Meritocracies Are Unfair – And That’s The point

When your father suffers a heart attack and needs emergency surgery, who would you rather have operating on him?

An inspiring doctor who lost an arm in a tragic car accident, and still heroically manages to attain an average level of success as a surgeon?
Or the son of a multimillionaire who has breezed through life with minimal setbacks, and boasts one of the best surgical track records?

There is a common perception that a meritocracy is the most fair way to run society. That because we are avoiding bias and favoritism and picking candidates purely based on their capabilities and achievements, a meritocratic system is the most fair of all. 

Such a belief is hogwash. There’s nothing “fair” about not selecting the surgeon who lost his arm in a car accident, and is now trying desperately to hold on to his career. There’s nothing fair about the fact that some people are born into good circumstances which confer a tremendous headstart in life. There’s nothing fair about the fact that so many of society’s most accomplished individuals grew up in upper-middle-class families that nurtured them, raised them well, and gave them access to highly regarded schools and teachers.

A meritocracy never was, and never will be, “fair”. And that’s the whole point.

The reason meritocracies work so well, is not because they are fair, but because they produce peak performance.

NFL teams draft the “best” players they can find, because they know that’s how they can win the most games. Universities grant tenure to the most productive professors, because that will best enhance the University’s reputation, and further the frontiers of knowledge. Hospitals hire the best doctors, because they can save the most lives. 

Hiring people who are “good enough” is simply not good enough. There has never been, and never will be, a team that won the world cup by selecting players who are “good enough.” And what’s true for a kid’s game, is doubly true for our society. A society should delegate its jobs to those who are smartest, most capable, and most accomplished in that field. Because they are the ones who can best lead society through the worldly challenges we face everyday. Corrupting this process by discriminating on the basis of family ties, personal friendships, wealth, race, or gender, is simply cutting your nose to spite your face.

Which is not to say that “fairness” and Social Justice isn’t important. It is vital. But you don’t get to it by hiring less qualified candidates. By turning down the best possible candidate in favor of someone who is more sympathetic and “good enough”. A meritocracy excels at producing wealth and economic prosperity. Universal basic income, universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, better public schooling and free job trainings… these are the kind of Social Justice programs that can share the resulting prosperity among everyone.

Social justice teaches us how to distribute the pie fairly, so that no one is left behind. This is absolutely essential, and something we should always keep in mind. But social justice doesn’t have all the answers on how to grow the pie in the first place. And unless we harness the power of a meritocracy to keep the pie growing, we will all soon be fighting over scraps.

Related Links:

Discussion thread on HackerNews
Girls in Japan need higher entrance exam scores to get into the same schools

Addendum: Many have mentioned that traditional methods of assessment may be flawed, incomplete, or biased. In accordance with the article’s thesis, we should certainly improve on our assessment methods, so as to identify candidates who can perform best when hired. This article is certainly not stating that current methods of assessment are perfect.

Many have also brought up the point that personal circumstances often do impact job performance. For example, some studies have suggested that diverse teams perform better than homogenous teams, especially in certain job roles. If you ardently believe in optimizing for team performance, this would include taking the above into account. Though this is a double-edged sword worth considering carefully.

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