Let’s talk about your meritocracy

So yeah, you want a meritocracy.

Presumably you think that you, or people like you who do the choosing, can do it on merit.

Okay.

Let’s pretend I don’t care about the particulars. Let’s keep this completely abstract (always a bad idea, but indulge me). Let’s say we don’t need to think about pesky things like history, context, or justice.

What is merit?

I mean, you need to know what merit is before you screw some ocracy onto it, right?

So what is it?

Welp, we’re done with the abstract. There’s no abstracting merit because merit is inherently context-sensitive. I mean, you can say a meritocracy is a system where the best person for the job gets it. But that just kicks that can further down the hall. What is “best”?

Again we have to step out of the abstract and into the concrete.

Which is hard, because fundamentally, you need to trust the people making the decisions to judge merit correctly, to identify what merit is and then figure out if a person has it or not.

Would you drive your car without insurance? Do you not check receipts after you purchase something to make sure everything’s okay? Do you leave your house unlocked at night while you sleep?

Of course you don’t. People will take advantage of you, or people will make mistakes. You’ll get screwed.

Yet somehow in abstract magical meritland, the people making the decisions will, what, cast off their humanity and become merit-judging robots?

Of course they won’t. And they don’t. In the places where meritocracies supposedly operate (I think, in particular, of Linux kernel development), mostly men with mostly a particular kind of personality have this quality of “merit”.

This diminishes the kind of work these places can do, by the way. Diversity of viewpoint isn’t a weakness. A monoculture of a particular kind of thought is a weakness, and this is what meritocracies foster. Because the people doing the choosing are human and humans are very bad judges of just about anything you can think of.

We build checks into our systems to help us be less us. We build safeguards, we try to rectify past mistakes, we try to slant “the system” away from treating badly the people it has treated badly for so long. We don’t live in a meritocracy because living in a meritocracy is brutality. It has to be, in this world, with these humans running things.

This brings up a lot of questions. Like, “So I should hire the person based on… what then?” Or, “How do we make decisions?”

The answer I have for that is largely unsatisfying to a particular type of person, because it’s kind of not really an answer. Because there’s no god-breathed book that fell out of the sky that tells us how to make political appointments or hire janitors. The answer is… we decide. We decide as a society how we make these decisions. We have quotas and non-discriminatory hiring practices for a reason. That reason is because… we decided that was a more just society.

Again, I know this will probably frustrate some of you. But that’s what a society is.

But all this abstract talk about meritocracy is fiddle-faddle. No one seriously thinks there should be a meritocracy (well, except for a few exceptionally out-to-lunch nerds). And for those who do believe in meritocracy, you better find a new word. Because…

Meritocracy is now a dogwhistle. The same way “family values” is a dogwhistle. It’s a way of communicating something in polite company, a sort of code, or camouflage. It wasn’t always this way, but among educated white men, meritocracy is a codeword in the same way “white genocide” is a code word for racists.

It’s way of seeming rational but actually being sexist and racist and generally just not a very good human being.

You say “meritocracy” but what you mean is that you are fundamentally offended by the idea of a woman or another race having priority over you. Even when the priority is hypothetical.

The reason this is sexist (mostly sexist) and/or racist is that you believe, if all things were put to rights, if everything were as it should be you would be the one being chosen. You will never explicitly say you’d be chosen because of your superiority (and the fact that you happen to be male, and white), but that’s what you truly believe. In your libertarian paradise, of course, of course you would be a Job Creator. You wouldn’t be oppressed, surely not!

The reality of your situation is that you’re probably right.

And that’s kind of sad.

If we didn’t push back against our human natures using crude tools like gender/race quotas, you’d probably come out ahead. I mean, why wouldn’t you? You always have. 1

And you just won’t acknowledge that the scales are tilted in your favour.

And that’s why meritocracy could never work. Because you will never be honest with yourself about the advantages you received, and neither will your boss, and your boss’s boss, or the CEO, or the President, or the Kind of the World. Unless they are forced to.

1. Before you start yelling at me that you-in-particular haven’t had much success, that you weren’t raised with gold dust sprinkled in your diapers, please consider that English is a fairly imprecise language: I mean you-as-a-group, not you-in-particular.