Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Against Meritocracy

with 6 comments

I’m far from a fan of Matt Yglesias, but this piece seems useful to me for its succinct recognition of the central paradox of liberalism:

Needless to say, children under the age of 6 do not exercise a great deal of choice over where they live or what level of soil testing is done. Nor is it an accident that low-income parents are more likely to be inhabiting the kind of dwellings where their kids are likely to be exposed to toxic levels of lead. I think it takes a fairly perverse outlook on life to believe that a person deserves lifelong economic hardship as a consequence of his parents’ having lived in an old house near a freeway when he was a toddler. But the name for that social system is “meritocracy.” The non-poisoned infants really will grow up to be adults who really are smarter and really do have better impulse control and ability to do long time-horizon planning. They have more “merit” than the poisoned kids just like Dwight Howard is very genuinely taller and stronger than you or I.

Of course this should all be much more cautious–you’d need to substitute “by certain measurements” and “in certain circumstances” after “smarter,” “better impulse control,” “ability to do long-term planning,” etc. But the central proposition is right and, I think, the decisive disproof of liberal meritocracy, as I’ve been ranting about on Twitter for the last hour or so. The crucial tweet is the last one, the recognition that class is a miracle solvent for “merit”: it boosts the abilities of the rich while muting their disadvantages, while doing the exact opposite for the poor.

@_EdwardK_ also brought to my attention an interesting paper I’ll have to follow up on:

6 Responses

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  1. On this topic: if you haven’t read Chris Hayes’s book TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY, I highly recommend it: an exploration of this problem in the contet of the failures of e last decade that manages to be both easy to read and thoughtful. It’s not perfect — in particular, the final ‘solutions’ chapter I utterly inadequate to the situation described in the rest of the book — but well worth reading. I taught two separate experts (in two different classes) last year, and am panning to teach the whloe book this coming spring.

    Stephen Frug

    August 16, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    • Oh, I agree on both counts – very good book with an inadequate conclusion.


      August 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm

  2. If by fair you mean people all get the same results, then anything based upon merit will be unfair because anything based upon earning results will fail to deliver a single level of results. If, however, you define fair as getting results based upon your inputs, then meritocracy is the fairest of systems.

    I’m also not sold on the idea of supporting defectives and guaranteeing them success at the expense of the normal and exceptional people, which is the implication of the article cited.


    August 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    • No political project has ever gone wrong naming and punishing the “defectives.”


      August 16, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      • I clicked the link to your site. You and I are never going to agree on anything. Please don’t comment here again.


        August 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm

  3. i think we have to go further with the critique of meritocratic liberalism – yglesias believes that ‘competition’ despite being unfair really does produce superior individuals. the lead poisoning thing is a red herring – yes, lead poisoning really does negatively impact intellectual development in children, but what we’re actually talking about here is class, not the one or two empirically tested environmental factors that provide colorful examples. as yglesias’s career amply demonstrates, what ‘meritocracy’ really measures is conformity to the interests of employers, not ‘intelligence,’ ‘talent,’ or ‘skill’ (or long-term planning, better impulse control, etc. – just look at wall street!). he’s not just being inadequately nuanced, he’s accepting meritocracy’s core ideological assumption and so nothing else he says really matters – he’s just offering the liberal-branded ‘nuanced’ counterpart to the arguments of the right.

    if it ever becomes possible to directly engineer higher IQs, status will be determined by the credential of having a high IQ, not actual intellectual superiority.


    August 16, 2013 at 5:54 pm

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