“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.

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