Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The War on Merit

The war on merit surrounds us. It has infiltrated American institutions to the point where genetic makeup is a more important qualification than merit. Admissions to the best universities, gifted and talented programs, advanced placement courses, hiring and promotion policies, sensitivity training-- all of them have produced a cohort that looks like America but that cannot function effectively.

The war on merit is damaging the nation, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. After all, major American universities and bureaucracies and media conglomerates have been filled with people whose primary skill involves policing thought. They do so because that is what they know how to do. They do not know enough to entertain opposing points of view, so they complain and censor. Of late they have been working to take over the American mind.

The war on merit has been going on for decades now. It is not about to stop any time soon.

One notes, in the margin, that companies in Silicon Valley, for instance, still hire mostly on the basis of merit. For now, the tech grandees of the West Coast are happy to talk the talk, while conspicuously not walking the walk. Or better, they have been consolidating their power by censoring conservative voices, promoting the leftist ideology that they were taught by their leftist professors at Stanford and Harvard. 

The tech titans are sucking up to the left, in roughly the way shopkeepers used to buy protection from mob bosses. They do not realize that they are riding a tiger and that once they fall off, as they inevitably will, it will not be a happy day. 

In any event, Michael Mandelbaum has written a cogent essay making the case for meritocracy. He takes some inspiration from a fine book by one Adrian Wooldridge, and explains that when cultures reject meritocracy they inevitably fail. They might do so by hiring and promoting on the basis of heredity. But they might also do so by hiring and promoting on the basis of race, gender and ethnicity. In both cases, they are hiring for genetic composition, not by any measurable achievements. One adds that they also hire on the basis of ideological commitment, that is, devotion to groupthink.

Mandelbaum opens thusly:

How should a society allocate its most important, lucrative, and prestigious positions? In most places, for most of history, the question had a simple answer: by heredity. Monarchs and aristocrats held almost all the society’s power and wealth and passed their positions on to their offspring. Over the last two hundred years a different system came to supplant hereditary privilege. The new system distributes positions through evidence of cognitive and intellectual skills as measured by performance on competitive, standardized examinations. It is called meritocracy.

As you know, meritocracy began in imperial China a thousand years ago:

The first appearance of such a system came a millennium ago in China. Beginning in the 10th century and lasting until the beginning of the 20th, officials in the provinces and at the imperial court were chosen by a protracted and rigorous series of nationwide written examinations. Candidates had to demonstrate, inter alia, their mastery of classic Chinese texts, which was perhaps useful for managing a large land-based Asian empire before the modern era but is of dubious relevance to a contemporary industrial society.

Interestingly, it first appeared in the West during the French Revolution. As part of the war against a hereditary aristocracy, revolutionaries introduced the idea of merit, as a function of fairness and efficiency.

Meritocracy came later to the West. It became established for the first time with the French Revolution, one of whose slogans—“a career open to talents”—captures its essence. The sixth article of the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued in 1789, concisely defined the concept: “All citizens … are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents.”

France still determines admission to its finest schools on the basis of a competitive examination.

During the past two centuries, meritocracy extended to other countries:

In the 19th and 20th centuries it spread, at an uneven pace, throughout the Western world and beyond. Competitive national examinations became important rites of passage in Great Britain, France, and the United States through the 11-plus, the baccalaureate, and the Scholastic Aptitude Test, respectively, channeling young people to schools and then onward to prestigious careers.

Among those who reacted against meritocracy was Mao Zedong. He wanted people to advance in society on the basis of their commitment to his thought, and to his Communist ideology:

In the mid-1960s the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which millions of students attacked people in authority, especially teachers. Schools and universities closed and examinations were suspended. Mao declared that China should rely on people who were “red”—that is ideologically fervent—rather than “experts” whom meritocratic procedures had selected. The Cultural Revolution turned the country upside down. By some estimates several million people died and millions more had their lives disrupted or ruined.

Of course, some people have abused the standardized exam system. This is probably less prevalent than one imagines, and one understands that if tutoring helps prepare children for the tests, many poorer Americans have pooled resources to hire tutors for groups of children. One should not think that this is the province of the wealthy.

Since Asian students invariably make it to the top of their classes, it makes very little sense to blame this on white privilege.

Anyway, Mandelbaum makes this point:

People who rise to the top have found ways to use their positions to assure success for their offspring, for example sending them to rigorous preparatory schools too costly for most parents to afford and not numerous enough to serve the entire population. At the same time, climbing up the meritocratic ladder has become more difficult. In this way, meritocracy is not functioning as it is designed to do.

And yet, nowadays we are obsessed with the ideology of equity and inclusion, and this goal cannot really coexist with meritocracy. The war against inequality has always been a war against merit:

… meritocracy has increasingly become associated with economic inequality. Meritocratic systems are not, and are not designed to be, egalitarian in every way. While they do provide equal opportunity, unequal outcomes invariably result because people have different talents and abilities. Some will do better than others, but the winners will earn their success through their own efforts and that success, at least in theory, will benefit society as a whole since the best-qualified people will fill the most important positions.

Apparently, the notion that different people have different talents and abilities, that they might have different goals in mind, has become heresy. And yet, Mandelbaum makes the important point that in a meritocratic system, winners earn their success. When you impose diversity quotas you create the assumption that those who have succeeded have really not earned their successes.

Mandelbaum argues thusly:

Economic inequality has reached levels unseen for more than a hundred years. This has generated popular resentment at the economically successful and therefore at the social practices to which they owe their success. Wooldridge considers that resentment, in combination with the calcification of the meritocratic process and other developments, to be responsible for the upsurge of populism in the Western world over the past decade that brought Donald Trump and other previously unlikely figures to power and caused Great Britain to leave the European Union.

Again, the argument against merit, in this country, aims at disparate outcomes. Asian students excel; minority children do not. Thus, meritocracy has been imposed by white supremacists. Incoherent thinking, you think.

Finally, especially in the United States but in other countries as well, meritocracy faces opposition on the grounds that it is unrepresentative in that the pool of winners it yields does not contain the numbers of people from some groups that is proportional to these groups’ share of the total population. It follows, according to this criticism, that “offices, positions, and employments” should be allocated according to ethnic and racial group membership rather than by individual merit as measured by tests. 

This proposition has for several decades influenced the admissions policies of America’s selective institutions of higher education; it has spread to the wider society; and it plays an increasing role in the public policies of the Democratic Party. It brings with it three considerable drawbacks.

What are the problems with diversity quotas. Mandelbaum outlines them here:

There is something to be said for a police force having at least some members from the racial and ethnic groups for which it has responsibility regardless of test scores. There is far less to be said for selecting neurosurgeons or virologists on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Indeed, a society that does so consistently has every chance of degrading its neurophysiological health and retarding the development of therapies for diseases such as the coronavirus. It is no accident that China built the second-largest economy in the world, to the benefit of hundreds of millions of poor Chinese, and placed itself on the cutting edge of technological innovation only when it abandoned the Maoist system of allocating positions and embraced— again— meritocracy.

As it happens, the rage toward diversity has infested medical schools. It will surely soon infest science departments in universities. The result will be, less innovation and less efficiency. Keep in mind, the smartest people are likely to innovate. If you cull their ranks and replace them with less capable people, your nation will suffer. The point is almost self-evident, but people rarely make it. 

Putting more capable people in more important jobs produces more economic growth:

In addition, since, as Wooldridge notes, meritocracy is associated with rapid economic growth, abandoning it is likely to make societies that do so less wealthy; and because East Asian countries have become the most enthusiastic practitioners of selection by merit, they will become not only wealthier but also, in the case of China, more powerful than the West.

The war against merit is reactionary thrust away from the work ethic and back to heredity and ideology:

The flight from meritocracy also has the perverse and ironic consequence of restoring the system of allocating positions that, over the decades, meritocracy supplanted. Apportionment by group membership gives pride of place once again to heredity—albeit ethnic and racial—rather than achievement. The anti-meritocratic policies of recent years in fact restore to a prominent social role the hereditary principle that dominated traditional Europe, the overthrow of which was regarded in the West as a powerful and welcome sign of progress. They also violate one of the central precepts of Western public life, namely, that people should be judged and treated as individuals. In the name of what its advocates call social justice, therefore, racial and ethnic quotas reinstate a practice that Western societies, over the course of several centuries, had come virtually unanimously to consider unjust.

Finally, a policy of allocating positions and opportunities by group membership threatens to turn the societies and economies of the countries that adopt it into racial and ethnic spoils systems, with each constituent group striving to elbow aside all the others. This is a recipe for the kind of bitter conflict based on tribalism that plagues much of the world but which Western societies have managed for the most part to avoid since World War II.

A racial and ethnic spoils system…. Add to that an ideological spoils system, because if you are going to wreck the economy you do well to indoctrinate the populace, to convince them that while you are imposing destitution on the populace, you are pursuing a higher ideal.


Sam L. said...

"A racial and ethnic spoils system…. Add to that an ideological spoils system, because if you are going to wreck the economy you do well to indoctrinate the populace, to convince them that while you are imposing destitution on the populace, you are pursuing a higher ideal." That's a way to have all your good things suddenly become ruptured ducks. And shooting off your feet.

n.n said...

Diversity (i.e. color or class-based judgment), inequity, and exclusion.

Inferential or social justice.

Every child left behind.

Sam L. said...

The Left hates the rest of us.