they don’t have an equal chance to get into the Ivy Leagues and second, because then they can’t compete with Ivy League graduates on the job market. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you learn, your Statue U degree is never going to stand out on a resume the way Harvard or Yale does.

There’s nothing meritocratic about that. And that’s the point. The Ivy League-based meritocracy is a lie.

So I empathize with criticisms of American meritocracy, but it’s not actually a meritocracy they’re criticizing. It’s a sham meritocracy that is, in fact, just a covert class system.[2]

Now I despise the Ivy League’s polluted issue as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy), but I think Givens overstates the lack of merit in Ivy League grads. The Ivy League admissions system is designed to select the most intelligent and studious students in the world. Even with legacy admissions and related scandals, the Ivy League has largely been successful in this. Their candidate pool is global; even if one in five of their spots were given to undeserving legacies and the differences between the best of the accepted and the best of the rejected are so small that the choice between them is utterly arbitrary, the scale of this pool ensures excellence. Has there ever been a higher concentration of raw intelligence and studious industry than exists right now in America’s top 15 universities (and the few industries that selectively pull from them)? I can think of none. If that is what meritocracy means, then we have one.

But is that what meritocracy should mean? There are more entries in the book of virtues than those approximated by IQ scores and collected study hours. Faith, courage, daring, resourcefulness, selflessness, patience, compassion, kindness, humility, gentility, temperance, strength, beauty, charisma, the ability to peer into the hearts of men and judge what lies therein—there are a thousand virtues, each with their champions and detractors. No meritocratic system can select for all of them; the vigorous pursuit of some arrests the growth of others. Choices must be made. Have we chosen right?

Andrew Yang—yes, the presidential candidate Andrew Yang—is not sure we have. I was surprised to find that Yang devotes a chapter of his book to this problem. In retrospect it should not be so surprising: Yang built a business that recruits Ivy League graduates and throws them across the country to build their own businesses. He has reflected long on this problem. Yang’s picture of the meritocratic class is not flattering:

In the bubble, the market governs all. Character is a set of ideas that comes up in the books we read to our children before sending them to test for the gifted and talented program, or a means of doing right by our bosses and reports, or a good way to burnish one’s personal network. On some level, most of us recognize that we are servants to the tide of innovation and efficiency. As the water rises, we will protest as we clamber to higher ground. We will be sure to stay out of the way and keep ourselves pliant and marketable to the extent possible. Our specialty is light-commitment benevolence. We will do something to help but not enough to hurt us or threaten our own standing. We know better than to do that….

We say success in America is about hard work and character. It’s not really. Most of success today is about how good you are at certain tests and what kind of family background you have, with some exceptions sprinkled in to try to make it all seem fair. Intellect as narrowly defined by academics and test scores is now the proxy for human worth. Efficiency is close behind. Our system rewards specific talents more than anything. I got pushed forward for having certain capacities. Others had their horizons systematically lowered for having capacities that our academic system had no use for. I’ve seen countless people lose heart and feel like they should settle for less, that they don’t deserve abundance….

Intelligence and character aren’t the same things at all. Pretending that they are will lead us to ruin. The market is about to turn on many of us with little care for what separates us from each other. I’ve worked with and grown up alongside hundreds of very highly educated people for the past several decades, and trust me when I say that they are not uniformly awesome. People in the bubble think that the world is more orderly than it is. They overplan. They mistake smarts for judgment. They mistake smarts for character. They overvalue credentials. Head not heart. They need status and reassurance. They see risk as a bad thing. They optimize for the wrong things. They think in two years, not 20. They need other bubble people around. They get pissed off when others succeed. They think their smarts should determine their place in the world. They think ideas supersede action. They get agitated if they’re not making clear progress. They’re unhappy. They fear being wrong and looking silly. They don’t like to sell. They talk themselves out of having guts. They worship the market. They worry too much. Bubble people have their pluses and minuses like anyone else. (emphasis added)[3]

This is not Yang’s only problem with the existing system; though he is polite about it, he paints a damning portrait of how the “winners” of the meritocratic gauntlet end up using in their victory: they work in one of six industries (consulting, law, finance, tech, medicine, or academia) in one of five places (Boston, New York City, Washington DC, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles). The remarkable thing about these numbers (and Yang provides lots of them) is that four of the six industries (consulting, law, finance, and academia) are easily described as parasitic or predatory, secondary adornments to the actual business of human activity on the Earth. We have not only engineered a system that trades wealth and honor for an incredibly narrow range of human attributes; once the trade is made, we ship the winners off to careers that provide only marginal benefit to country writ large. (“But it’d be worse if they’re doing bad stuff efficiently!,” Liam whispers).

However, I do not think this quite grapples with the underlying case for meritocracy. Givens and the pro-meritocrats might respond with something like this: “Well, let’s say we were able to design a meritocratic system that selected for the exact virtues you value most. That system will ensure the wealth and glory it bestows would be given only to those whose position allows them to benefit the broader public. If the system was genuinely meritocratic, and the merits selected for perfectly aligned with the positions given, what objections could you have?” Or as Scott Alexander put it a few years ago:

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.[4]

The problem with these arguments is that they focus on the wrong side of the equation. The problem with meritocracy is not the “merit”it is the “ocracy!”

Who governs—and for whom?

Yang is worried about this as well:

In coming years it’s going to be even harder to forge a sense of common identity across different walks of life. A lot of people who now live in the bubble grew up in other parts of the country. They still visit their families for holidays and special occasions. They were brought up middle-class in normal suburbs like I was and retain a deep familiarity with the experiences of different types of people. They loved the mall, too.

In another generation this will become less and less true. There will be an army of slender, highly cultivated products of Mountain View and the Upper East Side and Bethesda heading to elite schools that has been groomed since birth in the most competitive and rarefied environments with very limited exposure to the rest of the country.

When I was growing up, there was something of an inverse relationship between being smart and being good-looking. The smart kids were bookish and awkward and the social kids were attractive and popular. Rarely were the two sets of qualities found together in the same people. The nerd camps I went to looked the part.

Today, thanks to assortative mating in a handful of cities, intellect, attractiveness, education, and wealth are all converging in the same families and neighborhoods. I look at my friends’ children, and many of them resemble unicorns: brilliant, beautiful, socially precocious creatures who have gotten the best of all possible resources since the day they were born. I imagine them in 10 or 15 years traveling to other parts of the country, and I know that they are going to feel like, and be received as, strangers in a strange land. They will have thriving online lives and not even remember a car that didn’t drive itself. They may feel they have nothing in common with the people before them. Their ties to the greater national fabric will be minimal. Their empathy and desire to subsidize and address the distress of the general public will likely be lower and lower.[5]

The American system of government was built on the assumption that the most salient political divides would reflect geography, not ideology or class. The senator from Massachusetts would share bonds in common with the lay citizenry of Boston that he did not share with a senator from South Carolina. On the national sphere this would allow him to represent the interests of his constituents as if they were his own. This has proven more true at some times in American history than others; yet because of the way American politicians are elected, this sense of representing the interests of a geographically bounded group of people is more true in the political arena than in most others.

Things have not always been this way.

Though commentators sometimes speak of the old WASP gentry as an earlier era’s national elite, they were not really so: they were the business, cultural, and political elites of one region of America. They ruled the roost in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. During the WASP heyday these states had greater economic and demographic heft than other regions in the nation, and so families with names like Roosevelt, Adams, and Lodge had an outsized influence on national politics and culture. But those families were not competing against the best and brightest of the entire nation: they were competing with each other. Texas’ best and brightest did not strive to get into Harvard—they strove to get into Baylor. They were generally satisfied to be Texas elites, and if they operated on the national stage they tended to think of themselves as such.

Perhaps the old upper crust of South Dakota lacked the merit of today’s globe-trotting elites. Perhaps the current bunch are more intelligent politicians and more efficient administrators. Maybe they are the better neurosurgeons. But here is what they are not: more committed to the interests, culture, and people of South Dakota. A pure meritocracy undistorted by existing class cleavages will distort the nation it is inflicted upon. Deciding who rules and who is ruled through a system which selects on a narrow field of virtues inevitably leads to one outcome: an aristocracy of the meritorious few who do not have the experience or the inclination to act in the interests of masses less virtuous than they.

If you would like to read some of my other jottings on elites and American democracy, you may find the posts “Pining for Democracy,” “Despots Near and Despots Far,” “America 3.0,” and “Economies of Scale Killed the American  Dream” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Liam Bright, tweet on 16 December 2019, 1:30 AM, accessed at

[2] Nathaniel Givens, “In Favor of Real Meritocracy,” Difficult Run, 6 November 2019.

[3] Andrew Yang, The War On Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future (New York: Hachette Books, 2018), 111-114 

[4] Scott Alexander, “Targeting Meritocracy,” Slate Star Codex, 24 July 2017.

[5] Yang, War on Normal People, 114.

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I cannot help but think of the Chinese system of constant relocation of Party members (and really–isn't the American upper-middle-class The Party, in a sense?) so that a promising party chief in a small city in Sichuan will get promoted to chief in Hefei, and then to Shanghai, to reduce regional factionalism.

Perhaps the problem is that the US has the worst of both worlds. The problem is not that the élites all have the same national outlook–if only they did! Rather, they have regional outlooks that they project onto the rest of the nation. Remember the lack of coverage given to this spring's flooding in the Great Plains or to Texas's wild hog infestation. The regional concerns of the I-95 corridor and the Bay Area have been projected onto the national stage. Truly national élites with experience in Fargo, Denver, Seattle, Boston and Little Rock would be a step up; so would parochial élites whose conflicting parochialisms balance each other out. Instead, we have a single national parochialism.

"did" seems like a typo: Texas' best and brightest did strive to get into Harvard—they strove to get into Baylor.

Why does some WASP heyday literature explicitly show non-regional association of elites with WASP institutions (e.g. native Mississippian elite Quentin Compson attending Harvard in The Sound and The Fury)?

I've read or listened to a lot of anti-meritocracy arguments in the past few years, this is the closest I've come to being persuaded so thank you for that- I mostly support this blog to hear compelling arguments for things I don't want to believe.