There’s something rather “baby out with the bathwater” about this piece. Do you really believe it has to be merit OR luck? Could it not be native ability, hard work, and luck in any number of combinations, some “fairer*” than others? *The world isn’t fair and we all need to acknowledge that before analyzing it.

I don’t think these small and intriguing studies prove such a sweeping generalization as “meritocracy doesn’t work.” I also think you need to first define what realm in which you are applying meritocracy. Do you mean strictly corporate America? University education? Secondary education? Life?

How do you define ‘merit’? Natural ability, hard work, background, “heart” as they say in corny movies (“He may not have been the best player, but he sure had heart!”)

To me the fact that the only companies that didn’t reward merit were the ones that claimed ‘meritocracy’ as a goal fails to discredit the concept of meritocracy. There could have been other factors beside this correlation. Most obviously, it sounded like they gave meritocracy lip service, but failed to follow their own principles, which is not a failure of meritocracy. A company that claims ‘efficiency’ as a core principle may act inefficiently. This does not prove efficiency doesn’t exist or isn’t achievable.

I also wonder how we define the ‘reward’ for merit. As someone who was raised with the highest academic goals and who just barely avoided becoming an academic like my parents, I know that there is no automatic monetary reward for higher education. In fact, the higher you go, the less reward there is. It’s the ones who get a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics or some other business discipline AND who have the right connections OR who have luck who end up getting rich in the business world. Or the ones who say, “Screw all of this” and found their own companies (again with a ton of luck required.) Become a professor of Physics or Quantum Mechanics or Archaeology may or may not bring prestige, but it won’t put you in the 1% financially. Those in the 1% are either born into it, or were a genius in some commercially relevant way + had luck or who got lucky. To me money does not imply that merit was involved.

On the other hand, we easily accept meritocracy in some realms — professional sports, classical music or other arts at the highest level, surgery, finding the cure for diseases, innovating the best new technology. We don’t ask that, for two examples, we choose members of the Olympic team or a first class orchestra by lottery. No, we choose the best players in the world. We don’t let people into medical school based on a lottery, either. These are pure meritocracies and nobody complains about them. It’s other areas of pursuit that some people advocate shouldn’t be judged purely by people’s ability. For any number of reasons, most of which being that life isn’t fair. Once a child has not had the right parents (if the goal is top academic achievement, this is the kind who spend time with them, read to them, challenge them intellectually, give them access to numerous stimulating resources), and then goes to mediocre schools, by the time s/he reaches 18 it’s too late for him or her to be ready for the top universities. At which point in this process of unequal education we need to intervene, how to intervene, and whether it’s even possible is the subject of intensive debate.

Growing up in an academic family, I knew nothing about business or finance, and certainly did not have any connections in that world. I knew people who got prestigious internships at Goldman Sachs and similar companies because their parents worked in that world. I have a Master’s Degree from Oxford and nearly got a Ph.D. at Cornell (I dropped out after three years and that’s on me.) I had the prestige that comes from merit and the luck of my background, but I didn’t have riches.

Linguist, philosopher, lover of history, wordhound, 21 year New Yorker, searching for meaning in the universe

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