“Meritocracy” is not what you think: don’t forget about the “ocracy”

by Andrew Gelman on July 13, 2013 · 9 comments

in Political Economy

This has come up before and before, but I think it’s worth explaining again.

In the context of a dispute with transit unions, public relations person Sarah Lacy writes:

People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something . . .

Tell that to Sam “How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job” Lessin!

The larger point, as noted several years ago by IQ expert James “Effect” Flynn, is that meritocracy is self-contradictory. As Flynn puts it:

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.

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:

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.

In short, when people talk about meritocracy they tend to focus on the “merit” part (Does Kobe Bryant have as much merit as 10,000 schoolteachers? Do doctors have more merit than nurses? Etc.), but the real problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy.”

Summary

In a meritocracy, the whole point of having “merit” is that you can run things (“ocracy”), and the point of running things is that you can get good jobs for your family and friends.

As Sarah Lacy might say: You work really hard, you build something and you create something, and then you sock a couple million dollars in the bank, connect your friends to some amazing opportunities, and settle down and make sure that your kids have every possible opportunity to succeed in a competitive world. Nothing wrong with doing that—-it’s what meritocracy is all about—-but the result is you’ll have more and more Sam Lessins running around.

{ 9 comments }

Sherman Dorn July 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Can I chime in here for the ironic meaning Michael Young intended when he wrote Rise of the Meritocracy in 1950s Britain? He updated his view in a 2001 Guardian op-ed.

zbicyclist July 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Here’s a fine example of what Sarah Lacy contends:

Richard J Daley: “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then what’s the world coming to?”

(Response to criticism for steering millions of dollars in city insurance to an agency where his son worked)

RobC July 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Wonderful Daley reference, but respectfully, you left out the nut graf. Daley’s quote begins, “If I can’t help my sons then they can kiss my ass!”

T. Greer July 14, 2013 at 3:12 am

Bingo. This hits the nail on the head.

That is the funny thing – America has a meritocracy that functions pretty well. Our college education system ensures that the smartest and hardest working kids the middle and upper classes have to offer are catapulted to the top. Those with merit “earn their place” at the top.

Too bad the top towers so far above the rest of America.

I wrote extensively about this (and some of the historical developments that led to it) in a recent essay-post:

T. Greer. “How Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream.” The Scholar’s Stage. 1 July 2013.

Øystein July 14, 2013 at 6:54 am

I suspect that the simple reason that people like Lacy do not focus on “ocracy” is that they do not take the term literally, but think rather of present material rewards, and would argue that intergenerational/-personal transmission of these are not that important. They might even be supporters of laws against nepotism, etc.

Tom Slee July 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm

No no no. You have taken a slight slip of the tongue by Sarah Lacy and constructed a tissue of grumpy old lies from it.

Now I know she was quoted as saying “You work really hard..” but of course she didn’t mean that literally. She really meant “You are the kind of person who works really hard…” Once you see that, those contradictions that you think you see vanish.

Sam Lessin may not have actually done a lot of work, but you can’t deny that he is The Kind Of Person Who Works Really Hard, and I’m sure once he’s settled down he’ll demonstrate his merit. Look at George W. Bush – he didn’t work at all until he was 40, but he is TKOPWWRH and once he put his wild days behind him he did some pretty damn good decision making.

I wouldn’t expect you to see this, because you’re probably not TKOPWWRH. I mean, are you running a software company? No you’re not. You probably think that a bus driver putting in a long shift is working really hard. Hah! As if.

I get that you are envious of those who have reaped the rewards of being TKOPWWRH, but — between you and me — it just sounds like sour grapes and you shouldn’t display that kind of negativity in public, because that’s not what TKOPWWRH do.

asdfsafs July 14, 2013 at 6:45 pm

“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.”

~a: No the abolition of SOME materialist elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege
~b: No the persistence of SOME materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification

So if I pick a set of humans that only care about optimizing a single principle–merit–and they decide to implement a meritocracy. Do we really think that a system is *impossible*? Really? I mean maybe it’s not possible in practice, but it’s impossible *by definition*? No way. In this situation, the ones that work the hardest earn high positions and some ‘run things’ (though I don’t see how position based on merit === running things), but then comes a moment to hire someone new. These humans universally decide to only hire people who merit these positions (so no family because they are family, no connections because they are connections, etc. etc. etc.). There’s a system that could work (and there’s still the social strata that supposedly was key to undermining a meritocratic society), so why are we saying that, it’s impossible, that’s just silly.

Andrew Gelman July 14, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Asdf:

No, I don’t think your system could work. Again, the problem is the “ocracy.” The point of having wealth and power is that you can use it, and, in a society where opportunity is key, people with wealth and power will use that wealth and power to give opportunity to your friends and relatives.

Eric Rodriguez July 15, 2013 at 8:47 am

Meritocracy has never been about equality, therefore there is no contradiction.

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