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Outward trappings of success, even at very modest levels, are seldom durable or predictive of future achievement if not backed by actual performance. That’s one reason why redistributionist policies are so unsuccessful at fostering upward mobility. They fail by focusing on outcomes rather than on addressing more fundamental causes, like skills, training, and well-functioning markets for low-skill labor. The same applies to programs that prescribe quotas on admissions, tuition aid, and hiring. The beneficiaries of these programs are often placed into situations in which they are unprepared. This makes them vulnerable to stigmatization and ultimately failure. And when poor performance is in any way ignored or forgiven, it has an impact on the psyche of the individual and their reputation, and it creates losses to the rest of society.

On the other hand, conditions and policies that lead to economic growth are likely to benefit the lower strata of society and minorities, to the extent that minorities are more concentrated in lower income quantities than non-minorities. We know incentives always matter, and incentives rely on the ability of individuals to act and succeed. Success implies gains to others who have occasion to avail themselves of the individual’s efforts. They are offering rewards for merit! Furthermore, those offers are always increasing in the value created, and thus, in levels of accomplishment. In that way, individuals always have opportunities to strive for growth.

But none of that works unless meritocracy holds sway. LittlBut none of that works unless meritocracy holds sway. Little wonder that meritocracy is so closely tied to a society’s prosperity, as documented in this article and a forthcoming book by Adrian Wooldridge. John Cochrane provides an excellent review and critique of Wooldridge’s thesis along with several lengthy quotes.

Wooldridge disputes the widely-accepted theory that democracy is a determinant of economic growth (also see here), noting that democracy can create economic pitfalls related to majoritarian excesses, whereas merit-based systems of rewards are common to almost all successful economies, including autocracies (Singapore, China) and democracies/republics (the U.S., Japan, Scandinavia), irrespective of the size of government. He offers examples of countries in which meritocratic systems are weak but nepotism or political “clientelism” are strong, with unfortunate results (Greece, Portugal, Italy). You certainly won’t get efficient outcomes when leaders prioritize family, friends, cronies, and political contributors for plum jobs and other rewards.

Of course, there is no pure meritocracy in the world. Rather, there are varying degrees of meritocracy across different societies. Traditionally, the U.S. economic system has relied on merit to a great extent; returns to merit are largely a matter of equal opportunity, though not entirely. Equally talented individuals do not always have access to the same opportunities. In fact, that is the major point of attack against the concept of meritocracy, but it does not imply that the benefits of meritocracy are a myth. There are many institutional dysfunctions that can and should be fixed to overcome the kinds of problems cited by critics, primarily public education, but the old expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” seems especially apt.

In fact, meritocracy promotes upward mobility. Here is Cochrane on the great paradox underlying the backlash against meritocracy:

The US paternalistic/aristocratic elite is running away from meritocracy under the banner of ‘social justice’ and ‘racial equity.’ Yet meritocracy throughout history has been a great equalizer, a great leveler, the main way that excluded out-groups could get ahead.

And on this point, Cochrane quotes Wooldridge:

“… Meritocracy is one of the great building blocks of modernity, along with democracy, capitalism and liberalism. … Is it really the case that meritocracy is a tool of White male privilege? W.E.B. Du Bois and Ruth Bader Ginsburg might have something different to say. Are lotteries or holistic assessments really better ways of distributing educational opportunities than standardized tests? Most of us would hesitate before flying with a pilot who had been chosen by lottery. Do we really want a society in which group identities trump individual abilities?

To give the critics their due, however, a more refined version of their argument is that “meritocracy is a myth without inclusion”. Fair enough, but again, any shortfall in participation is not the fault of meritocracy per se, but of underlying conditions and policies fostering substandard education, family instability, high crime and incarceration rates, and high rates of unemployment among those with low skills.

An important strand of Wooldridge’s work is the implication that meritocracy is a redeeming feature of some autocratic regimes. Indeed, Wooldridge is not the least bit skeptical that autocratic rule is sustainable, just as long as merit drives rewards. This is a point on which Cochrane differs. An autocracy in which high echelons are populated by the meritorious will constantly grapple with temptations of the powerful to reward their pals. Lines of accountability must be all the stronger to prevent such decay. Furthermore, autocracy usually weds itself to meritocracy only in a conditional sense. For example, in China, one must support the party. These restraints undermine the benefits of meritocracy by offering less autonomy for individuals to leverage their talent.

“Pure” democracy has its own drawbacks, b“Pure” democracy has its own drawbacks, but at least leaders have autonomy while being accountable to a broader class. And as Cochrane says, the greatest dangers of democracy can be addressed under representative democracy along with other means of protecting minorities and individual rights.

The effort to banish meritocracy is madness and the product of a totalitarian mindset. To speak of the “illusion” or “myth” of meritocracy is to contend that talent, preparedness, sound decision-making, workmanship, precision, effort, and value-delivered represent trickery of some sort. Such is the viewpoint of those who take human well-being to be a zero-sum game. But it’s even worse than that. For example, placing lives in the hands of “randomly selected” pilots would invite catastrophe, and while that example is extreme, it clearly illustrates how non-meritocratic approaches are likely to produce negative sums! Putting resources into the hands of individuals with lesser qualifications is always a prescription for waste. Make no mistake: the road to serfdom is well-traveled and can be a very quick trip. Abandoning merit-based rewards would get us a fast start.

Note: This post also appears at The American Reveille.