Meritocracy is Stupid and Evil and Must Die

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You need three things to make it in America: talent, hard work and good luck.

What a stupid system.

Focus first on the last one, good luck: what we call “meritocracy” is actually “two-thirds meritocracy.” Odds are you’ve heard of a band or writer or artist or entrepreneur who worked hard and produced great work but failed because they were too ahead of their time, or never met the right gatekeeper, or the market tanked. This era of technological disruption probably makes the concept personal for you or someone you know; you could be the best damn factory worker in the world but if they move your job to Mexico you’re screwed through no fault of your own.

America’s pseudo-meritocracy purports to issue rewards (grades, diplomas, contacts, jobs, wages, social programs) based on conventionally accepted standards of worthiness (studiousness, obedience, affability, industriousness, cleverness, likeability). Setting aside for the moment the innate arbitrariness of those metrics, whether or not you measure up is based in large part on chance.

Any system that ranks its participants on luck is by definition unfair.

It’s hard to be studious if your home life is chaotic or violent, or you have no home at all. Whether people like you is a function of hard-wired genetically-inherited personality traits and upbringing, both the result of utter happenstance—who you get as parents.

Even ardent defenders of meritocracism concede that it only rewards the values, habits and personality traits the system wants to encourage. Arthur Brooks, president of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Washington Post in 2011:

“We are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy, embrace a system that rewards merit, and work tirelessly for true equal opportunity. The system that makes this possible, of course, is free enterprise. When I work harder or longer hours in the free-enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards. Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a Politburo, but by citizens in the marketplace.” [emphases mine]

Work hard or long, Brooks argues, and you’ll probably get paid more. Be smart or clever, he says, and you’re likelier than not to do well. Problem is, probably here is a synonym for maybe. Which means, maybe not. A system whose sales pitch is “work hard and you may (or may not) do well” cannot be fair. A teacher who told his students “do ‘A’ work and you might get an ‘A’ grade” should be fired.

As game theory experiments show, unfair incentive structures are ineffective because not everyone is optimistic. In a system with winners and losers some people reach for the brass ring because they think they might get win. Pessimists do not. They weigh the cost of effort and decide not to bother for there mere chance at success. In our economy this phenomenon is evidenced by the country’s falling worker participation rate (mostly because lower-skilled male workers know they can’t earn enough at a job) and the millions of citizens who choose to collect tiny government disability checks, effectively opting out of the workforce for life rather than look for a job.

The loose connection between work/talent and reward in meritocracy is problematic enough. What about the underlying assumptions that people who are talented and work hard (assuming those metrics can be objectively defined!) deserve higher salaries and social status than the untalented and the lazy?

The Protestant work ethic will serve America poorly in this newish century. “All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows,” the British theologian Jonathan Clatworthy wrote in 2014. “Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs.”

But the myth of scarcity is no longer credible now that productivity is so high.

Robotics, algorithms, AR/VR and all manner of automation are replacing flesh-and-blood humans. Automation will eliminate 10% of all jobs in the U.S. in 2019 alone, while adding 3% for a net loss of 7%, according to Forrester Research. The numbers are shocking: experts predict that anywhere between a third to half of all jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated by automation by 2025. If we’re smart we’ll start paying people not to work. We can easily afford to care for everyone; we simply need to prioritize people and to stop denegrating nonworkers as lazy. Otherwise we will face soaring crime and political unrest.

In any case, who’s to say that hardworking people are better than the indolent? People who work long and hard may be good for their employers’ bottom lines but they’re less engaged parents, don’t have time for civic involvement, don’t have bandwidth to be as creative or productive in other aspects of life.

What Americans call meritocracy has worked great for me. I’m white, male, able-bodied, tall and intelligent enough to get into Mensa. I grew up poor, studied and worked hard and made a career for myself that I love. The American Dream personified! But I didn’t do well because I’m a “good” person. Being born into a society’s dominant race and gender and in good health are simply a matter of luck. IQ is half genetics, half environmental stuff like nutrition, education and parenting. My mom taught and yelled and hit me into my work ethic.

Even a winner can see the system is unjust. Why should other people get paid less than me, merely because they didn’t luck into the same demographics? Because their parents didn’t bully them into working a lot? Because they don’t have a knack for drawing or playing basketball or writing code or whatever else the economy happens to be rewarding when they happen to be in the workforce?

Meritocracy is a toxic fiction that props up the fundamental evil of capitalism: the assumption that anyone deserves more anything than anyone else. Meritocracy must die.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


10 thoughts on “Meritocracy is Stupid and Evil and Must Die

  1. Meritocracy _is_ stupid. People do not have any objective merit whatsoever, and indeed a meritocratic system, whether Soviet, American or Chinese, is always one that encourages survival of the fittest, which almost invariably includes zealous adherence to an evil ideology. I don’t see how it follows that everyone should be paid equally, though. Why? They are not paid for their nonexistent merits, they are paid for fulfilling the conditions of contracts that they enter with their employers, and at the discretion of those employers. I do support government regulation and a high minimum wage, for the record; ensuring that its subjects are capable of living reasonably well has been the duty of governments through the ages, and that does include interfering with business to the benefit of employees. But equality? Count me out. It’s as bad and as nonsensical a notion as meritocracy.

  2. Meritocracy is natural – we are all products of billions of years of meritocracy we call ‘evolution.’

    While Ted’s right on all counts, there is a flip side that is also quite human. If your car breaks down, do you want to take it to the best mechanic available? Or just pick one at random and hope he remembers to tighten the lug nuts?

    Say you work on an assembly line. You assemble a hundred widgets a day, while the guy across from you assembles forty; QA rejects only one percent of your widgets, and thirty percent of the other guy’s. He gets paid the same as you. Does this affect your attitude and/or work ethic?

    This is why I’m not a communist – I don’t think it works with real people in the real world (Marx thought so, too, BTW)

    OTOH, I do believe in some form of socialism. I got no problem with providing for basic human needs for everybody. But I also got no problem with expecting that everyone should work for their supper – just not in the way conservatives picture workfare. If society (“the government”) requires you to work, it should provide those jobs. Many farmers today still rely on public works built by the CCC in the 1940’s (While claiming to be staunchly opposed to Socialism.)

    If you’re disabled and can’t work, then the rest of us should be happy to help you out. Raising children is an important job – a single mother shouldn’t have to work two paying jobs while neglecting her most important one. Society should provide for her needs as well as her children’s. (hint: we get higher-quality grownups that way)

    But I feel no sympathy for those who just don’t want to work. Starve, for all I care.

    • “But I feel no sympathy for those who just don’t want to work. Starve, for all I care.”

      Your right wing Democrat BS is showing again.

      Just like the right wing Republican health care plan: “Get sick? Die”

      • If it’s not too much trouble, Glenn, could you please read my posts before responding? Should you bother to do so, you might note that I took great pains to contrast my suggestions with the right wing version of ‘workfare.’

        Not only that, but I specifically stated that we should take care of those who can’t work. (the disabled and by extension, the sick, the wounded, those suffering from mental illness, sinking into quicksand, getting swallowed by anacondas etc. It honestly didn’t occur to me that I would need to spell it out to anyone with half a brain. I admit I was mistaken. )

        But hey, if you want to work to support those who don’t want to work, then I am accepting donations …

    • Not that I should have to quote Marx in this crowd, but I fear must.

      From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

      Yeh, he also thought the working class should, you know, “work.”

      If guy-across-from-you is doing his honest best, then it’s an entirely different story. My example assumes that he’s your identical twin in every way, same ability, same “merit,” differing only in his attitude.

      The righties (D or R) would have you believe that all homeless and/or jobless are merely lazy. I do not. I do, however, believe that some are, indeed, lazy. I do not believe society owes anything to those who voluntarily choose not to contribute.

      • Stuff like this is precisely why I’m a staunch anti-Marxist. 🙂

        A society must try to provide for all of its members, no matter how shiftless. It need not be equal, because people aren’t equal in either abilities or needs, and equality is a useless fetish. But letting people starve when there is food to go around is outrageous. All Marxism is, when you strip away the scientific trappings, is just a work cult, a religion of compulsory labour.

  3. Meritocracy does not exist. Talent, hard work and good luck?
    In many jobs, talent is completely irrelevant. Assembling burgers at a fast-food joint? There’s no talent. Even in jobs that require “talent,” that ability is often the result of thousands of hours of practice. You can be “talented” at many things, if you practice long enough. Sure, there are some people who, literally, cannot cook to save their lives, but anyone of normal intelligence can competently cook an omelet if they practice a few times.
    Hard work? Again, some jobs aren’t hard. Yes, digging ditches is hard. So is standing on a brewery assembly line watching bottles go past. If you’re driving a truck filled with goods across the country, there’s two ways to do it: one, you get to the depot having not killed anyone; or, two, you show up late after running over a clown car filled with nuns. The miners in West Virginia don’t level up like players in Runescape do. (Oh, I’m level 25 now, I can mine gold!) They work in mines, and the work is hard and dangerous, but that’s the exception. Usually the job isn’t hard, the people you have to work with are.

    Most jobs have a maximum level of talent and hard work. The greatest chef on earth would put a quarter pounder together just about as competently as some high school teenager who has been doing the job for six weeks. 100% effort of talent is not needed. Ditto hard work. You can only bus a table to a finite degree of “hardness.” You can send an e-mail with only a finite degree of hard work. This isn’t like weight lifting; you don’t get swoll from constantly upping your e-mail game.

    Good luck? That’s completely antithetical to the concept of merit.

    What we have in America is a rigged system. Look at the “Varsity Blues” sting. Go on, someone, tell me with a straight face that those colleges didn’t know what was going on. Of course they did. And every Ivy League that takes a free gymnasium and which also, just by coincidence, enrolls the donor’s children, is in on the same rigged system. But now everyone is shocked, shocked, that a few rich parents blatantly and openly bribed their kids’ ways in. (The Clinton Foundation model: pay to play and call it by any other name than bribery.) Where’s the outraged demands that the presidents and deans of those colleges be fired and brought up on charges?

    But let me guess. It takes a lot of talent and hard work to become a college president. …

  4. Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” He discovered the germ theory of disease.

    If there weren’t people who thought like that, we might still get gangrene from paper cuts and blame bad vapors for it.

  5. I’ll accept that “Meritocracy is a toxic fiction that props up the fundamental evil of capitalism …” however its “assumption that anyone deserves more anything than anyone else” would be a bit less toxic IF merit were what the fiction was really about.

    The meritocracy fiction, however, like the seemingly endless number of others, is/are promulgated to impose on the 99+% to allow the criminal & corrupt ruling class to continue, outside “the law of the little folk,” destroying people directly and indirectly to support their bottomless greed and pathological addiction to power.

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