First Principles

The Death of Meritocracy

Call me whatever you like. I know who I am. Merit is the great equalizer.

The myriad of accusations, epithets, and insults flying around the media lately has caused me to ponder how our publicly expressed values seem to be changing. Perhaps this is driven mainly by the Twitterati, the pandering politicians, the universities, and the media. Perhaps, the vast majority still hold to their “quaint” ideas about ethics even if kept to themselves. I hope so.

Merit, which I define to include character, achievement, capability, and attitude, seems to be taking a distant back seat to identity. It is no longer defensible solely to judge people on merit because any disliked result as it applies to identity seems to have become “ist”—racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-anything.

Look no further for an example than New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s push to eliminate the purely merit-based admissions test for their specialized high schools.

Today, there is a substantial body of people who stand ready to condemn those who choose to embrace merit to the exclusion of identity. To my mind, that is undermining the very essence of what has made this country great.

Merit is the great leveler. Merit allows for social and economic mobility. This is not to say that selective assistance to those disadvantaged by forces beyond their control is wrong. Some of the factors defining merit are innate, but proper education and counseling can elevate individuals well past some limitations of nature or circumstance.

But merit is still critical to many pursuits in life. In 1970, Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska urged his colleagues to confirm Richard Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court. Responding to criticism that Carswell had been a mediocre judge, Hruska argued:

Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeis, Frankfurters and Cardozos.

I suspect most people find that reasoning idiotic at best. A Supreme Court justice is not quite the same as your local dry cleaner.

I grew up in a solidly middle-class family in New York City. We lived in a rent-controlled apartment and did not want for any essentials. My father was a salesman. I was born with an innate aptitude for math and science; just the luck of the draw and genetics. My parents, well aware of the importance of a good education, took me to a test for what we would now call a magnet elementary school. I did well and attended there from kindergarten to sixth grade. My performance there got me admission to an excellent private secondary school. My mother went to work as a public-school teacher to finance my attendance.

From there, the program at my school and my achievements in math and science earned me a ticket to one of the truly elite technical universities. I obtained two degrees with distinction, went on to business school, and pursued a career that included three tracks: information technology, consulting, and venture capital. I am now retired. Bottom line: I received no special assistance, not even scholarships. I earned what I obtained.

Throughout my schooling, I had a number of minority classmates but never much considered that there was any significance to that. As with any classes, there were more and less gifted students, more and less motivated students, and different personalities and attitudes. During my career I feel comfortable asserting that my focus was entirely on merit and not identity. I often had an extremely diverse set of colleagues; as an investor we worked on deals throughout the world. I had investments in a half-dozen companies led by women CEOs.

Yet some would label me a racist (though probably not a sexist) because I do not hold a pie-in-the-sky view of different populations as equally capable or suited to maximize individuals’ potential. In other words, I can judge any individual by his or her merits, but do not subscribe to the theory that there are no genetic or cultural differences among groups. My judgments may be incorrect, but I am entitled to them in the abstract. I submit that the same applies to most Americans when given a chance.

Demonizing people who have opinions about racial, ethnic, or sexual groups is not only wrong, it is highly counterproductive. This is not to say that it is wrong to expect that nobody allows those opinions to significantly impact their interpersonal interactions in destructive ways. But it is to assert that a benefit of the doubt is due to people absent any bigoted action.

I deny being racist, simply because I believe that we have a domestic black culture that is too permissive with regards to out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers. I deny being racist, just because I believe that too many Asian families put too much pressure on children, even though the positive results are quite evident. I deny being racist, just because I believe the “N” word is totally permissible in an educational context. I deny being racist because I believe the concept of “white privilege” is itself racist because of its broad and blind brush. I could go on.

The worst part about flinging around epithets such as racist and sexist is that demotivates progress. If people felt appreciated for their open attitudes when dealing on a person-to-person basis, they would not be hesitant to engage for fear of later being attacked.

The excesses of the #MeToo movement clearly have erected barriers between colleagues of the opposite sex. Whatever happened to a simple “please don’t do that anymore” that generally solves most problems? Some people don’t get hired for fear they will sue for discrimination even in the face of poor performance.

By not acknowledging and addressing the cultural issues, especially with inner-city blacks, the teachers’ unions maintain a grip on the anti-charter school movement when there is clear evidence of the demand for charters and the frequent success they achieve. Would the unions be as influential if they were (plausibly) labeled racist for denying opportunities to blacks? The voices that are taking an objective look at the situation are too often silenced for fear of being demonized for speaking the truth.

Call me whatever you like. I know who I am. I can differentiate between a group and an individual. I can see issues that seriously affect the statistical distribution of merit levels within a group. But they should be a call for action, not a basis for condemning those who see them. We had best not let Twitter or the talking heads on TV deal meritocracy a fatal blow in the name of identity. Merit is the great equalizer.