Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the ‘ocracy’

I’ve written about this before but I think the topic is worth returning to, because it comes up a lot in our political discourse.

For example, consider this recent post by Robert Reich (link from Mark Thoma):

The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing. Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. . . . We don’t have to sit by and watch our meritocracy be replaced by a permanent aristocracy . . .

I don’t disagree with Reich on the data, indeed I recently criticized factually-challenged New York Times columnist David Brooks for interrupting a bathroom-humor column from several years ago with the prediction that “the real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college.” (I didn’t criticize Brooks for making the prediction, which turned out to be far from the mark; I criticized him for not taking the opportunity to go back and discuss his past mistakes.

So, yes, the data seem to support Reich’s point that lots of rich people come from rich families.

But I want to dispute Reich’s other statement, which is that this is somehow contrary to the spirit of “meritocracy.”

I claim the opposite: that inherited privilege is an intrinsic and central aspect of meritocracy.

Here’s how James “Effect” Flynn put it several years ago:

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.

Basically, “meritocracy” means that individuals with more merit get the goodies. From the American Heritage dictionary: “A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” As Flynn points out, this leads to a contradiction: to the extent that people with merit get higher status, one would expect they would use that status to help their friends, children, etc, giving them a leg up beyond what would be expected based on their merit alone.

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.

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

So I think Reich’s argument would be stronger if he would go directly to the social, economic, and political consequences of inherited wealth and skip the bit where he idealizes meritocracy.

P.S. As discussed in an earlier Monkey Cage comment thread, the term “meritocracy” comes from Michael Young, who further discussed these issues in this 1991 news article.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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