The Trouble with “Real” Merit

Mickey Kaus Columnist
Font Size:

Psst! An annoying note to Instapundit-linked post-credentialists (and N+1  editors!): A meritocracy “actually based on merit”–actual skills and actual performance–would be preferable to the current one based on college credentials and SAT scores.  The economy would be more open to people with usable talents.  Status would be impermanent–nobody would know who would end up where in life, since they wouldn’t be sorted out at the start, some being rewarded with fancy go-anywhere degrees (often mostly in recognition of their skill in acquiring fancy go-anywhere degrees). Since the knowledge needed to advance in a dynamic economy would always be changing,  it would be hard to confuse discrete, particular skill sets with some sort of general rank.  A good surgeon would just be a good surgeon, a good SEO-optimizer would just be a good SEO-optimizer, a skilled machinist a skilled machinist. They’d all make good money, thanks to the market, but financial success would be harder to confuse with general, permanent superiority–a sense of perspective that would come in handy when advances in robotics put surgeons, SEO-optimizers and machinists out of business.

But if you worry about income equality–well, “real” meritocracy might or might not make the income curve any more equal. As Charles Murray points out, the man or woman who can add an extra one percent to the market share of a big corporation will still be worth a lot of money–more, in growing world economy.

If (like me) you worry about social equality–in this case, the tendency of those who are successful financially to think they’re better than everyone else–“real” meritocracy is as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better. That’s in part because those who fail will, in part, have failed on their real merits. They won’t be able to blame the evil class system–and they won’t even be able to blame the evil credentialist system. More than today, they’ll have deserved to lose, in a sense–and those who win will have “deserved” to win. That’s a perverse consequence of making the “system” fairer.

Even if you worry about mobility, “real” meritocracy might not be an improvement, at least if you concede that a significant component of usable skill is genetic. Will the array of talents valued by the economy change so quickly that new, uncredentialed Web-schooled winners are constantly sucked up from the bottom ranks (regardless of whether they master the other, more general skills it takes to get a fancy university degree)? Or, even with the arbitrary hurdles of university attendance and credentializing stripped away, will smart people who can speak and write and do math and hence do well in the real (uncredentialed) world have smart children who can speak and write and do math and hence do well in the real, uncredentialed world–leading us a bit closer to the sort of hereditary caste system envisioned by the late Richard Herrnstein in the early 70s? The social centrifuge separating the meritorious from the less meritorious won’t have stopped spinning. In some ways it will be spinning faster, with greater precision. Sorry.

Backfill: Discussed here, pages 39-48.

Mickey Kaus