Friday, November 18, 2016


The word "meritocracy" is a fairly recent invention. It comes from The Rise of the Meritocracy, a 1958 novel by British sociologist and Labour politician Michael Young, which is generally described as a dystopian satire. Justin Fox summarizes:
The Rise of the Meritocracy is told from the perspective of a pro-meritocracy sociologist, writing in 2033 in an attempt to explain the social unrest that had recently broken out. Hard scientists and engineers are at the apex of the U.K. meritocracy of the 2030s, but sociologists and psychologists seem to have done pretty well for themselves too. The psychologists design the ever-more-accurate intelligence tests used to separate the elite from the rest; the sociologists help design the strange society that results.

In the first half of the book the narrator describes the rise of the new elite as various institutions enabling status and wealth to be handed down from parent to child are dismantled and replaced by meritocratic selection. This was a process already well underway in the U.K. and U.S. when Young wrote the book.

The SAT college admissions test in the U.S., for example, rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s as a way for top colleges to select the smartest high schoolers from around the country instead of drawing so heavily from elite East Coast prep schools. Who could be against that? A lot of the subsequent changes that Young’s narrator describes -- big increases in teacher salaries, the eclipse of elite private schools such as Eton, the declining importance of seniority in the workplace -- sound like they might be progress too.

It’s when Young gets into “Part Two: Decline of the Lower Classes,” that the trouble with meritocracy becomes more apparent. Those who don’t do well on the aptitude tests are treated increasingly as second-class citizens, unworthy of respect or political voice (his narrator charmingly refers to them as “morons”). And those at the top become increasingly smug about it. Writes Young's narrator:

Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class.

As a result, the class system under meritocracy ends up becoming more rigid and harsh on the lower classes than what went before. Eventually, the social peace breaks down. Resentful “morons” begin to cause trouble, as do smart parents of not-so-smart children and smart women frustrated with being put on the mommy track. The book ends with the uprising still in progress.
Fox has posted about the problems presented by meritocracy several times – as, come to think of it, I have – but without offering any solutions. We can probably all agree that it is bad to call people who don't test into the meritocracy "morons" and treat  them as second class citizens. But as I keep asking, what is the alternative to meritocracy? What should we do instead of giving the best jobs to the smartest and hardest working people? Since I don't see any alternative to this, and because I don't want to live in Young's dystopia, my goal is to flatten the pyramid, using high taxes on the rich and so on to make job success less important. But that is a hard sell in a world that keeps electing conservatives.


David said...

Meritocracy must ultimately consume itself, because eventually, very smart, hardworking, confident, bold, energetic people will design machines that are much better at being smart, hardworking, confident, bold, and energetic than any human could ever be.

G. Verloren said...


And how is that a problem, inherently?

A world in which machines do all the work (or at least the vast majority of it), and no one has to provide for themselves because automation ensures we can all survive even if we decided to spend every day loafing around the house doing nothing of "value" sounds like the apex of civilization to me.

Most of the jobs our society requires to run properly aren't terribly fulfilling. People really only work most of the jobs that exist because they need to earn a paycheck. But if our primary needs were met by machine labor, what reason would there be for millions of people to waste their lives flipping burgers or working cash registers or whatever else?

We're headed toward a future in which human labor will gradually become more and more worthless. This is a good thing, if only we handle it properly. We're going to have to transition out of a competitive, Capitalistic mindset, because that entire philosophy falls apart when the majority of labor is performed by machines. We're going to need to embrace a more cooperative, communal mindset instead.

Our machines will remove the need to work, and so we will have to refocus ourselves into other endeavors. Certainly many people will spend their newfound free time in purely recreational pursuits, seeking nonstop consumption of entertainment - but others will elect to devote their time to things like the arts, science, academics, public works, et cetera.

Volunteer work will become massively more common. People will find fulfillment in going out and helping others out of simple goodness, unhindered by the burden of needing to earn a paycheck. Specialization will surge as people pursue interests they previously couldn't. Production of all sorts of non-vital resources will skyrocket - all the time people used to spend on menial work can instead be spent on other, nobler interests.

If all of your electricity and food and basic needs were supplied for free, and you received a guaranteed basic income regardless of whether you worked or not, what would you decide to do with your time? Would you learn to paint, and freely contribute art to your community? Take up gardening, and share the extra food you grow? Become a volunteer firefighter and work to keep other people safe? Study science? Work with animals? Clean up the environment? Care for the sick and elderly? House the homeless? Feed the hungry? You can do anything you want - what do you feel like doing?

That's the future I want to see us reach. I want a world in which the rat race is dead and the only jobs people work are ones they're personally interested in and which are of undeniable value. And thus I want us to do everything we can to advance machine science to the point where that becomes reality - don't you?

David said...


Do I want to advance machine science in the way that you say? Not really--though I would also say that I have come to suspect that the triumph of the machines is inevitable. I fear--repeat, FEAR--the transition. In contemporary America, work is the supreme moral value. It is how we assess each other. Note that I am not saying that we actually work hard; I am simply saying that work is the supreme moral value we hold. Legitimacy, in our eyes, comes from having worked. We allow inheritance, because we believe the worker has the right to dispose of his winnings; but we despise the heir. It's going to be very, very difficult to get many Americans to accept the idea that a person could acceptably life a good life without earning it first by work. This is one of the moral-imagination sides of the reality I think John often cites, that we don't know how to have a society where people don't have to work, and most of us don't truly, deeply have a clue how to live a life without the necessity of work.

For these and other reasons--I've only just now scratched the surface, I think--I suspect the transition to a workless economy will be bitter, long, divisive, and painful. Not looking forward to that.

Beyond that, the triumph of the machines will of course put us at their mercy. Not that I think the machines are likely to be malevolent. But, as we are, we are a deeply inefficient, bickering, muddle-headed species. Who's to say that, to them, we won't simply be one more inefficiency to be removed? How deeply will values like efficiency, speed, and clarity be bred into their coding? But that's to assume we can understand machines by analogy to biological life. In fact, how can we have any idea what they will be?

And this is to say nothing about meritocracy, John's original topic, and all the reasons I don't like that either.

G. Verloren said...


We've overcome worse.

Take money, for example. We made several developmental leaps that our ancestors would have deemed insanity of the highest order, overturning fundamental precepts of how the world is supposed to work.

First we went from exchanging intrinsically valuable silver and gold to exchanging intrinsically worthless promissory notes. Then we went a step further and abolished the silver and gold standards, meaning our banknotes now aren't actually promissory at all and cannot be exchanged for anything. And now we've gone even further and actually done away with physical banknotes in many cases, replacing them with strings of 0's and 1's stored in a bunch of computer banks somewhere.

We carry around little plastic cards with computer chips inside, which we use to promise other people that we will transfer them our non-existant virtual banknotes, which in turn aren't even worth anything. And the system only works because we all collectively agree to effectively "play pretend" together.

And that's just one example. Look at medicine - we cut people open, mess around inside them, and stitch them back together, all of which would have been deemed witchcraft and necromancy for much of history and gotten you burned at the stake. Look at transportation - people used to be utterly unable to conceive of traveling faster than about 20 to 30 miles per hours, and fearing that the human body could not withstand such velocities. Look at government - instead of nobles ruling by divine right, we have vile commoners going around electing each other "kings" which we then replace every few years. Look at religion - we tolerate not just heathens, but even worse: heretics! And on and on and on.

We have fundamentally transformed society before, we will absolutely do so again. I don't care how deeply we hold to certain moral values, we've completely changed our moral values in the past, and we'll certainly continute to do so in the future.

David said...

On the moral transition, I didn't say we wouldn't overcome it, I just said I don't welcome the pain. I still don't, and I doubt anyone could convince me to feel otherwise. I don't trust rosy scenarios or rationalized minimalizations of future pain and difficulty.

Beyond that, have we ever overcome species inferiority to a new sort of absolutely superior and absolutely other being? No. No historical analogy will apply. We will face a truly Brave New World. To repeat, I think it's inevitable, and--who knows?--it may be wonderful, but I won't trust optimism on that either.

John said...

What if we could merge with our machines, wiring enormously powerful computers to our brains so we could call on that processing power when necessary? In that way we could perhaps remain ourselves and yet still be as smart as our machines. Does that have any appeal?

David said...

Sure it has some appeal. And given other possible scenarios, I'll happily take it, especially if a computer in my brain will allow me to grade papers and post on bensozia at the same time. But if someone tells me "We're going to merge with our machines, and don't worry, it's gonna be GREAT!" my suspicion and resistance meters shift into the red. Cf. Alcibiades and the Sicilian Expedition; Iraq 2003; New Coke; etc.