For centuries, the promise of the “American Dream” has been that as long as someone buckles down and works hard, she can achieve her goals.
Given that meritocracy as traditionally defined is practically impossible, is there any point at all to appealing to meritocracy as a social ideal?
Let me rehash how I got to the premise of that question.
I gave the analogy of a tweak that could be made to the rules of competitive running, and I called that tweak the “2n rule.” Here’s the 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.
I then pointed out that in this modified system of competitive running, small early victories due to random variation would snowball over time to the point where two people who were equal in ability and hard work would end up starting so far apart that one would always win. The systematic structural features that would give rise to this outcome were linking (the starting point of the next phase of competition is linked to the outcome of the previous) and small differences in early advantage (there will always be random variation in early performances).
If the 2n rule were in effect, competitive running would no longer be meritocratic in the defined sense. That’s because long-term rewards would end up being dramatically different for people who were equal in talent and hard work. I even showed that one person could even be a bit better in terms of performance in the long run but, due to a slightly worse first race plus the 2n rule, ends up further and further behind.
The point of the analogy is not hard to see: any modern economy that rewards performance with better future opportunities will inevitably fail to be meritocratic, because any such economy will also display linking and small differences in early advantage.
Thus, the idea that we can craft a system that rewards performance and thereby gives people what they deserve—where “deserve” is in this context thought of as an increasing function of hard work and talent—is an ever-receding mirage. (It is, of course, an important moral question whether “deserve” should be thought of that way. But my point is that even if we do think of it that way, meritocracy so defined will be forever out of reach.)
Nevertheless—and here is my answer to the question—there are two ideas we can peel off of the mirage ideal of meritocracy that might be feasible and worth striving for, with the first being uncontroversial and the second being a bitter pill.
The first is what I’ll call the negative ideal of meritocracy.
This ideal would just limit the pernicious factors that might influence the flow of rewards and opportunities within a society: family connections, wealth, bribery, favoritism, prejudices about skin color or sexual orientation, and so on. That is, though we might find it impossible to systematically link reward with what people deserve, we can at the very least screen off clearly immoral distortions in the way rewards are distributed.
Note, for example, that in my hypothetical system of competitive running with the 2n rule, it is still not the case that people get ahead due to nepotism, prejudice, bribery, etc. True, reward and just desert are far from perfectly linked, but at least that relation won’t have those added distortions. We can aim for a similar screening off of prejudice in modern economies: we might only approach that ideal asymptotically, but at least the attempt won’t be futile. And since it was part of the original ideal of meritocracy that rewards should follow desert rather than family connections, etc., it is fair to say that this negative ideal was in fact part of the original ideal of meritocracy and may even account for a large part of its psychological appeal.
The second idea is just justice tempered linking.
Linking—or the idea that future reward and opportunity are linked to past performance—is an inevitable component of any economic system that would incentivize hard work. The problem is that there is no way to achieve linking (and thereby incentive) without also providing more opportunity to those who have gotten ahead due to irrelevant factors, like random variation at early stages. And, of course, it appears better for everyone if hard work is incentivized.
Still, that leaves a lot open. Note that in our analogy, linking was achieved via the 2n rule. But it needn’t be exactly so. We could just as well have achieved linking via a 1.3n rule, which would have diminished the degree of advantage in future races that arose due to small random differences in early success.
So the idea of justice tempered linking is that the mechanisms of reward for performance, while never perfectly in accord with what just deserts would be, could still be made more or less just. For example, monetary rewards for performance could be adjusted to be more in accordance with John Rawls’s Difference Principle, or whatever principle of justice you find most apt.
This second idea is indeed a bitter pill, because it involves acceptance of the fact that modern economies will never be able to get right what people deserve morally. Still, striving for the negative ideal of meritocracy and for justice tempered linking will do much to help us approximate moral desert.
That’s both the best we can hope for and the explanation for why the mirage ideal of meritocracy had so much appeal in the first place.