There are two ways that the concept of meritocracy is invoked, and the tension between them creates confusion. Let’s call the first sense ex post meritocracy. It simply holds that whoever is best suited to do a certain task should be the one to do it. This can be held as a normative position, that people should do tasks they are best at. For example, if you were to need heart surgery, you would want the best heart surgeon to do it. It can also be a descriptive label, in that you can call a system ex post meritocratic if the best people are put in positions that best utilize their skills.
Importantly, ex post meritocracy takes no interest in how a heart surgeon became the best heart surgeon. She could have been born with some genetic profile that destined her to heart surgery greatness, or her parents could have hired the greatest heart surgery tutors to begin teaching her at the age of three. It doesn’t matter. Ex post meritocracy is the default view of the consumer, who looks for the best service at a given price, or the hiring manager simply looking for the best person for the job. They look for these people given the world as it is, relatively unconcerned with how it got here.
It is here that some may object: If a heart surgeon’s parents were so rich as to be able to hire heart surgery tutors for a toddler, how could this possibly be meritocratically justified? Her success was not due to her merit, in this case, but her privilege. But that’s exactly the sort of reasoning this meritocracy rejects. From the perspective of the patient needing heart surgery, it is simply a matter of her ability to treat him most effectively.
That is why there is a second sense of meritocracy, one which focuses on how ex post meritocratic outcomes are reached. Let’s call this ex ante meritocracy. It’s about who would be best suited for roles had they been given sufficient opportunities. When people say “meritocracy doesn’t exist” they seem to mean the fact that people aren’t able to actualize their talents (their potential merit) means that the world as it stands cannot be organized by merit. But ex post meritocracy takes the distribution of merit as it is, and organizes accordingly. Ex ante meritocracy, then, cannot be achieved without equality of opportunity (and the thorny issue of genetics is either ignored or in some ways adjusted for).
Ex ante meritocracy stems from a serious problem: Less privileged people aren’t able to actualize their potential merit as easily as more privileged people. Thus, we cannot judge a less privileged person’s potential based on their results (Nor can we even judge a highly privileged person on their results, as they can exceed their merit). Because opportunity is so unequal, adherents of ex ante meritocracy tend to instead focus on whether successes are actually due to grit and industriousness or factors related to privilege.
Presumably the implicit assumption here is that if opportunities were equal (and we pretend genetic potential is equal), grit and industriousness would be the predominant variables in creating merit. This picture can’t be exactly right: One study found that intelligence is 50 to 90 times more important than grit in educational success. So it’s not as if grit would really be the key factor in success were opportunities equal. At the same time, it’s probably true that in a world with more equal opportunities, grit and the like would become more important distinguishing factors.
A belief in ex ante meritocracy may motivate people to create opportunities for those without privilege so that they are able to manifest their potential. They come in different forms: Early intervention programs, charitable work, or affirmative action policies.
But the counterfactual perspective of who could have had more merit had they had the right opportunities says little to the patient deciding which heart surgeon to use. Indeed, it seems completely orthogonal to the general problem of how to allocate roles and responsibilities in a society to best ensure good outcomes, given the allocation of talents and experience manifest as they are. When we try to rectify inequities of opportunity by putting those who aren’t best suited to do things in positions, we risk worsening outcomes. You don’t get points in heart surgery for being the hardest worker. You get points for being the best.
What about when meritocracy is linked to notions of deservedness? A minor Twitter spat occurred when a quote from journalist Brad Polumbo circulated, where he wrote, “Very simply, we are not all equal in our ability, work ethic, and potential. We do not all deserve the same outcome.”
Polumbo argues that those with more merit are more deserving of economic success. He seems to think about merit along the lines of the first notion: that some people are better at doing things than others. But when one connects merit to deservedness, as Polumbo does, ex ante meritocracy becomes more germane. “Our ability, work ethic and potential” are largely unearned, as they depend so much on genetic and environmental factors, so why should those who are lucky enough to win those lotteries be more deserving of a better outcome, let alone an outcome orders of magnitude better? In his recent book, The Cult of Smart, Fredrik deBoers argues at length that even if ex ante meritocracy matched ex post meritocracy—meaning that no one was unable to develop their talents because of their lack of privilege—it would still be wrong to base to the distribution of wealth of merit because as it would still be almost completely unearned.
Yet the simple fact that parsing earned and unearned merit poses such philosophical conundrums (and may not even solve the problem) need not imply we can’t justify inequality. In fact, we easily can on the grounds of incentives. As economist Alan Cole responded to the Polumbo scuffle, “It's about incentivizing people to do the things we actually want or need them to do. That's all.”
The problem is reminiscent of Robert Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick imagines an equal society with a basketball league. Teams compete to have Wilt Chamberlain, the most talented basketball player in the society, join their team. He offers to join the team which allows the audience to pay him an extra 25 cents to watch him play. So he becomes richer and the society unequal.
To motivate his theory of justice, Nozick poses the questions, “Is anyone being made worse off? Has anything unfair happened?” But to extend his point, we needn't say Chamberlain deserved more than anyone else to explain why inequality was introduced to the society. Chamberlain got more so that he would exhibit his basketball talent. That’s all.
These different senses are also important in questions like how meritocratic the United States is. Is there a person in the United States that could be a great CEO but isn’t able to be? The question can be answered two ways. Under ex-post meritocracy, we would say mostly no. Obviously it’s possible such people exist, but there’s a lot of people highly incentivized to make sure those with the talents and aptitudes of a great CEO have their ideas and companies funded. In fact, there’s a whole industry around it: venture capital.
But from the ex ante perspective, plenty fit the description! Thousands may have been able to develop their talents to become a great CEO but weren’t able to because of a lack of opportunity. This was famously demonstrated by Raj Chetty in his paper, “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation” where he wrote of “lost Einsteins”—those would be great innovators who never had the chance. Chetty estimates that if everyone had equal chances there would be four times as many inventors today.
There’s still some incentive to find these would-be great inventors. As it happens, the research of Chetty and others has spurred venture capitalists and philanthropists to put more effort into finding these Lost Einsteins. It is the explicit goal of Pioneer, for example, to find Lost Einsteins using online competitions. After they identify highly skilled people, Pioneer helps their winners cultivate their talents. There’s a cost to developing skills—the returns are much higher when a talented CEO falls into your lap—but there’s still good reason to search for diamonds in the rough.
That’s why, though there is some impulse to see my distinction as analogous to the oft-made one between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunities, it’s really quite different. Equality of opportunities and equality of outcomes are two very different visions of what a good society would look like. But virtually all would favor ex post meritocracy looking more like ex ante meritocracy. Even the greediest capitalist wishes he had more great inventors to invest in. Lost Einsteins means a lower return. So it’s not as if these sides are opposed in the way adherents of equal opportunity and equal outcomes are. So while we have hard proximate choices—what do we do for those who never had the opportunity to cultivate their talent?—there’s a surprising unity to the positions when they are able to communicate with one another clearly.
A complete definition may include marginal benefit and marginal cost, but we can set that aside for our present purposes. ↩︎