America is good at elevating "the best" people; the problem is that's a bad idea
A rare Slow Boring post I mostly don't agree with!
I think your argument works for some jobs. There are easily hundreds of people who could be competent Supreme Court justices. Within that universe it probably makes sense to pick justices based on ideology, demographic representation, and other criteria other than raw intelligence. The same might be true of New York Times columnists.
But I think it's clearly good for the world that a bunch of the world's smartest programmers work at Google rather than doing IT support at a local bank. I think a team of programmers drawn from the 99th percentile of the intelligence distribution are going to produce dramatically better software than programmers drawn from the 90th or 60th percentile.
I'm not an expert on other fields, but I suspect that (for example) the same is true of vaccine science. I'll bet America's meritocratic institutions helped pull together a dream team of vaccine scientists that enabled us to produce several covid vaccines in a matter of weeks. It's hard to say exactly which part of America's talent pipeline are important for getting talented people the opportunities and resources to succeed, but it seems to work pretty well and it seems foolish to dismiss it too readily.
At the same time it's obviously true that some extremely smart people behave in sociopathic ways and that's bad. But it's not obvious to me that that has anything in particular to do with those people being smart. It seems like average-intelligence people are just as capable of being greedy and indifferent to the suffering of others.
At one point you say you want a smart doctor but you don't want a shrewd doctor, which I think is true. But these just seem like different things to me. I don't think there's any particular reason to think the most talented surgeons are more likely to have either the ability or the inclination to steer their patients toward unnecessary services. The main thing you need to do that is low ethical standards—I'm not sure you even have to be particularly intelligent to figure out how to do it.
Maybe it's just me, but this argument feels muddy. It seems like your suggestion for answering a structural question (should smart people rise to the top) is with a cultural statement (we should value honesty and character), and I'm not even sure how one can actually even bring about such a change. I definitely agree that our cultural desperately needs to get its values in order, I'm just having trouble seeing why that would be mutually exclusive with meritocracy.
For one thing, smarter people are better at getting things done than less intelligent people. Even if Joe Biden may not be as book smart, he's still smart enough to surround himself with smart experts, all of whom got to where they were by being smarter than their competitors. I realize the fundamental paradox that a smart evil person can do more damage than a dumb evil person, but it's also true that a smart good person can do more good than a dumb good person. Our goal should be optimizing for good and smart, but it seems this piece is saying we should be trying for good instead of smart, and I'm just not seeing how the two ideas are connected.
Having, like you, spent a lot of time with 'the smartest guys in the room' I think this is all really correct. Those guys really are smart, but there are plenty of smart people, and you want leadership from the moral smart people, not necessarily the extremely smart people. Also the difference between Harvard/Oxbridge smart and 'decent university smart' is there but it's not all that big really.
That said, there are a couple of virtues that are usually folded under 'smart' which should be prized by themselves, namely inquisitiveness and reflectiveness (basically inquisitiveness about what's in your own head). A lot of what made Trump and Bush jr come across as plain stupid both in the press and people's memoirs is that they didn't seem to try and understand complicated questions and they didn't seem to be able to reflect on who they were and why they did things. This had little to do with raw IQ points and everything to do with an entitled sense that they knew everything worth knowing already. Obama was much better in this regard.
As the resident dumb guy, I have a lot to say about this. (Plus I’m waiting for these units to get LOTO before I inspect them, so chilling in the trailer)
First, unrelated, I got my 1st shot of vaccine this weekend, so looking forward to not randomly dying of Covid... especially since I’m going to Brazil next month for work.
Ok, on to meritocracy.
Relative to college selection. I don’t think it’s the same to equivocate large public colleges were smart people go with the Ivy leagues. What Ivy leagues provide is Access and social networking to people with power. The issue isn’t weather Harvard should accept smart people, it’s that they only accept connected smart people. Well along with a few token regular smart people that they make sure get loads of local press.
I also think that Matt underestimates the relative damage that dumb people can do. Sure smart people make mistakes, but having spent a large part of life in countries where family connections had more to do with key jobs, I can tell you that it could be a lot worse.
But as a blue collar guy I couldn’t agree more with the “honest days work” attitude.
I’m sitting in a trailer at a random power plant. Next to me is a 27-year old engineer who has worked 2-weeks straight. Next room is 6 Millwright’s who work 12-hour shifts building and fixing shit.
This job is a hard life, but it needs to be done, and honestly we all make a decent living (100 - 220k a year).
If there is one thing that I try and teach my kids, it’s that there is a sense of satisfaction that one gets from working hard, especially if u contribute to society. It’s not happiness, it’s more like pride. Honest wages for honest work.
Anyway, back to the issue. The problem isn’t meritocracy, it’s a problem with incentives and accountability. No one went to jail for all the sleezy housing bubble shenanigans. Trump won’t go to jail. The finance dudes with the care homes won’t go to jail.
There is a general lack of integrity (I like the USAF definition... doing the right thing, even if it’s hard, even when no one is looking). Integrity is what is missing from the system.
Crap... this preachy post sucked.
Hope everyone had a great weekend.
Some good points mixed with some bad, and since I'm a crotchety old man I'll focus on the bad. While you point out, somewhat randomly, the downside of meritocracy, you don't give an alternative. Monarchy, theocracy, communism, all have been tried and for various reasons discarded. We do need something, though. It seems like in a couple of places you were advocating for communism, or its nicer sounding synonym egalitarianism. And that's fine, but I think readers should have that in mind when considering the downside of meritocracy.
As for this downside, I'm in total agreement that meritocracy may not be the solution for every career path, and the good news is we clearly don't follow it. You mention politics as an example. Clearly we've ditched any pretext of meritocracy (in your stricter sense of merit equals smarts) in politics a long time ago. When was the last time a really smart person got elected to high office? As for business, I don't know what you're trying to do with the Trump example. You seem to be holding him out as an example of failed meritocracy, but that's clearly not correct and he is very definitely an idiot. The man can barely read. You're conflating his complete lack of ethics with intelligence, and that's not the case. But in a much broader sense, you don't need to be the very brightest person to be the CEO of a huge company. You'll have to be above average smart but there are all sorts of other people skills involved in being a successful businessperson. Likewise in today's media climate an obsession with woke causes and a generally snarky attitude are more important than brilliance.
So I don't think there's anything like a true meritocracy in politics, media or business. But I do think our system overall does a decent job of sorting people by intelligence, as per your college examples, and slotting them into the appropriate career paths. The smartest people should end up tackling the biggest problems. At one point that may have been in politics but that stopped decades ago. But overall the smartest people are going into tech careers, where if they cure a pandemic or reduce global warming, they will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. People good at managing people and social networks end up running big organizations, creative people end up in the arts, athletic people in sports, etc. And I don't think there's any other system out there that can do that job.
Preach, Matt!! The wrap here is spot-on.
I do have to challenge what you even mean by the word "meritocracy" though. You never explicitly define it, but you strongly suggest it's a system by which we effectively rank people by raw intelligence and give power and esteem to the smartest people. That's never really how I've thought of it, to the extent that anyone strives to be one. "Merit = A praiseworthy value; a virtue." So in today's system, we give undue merit to raw intelligence and not enough merit to ethics and humanistic kindness. I agree! But you can still have a meritocracy in a world where people who do the most good for others are rewarded with more power to do more good. Maybe I am weird but at the company where I work, a big, old school industrial company, "meritocracy" is thrown around a lot, and it's used to mean that "you'll get promoted based on what you accomplish, not who you know." Debatable how much we live up to that, but as much as we value raw intelligence, no one assumed that just being smart would get you promoted.
The value of the definition of the word "merit" is that it is truly democratic- it is the value that the rest of society puts on your contributions. I tend to think this is the best measure we could possibly use to structure a power hierarchy around. But I absolutely agree that the hierarchy *is too steep*- the highs are too high, the lows are too low, and it's too damn hard to move good people up and bad people down. We need to flatten the hierarchy with the egalitarian perspectives and methods you describe at the end. We also need to think objectively about what deserves merit.
The heart of the culture wars is that the two halves of our nation think different traits are "praiseworthy." Liberals praise raw intelligence, racial inclusion, and secular values. Conservatives praise minimal government, Christian ethics, and capitalist success. The tension comes because conservatives *used* to dominate the social process of deciding who deserved merit--the moral majority, values voters. Over time their cultural power has atrophied. They resent living in a "meritocracy" where they feel the wrong values are being merited with power. Your suggestion of flattening the hierarchy and making things more egalitarian would lower the stakes, which would lower the heat. I think it's also worth doing some national soul searching on what our common values are. We can't even agree on whether it's a good idea to treat people equally regardless of their race. We have a lot of work to do.
Why is intelligence overrated relative to virtue? Because intelligence is easier to measure. How do you test if someone is ethical? Everybody knows "the right answers"; the tough thing is actually doing them. Whereas being smart is the *same thing* as knowing the right answers. I'm not sure how to test for virtue in a job interview.
meritocracy works. That’s how me ,Coulier and Stamos got hired
The decline of public virtue is a real problem, but I am not sure how convincingly you connect it to “meritocracy”. What is the alternative system that mitigates the problem? One could more easily imagine tweaking a meritocratic system (putting higher premium on character) in its sorting to address the issue than some other system — natural aristocracy? Marxism? Not clear what the proposal is — naturally doing so. It is obviously the case that choosing leaders exclusively on the basis of who is smartest is 1) not a great idea and 2) not really what we are doing anyway.
Fundamental to the legitimacy of meritocracy is the implicit belief that our intelligence/parents/etc are a gift from God, and so we deserve what comes from them. Once you replace “God” with “luck”, as Matt had shown here it quickly becomes obvious that this is a total BS system.
Egalitarianism has blended with "fairness" in a way that is pretty corrosive to virtue IMO. I make a lot of money, because I am smart, and I pay half my income in taxes. This should make me feel like a virtuous person who has contributed a lot to society (by making a lot of money) and contributed a lot to egalitarianism (by paying a lot of taxes). But the message I get from society is that I'm a sucker or a scumbag.
Sucker: Trying to (legally) pay less taxes is not socially stigmatized; if anything, it's considered "smart". I sometimes ask my more leftwing friends why they don't voluntarily pay more taxes (the US treasury accepts checks!) and IMO I don't get very good answers. Egalitarianism doesn't have a limiting principle; maybe my tax rates should be 90% instead of 50%. So there's no virtue in the high tax rates I currently pay. The best way to "win" seems talking about how the system should be more egalitarian but avoiding any personal sacrifice, and that doesn't seem like it encourages people to be virtuous.
Scumbag: egalitarianism asks a lot of the rich in a way that IMO is clearly "unfair". But people don't like that, so you end up with a lot of BS about how it's actually fair. Rich people didn't earn what they have, the only way to get rich is to be extremely unethical, "pay your fair share", "you didn't build that", success is just pure luck, etc. A healthier egalitarianism, IMO, would say "it's great that you were so successful; now we need you to help us help everyone else out". The message today is closer to "you stole your money from us; now we're gonna take it back".
Not to go all Resistancey, but I really do think Trump is a dumbass, at least according to our meritocratic standards. E.g., if you stuck him in a room with a bunch of freshmen at Yale to debate the Fourth Amendment, they'd run circles around him, because he almost certainly has no idea what the Fourth Amendment is. The success in his career you cited was more so due to his willing to be shameless, and his similarly shameless business associates and lawyers willing to tackle the details. I see Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley as more representative of your point--guys who are technically very smart, probably got much higher LSAT scores than I did, but who suck because they are bad
The United States is not as meritocratic as you think it is. The United States is not exactly Singapore. For example, if the Ivy Leagues were to accept students based only on what their grades and SAT scores are,a ton of the students who are currently enrolled in them would not have been able to get in. Imagine if Harvard were to get rid of legacy admissions and affirmative action.
I have a theory I developed in high school academic competitions where public schools competed against private schools on a regular basis. The kids from private schools weren't all that much better than the teams from public schools. I call it the Top 100 rule. The top 100 students at a private school with an enrollment of 400 aren't going to be any better than the top 100 students from a public school with a 2000 student enrollment. This "Rule" is adaptable to a wide variety of endeavors.
The limits of meritocracy are also evident in the old joke:
Q. What do you call the person who graduated last from their medical school?
Beyond a certain threshold of minimum competency there is little marginal value in creating more and more exclusive categories.
I disagree with a lot of this, but I'll focus on the claim that Milton Friedman was the product of a "more ethical period in American life"; he was one year older than Richard Nixon and four years younger than Joseph McCarthy, for one. More broadly, it is hard to consider a period "ethical" if it featured racial segregation, bans on interracial marriage, criminalization of homosexuality, no right to withhold consent to sex from one's spouse, women being unable to open credit cards in their own name, a mass deportation program with an ethnic slur in its name which deported among others numerous actual US citizens, destroying thriving Black neighborhoods on purpose in order to build highways, a man being driven from the presidential race because he was perceived to cry while defending his wife against insinuations in the press that she was an unladylike drunk, ads that suggested one's husband would beat one if one didn't take pains to buy the freshest coffee, a giant murder spree, Henry Kissinger, etc. etc. etc. Ethical the American mid-twentieth-century was not.
OK, this is unfair; I assume Yglesias means "ethical" more specifically to refer to elites having stronger guardrails against letting their desire to prove their intelligence lead them to do monstrous things. But this was precisely the criticism of Kennedy administration officials like Robert McNamara in David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest, about how incredibly intelligent and qualified officials nevertheless started the Vietnam War. Also an argument against meritocracy qua meritocracy, but my point is this is not new.
But wouldn’t a true meritocracy promote the best leaders instead of just the intelligent ones? Matthew seems to be conflating intelligence with merit. Rafael Nadal may not be the smartest tennis player, but he is among the best. Maybe Matthew is saying that our current system of elitism isn’t meritocratic enough.