Meritocracy: Should it Evolve or Go Extinct?

One of the main issues that proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) have with the liberal status quo is the idea of meritocracy. Ideally, meritocracy means that the persons who are best qualified for some position in the economy (or even society at large) will be the ones who obtain those positions. The CRT proponent will say that meritocracy is not only bad in practice, but also bad in principle. Thus, some other criteria – such as ones status in a particular group, such as race or sex – ought to be used when determining who fills different positions.

This post was inspired by the cancelling of University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot from speaking at the annual Carlson Lecture at MIT. He was disinvited not because of the topic of his seminar (exoplanets), but because he disagrees with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices installed without debate at universities:

Abbot provided the following quotation from an email he received while on the hiring committee: “…the only hires that will be considered are for women and/or under-represented groups. I know we cannot legally say that for an advertisement, but it may affect how things play out if we move forward with interviews…”

This wasn’t an isolated incident. According to Abbot, Assistant Professor Graham Slater, who is a member of the EDI departmental committee, gave a seminar to the department, which included the following quotation: “If you are just hiring the best people, you’re part of the problem.

It is this last line (bold by me) that got me thinking of CRT taking issue with meritocracy. This last line highlights that this is a big issue for them. I talked about it in a post I made a couple weeks ago where I quoted from Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking back to Move Forward Commentary“:

In the context of institutional struggles in higher education and other elite spaces, the notion of colorblind merit came to define the baseline for measuring whether the relative absence of racial minorities is the product of discrimination or the unhappy reality of the uneven distribution of “qualifications.” At least with respect to merit, the assertion-although contested-was that merit stood apart from racial power. Merit was value set apart from the economy of racial power, qualities that may well be maldistributed but not racially inscribed.

Importantly, it was not necessary to believe that merit constituted a here-and-now justification for who got what in American institutions in order for adherents to embrace the idea of colorblind merit. Indeed, defenders of meritocracy might be called idealists in that their belief in colorblind meritocracy did not necessarily turn on its current reality but instead on a normative defense of a metric of just deserts that was utterly disconnected from the subjective preferences of the evaluator or the evaluated. One could believe that contemporary practices were stacked or even that a different set of institutional rules might be in place had the relevant history been different, yet hold nonetheless that these realities did not justify the abandonment of the colorblind ideal. The normative commitment to a certain vision of race neutrality in turn foregrounded prescriptive commands that located the seeds of transformation in the willingness of the Other [non-whites as viewed by whites, according to CRT] to acquire the skills, attitudes, and hard work needed to succeed in these institutions. Race consciousness of any sort would be a departure from colorblind merit. Such departures might be justified temporarily for a variety of institutional purposes, but race itself was ideally irrelevant in assessing a candidate’s intellectual performance and deservingness. Ideally, both the candidate as well as the institution should be colorblind.

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What all this had me thinking about was whether meritocracy can evolve to help with so-called “equity” (the equality of outcome as opposed to the equality of opportunity), or if, like the CRT advocates desire, meritocracy ought to be done away with and replaced with some other criteria to fill economic and societal positions.

My social/economic/political views are best described as classical liberal, which is exactly the kind of liberal CRT believes misguided (at best) or wickedly working to uphold systems of power and oppression (at worst). Thus, I am biased in favor of meritocracy in some form. To me it seems obvious that we would want the most qualified people in any given position. If you go the doctor, you want to know your doctor is competent (at the very least), and any other qualifications are all the better. Same if you go to a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, or a daycare center. You don’t want your car breaking down, your sewer backing up, your house burning down from bad wiring, or your kids being mistreated because less than qualified people are allowed to fill these positions.

Of course, when advocates of CRT talk about “equity” in certain positions, they’re usually thinking about more white collar jobs and/or jobs that offer institutional power: professors and administrators, lawyers and judges, CEOs and other executives. But even if we’re charitable and assume that proponents of CRT seek “equity” in all types of jobs, the issue seems to come down to two things:

  1. Should meritocracy be adjusted so that certain immutable traits, like race and sex, are considered when filling positions? Should meritocracy be done away with completely in the name of Social Justice? Or should we maintain the status quo?
  2. If we change, or jettison altogether, our system of meritocracy, will that make things worse off for more people (including the people that CRT proclaims to advocate for)?

As I said, I am biased in favor of meritocracy. But I can see where it could be changed or altered, in some cases even taking race or sex into account. I think a case explored in the Crenshaw paper I quoted from above is an example where race could be part of the criteria:

Notwithstanding its robust policies to advance student diversity, the school drew a line in the sand when it came to faculty, maintaining a firm commitment to “merit.” Yet as the students saw things, there was nothing magical or intrinsically compelling about the typical standards offered to justify the virtual absence of faculty of color. A degree from an elite law school, membership on a law review and a Supreme Court clerkship were not the exclusive criteria for identifying candidates who were likely to make substantial contributions both to the educational mission of the school and to the broader goals of advancing legal knowledge. Instead, the traditional criteria were increasingly viewed as an informal and unjustified preference for the social cohort to whom these opportunities were overwhelmingly distributed: white and male candidates. This perception was reinforced when the law school hired ten white males in the midst of the escalating crisis over hiring and curricular reform.

Student pressure to offer [Derrick] Bell’s course [Constitutional Law and Minority Issues] had similarly reached a boiling point. A student petition of more than 500 (mostly white) student signatures had been presented to the Dean in the fall. Pressing further, BLSA [Black Law Student Association] asserted that there were “many Black professors who would lend their brilliance, dedication and experience and empathy to the course and to Harvard Law School,” and urged the Dean not to “succumb to the dichotomous belief that the choice to be made (was) between a Black professor who would do a mediocre job and a white professor who would do an outstanding job.” After presenting the Dean with a list of thirty candidates, the students awaited the Dean’s progress in finding someone who had “experienced the unique invidiousness of race in America.”

A class like Constitutional Law and Minority Issues, if such a class is worth having (I see no issue with such a class existing, but I will not dwell on the issue here), would certainly benefit greatly from having a minority professor teach it. In such a case, being a minority is a merit for teaching the class. A professor’s “lived experience” (another important topic for the CRT crowd; more on that in a moment) would be a great benefit – one may even argue that it is a requirement – for teaching such a class.

This seems to be the crux of the argument for CRT proponents: the importance of a person’s lived experience, which according to CRT is completely determined by their immutable traits like race and sex, vastly outweighs the importance of their grades and what sorts of internships they’ve had. This is then usually connected with tearing down systems of oppression, which could never be done by those whose interest it is to maintain the system of oppression.

This goal of CRT – the dismantling of systems of oppression – flavors (perhaps taints) their commitments: ensuring that people best suited for a position are the ones who attain the position takes a backseat to Social Justice. To them, it would be better to have a less competent society, so long as we achieve Social Justice (not to say that overturning meritocracy as it exists now in favor of the Social Justice aimed approach would necessarily make things worse, only that it is conceivable and plausible that such an outcome would be more likely). Not only, according to CRT, is Social Justice the highest priority, but anyone who does not agree either benefits from the status quo, or is indoctrinated into defending it against their own self-interest. A proponent of CRT will not humor any notion that their detractors favor competence, even if it means a gradualism approach to social justice. As such, I would not expect any sort of good faith compromise with the CRT crowd in attempting to revise meritocracy in order to accommodate more “equitable” outcomes when possible (such as in the case quoted above).

The argument from the other side – the conservative wing of classical liberals who wish to maintain the status quo – is that the racial disparities in filling economic and societal positions has to do with personal choice, which is flavored by both biology and culture. The reason there are more male scientists and female elementary school teachers has to do with biology: on average, men prefer systematization and women prefer nurturing. The reason there is a racial disparity in the sciences is because the culture among (middle class) white people favors academic success, whereas the culture among many black people does not (so the argument goes). Thus, the conservative argues, it is not meritocracy that is broken; we would always see such disparities among the sexes, and the onus is on black people to change their culture or make better personal choices so as to favor academic success. And so altering or repealing our system of meritocracy would only lead to worse outcomes for everyone.

Gender disparities in science, 2013 (source)

There are then two competing hypotheses as to what accounts for racial disparity: the systemic racism favored by the CRT crowd, or the biologically/culturally flavored personal choices of the individuals favored by the classical liberal.

The idea of biology being an influence has long been contentious. Mostly the CRT crowd and others of the Social Justice (and even social justice) bent have resorted to denying biology. They have proposed the blank slate, or tabula rasa, theory of development, where everyone starts as a blank slate which is then filled in by culture and other external stimuli, thus explaining why white people automatically defend the meritocratic status quo that benefits themselves. Recently, though, a cohort within leftist circles have embraced biology, such as seen in The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality by Kathryn Paige Harden:

Harden begins with an overview of the latest findings of behavioural genetics and explains how “genetic variation matters for understanding whether our children will succeed in school, will be financially secure, will commit a crime.” How much does genetic variation matter for these outcomes? The results are astonishing. Genetic differences between people account for around 40 percent of the variation we observe in the years of education they obtain and in their lifetime earnings. Differences in our DNA also account for around 50 percent of the variation in violent criminal behaviour. Equally sobering is the revelation that much of the remaining variation for these traits and outcomes is not explained by the family environment (“nurture” as we normally understand it) but from idiosyncratic environmental influences that make siblings in the same family different from each other. Results like these have been replicated repeatedly using different scientific methods and explode the blank slate narrative commonly peddled by activists and social scientists that the unequal outcomes we see around us are entirely the result of structural environmental advantages and disadvantages.

How, then, does Harden reconcile these results with her egalitarian political agenda? Not, to be sure, by promoting meritocracy. “Equal opportunity,” she writes, “will necessarily reproduce inequalities that are rooted in the arbitrariness of nature.” She therefore follows deBoer in explicitly disavowing meritocracy, approvingly citing a passage in which he writes: “Equality of opportunity is … a ruse, a dodge. It’s a way for progressive people to give their blessing to inequality.” Instead, Harden argues that it isour responsibility to arrange society so that it benefits all people, not just people with a certain set of genetic characteristics.” She invites us to radically expand our definition of “structural” sources of inequality to include social environments which allow “morally arbitrary” genetic differences to give rise to unequal socioeconomic outcomes. She even goes so far as to describe societies like ours that provide such social environments as “eugenic.”

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Or pointed out by Christopher Jencks:

As sociologist Christopher Jencks once pointed out, in a society that refused to educate redheads, a gene for redheadedness would be seen as a “cause” of illiteracy: If you randomly assigned a child to possess that gene, the child would grow up unable to read. The resulting redhead/brunette gap would be nominally associated with a genetic marker, but the gap would hardly be intractable, because society could fix it by being more equitable to redheads. The wide availability of eyeglasses, a technology that addresses genetic disadvantages associated with bad eyesight, is a non-hypothetical example that shows how the effects of a genetic difference can vary widely based on the societal or technological environment in which that difference is expressed.

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This attempts to counter the idea championed by the conservative wing of classical liberals that preferences flavored by genetics is inevitable and ‘good’ insofar as it is the ‘natural order of things.’ Genes are arbitrarily distributed and, in a sense, another source for systems of power and oppression. We therefore ought to take a Rawlsian approach to Social Justice, where we would engineer society to be such that you would conceive of yourself as having a fair shake regardless of the accident of your genes.

An issue with this, of course, is that this argument could easily descend into determinism vs. free will. I am of the belief that there is no free will, but that free will is a useful fiction, given that, in the vast majority of cases (especially having to do with human psychology, sociology, economics, etc.), we don’t have (nor even the means to acquire) all of the requisite information necessary to make the exact right predictions. Positing free will is essentially allowing for error bar in our predictions, an admission of our ignorance. To propose that we redesign our system of meritocracy to accommodate genetic variability in the faculties and capabilities of all people, it is essentially assigning stronger predictions to people than we have earned (or in more metaphysical terms, it is denying people’s free will to choose other than what they are genetically destined to do). This is a fascinating topic, but I do not want to get too down in the weeds with it here.

One can argue that white people have had things good for a long time, at everyone else’s expense, and therefore ought to accept that they must sacrifice some of that power and comfort in the name of Social Justice. But I doubt most will find that very convincing. Just like trying to tell black people in the U.S. that they in fact benefited from slavery, given that conditions today are often worse for black people in Africa than they are for the average black person living in the U.S. today, but it is unlikely to convince a struggling black person to just accept their lot in life because “it could have been worse for you.” The white person is unlikely to accept a social or economic downward mobility and the black person, like all people, will view their status relative to those around them (i.e. they won’t see themselves as being in the one percent compared to most Africans, but as, on average, being less well off than other Americans).

In order to actually fix the problem, without creating some new problem (i.e. rising white nationalist sentiments due to implementation of Social Justice, or continuing to keep minorities from attaining positions they are qualified for due to maintaining the status quo), two things need to happen: first, we need an accurate diagnosis of all the factors contributing to the problem, and two, finding solutions that are driven by that diagnosis, and not motivated by ideology. The former requires us to examine and discuss how much racial disparities are due to system racism inherent in our system of meritocracy and how much is due to culture, biology, and personal preference. The latter requires that we optimize policy so as not to make things worse off than it was before by not blindly adhering to our ideologies.

I am of the unpopular opinion that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of systemic racism (or sexism, homophobia, etc.), culture, biology, and personal preference. I have little issue with reassessing our system of meritocracy, looking to see where systemic racism has crept in, and fixing it. I think there are some positions, as with the example of the law professor teaching a class on Constitution Law and Minority Issues, where it could even be argued that race ought to be part of the criteria for filling the position. But doing away with meritocracy altogether (in the name of Social Justice or anything else) seems counterproductive, both to a competently functioning society and to social justice (e.g. it is likely only to make race relations worse).

Main image from here.

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