Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Limits to Meritocracy

In the wake of the financial crisis, income inequality has become a sexy topic again among economists. Following a host of notable commentators on the subject (including economists like Raghuram Rajan and Daron Acemoglu and a host of politicians), The Economist has chipped into the discussion with its own article.

The Economist article calls into question the perniciousness of income inequality in itself. It argues that policymakers would do better to focus on eliminating barriers that allow the "most pernicious, unfair sorts of income disparity" instead of focusing on redistribution. Their recommendation? Allow for increased competition and social mobility. "Governments need to keep their focus on pushing up the bottom and middle rather than dragging down the top." That means reducing trade barriers, investing in access to good education for everyone, and, at heart, promoting more competition and meritocracy.

I think they have the right idea in mind. There are definitely more fair and unfair types of inequality. But I have reservations about The Economist's embrace of meritocracy. If we follow the principles of meritocracy all the way to their logical conclusion, then we end up with a grim picture.

Pure meritocracy means, for example, that parents have no way of ensuring that their children will be as well off as they are. To properly judge who deserves to get better positions and opportunities, kids grow up constantly being evaluated and competing with each other. Tensions amongst parents and kids rise to a boiling point when success, or getting ahead, becomes a zero-sum game, where the success of my friend only implies one less opportunity for myself.

Competition is not only a benefit, as The Economist sees it, but also a cost. For some people, competition is a healthy motivator for them to develop their natural abilities. But for most people, it is a form of coercion to work harder than they wouldn't want to, for the sake of positions they otherwise wouldn't aspire to.

High social mobility (in itself a desirable thing) has the cost of intense competition. We already see an example of what that kind of intense competition would like in primary schools in New York City, where some parents are spending thousands of dollars on test prep sessions for their 4 year-olds in order to ensure that they make it into the city's gifted kindergarten program. When I saw an article about this in the New York Times, I was prompted to write a post about the paradoxical nature of a middle class that lives amongst plenty, but which acts as it were fighting for its very survival.

There are limits to how much meritocracy we're willing to tolerate. At some point, the burden of competition weighs down on the benefits of increased/equal opportunity. A world where people are heavily advantaged by their intellectual endowments is not really fairer than a world where people are heavily advantaged by their wealth endowments.

In the end, though, my point against The Economist is pretty weak: I agree with their main thrust, that we should remove people that systematically deny people opportunities. I just want to make sure that we're careful not to rush headstrong into meritocracy either.

Update (March 14, 2011):
John Rawls gives a much stronger argument against meritocracy in A Theory of Justice:
"[In meritocracy] there exists a marked disparity between the upper and lower classes in both means of life and the rights and privileges of organizational authority. The culture of the poorer strata is impoverished while that of the governing technocratic elite is securely based on the service of the national ends of power and wealth. Equality of opportunity means an equal chance to leave the less fortunate behind in the personal quest for influence and social position." (106-107, my emphasis)
So the complaint is not so much that meritocracy makes people work too hard, but that it punishes people for not being bright. This is why the competition that I stressed in the post is a problem: given the severe disparities in life chances that a pure meritocracy produces, one can't afford not to make it.

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