Should society judge people based on merit? How do 21st-century institutions measure merit, and how should they measure merit? And what is merit, anyway? These were three of the thorny questions addressed at a Zócalo event titled, “Is There Still Merit in a Merit-Based System?”
New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann, who moderated the discussion, has been thinking about the subject for over 20 years, since researching his 1999 book about the SAT, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. “What does meritocracy mean to you?” he asked the panelists. And, partly in jest: “Are you for it or against it?”
Economist political editor Adrian Wooldridge, author most recently of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World, used the 1958 book where the word first appeared as his starting point. In The Rise of the Meritocracy, British sociologist and politician Michael Young defined meritocracy as “IQ plus effort.” Wooldridge said he would amend this equation slightly: “I would say, minus bias.” Such a merit-based system “judges people according to their promise and measures them by their achievement,” he continued. “I’m very strongly in favor of merit both as a good in itself and as a safeguard against all sorts of evils such as nepotism, corruption, and favoritism.”
Malissia R. Clinton, vice president, general counsel and secretary at The Aerospace Corporation, argued that Americans can’t talk about meritocracy today without acknowledging that we’re not living in one. “The upper echelons are owned exclusively by one group”—white men—”which means we’re not practicing a meritocracy at all,” she said.
Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee echoed Clinton, adding that in an ideal meritocracy, “equality and opportunity would generate a high degree of both social stratification and high mobility.” Because the talented—regardless of their social origins—are not rising to the top, “we’re not practicing the ideals by which we believe we are a meritocracy.”
But how ideal is an ideal meritocracy? Lemann offered a hypothetical, asking if the speakers would support a pure meritocracy—but one where 1 percent of the population are rich, 19 percent are scraping by, and 80 percent are dead broke. “Are you OK with that extreme stratification?” he asked.
“I feel like what you defined,” said Clinton to Lemann, “was capitalism.” Is it fair? “If the meritocratic system allows millions of people to live under bridges and barely subsist, it is broken,” she said, acknowledging that many of the same issues arise in communist societies. “Humans are selfish and we’re prone to excess,” she added.
‘We need to look for better ways, the best ways possible, of finding promise, wherever it is in society.’
Wooldridge, meanwhile, brought up Glengarry Glen Ross, the 1984 play adapted into a film about desperate real estate salespeople, where the winner gets a Cadillac, the runner-up gets steak knives, and the person who comes in third is fired. “That’s a repugnant society in many ways,” he agreed. But that doesn’t need to be our reality: “It’s very important to replace selection by elimination with selection by differentiation.” And such a system would measure not just academic achievement but other abilities, including compassion and organizational skills.
Lemann revealed that Young, who died in 2002, once told him that meritocracy and aristocracy actually mean the same thing in Greek: “rule by the best.” But because by the 20th century the term was understood as “rule by inheritors,” Young had to invent a new word. “Whatever you define as merit, if you define as merit having blue eyes or whatever, the fortunate part of society is going to figure out how to get blue eyes into their children. All meritocracies would degrade into aristocracies,” said Lemann. Do we live in an aristocracy now?
Lee pointed to a recent study published in the Journal of Labor Economics which shows that nearly 45 percent of the white students Harvard admits are recruited athletes, legacies, children of faculty and staff, or on the dean’s interest list. “Three-fourths would not have been admitted if it were not for their particular status,” she said. “We forget who [meritocracy] serves and how it continues to reproduce in ways that advantage those who are already advantaged.”
Wooldridge recalled Plato’s strategies for breaking the link of transmitting privileges, which include communal child-bearing (via orgy) and abolishing private property, neither of which Wooldridge recommended. “We need to look for better ways, the best ways possible, of finding promise, wherever it is in society,” he said, including genetics (a fraught and dangerous space, admittedly) and education, particularly in low-income communities.
But education alone isn’t enough to create a fair merit-based system, said Lee. Not only is there the testing trap (which has become a measure of how much students with parental support prepare), but if you beat the odds and succeed in attending an elite university, you are still penalized for racial, gender, and other identities.
And those elite universities only educate a fraction of the population, Lemann added. “Even if we fix the elite university system,” he asked, “what would we do to make life better for everybody else?”
Wooldridge circled back to his earlier call for selection by differentiation: “You need to acknowledge the importance of practical skills and caring skills because we live in a society in which caring is going to become ever more important,” he said.
“I like quotas,” said Clinton. “There’s a forcing function there that’s very powerful and effective.” She added: “It’s OK to end up with some duds and some people who don’t work out. I think that you should reach into your employee base and pull people up.”
Lemann pointed out that quotas almost became the law of the land in 1978. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ultimately ruled that universities could not use quotas based on race or ethnic origin for admission.
“I was thinking a lot about the current debate of affirmative action and the culture war that’s taking place now—how many people misunderstand what it is,” said Lee, pointing out that in that same decision, the court upheld affirmative action, which allows “institutions to consider race and ethnicity among a myriad of factors to create a university class.”
“I think defending affirmative action, firmly defending affirmative action, is an important part of fostering a more meritocratic system,” Lee added. So is thinking beyond elite universities. Investing in community colleges and canceling student debt would go a long way in serving the greater population, she mused.
With time running short, Lemann turned to audience questions submitted via a live YouTube chat. A number of the questions hummed with the “tremendous amount of populist, anti-meritocratic energy out there on both the left and the right these days,” said Lemann. “Can those without merit lead?”
Returning to Young, Wooldridge pointed out that he actually rejected meritocracy for being “an incredibly cruel thing,” where people at the top of society are incredibly smug, and the people at the bottom are intolerably miserable because they know they should be at the bottom. Today, he argued, the rage against meritocracy “is rooted in a sense of hopelessness at the bottom of society” whether that’s the passage of Brexit or Trump’s rise. That’s why if you ask the people at the bottom of our highly stratified society, he said, they “want to tear the whole thing down.”