All the arguments against meritocracy I come across seem to hinge on the idea that every individual has a different starting point and different set of resources helping him over the course of the race. These arguments all, strangely enough, agree with the meritocrats on one thing, that the finish line is clearly established, a fair indicator of the winner (however unfair the circumstances of his victory might be), and an objectively complete measure of race performance. I think it’s just the opposite, that the biggest problem in our quest to build the ideal meritocratic society lies not in the unfairness of our starting positions or the personal circumstances of our individual runners, but in our understanding of the finish line, of the race itself, and therefore of the concept of merit. The former is a problem obviously, but not our most difficult one.
On the production line of a widget factory, the idea of merit is simple. Number of widgets. But in the manager’s office, it is less clear. We have a bouquet of KPIs. top line and bottom. Efficiency, growth, cost, quality, defect rate, speed, turnover, cycle time. The hope is that once we find a polynomial function that adequately weights each of these individual parameters, I get a composite metric that predicts with 100% accuracy my merit. Nobody with a merit score lower than me can possibly, under any circumstances, deliver more value than me to the widget factory. Unfortunately, the number of solution roots of a polynomial function increases with the order of the function. A linear equation with 1 variable has 1 root. A quadratic equation with 1 variable has 2 roots. A third-order has 3. Add in multiple variables and I quickly get to infinite possible combinations. Intuitively this merely says that it is quite impossible to reduce real world performance into a single number with absolute certainty, nothing mind blowing. But this means our concept of meritocracy is rate-limited by many important real world factors, like our ability to model a given task, our ability to translate ideas into numbers, our ability to measure non-mechanical phenomena let alone complex mental phenomena, and our basic understanding of human performance/capacity impenetrably blocked by the things we do not know that we do not know. Do we know what would make an individual with Down Syndrome an excellent CEO? No. Do we know that such an attribute cannot exist? No, in fact we’d likely bet confidently that it most certainly exists, if only someone would find it.
In a pragmatist world, we learn to live with uncertainty, arguing that even 80% accuracy of this mythical merit score is good enough to design our economic and social system around. We argue that in a competitive efficient market, a firm that cracks a merit score of 81% will outcompete the others and quickly become the leader. On this path of incremental Hegelian dialectical success we will claw our way through temporary heartbreak to a glorious meritocracy. But this assumes it is an analog process. What if we either have 0% meritocracy or 100%, and everything in between is doomed to cause more loss than gain? What if our half-baked meritocracy with its stunted philosophy of work, performance, and talent tries to approximate success to the best of its ability, thus eking out a marginal benefit over a non-meritocratic firm, but then suffers massive social costs in terms of the system of merit (to formulate, measure, and maintain), the opportunity cost of top-talent rejected by the merit-score, and the suffering of those individuals on the wrong end of such a weapon. If these costs outweigh the benefits, the meritocracy quickly disintegrates, leaving society with only a top-line moral that meritocracies were evil. Worse, that they are inefficient and fail at the very thing they purport to seek, objective performance in an open efficient market. By the laws of the meritocracy, it will gladly sacrifice itself on the altar of empirical evidence, wondering only whether the execution of its plan was perhaps somehow sub-optimal.
The true task of the meritocrat, and that of the anti-meritocrat, is one of identifying a pluralistic philosophy of merit, and determining whether a half-baked meritocracy is worse than none. Once our colleges can account for lazy dreamers who attend no classes, fail all their exams and drop out to then create Google and Facebook, once our corporations can account for CEOs who preside over tepid growth, profit and share price but create such a slow-burn culture of leadership and management that the company lasts 2 centuries, once our society can account for ‘low-status’ individuals who are ugly, poor and illiterate but nurture such warm loving households, families, and communities that they are responsible for scores of well-adjusted mentally healthy happy individuals. Then we have an ideal of a meritocracy that is actually inspiring as opposed to intimidating, regardless of our position in the race. Today we intend to solve our problem of meritocracy by giving participation prizes, head-starts, or weighing down the leaders, when the problem of meritocracy is not the cracy part but the merit, the fact that we don’t know what that is. If we had instead a prize for running technique elegance, 1 for boosting a team-mates performance like in a peloton, 1 for most hurdles overcome, 1 for fashion and 1 for, well, finishing first, (not to mention 1 for fastest time on performance enhancing drugs, who wouldn’t want to see Bolt on EPO running 100m in 3 seconds?), then perhaps we begin to fully understand what merit means, how it might be modelled to maximize overall wellbeing, and whether we might allow its vision to exert power and influence over the way we orient ourselves in our individual lives.