Is Meritocracy Possible? (Pt. I)

22 January 2021

As far as I can tell, nothing on earth is fairer—and closer to being something worth calling “meritocracy”—than competitive running. 


True, people in different places have access to different coaches, nutrition, training facilities, etc. And all these differences influence (in ways that can seem unfair) who wins races and gets rewarded for it. At best, even competitive running is only an approximation of meritocracy.


Yet all participants in any given race run the same distance, start at the same time, are timed by the same clock, and are subject to the same rules of competition. Then those people get rewarded in order of their finishes (the first finisher gets the best medal, accolades, sometimes money, etc.). And it is a testament to the meritocratic nature of competitive running that talented, hardworking individuals from poorer circumstances often rise to the top, win prizes and money, earn medals, and garner sponsorships. 


So let’s imagine for the sake of argument that competitive running really is a meritocracy: it is an environment where reward and social standing flow to those who have ability, have talent, and put in hard work—rather than flowing to those who have well-known family names, are born into wealth, etc. (See Ray’s blog on meritocracy for a similar characterization.)


What I want to do now is question whether meritocracy within large-scale modern economies is even possible or close to it. And I want to do so by tweaking the ideal of competitive running to make it more like what economies are like in terms of their ability (or lack thereof) to approximate meritocracy. 


Suppose competitive running for all distances involved the following rule: every time person A finishes ahead of person B by n seconds, A gets to start the next race against B 2n seconds earlier than B. 


So say Sarah and Barbara run the 800 meter and are equal in ability and hard work. But say Sarah beats Barbara in their first race by 0.25 seconds—just out of normal variation. Not a big difference for the 800, and Barbara might have won on a different day. Yet on this scheme I’m suggesting, Barbara’s chances of beating Sarah will be reduced severely in their next race, because Sarah will get to start 0.5 seconds earlier than her, due to what happened in the first race. 


Now consider some consequences of this scheme over time: the advantages of small wins in the earlier races will snowball to the point where winnings in later races are grossly out of proportion to actual performance—and can even invert actual performance. 


Imagine, for example, that Barbara runs the second race 0.1 seconds faster than Sarah. Still, Sarah finishes 0.4 seconds ahead of her, because Sarah got to start 0.5 seconds earlier (due to her win in the first race, plus the 2n rule). So even though Barbara performed better in the second race, she still starts the third race now a whopping 0.8 seconds (=2 x 0.4) later than Sarah, which all but assures another defeat, given that they are the same in ability. In fact, it’s easy to see that even if Barbara goes the entire rest of her career running slightly faster than Sarah, she’ll still end up starting further and further behind and will never pass Sarah. 


Now, I submit that this alternate scheme of competitive running does not even come close to being a meritocracy, because we just saw that it allows for two people of the same ability and hard work to end up with wildly different rewards over time. And note that I am not saying that this will be due to morally pernicious things like nepotism or bribery; it is an inevitable consequence of the structure of the system.


Connoisseurs of chaos theory will recognize that in the system I described, we see wildly differential outcomes emerging due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions (or “the butterfly effect”), since the outcome of each race is not independent of the earlier races (unlike normal competitive running, in which each race is a reset). Connoisseurs of complex systems will recognize a positive feedback loop, where the result of each race creates a disturbance in the next in the same direction as the result of the previous race. And, of course, both things are true, with the feedback loop explaining the tremendous size of the butterfly effect. 


What I want to suggest here is that real modern economic life—where people have careers, advancements, successes, and failures—will always end up being (to a notable extent) like the case of competitive running with the 2n rule. I won’t argue for that here for reasons of space. But the point is fairly easy to see. In any sort of career trajectory one has, the starting position on the next phase of one’s career will be heavily dependent on the outcomes of the prior phase of one’s career, and there will always be small differences in early career performance that are not the product of ability or talent. Call these two features of advancement through human societies linking and small differences in early advantage


My claim here is that any socio economic arrangement that exhibits these two features will inevitably fail to be meritocratic. But since, for all I can tell, any modern society will exhibit these two features no matter how hard we try to erase them (career advancement will be linked to past performance; early performance will be affected by variables not related to talent or hard work), any modern society will inevitably fail to be a meritocracy. Maybe limited portions of a given society can be mostly meritocratic—like competitive running—but those portions will be far from representative of the whole.


So my Pandemic Puzzle for this month simply amounts to this question:


Given that meritocracy as traditionally defined is practically impossible, is there any point at all to appealing to meritocracy as a social ideal? 


And, of course, if the answer is no, then there is the further psychological question of why so many people find the ideal so appealing, given its impossibility. 


My own answers to these questions will appear in next month’s blog!


Photo by Matt Lee on Unsplash


Comments (1)

Matti Meikäläinen's picture

Matti Meikäläinen

Monday, January 25, 2021 -- 6:33 AM

You ask, “ there any

You ask, “ there any point at all to appealing to meritocracy as a social ideal?” But hasn’t that train already left the station? That, even though it’s an illusion, merit and only merit ought to be rewarded appears to be baked into the system is it not? For example, isn’t it the conventional wisdom that the so-called market can solve all problems? I think your tougher question is: How do you dislodge that myth from our thinking? And what social goal replaces it?