Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Meritocracy is not malevolent

Haven't done any posts on meritocracies for a while, but this Slow Boring piece is quite interesting.

For those unaware, I spent some considerable time investigating this in a series of simulations. I even got as far as writing a paper, but I just don't have the time to deal with the formal process of getting it into a publishable format, let alone handling the peer review experience. You can find a short summary here, or if anyone wants a copy of the full "paper", just ask.

Anyway, it seems to me that there are some very legitimate objections to the idea of a meritocracy :

  • The flip side of awards based on merit is the implication of punishment based on failure (or at least the lack of rewards). Fear of punishment does work as an incentive in some cases, but by no means all, and there's a threshold : take too much from people and all you do is crush them. You can't pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don't have any boots.
  • Related : the mere notion of a meritocracy says nothing at all about the degree of inequality. It implies some, but that's all. If abilities follow a Gaussian distribution, then it follows that the most extreme talents are disproportionately rare and therefore command a highly non-linear premium, thus leading to potentially extreme inequality.
  • Virtually all talents are in part natural. Is it fair to reward or punish people for things over which they have no control ? Nobody wants to be stupid or lazy, but some people are. The concept of meritocracy doesn't say much about how we should attempt to change people's characteristics.
  • Material success requires material resources. Inherited wealth makes a mockery of the meritocratic ideal, since the child of a billionaire will find it far easier to start their own company than the child of a pauper no matter how gifted they are.
  • A meritocracy in a free market leads to absurdities like kicking a ball around being valued manyfold times more than nursing skills, or marketing success being rewarded infinitely more than researching cleaner energy.
So a pure meritocracy is uncontestably a Bad Thing (see also Plato's Republic). Yet certain meritocratic ideals are equally uncontestably a Good Thing : if you have two otherwise equal candidates, you give the job to the more qualified. You give people a bonus when they go the extra mile. Unequal work demands unequal pay - it's just that this is far from the be-all and end-all of society. To have a truly just, fair system, you must give equal opportunities from the word go. You have to give people the best possible chance to improve themselves, not take so much that they're trapped in squalor. And you can't give people unequal pay for unequal work to an unlimited and unrestricted degree; giving people too much is as harmful as giving them too little.

Now, I agree with the Slow Boring author that very often that people do, in the real world, broadly tend to rise according to their qualifications. By and large, most professors of literature probably aren't bluffing their way through each day, most of the uber-wealthy technocrats are hardly stupid people who got a lucky break. You need some ability, except through lotteries and inheritance. And I agree that smart people are fully capable of making bad decisions... but I think on this point the author goes too far :
The people who work in private equity are very smart. Their job is to look for companies that, for whatever reason, are not being managed in a way that maximizes shareholder value. Then they take them over with borrowed money and rejigger operations so as to increase profits. In the case of nursing homes, it turns out that basically, if you give patients more drugs, you can get away with lower staffing levels, and then you can drain the resources that are freed up by that in various ways...  the point here is that things can go awry not despite, but because smart people are in charge.

Doctors are quite a bit smarter than the average American, which seems reasonable. Nobody wants a dumb doctor. But you also don’t really want a shrewd doctor who is putting his smarts to use figuring out how to take advantage of his asymmetrical information vis-a-vis his patients to buy unnecessary services. You want healers who, yes, earn a comfortable living, but also comport themselves according to a code of honour and offer legitimate medical advice. But this concept of honour and virtue is consistently at odds with the merit principle.

I think this points more towards an overly-crude definition of "merit", and an incomplete understanding of the nature of intelligence, than a fundamental flaw in the meritocratic ideal. Which is exemplified by the author's opinion on Trump :

Liberals who’ve had their brains poisoned by meritocracy often make out Trump to be some kind of dunce who only got anywhere because his dad was rich. But if you examine the record, it’s clearly not true. His recognition that he could get away with repeatedly stiffing contractors without becoming unable to do business going forward was genuinely insightful. The way he emerged from bankruptcy in Atlantic City by launching a publicly-traded company and then sticking his shareholders with his own personal debts was nothing short of brilliant. The problem with Trump is that he’s a bad person. He ran the federal government with the ethics of a private equity team taking over a nursing home.

No, Trump is thick as shit, of that there's no doubt. Rampant short-term, hyper-competitive, zero-sum-game, winner-takes-all behaviour is unbelievably stupid. That it's financially successful for the individual doesn't mean it doesn't have appalling wider consequences. This is much like the difference between critical and analytical thinking : people can be very adept at justifying insanely stupid things. This doesn't make them a special kind of genius - it literally makes them a special kind of stupid. It's like being a fantastic cavalry leader but a terrible tactician : leading a heroic charge into a volley of machine gun fire; or being a brilliant tactician but a lousy strategist - winning amazing battles you needn't have fought at all.

What you want to do is incorporate different aspects beyond raw analytic ability into your definition of "merit". You want it to include strategic, long-term, holistic thinking. You want it to include social responsibility and a consideration for the broader ramifications of the plan, not just short-term, analytic rationalisations for tactical decision-making. In short, you want to be good at planning a coal mine, not just good at hacking through rocks. This is not a fundamental weakness of meritocratic thinking, but a misunderstanding of it. Regardless of their medical skills, a doctor who defrauds their patients ought by definition to be a terrible doctor.

The facts are pretty clear that poor ethics can frequently be rewarded. To have a healthier society, we need more emphasis on fair play, “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” and creating an atmosphere in which people would be ashamed to tell their parents that their well-paid finance job involves identifying ways to make patient care worse.

Surely there's a large overlap in the Venn diagrams of ethics and intelligence. "I made a million dollars by this clever financial algorithm that deprives people of medical care" is an act of profound stupidity as well as an unequivocally immoral choice. I agree, though, that there are differences (being stupid doesn't invariably make you evil), and this too is a component inherently missing from a pure meritocracy. There just isn't any one single principle which can lead to the best society. You need a combination.

That’s not a simple switch we can flip. And while it obviously includes a regulatory component, it’s fundamentally not a regulatory issue. It’s a question of social values and getting away from celebrating tournament winners and being “the best,” and a shift to celebrating other kinds of virtues including humility, restraint, fairness, and a belief that some things just aren’t worth it.

But by far and away the biggest aspect of this will be that regulatory component; laws are a cause of societal values as much as a consequence of them. Merely proposing to change those social values by themselves is so vague as to be meaningless : unless you're prepared to suggest concrete legislative changes, then it amounts to saying little more than "we just need to be better people". Is there a special name for this particular fallacy ? Because this sort of "let's just make better choices" seems to be one of the worst and most common fallacies of all. No, you have to campaign for actual consequences, otherwise the fine ideals are only ever so hollow.

Meritocracy is bad

America is good at elevating "the best" people; the problem is that's a bad idea.

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