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).

{ 4 comments }

Chris December 1, 2011 at 2:31 pm

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtuous?show=0&t=1322764205

vir·tu·ous adj \ˈvər-chə-wəs, ˈvərch-wəs\
1
: potent, efficacious

Vance Maverick December 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Chris, I don’t think that’s the sense of “virtuous” anyone currently means when they apply it to a person.

To quibble slightly with the original post, there’s a relationship between “achievement” and hard work. It’s not an identity, but seriously, the first benefits from the second. So a smidgen of “hard work” is perceptible, I think, in the “meritocracy” mix.

Jonny R December 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Um, in a sense the dictionary definition is wrong too. Michael Young coined the term as a satirical comment on an unfair system of merit, or a system where talent was wrongly identified and in the process the abilities of lower classes that didn’t fit into the meritocratic norm were ignored.

All the words meaning is in it’s satirical intent.

See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment and http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/chatterbox/2002/01/meritocracys_lab_rat.html

LFC December 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I was going to mention Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, decided not to, but since Jonny R has … I think it’s probably still worth reading (first pub. 1958, reissued ’94 with a new intro) though I read it a very long time ago and my memory of it is somewhat hazy.

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