Tag: meritocracy

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Quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image from top-linked post.

Gatekeepers of opportunity and the lottery of privilege

Despite starting out as a pejorative term, ‘meritocracy’ is something that, until recently, few people seem to have had a problem with. One of the best explanations of why meritocracy is a problematic idea is in this Mozilla article from a couple of years ago. Basically, it ascribes agency to those who were given opportunities due to pre-existing privilege.

In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Sandel makes some very good points about the American university system, which can be more broadly applied to other western nations, such as the UK, which have elite universities.

The meritocratic hubris of elites is the conviction by those who land on top that their success is their own doing, that they have risen through a fair competition, that they therefore deserve the material benefits that the market showers upon their talents. Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It goes along with the tendency to look down on those less fortunate, and less credentialed, than themselves. That gives rise to the sense of humiliation and resentment of those who are left out.

Michael Sandel, quoted in ‘The Insufferable Hubris of the Well-Credentialed

As someone who is reasonably well-credentialed, I nevertheless see a fundamental problem with requiring a degree as an ‘entry-level’ qualification. That’s why I first got interested in Open Badges nearly a decade ago.

Despite the best efforts of the community, elite universities have a vested in maintaining the status quo. Eventually, the whole edifice will come crashing down, but right now, those universities are the gatekeepers to opportunity.

Society as a whole has made a four-year university degree a necessary condition for dignified work and a decent life. This is a mistake. Those of us in higher education can easily forget that most Americans do not have a four-year college degree. Nearly two-thirds do not.


We also need to reconsider the steep hierarchy of prestige that we have created between four-year colleges and universities, especially brand-name ones, and other institutions of learning. This hierarchy of prestige both reflects and exacerbates the tendency at the top to denigrate or depreciate the contributions to the economy made by people whose work does not depend on having a university diploma.

So the role that universities have been assigned, sitting astride the gateway of opportunity and success, is not good for those who have been left behind. But I’m not sure it’s good for elite universities themselves, either.


Thankfully, Sandel, has a rather delicious solution to decouple privilege from admission to elite universities. It’s not a panacea, but I like it a first step.

What might we do about it? I make a proposal in the book that may get me in a lot of trouble in my neighborhood. Part of the problem is that having survived this high-pressured meritocratic gauntlet, it’s almost impossible for the students who win admission not to believe that they achieved their admission as a result of their own strenuous efforts. One can hardly blame them. So I think we should gently invite students to challenge this idea. I propose that colleges and universities that have far more applicants than they have places should consider what I call a “lottery of the qualified.” Over 40,000 students apply to Stanford and to Harvard for about 2,000 places. The admissions officers tell us that the majority are well-qualified. Among those, fill the first-year class through a lottery. My hunch is that the quality of discussion in our classes would in no way be impaired.

The main reason for doing this is to emphasize to students and their parents the role of luck in admission, and more broadly in success. It’s not introducing luck where it doesn’t already exist. To the contrary, there’s an enormous amount of luck in the present system. The lottery would highlight what is already the case.


Would people like me be worse off in a more egalitarian system? Probably. But that’s kind of the point.

Entirely predictable

We’ve had some pretty bad governments in the UK during my lifetime, but has any been so underqualified, so inept, corrupt, and nepotistic as our current one? It would be bad enough in regular times, but during a pandemic it’s a tragedy.

Who knew that children go to school in September? Who guessed that hundreds of thousands of students head to universities where they – and easily shocked readers should look away – strive with every fibre of their being to mingle with each other as vigorously as they can? What clairvoyant might have predicted that, when the government offered the public cut-price restaurant meals at the taxpayers’ expense, the public would gobble them up? Or that, when the prime minister urged workers to go back to their offices and save Pret a Manger, a few brave souls would have returned to their desks and risked having “dulce et decorum est pro Pretia mori” carved on their gravestones?

Nick Cohen, The meritocracy has had its day. How else to explain the rise of Dido Harding? (The Observer)

The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty nor is far distant from it

So said Seneca, in a quotation I found via the consistently-excellent New Philosopher magazine. In my experience, ‘wealth’ is a relative concept. I’ve met people who are, to my mind, fabulously well-off, but don’t feel it because their peers are wealthier. Likewise, I’ve met people who aren’t materially well-off, but don’t realise they’re poor because their friends and colleagues are too.

Let’s talk about inequality. Cory Doctorow, writing for BoingBoing, points to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report (PDF) by Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu that is surprisingly readable. They note cultural differences around inequality and its link to (perceived) meritocracy: 

A recent experiment found that people were much more accepting of inequality when it resulted from merit instead of luck (Almas, Cappelen and Tungodden, 2019). Given the opportunity to redistribute gains to others, people were significantly less likely to do so when differences in gains reflected differences in productivity. The experiment also revealed differences between countries in people’s views of what is fair, with more Norwegians opting for redistribution even when gains were merit-based and more Americans accepting inequality even when outcomes were due to luck.

This suggests that to understand whether inequality is a problem, we need to understand the sources of inequality, views of what is fair and the implications of inequality as well as the levels of inequality. Are present levels of inequalities due to well-deserved rewards or to unfair bargaining power, regulatory failure or political capture? Can meritocracy be unfair? What is the moral status of luck? And what if inequalities derived from a fair process in one generation are transmitted on to future generations?

Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu

Can meritocracy be unfair? Yes, of course it can, as I pointed out in this article from a few years back. To quote myself:

I’d like to see meritocracy consigned to the dustbin of history as an outdated approach to society. At a time in history when we seek to be inclusive, to recognise and celebrate diversity, the use of meritocratic practices seems reactionary and regressive. Meritocracy applies a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that — no surprises here — just happens to privilege those already in positions of power.

Doug Belshaw

Doctorow also cites Chris Dillow, who outlines in a blog post eight reasons why inequality makes us poorer. Dillow explains that “what matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has”. I’ve attempted to summarise his reasons below:

  1. “Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in… means of entrenching their privilege and power”
  2. “Unequal corporate hierarchies can demotivate junior employees”
  3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust”
  4. “Inequality can prevent productivity-enhancing change”
  5. “Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest”
  6. “Inequalities of power… have allowed governments to abandon the aim of truly full employment and given firms more ability to boost profits by suppressing wages and conditions [which] has disincentivized investments in labour-saving technologies”
  7. “High-powered incentives that generate inequality within companies can backfire… [as] they encourage bosses to hit measured targets and neglect less measurable things”
  8. “High management pay can entrench… the ‘forces of conservatism’ which are antagonistic to technical progress”

Meanwhile, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for The Guardian that the New Zealand government has unveiled a ‘wellbeing budget’ focused on “mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence”. Their finance minister is quoted by Roy as saying:

For me, wellbeing means people living lives of purpose, balance and meaning to them, and having the capabilities to do so.

This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.

Grant Robertson

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for government to act on inequality. We can seize the initiative ourselves through co-operation. In The Boston Globe, Andy Rosen explains that different ways of organising are becoming more popular:

The idea has been percolating for a while in some corners of the tech world, largely as a response to the gig economy, in which workers are often considered contractors and don’t get the same protections and benefits as employees. In New York, for example, Up & Go, a kind of Uber for house cleaning, is owned by the cleaners who provide the services.


People who have followed the co-op movement say the model, and a broader shift toward increased employee and consumer control, is likely to become more prominent in coming years, especially as aging baby boomers look for socially responsible ways to cash out and retire by selling their companies to groups of employees.

ANdy Rosen

Some of the means by which we can make society a fairer and more equal place come through government intervention at the policy level. But we should never forget the power we have through self-organising and co-operating together.

Also check out:

The end of ‘meritocracy’ at Mozilla

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post explaining how appeals to ‘meritocracy’ are problematic, particularly in education. The world is not a neutral place and meritocracy can actually entrench privilege.

I’m glad to see, therefore, that Mozilla have decided to stop using the term:

“Meritocracy” was widely adopted as a best practice among open source projects in the founding days of the movement: it appeared to speak to collaboration amongst peers and across organizational boundaries. 20 years later,  we understand that this concept was practiced in a world characterized by both hidden bias and outright abuse. The notion of “meritocracy” can often obscure bias and can help perpetuate a dominant culture. Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.

Source: Mozilla Stands for Inclusion

On ‘radical incompetence’

One of the reasons I’ve retreated from Twitter since May of last year is the rise of angry politics. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s happening all of the time. And I certainly haven’t got the energy to deal with problems that aren’t materially affecting me or the people I care about.

Brexit, then, is a strange one. On the one hand, I participated in a democratic election to elect a government. Subsequently, a government formed from a party I didn’t vote for called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we all know, the result was close, and based on lies and illegal funding. Nevertheless, perhaps as a citizen I should participate democratically and then get on with my own life.

On the other hand of course, this isn’t politics as usual. There’s been a rise in nationalistic fervour that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. It’s alarming, particularly at a time when smartphones, social media, and the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle make it difficult for citizens to pay sustained attention to anything.

This article in The New York Times zooms out from the particular issues of Trump and Brexit to look at the wider picture. It’s not mentioned specifically in the article, but documentary evidence of struggles around political power and sovereignty goes back at leats to the Magna Carta in England. One way of looking at that is that King John was the Donald Trump of his time, so the barons took power from him.

It’s easy to stand for the opposite of something: you don’t have to do any of the work. All that’s necessary is to point out problems, flaws, and issues with the the person, organisation, or concept that you’re attacking. So demagogues and iconoclasts such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, whose lack of a coherent position wouldn’t work at any other time, all of a sudden gain credibility in times of upheaval.

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

I’m writing this on the train home from London. I haven’t participated in or seen any of the protests around Trump’s visit to the UK. I have, however, seen plenty of people holding placards and banners, obviously on their way to, or from, a rally.

My concern about getting angry in bite-sized chunks on Twitter or reducing your issues with someone like Trump or Johnson to a placard is that you’re playing them at their own game. They’ll win. They thrive on the oxygen of attention. Cut it off and they’ll whither and be forced to slink off to whatever hole they originally crawled from.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.


The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

What we’re talking about here is ideology. There’s always been a fundamental difference between the left and the right of politics in a way that’s understood enough not to get into here. But issues around sovereignty, nationalism, and self-determinism actually cut across the traditional political spectrum. That’s why, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, can oppose the EU for vastly different reasons to Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-Brexiteer.

I haven’t got the energy to go into it here, but to me the crisis in confidence in expertise comes from a warping of the meritocratic system that was supposed to emancipate the working class, break down class structures, and bring forth a fairer society. What’s actually happened is that the political elites have joined with the wealthy to own the means of cultural reproduction. As a result, no-one now seems to trust them.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

There have been many calls within my lifetime for a ‘new politics’. It’s nearly always a futile project, and just means a changing of the faces on our screens while the political elite continue their machinations. I’m not super-hopeful, but I do perhaps wonder whether our new-found connectedness, if mediated by decentralised technologies, could change that?

Source: The New York Times

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