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Thomas Mulligan

All this populism is driven not by resistance to meritocracy, as you and Daniel Dennett suggest, but by affection for it.

It is hard to overstate the extent to which human beings (and even, perhaps, some non-human animals), believe that a just society is a meritocracy, in which (1) people enjoy equal opportunity, and (2) are judged on their merits. This has been demonstrated by work in experimental economics (dictator/ultimatum games with production phases); social psychology (equity theory); child development (e.g. "Meritocratic sharing is based on collaboration in 3-year-olds", Hamann et al.); evolutionary biology (cf. Michael Bang Petersen's work); neurology (e.g. "Merit and Justice: An Experimental Analysis of Attitude to Inequality", Rustichini & Vostroknutov); and other fields.

Because there is this deep affection for meritocracy across lines of gender, race, class, and culture, there is little disagreement about the moral ideals that should guide our economy: "The public strongly supports educational initiatives to expand opportunity and create a society based on meritocracy in which work and education pay off. . . . Support for these government programs comes from all sectors of society: from Republicans, from self-described middle-class and upper-class people, from whites, and from those with high incomes, as well as from Democrats, working-class people, African Americans, and lower-income citizens." (Page and Jacobs, "Class War?", pp. 22-23).

But our economy has taken a terrible anti-meritocratic turn over the last ~35 years. We now have the worse intergenerational mobility in the developed world (in violation of the equal opportunity tenet of meritocracy, (1)). And we have a culture which constantly celebrates race, gender, sexual tastes, and appearance--and apportions social goods on the basis of them--instead of merit (and this violates (2); meritocracy's anti-discrimination principle).

As a result, almost everyone detects injustice in our economy. But agreement on a diagnosis does not entail agreement on a cure, and that is the problem we face today, exacerbated by extraordinary partisanship. Speaking very roughly, the right thinks that we can achieve the meritocratic ideal by enforcing (2). But in order to have a society in which people are truly judged on their merits (and not their parents' merits, or their parents' parents' merits, etc.) we must redistribute to provide an equal opportunity to all.

The left accedes, correctly, to such redistribution--but it runs roughshod over the anti-discrimination principle, (2), which is an essential element of a just state (by, e.g., insisting on equal outcomes or using race/gender in hiring decisions).

We advance justice, and we strengthen social solidarity, when we pursue both meritocratic principles, hand-in-hand. Interested readers may want to take a look at my recent book, JUSTICE AND THE MERITOCRATIC STATE. I survey the empirical support for meritocratic justice in Chapter 3.

Aaron Lercher

I'm glad you stated what you mean by "financialization," because I find it very difficult to try to understand what this is. It seems to me that "financialization" need not have to do with "finance," at least not directly, even though in most cases it is about financial instruments and markets.

That's because:
(a) Any currently unknown outcome - from mortgage payments to doctors' treatment outcomes, or the size of the audience at tonight's poetry reading - can be made into a contest by betting on it.
(b) An ever-increasing range of human activity can be surveilled and measured, making such data available and calculable for those possessing the technical means. Doctors can be assigned various metrics based on their work.
(c) This leaves only the (not so little) problem of creating incentives in order to use this data for feedback, guiding human agents. The incentives need not be monetary. These could be prestige or temporary fame, or social inclusion, or avoidance of social exclusion, or a clean office cubicle, or other things of monetary or non-monetary value. Doctors would end up going along with this, in order to control or influence the choice of algorithms.

So it doesn't seem to me that "financialization" is only about the imposition of a single dimension of value, although in a capitalist society the process I described would facilitate doing that.

In conclusion, I recommend taking a long position on Eric Schliesser, as soon as the sort of market needed for such bets is set up.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for your comment, Thomas, but I am actually disagreeing with Dennett and your comment fails to do justice to my position (which is qualified in all kinds of ways).
In addition, you seem to have ignored my posts on why the embrace of meritocracy may be a mistake. So appeal to experimental work on what the public thinks is neither here nor there in this context.

A few points.
You write: "But our economy has taken a terrible anti-meritocratic turn over the last ~35 years."
That's a peculiar claim because racial discrimination in the economy was legal until about ~40 years ago. For example, the legal framework to challenge redlining was really only in place by 1977. (Enforcement is another issue.) So this makes me wonder to what degree your historical sense is so ideologically informed as to be unworthy of serious discussion.

Also, you assume that "We now have the worse intergenerational mobility in the developed world" is evidence for violation of "equal opportunity tenet of meritocracy, (1))." But that's, in fact, not the only explanation of such data (as defenders and critics of the status quo and meritocracy will point out, and as I hope you explore in the book).
On merit see the next point, too.

You also claim that merit is inversely connected to "a culture which constantly celebrates race, gender, sexual tastes, and appearance," -- you seem to be a critic of affirmative action, aren't you?*--,but that really depends on the baseline we start from (vis a vis historical injustice), and one's criterion of merit. [And the whole point of the post is to make clear that this criterion has been flattened.] In addition, your list conflates a bunch of social categories and the rewards that accrue to them, so that does not inspire confidence.

As it happens, I know how difficult it is to be nuanced in blog posts and comments, and so will keep in open mind once I engage with your book.

*Your claim about the public culture seems at odds with the culture of success Stateside that is also well documented.

Joshua Miller


I am interested in the claim that the USA was meritocratic on racial dimensions prior to the last 35 years. Could you spell that out?

Eric Schliesser

Aaron, thank you (yes!).
You are right (c) that the incentives need not be monetary exclusively. If I imply that in the post, I am wrong.
But if you can place (a) correlated bets on outcomes, you do flatten the value space, and that's what I need for present purposes.

Thomas Mulligan

Of course the US was not fully "meritocratic on racial dimensions" up until the overhaul of the economy in the 1980s. There was (and remains) significant anti-meritocratic discrimination against blacks, women, et al. Why this must be made explicit is beyond me--but we live in an era in which argumentative charity and sober debate seems impossible. The medium of the Internet does not help, I agree.

The point is that, until then, the TREND was positive: Equal opportunity was greatly enhanced by Great Society programs, and meritocratic discrimination was taken seriously. It was MLK, after all, who asked that people be judged not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character". That's a not a call for diversity. It's not a call for equal representation. It's a call to judge people on their merits alone.

A challenge with defending meritocracy is that people frequently assume that the ideal, and the public policies it requires, are reactionary. But as I note in the book, a meritocratic society would (as best I can tell) be more egalitarian than the most egalitarian states that exist today.

Eric Schliesser

Thomas, you are the one that *critically* introduced the celebration of "race, gender, sexual tastes..." so you can't cry uncle when people ask focused questions about your attitudes toward historical baselines and discrimination.

Your reading of MLK is rather partial and reductive. (I have offered a few blog posts on that very point during the past year.)

More pertinent, it's quite possible -- as I argued in the posts you don't seem to wish to engage with -- that a meritocracy is fully just (even somewhat egalitarian) and yet deeply miserable/non-flourishing. I make no claims that meritocracy is reactionary.


Perhaps it's just my imperfect reading of things, but "merit" seems to be used in a couple of different senses. One is that, in a meritocracy, being well-compensated is evidence of desert. Another is that, in a meritocracy, those most deserving are the most well-compensated. Yet another is that those who produce the greatest social benefit should be the most well-compensated.

Hayek, if memory serves, took the last view, but he would not have called it "merit"-based. He thought merit, as a function of one's efforts, couldn't be adequately judged. Those who produce more might not deserve more (because of luck, or undeserved talents, etc.), but that the rewarding of such people will produce better outcomes for society - by providing the needed incentives. On this view, being a "loser" isn't a moral judgment. It's just a judgment that you're not producing great benefit to society.

Of course, even on this view, there may be lots of social distortions that reward even those who don't produce great benefit (as you mention).

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