On the Meritocracy and How Far it Should Go

I believe in meritocracies, meaning that I believe that in general our society should function such that jobs and positions are filled on the basis of one’s skill in said job.

However, not everyone believes that merit alone should be the deciding factor in life, whether in terms of employment opportunities, college acceptances, or the amount of money one makes. I fully believe and accept that a pure meritocracy has severe limitations, but I also believe that in these cases merit should largely drive the decision. Before further discussing how I believe merit works (or should work) in general, I’d like to call attention to two issues up for discussion: affirmative action and equal pay.

Affirmative Action

Opinions on affirmative action (favoring those suffering from discrimination–in this case, I’ll specifically address affirmative action in the educational system) hit both sides of a vast spectrum, ranging from full support to labeling it as “reverse racism.” While the former opinion usually has a bit of bias and the latter goes much too far, both are, in some ways, valid. Affirmative action successfully provides educational opportunities for a number of minorities who would otherwise be denied opportunities, but in doing so it takes those same opportunities away from equally qualified whites.

In terms of merit, one might think that affirmative action is the opposite of a meritocratic policy, seeing as one’s race has nothing to do with one’s skill. However, I believe that affirmative action actually advances a meritocracy, though it does have a few flaws. Consider two people, A and B; A is very wealthy, and, as such, has been able to afford a number of remarkable opportunities and travels, experienced many aspects of the world, and went to an elite high school. B, on the other hand, has little money and a struggling family; they were able to afford little to none of the opportunities A had, and, because they spent much of their time attending to their home life and assisting their family, could not devote their full energy to their mediocre/poor high school and had a less stellar transcript as a result. However, now note that these sample people were exactly equally qualified, in terms of mental, leadership, and personal abilities, for a spot in the prestigious College of University School. The college, of course, would choose person A without a second glance; person B’s application could not compete.

This is how affirmative action achieves its most valuable purpose of upholding the meritocracy: it forces colleges to take on applicants who, due to situational circumstances, may not appear as qualified as applicants born into prosperous lives but in reality may be very qualified indeed. An application doesn’t always provide a whole picture of a person, and affirmative action takes this into account and causes colleges to grab the best of what appear to be lesser applications and thus gain students as qualified as any others who may have otherwise been passed over.

However, this also reveals affirmative action’s primary flaw: it is based on race, and while due to history trends certainly lean toward minorities on average living in poorer conditions than whites, there are plenty of qualified impoverished whites who are thus passed over by affirmative action and plenty of unqualified wealthy minority races who reap benefits that they do not need. Colleges should not even CONSIDER race in applications, even for the cause of “boosting diversity.” Diversity has nothing to do with the quality of students, the exception being that one’s race or ethnicity has had a transformative enough effect on a student that they offer a unique perspective and positive influence to the college. Colleges should not accept racially diverse students on the assumption that this exception applies to everyone; the only reason that race should be considered is that supplementary essays in the application reveal such an exceptional and positive trait that boosts worthiness of acceptance.

Thus, affirmative action should not be based on race.

The optimal alternative would be a measure more predictive of whether a person’s application is likely to understate their true abilities: something along the lines of income. Furthermore, low income people, particularly those who have experienced poverty and perhaps lived in less luxurious conditions, might be able to provide some other unique perceptions to colleges (similarly to the potential perspectives of minorities described above) that might help build an appreciation for one’s situation in some wealthier students. That said, affirmative action based on income, while perfect in an ideal world, would be difficult to implement; even if low income families can get into the colleges, they then might not be able to pay for them, and if schools were expected to fully fund all low income families brought in via income-based affirmative action, affirmative action programs might become less popular. Until a better system to use income-based affirmative action is devised, race-based affirmative action will have to stay.

It should also be noted that I do not support affirmative action past the undergraduate level. If someone was able to get into college, then they had plenty of opportunity to distinguish themselves in their undergraduate years, and applications to graduate/professional school should much more accurately reflect an undergrad’s skill level. We cannot risk that under-qualified candidates make it into these levels of education, furthermore; if an under-qualified doctor is treating me or an under-qualified lawyer is defending me or an under-qualified engineer has built the bridge on which I want, I do not care that they are a minority or low-income person who has received a fabulous opportunity; I care that I might not have been treated for my illness well, that I am not going to win this case, that this bridge might dump me into the river in a pile of rubble. Affirmative action has its limits, and those limits are the undergraduate experience. Beyond that, merit no longer has a place in the equation.

Equal Pay

Not as controversial as affirmative action, most people agree on the issue of equal pay: people should receive the same pay for the same work regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. The issue becomes the definition of what qualifies as “equal work”; does equal work mean equal hours spent? Does it mean the number of units made/processed? Does it mean length of tenure at the company?

The easiest way for me to describe how I believe equal pay should work (that is, actually equal) is to consider a hypothetical construction job.

The average man is stronger than the average woman. This is biological fact, and is due to the greater amount testosterone in men, causing them to grow taller, weigh more, and be stronger. Of course there is overlap, with some very strong woman and some very weak men, but the average remains. A construction job is one that often depends largely on strength, in the ability to carry wood and metal here and there efficiently, shift mounds with ease, etc. (apart from those jobs that rely entirely on machinery). Thus, if a construction company hires one man and woman, and each work eight-hour days, the man, on average, is likely to do more work than the woman because of his greater strength.

Thus, if both are paid by the hour, since the man creates more output for the construction company than the woman, he also deserves more pay than her.

Then, following this, it is completely rational that the average wages of men for construction jobs should exceed those of women for the same jobs. It makes sense for construction firms to try to hire more men and typically pay them more. That said, if a man is putting out less work than most women, or a woman is putting out more work than most men, they should be paid accordingly. The wages much adjust to fit the work output; to simply leave them as flat rates that assume greater strength for all men would reach sexism.

The point of this example is that equal pay should follow the example of the meritocracy: the most skilled workers get paid the most. This does mean that because of natural biological differences between men and women, there will be some jobs where the average pay for men is greater, and there will be some jobs where the average pay for women is greater. The existence of such jobs does not define “unequal pay.” Unequal pay occurs when a woman (for example) is paid less solely because she is a woman, regardless of her work ability; if she is actually working less and at the level of said pay, it is a different matter entirely and fits within a perfectly fair meritocracy.

Greater merit means greater pay, and there’s nothing unequal about that.

So when does the meritocracy become limited?

In my explanation of my beliefs on affirmative action, I touched on the fact that some people are lucky enough to be born into better situations than others, and how we must correct for that. In society, people often refer to forming impressions and preferences of people based on their looks alone as shallow, because looks say nothing about a person’s core. Both of these examples, situation and appearance, are simply luck of the draw aspects of a person that say little about who they really are, and we must adjust to consider more important aspects of character.

But what we often fail to forget is that one’s true character is luck of the draw as well.

True, we have free will, but the core of our personality was assigned to us without choice when we were born, and even those parts of our character gained through how we were raised in childhood we can’t claim our own–we don’t choose our parents or how they raise us. These more “significant” aspects of who we are–our intelligence, our passion, our work ethic, our humor–are as randomly handed out as the shallow ones described above. Some of us just get lucky.

Thus, just as we must correct for the shallow gifts gained through fortune, we have a responsibility to correct for the significant ones as well.

In a true meritocracy, those lucky enough to gain ideal personalities and minds would routinely come out on top and live prosperous lives, while those not so lucky ones would end up with much less. This does not paint a very nice picture; and so, we must change how we think of a meritocracy. We must consider our own gifts and, if we were given them, use them to help those not so lucky. Those who move forward thanks to their merit must remember to look back and help those behind. We cannot horde our gains to ourselves, when we owe them to almost completely luck.

After reading all of this meandering, long post, this is the one thing I’d like you take away. If you are successful, no doubt you worked hard for it, using every talent you possessed hour after hour to drag your way to where you are. But in your success, remember that the reason you were able to work so hard, that you had that strength, is pure luck, and that not everyone has such strength and work ethic, or the talents to make them useful, and lend just a bit of yourself to helping out those unlucky ones.

And, that said, not every job should be decided by merit; a position at McDonald’s doesn’t consider every single applicant until they’ve figured out who can flip a burger the best. Many of these base jobs must exist for those not so lucky, must exist as sources of money for those temporarily or permanently in need because they might not be able to climb their way to a better one. Maybe it’s their situation, or maybe it’s their natural talent, but no person is the same.

If the meritocracy existed at every level possible, then no, the world wouldn’t seem very equal, or very nice, and one’s position would be entirely devoted to luck. We as humans have control over our lives; we don’t have to look at someone and say, “Oh, bad luck, nothing to be done.” We can exert our own control to bring others up in the world, grant them opportunities they can’t grant themselves, and show them love that a cold, scientific meritocracy does not have.

The world should depend largely on merit, but at the end of the day, if you’re lucky enough to have much of it, don’t forget about those who don’t.