Chris Hayes echoes James Flynn: Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the “ocracy”

by Andrew Gelman on June 9, 2012 · 5 comments

in Other social science,Political Economy

Chris Hayes rediscovers a point made several years ago by James Flynn.

Hayes:

The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.

Flynn:

The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

I guess it’s true that journalists can write more directly than academics!

Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get. That is, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy”. As Flynn puts it:

People must care about that hierarchy for it to be socially significant or even for it to exist. . . . The case against meritocracy can also be put sociologically: (a) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot be equalized; (b) allocating rewards according to merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot be stratified by wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

Just to be clear: I’m not accusing Hayes of ripping off Flynn; it’s a basic enough idea that various people could think of it. I just thought that people interested in Hayes’s book might also like to see some of Flynn’s work on the topic.

{ 5 comments }

OneEyedMan June 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I don’t follow what ” otherwise environments cannot be equalized” means in the quote.

Andrew Gelman June 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm

If you follow the links you will get to Flynn’s essay in which all should be clear. It’s tough to capture an entire argument in a couple brief quotes.

Ken B. June 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

The well-known Greek historian Plutarch – who died in 120 A.D. – said:

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.

RobC June 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Lamentably ignorant historian interprets a before-after change as a causal effect. But we shouldn’t blame Plutarch. He was unable to perform quantitative analysis research because of a lack of NSF funding.

Andrew Gelman June 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Definitely. With an adequate computing budget, Plutarch could’ve run all sorts of amazing analyses!

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