Monday, December 8, 2008

Are we a meritocracy?

Matt Yglesias makes some excellent points in his write-up on Malcolm Gladwell's latest book "Outliers." Namely that this book gets at the nub of the great American Myth, that of "The American Dream" and lays its central premise to waste,

At the end of the day, it’s hard for me not to reach the conclusion that the backlash is, not coincidentally, coming just as Gladwell’s hit upon a politically charged topic and reached conclusions that are discomfiting to the very successful. I’ve seen a few people express the notion that Gladwell’s conclusion — that success is determined largely by luck rather than one’s powers of awesomeness — is somehow too banal to waste one’s time with. I think those people need to open their eyes and pay a bit more attention to the society we’re living in. It’s a society that not only seems to believe that the successful are entitled to unlimited monetary rewards for their trouble, but massive and wide-ranging deference.

Beyond that, it’s a society in which the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige has largely gone out the window. The elite feel not only a sense of entitlement, but also a unique sense of arrogance that only an elite that firmly believes itself to be a meritocracy can muster. Gladwell not only shows that this is wrong, but he does an excellent job of showing why it feels right. He explains that success does, in fact, require hard work — lots of it — and that people who think they got where they are through effort rather than good fortune are at least half right. The issue is that in some ways the best luck of all is the luck to be in a position to do hard work at a time when it pays off. Bill Gates, Gladwell explains, put in vast hours programming computers at a very young age at a time when almost nobody in the United States even had the opportunity to put in that kind of time in front of a computer screen.

The question is, do you believe that the United States is essentially a meritocracy whereby one's own skills and determination are all that is needed to rise up the socio-economic scale? Or do you believe that a great deal of our own lives is pre-determined by greater societal forces well beyond our control - where you were born; when you were born; the relative wealth of your parents and family; the stability of your home life as a child etc.

It's not that many of us believe that hard work is completely inconsequential its that we feel that there are greater forces at work besides ones own industriousness. The other factors are, arguably, far more determinative to your life than simple diligence.

Our great founding myth, that of the American Dream achieved through a assiduous work ethic is founded in the earliest roots of America. Think about the phrase "Puritan work ethic" and its centrality to the idea of the American Dream.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The redux given on Gladwell's premise seems right.

Our society's economy creates a certain number of prizes, tens of thousands of them with noting. There are hundreds of thousands, if not a few million, people who are qualified to fill those spots. Ability (not necessarily all earned), hard work, and privilege get you in the running; luck gets you the prize.

In pro football, there are just some many major league quarterback spots to go around (a couple dozen), and just so many top college quarterback positions to put you in line for those top jobs (a few hundred). There are thousands of people at any one time who could, but for a quirk of fate, have been one of those superstars.

The business world is not as different from that somewhat artificially imposed model as it seems. The iron law of oligarchy keeps the number of businesses per market farely fixed, and economic fundamentals largely determine how many markets there are in any given economy. Each firm has a more or less fixed number of top jobs. Once the big firms are in place, something that can shift incrementally from time to time, the roster of top jobs varies only a little. But, there are far more bright people out there to fill them.

Now, we aren't nearly as nepotistic in some respects as we once used to be. George W. Bush would not get into Harvard today. The single most important meritocratic step taken in the past couple of generations has been the much greater focus on merit given to admissions among the elites institutions of higher education. The growing importance of government, which is more meritocratic than business in some respects (in the U.S.) is also a factor. Incompetents are ruthlessly weeded out of prospects of success.

But, meritocracy looks less different from quasi-artistocratic privilege than one might think. Smart men now marry smart women and have kids, regardless of their roots -- premixed by selective colleges. Surprise, surprise, the kids take after their parents. Lots of the very rich are themselves self-made (in the leap from mere upper middle class to rich, at least).

The difference between our aristocracies and others, is that ours is fresh. It has grown powerful because it was created by a recent round of merit selection. Few American aristocrats trace their privilege back further than the 1920s. And, the process by which we assign privilege culls small but important numbers of underperformers and replaces them with each generation. So, our aristocracies are less rotten than those of pre-WWI Europe, for example.

Economics tolerates choosing a competent aristocrat over an equally competent middle class guy, when there are far fewer power positions available than competent people. Only when incompetent aristocrats are chosen over competent members of the middle class, does everyone suffer.