Lamentably common misunderstanding of meritocracy

by Andrew Gelman on December 1, 2011 · 4 comments

in Political Theory

Tyler Cowen pointed to an article by business-school professor Luigi Zingales about meritocracy. I’d expect a b-school prof to support the idea of meritocracy, and Zingales does not disappoint.

But he says a bunch of other things that to me represent a confused conflation of ideas. Here’s Zingales:

America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous [emphasis added]. In a word, it was a meritocracy.

That’s interesting—-and revealing. Here’s what I get when I look up “meritocracy” in the dictionary:

1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—-if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.

See here for the rest of the story (including why I thought it was worth blogging on this in the first place).

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