Luck All the Way Down: The Problem With Meritocracy
Meritocracy is the lie society's winners tell themselves so they can feel deserving rather than lucky.
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Meritocracy refers to systems in which people’s advancement, gains, and position are determined on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit. In principle, it sounds perfectly reasonable. The idea behind meritocracy at the societal level is that people who are more productive or effective deserve, among other things, a higher standard of living in reward. If you perform better, you should benefit more. That’s fair, isn’t it? In practice, this generally translates to the successful, those supposedly with the highest ability or achievement, enjoying the highest standard of living, while the unsuccessful, those supposedly with the least ability, having the lowest living standards. This seems natural. How else would things be? Any alternative seems to suggest some form of Marxism, and given its hideous track record, leeriness is more than justified.
When examined, however, everything that leads to success or failure stems from causal factors outside any individual’s conscious control. You did not choose your parents, upbringing, environment, or economic conditions. You don’t choose your genes, your height, or your face. You cannot take credit for your natural talents, your raw intelligence, nor the ability to focus or work hard. You cannot even choose the thoughts that pop into your head. And you also cannot take credit for all the terrible things which might have befallen you, but didn’t. To say nothing of nepotism and cronyism. Given this, the attempt to morally justify why some should live in comfort while others live in states of constant insecurity or even squalor simply crumbles away. Everything in life comes down to luck. And this is a problem for meritocracy as we know it.
There’s an important distinction to be drawn here. Meritocracy can exist on multiple levels. What we might call micro-meritocracy is meritocracy at the level of an organization, company, or league. Meritocracy applied to an entire society might then be called macro-meritocracy. Serious criticism of one does not necessarily entail similar objections to the other. I see nothing wrong with micro-meritocracy. We are right to want professional sports teams to play the best players, for the best submissions to win the awards, and for effort, ingenuity, and dedication in the workplace to be rewarded. And we are justified in our indignation when the purity of this process is corrupted. That isn’t the problem. The critique here is on macro-meritocracy, which, left to its own devices, results in some living in extravagant luxury while others live hand-to-mouth, propped up by the lie that this distribution of resources and opportunity is “deserved.” If quality of life is tied only to demonstrated ability, and demonstrated abilities vary wildly, there will be wildly high levels of inequality in living standards.
Inequality is omnipresent in humanity, just as it is in nature. There will always be disparities in talent and ability. This is what makes life interesting! What a dull place this would be if we all had the same talents, interests, and abilities. We should not want to erase the natural variance of human diversity. But we gravely err when we regard this diversity as though it were a kind of moral caste system, where the luckiest people somehow deserve their good luck, while the unluckiest people deserve their bad luck. Worse yet, when we confuse one’s level of luck with their worth as a human being.
If everything that went right for you in life — and everything that didn't go wrong — amounts to luck, in what sense is “deserving” even a coherent concept? What’s that, you say? But you worked hard to get where you are? You were lucky to have been able to work hard! You were lucky to have been motivated and disciplined. You were lucky that you possessed the cognitive and physical wherewithal to persevere; that you were not stopped in your tracks by disease, injury, personal tragedy, or any of the countless calamities whose paths you avoided by sheer luck. Let’s not delude ourselves here — it’s luck all the way down. Meritocracy is the lie society’s winners tell themselves so they can feel deserving rather than lucky. But the truth is that every successful, happy, or actualized person is in effect a lottery winner. And every unsuccessful, miserable, or unfulfilled person is someone with a losing ticket. This is why poverty and all of its associated ill-effects are so grotesque — because it’s all just luck.
Meritocracy is often defended as a better alternative to its predecessors, all of which distributed resources on the basis of heredity and nepotism. This is a valid point, and it’s worth noting that just because meritocracy is flawed or even unacceptable in its present form, doesn’t mean it’s the worst. Things can always be worse, and meritocracy was, once upon a time, a great advancement over how things had been. Apologists also point out that what we currently have is not a true meritocracy, and that whatever problems exist with it would be best solved with more meritocracy, not less. And it’s true that we don’t currently have pure meritocracy. Pure meritocracy may not even be possible, but even if it were, it would not produce the sort of society people might imagine.
Pure meritocracy would necessitate a level of authoritarian state intrusion into the management of business across society that few, most of all the purported defenders of meritocracy, would accept. It would entail the abolition of inheritance, of parents securing advantages for their children, as well as outlawing anyone ever giving their friends or family a job, or any preferential treatment. It would require a battery of new laws and regulations to purge every trace of nepotism, favoritism, or bias from the economy. Hirings, raises, and promotions would need to be submitted to meritocracy review boards for approval. Pure meritocracy runs as counter to human nature as communism, and for that reason will never arise organically, and any attempt to implement and enforce it at scale would require authoritarianism.
Another common defense of meritocracy comes by way of attacking Marxism. Meritocracy has become so ingrained as our default assumption of how things work (or should work), that the only alternative seems to be some kind of socialism. Since it’s vastly easier to criticize the problems with socialism than to defend the problems with meritocracy, it’s no surprise so many choose that path of least resistance. But this defense is built on a false dichotomy. Our choices are not meritocracy, as it currently exists, or socialism. There is a third option: to reform meritocracy — not to make it more pure, but to lower the stakes.
Unlike the rest of nature, we have the capacity to transcend social Darwinism. We should not seek to control everything in the attempt to collapse all disparity. Nor should we fixate on knocking the luckiest in society down a peg. That road leads to dark places. That doesn’t increase luck, it spreads bad luck to all. But we can raise the floor, and raise the aggregate level of luck for everyone. We have the power to implement luck-maximizing engines like universal basic income, universal healthcare, and other universal policies which preserve everything we are right to appreciate about human variance, while ensuring that nobody, regardless of how bad their luck is, can fall below a certain level of resources and opportunity.
The problem with meritocracy isn’t that those toward the pinnacle of luck enjoy extraordinarily high standards of living, but that those at the bottom are consigned to deprivation and insecurity. The problem with meritocracy is the problem of any luck-based scheme where the stakes are too high. Who would want to stake their happiness, self-actualization, quality of life, or even survival on the spin of a roulette wheel or the cast of dice? Because that’s what meritocracy is, in its present form. But a meritocracy where the stakes were lowered — where a losing spin doesn’t lead to dire poverty, misery, and abject want; that is the kind of meritocracy that can work. We can thread the needle to preserve micro-meritocracy while reforming macro-meritocracy. And it requires no revolutions, no top-down restructuring of society, no heavy-handed coercion, nor an overnight rewriting of human nature. It doesn’t require punishing success, forcing everyone to be the same, or demonizing the rich. It requires raising the floor.
See also: “In Defense of Nepotism”