Is Meritocracy Possible? (A Solution)

16 April 2021

In my last blog, I raised the following question as my sixth pandemic puzzle:

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.


Photo by Matt Lee on Unsplash

Comments (7)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, April 24, 2021 -- 8:37 PM

Blind auditions for

Blind auditions for orchestras, randomly assigning numbers prior to grading papers and the Vickrey auction are all ideas with merit that serve up merit for the most part. I'm a little more concerned with creativity, as a measure of human achievement in the long run, but merit is important as well.

At any instant in time one person is stronger, faster and more agile than another. To issue just compensation is a phantasm. It can't be done if only because people don't know their own brains. If we have to revert to justice to achieve a meritocracy I'm pretty sure we are doomed.

No one human is equal to another. Let's circle the wagons there and celebrate our differences rather than spending time ordering our contributions based on merit. That is where the hope lies.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 23, 2021 -- 5:54 AM

I was going to say something

I was going to say something linking meritocracy with monarchy, then realized that would make nonsense. Monarchy's foundation is nothing more than the ancient divine right of kings, so a monarchy is self-sustaining, even in the shadow of the cold hard truth of its' absence of ruling power ( British royalty, for example). No, meritocracy, at bottom, is reliant upon competition, seems to me. This is one reason why capitalist economies eschew socialistic practices;why people in the United States thumbed their noses at FDR's advocacy of social security, making socialism a distasteful notion: we need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, even though that roundly defies physics. There are no skyhooks or boom crutches. There are social democracies, but virtually no one believes that could work here. I have said it would be doomed because of diminishing returns: too many people to help and to few resources to help them. So, like it or no, competition forces us into meritocratic reality, while more prosperous nations with far fewer people can afford to supply greater aid to their populous. Our addiction to capitalism, and the power and prestige that brings, are necessary evils for maintenance of our world status and overall way of life. Addictions have their downsides. We have learned to take the good with the bad. The bootstrap symbolism is an empty metaphor. But it was not the first, nor will it be the lasr.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 23, 2021 -- 1:16 PM

Scratch what I previously

Scratch what I previously said about the M word. I am far more comfortable with the above remarks, other notions notwithstanding. Sorry for any typos. though. I just don't see so well now. These sorts of questions invite diverse opinions. That diversity is based in many things. Preferences, beliefs, opinions, expectations, desires and other propositional attitudes, posited by Donald Davidson. As a band-mate said, many years ago: we all have our own album to do. The content and substance of that album depends on the experience and background of the artist. There is no one size which fits all. Philosophy has proven this for centuries. Every time someone thinks he/she has it sussed, someone else steps up to challenge the status quo. This is why philosophy is an imperfect science. If it were perfect, it would be boring. Tedious. Uninteresting...I don't think meritocracy is a problem. Not, in any practical sense anyway. This assessment does not change my views on socialism. Because, as previously asserted, socialism has limited utility. It simply cannot work in countries with large populations, for the reason(s) previously advanced.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 7:29 AM

To whom are you signing over

To whom are you signing over your social security and medicare benefits?

The homeless in my neighborhood are asking.

Since when do roads become more expensive by scale of the populations they serve? That doesn't make sense.

The world is in flames. What non socialized fire department are you going to call?

The philosopher doth protest too much.

Matti Meikäläinen's picture

Matti Meikäläinen

Saturday, April 24, 2021 -- 12:59 AM

I’m sorry, perhaps I’m just a

I’m sorry, perhaps I’m just a little slower than most. But your so-called “solutions” seem trivial and specifically, as far as your second solution, an empty formalism.

Many years ago a U. S. Supreme Court justice said that the law ought to do only what it can do. First, your first solution is no solution. That’s because it already part of the meritocratic ideal. Moreover, as Tim Smith alluded, obviously irrelevant factors are in generally rooted out as much as possible through rational procedures, like “blind auditions”, or made illegal like nepotism and bribery. I note the federal prosecutions for celebrity cheating to gain admission for their children to prestigious universities. So, okay, that’s not a solution, that’s how ideal meritocracy is supposed to function!

Second, so-called justice tempered linking is incoherent except as an empty formalism. I.e. “...mechanisms of reward for performance, while never perfectly in accord with what just deserts would be, could still be made more or less just.” Sorry, but it sounds to me like either you threw in the towel or just announced that we ought to try to make rewards more just. Okay, how? Don’t you owe us some details?

We’re not your original issues;

1. “Given that meritocracy as traditionally defined is practically impossible, is there any point at all to appealing to meritocracy as a social ideal? 
2. “...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.”

Appears like you threw non-solutions at #1 and ignored #2.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 6:07 AM



Neil can speak for himself but let me offer a possible interpretation or two.

First, pandemic fatigue. Neil is tired. He should be. Neil, close the laptop and get some shut eye.

The other but by no means secondary answer here is there is(are) no answer(s.) I fully agree Neil offers none.

I think we all need to get more sleep and come at this because we are obsessed with it and vitally the task on the one hand has no merit and on the other is misguided.

Best to you Matti.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 24, 2021 -- 7:09 AM

Well. I did not see much to

Well. I did not see much to the meritocracy issue before,thinking, in my fundamentalist way that the idea has obvious flaws .I'm no expert on the question. Don't know if anyone is or claims to be. But, Matti offers food for thought, whether wrong or right.. Notions about the pros and cons of merit always rang hollow for me. The remark on law only doing what it can do was poignant---especially so in current turbulent times. Another aspect of merit we might think about is does recognition of merit feed peoples' expectations of entitlement? There are disturbing indications this is so: the din of advertising for Medicare, featuring a retired NFL quarterback hammers away at the entitlement lure. I have known the limits of Medicare for years. Anyone, of a certain age, if they have average intelligence, is at least equally aware of those limits. Propositional attitudes are just that. Expectations cannot always be met.