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Meritocracies Are Unfair – and That's the Point (outlookzen.com)
57 points by whack 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 118 comments



The issue of meritocracy often turns semantic. Different realities can be justified with the same word depending on people's conception of justice and efficiency.

The other aspect not mentioned is that a society can be meritocratic, but the peak performance that results does not necessarily lead to work that is useful to society in aggregate. I am reminded of Jeff Hammerbacher's infamous quote: "the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." That quote is simplistic to humorous effect of course, but it underlies an important natural run-off effect of meritocracy: that much activity is redistributive instead of creative. That's why thinking simply in terms of atomized individuals (as articles on meritocracy written in English usually do) pitted against each other leaves aside too many important questions and outcomes.

edit: to add to this, the last paragraph of the article is deeply ironic since you have people fighting over scraps precisely because smart people have captured much of the pie growth, and did so in a way that would be considered meritocratic by the author.


I am not sure what is ironic about the last paragraph. The point is that growth and distributioin are orthogonal concerns.


The author's argument is that their conception of meritocracy is laudable because it grows the pie, and growing the pie is the most important thing if we are to avoid fighting for scraps. They're not saying that growth and distribution are orthogonal, just that the former leads to a better latter and ought to be prioritized.

This is ironic in the sense that much scrap fighting is the result of growth being captured and allocated by meritocratic elements (as defined by the author) in ways that make fighting for scraps more likely, from nobles wasting the surplus on political struggles to the smartest people today redistributing wealth around instead of creating it.

Perhaps a more poignant example would be the deterioration of the environment. Peak performers have created much wealth in the past by harnessing fossil fuels, but the negative externalities can now lead to an equal if not worse destruction of wealth in the future. The author's view does not take into account these situations that go beyond the simple struggle between individuals in a historical, physical, and geographical vacuum.


Do you consider that countries like Sweden are still mostly meritocratic? Growing the pie is almost always a good thing, it gives you more resources to tax so you can benefit the poor. The problems you see in USA aren't that they focus too much on merit but that they focus too little on redistribution afterwards.


I think the concept of meritocracy is more or less a smokescreen that adds a redundant layer of morality to discussions of systemic problems. Of course, that layer could be seen as inevitable considering human psychology and the need to assign moral worth to groups or individuals.

For example, I don't disagree with the author's thesis that the outcomes are what matter in the end. It's just that their reasoning does not go far enough and stops at individuals instead of systems. In this sense it is clouded by the notion of meritocracy and the desire to discuss it.


The author accidentally touches on the blind spot of American meritocracy, but speeds on and never looks back:

> There’s nothing fair about the fact that some people are born into good circumstances which confer a tremendous headstart in life. There’s nothing fair about the fact that so many of society’s most accomplished individuals grew up in upper-middle-class families that nurtured them, raised them well, and gave them access to highly regarded schools and teachers.

If you consider “meritocracy” to begin when someone applies for their first job, you might not care about that. But there are two glaring problems:

One, on an individual level, selecting the best at a given point in time ignores less measurable attributes, like “grit”. The candidate from a poor background who went to an okay school at night while working to support their family may be more motivated to improve than someone who coasted by at a good school due to parental connections.

Two, on a societal level, being born into good circumstances in no way correlates with innate abilities. By privileging those who grow up in higher socioeconomic classes, we are leaving behind individuals who have undiscovered latent talents that might otherwise make large societal contributions.

Without fixing those two things, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that meritocracy will produce “peak performance”.


The article literally lists examples of things that would help people with undiscovered latent talents. Access to education, unemployment insurance, universal basic income...


I'm sure those things would help some people, but probably not as much as you would think. I always see "access to education" as if lack of good teachers is the main thing holding disadvantaged kids back and not their trainwreck of a family life where the single mom working 2 jobs and didn't graduate high school herself has no idea how to help her kids and lets them slip into truancy like she did.

Making the public school system take on all of the roles 2 parents used to take on is not sustainable. We need to fix the problem at a more fundamental level.


> the single mom working 2 jobs and didn't graduate high school herself

This isn't a quick fix strategy, it's a long term fix strategy that takes generations. The "access to education" is exactly for the benefit of people like the mother. Also the UBI means that she no longer has to work two jobs to pay for basic services for her kids.

UBI is the ultimate safety net that catches almost everyone who the current system has failed, and education is the long term guarantee to break the cycle of poverty.


Maybe, but I'm not convinced. People don't just magically bootstrap themselves into incremental self-improvement just because their immediate needs are being met. My next door neighbors here in Maryland are impoverished african americans receiving SNAP and HOC from the state (basically free rent and food), and the kids are consistently truant and on track to drop out of middle school. There needs to be an element of mentorship at some point.


So what is your take on that? I am genuinely interested, because coming from a country where everybody started with more or less the same crappy housing, cheap transit, no-frills healthcare, and ok education (and where 95% of my classmates were the same ethnicity, and the other 5% were, if anything, more successful and richer), I've come to look at such people with extreme disdain. Growing up I was actually on the poorer end of my peers, and I was merely pro-meritocracy, by my mid-20ies I was (and still am) outright classist.

So, in the US, I buy the arguments about the people who have a precarious housing situation, etc.; but I would absolutely "leave behind" the people you describe, with free rent and food. What else can one do?


Part of "access to decent education" is a school with well paid, highly motivated, and properly resourced teachers that can develop those relationships with kids who need extra help.


Your observation of reality is racist /s.


It mentions those as ways to share meritocracy’s prosperity with everyone. I’m saying that things like that are necessary for meritocracy to exist in the first place.


Many people, including me, feel differently about two different kinds of unfairness:

* We are OK with the unfairness that stems from "winning the genetic lottery," which confers an unfair advantage regardless of the socioeconomic background of parents. Most of us want a society in which the most able, talented, hard-working, persistent among us can put those qualities to work for their most productive uses.

* We are NOT OK with the unfairness that stems from "winning the socioeconomic lottery," which confers an unfair advantage regardless of ability, talent, hard work, and persistence. Most of us do NOT want a society in which those who are less able, less talented, less hard-working, and less persistent can get ahead through other means.


I would offer the friendly suggestion that perhaps the concept of fairness is not even relevant here.

We want the most competent people to be in positions of responsibility. This is not a fair distribution of responsibility. The fairest system would be a lottery: picking people completely randomly, without regard to socioeconomic status or "merit".

Given that we want the most competent people to be in positions of responsibility, "winning the genetic lottery" is ok, because some people are just born with natural talents. But "winning the socioeconomic lottery" is not ok, because there's no apparent correlation between the wealth of your parents and your personal competence.

Again, fairness is tangential to this problem.


The unfair advantages compound, though. Kids with stable upper-middle-class parents would probably be better at things than poor kids, just because they have more resources and time, less stress, better role models. That is why equity advocates don't like standardized tests anymore...

Are you ok with unfairness that stems from higher ability that is itself the result of "winning the socioeconomic lottery"?

Like, I was born in Russia, so my theoretical CS knowledge outside of what I learned on my own is crap, because (unlike e.g. maths) the CS curriculum in my ~2nd tier college was completely useless. I am talented enough to work in a big tech co, and my maths is (or rather used to be) top-notch, so it didn't have to be like that, it's purely based on where I could go to college. If you were hiring a computer scientist straight out of college, would you hire me or a MIT grad? He merely won the socioeconomic lottery.


My takeaway from the article is that "fairness" is overrated.

I don't care one bit whether the parents of my surgeon were rich or not. I want the best, most meritorious surgeon to do my operation.

If every niche in society is operated by the most qualified person (even if they became the most qualified by having rich parents) then, by definition, society will be running as well as possible.


I am not okay with unfairness stemming from genetic lottery. Sure, I agree those with genetic lottery should be able to put those qualities to most productive uses, it would be waste otherwise. On the other hand, they probably shouldn't capture the most of produced value, since it is mostly unearned. There is a reason lottery earning is heavily taxed.


are you suggesting that the 'genetic lottery' should be heavily taxed and those who are born from positive eugenics(arranged marriages also come to mind. and soon in the future..what i like to call 'gattaca babies') should be penalised?

doesnt child rearing by responsible parenting have no role in your universe?


Money is a measure of power in society, it lets you choose how society spends some of its resources. Giving more power to competent people so they can direct societies efforts to better use is a good thing, that is why capitalism works. If you take that away we are left with communism.

Note I don't say that we should let people be poor etc. I am from Sweden, I think Sweden works great in this regard. Sweden has produced plenty of billionaires, and in terms of successful startups per capita Sweden is among the best in the world. Yet Sweden still takes care of its poor etc, people getting rich isn't a problem, it is necessary for capitalism to work.


do you think sweden has diversity? sweden was mostly homogenous until they started taking in refugees that increased it's diversity. and leading to more conflicts than earlier. this is how i see it from the outside as a non-swede.


The fundamental issue in meritocracies is that we only measure a small part of the merit that needs measuring. I once got in an argument with a manager that we should measure best coders on the team by lines of code generated - is that merit?

To extend the analogy in the piece, if the only way a football team measured “best” was for “yards passed” that’d be a pretty bad team on the field. They measure by position to figure out what’s right - and techniques like those made famous by SaberMetrics/Moneyball show even THAT is not all - you REALLY need to measure by team performance and team goals.

Teams that are diverse deliver materially better returns[1]; if that’s “merit” then that’s a way to optimize for that. The problem with this article and meritocracies is not diving deeper in what you should measure.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesinsights/2020/01/15/diver...


Something like this program tends to discourage the "let's pay for KLOCs" line of reasoning. Does $1 per line sound reasonable? :-)

  #!/usr/bin/env python3  

  with open("pay_me_lots.py","w") as payme:
      print ("#!/usr/bin/env python3", file=payme)
      for i in range(1000000):
          print ("print('you now owe me $"+str(i)+"')",file=payme)


> The reason meritocracies work so well, is not because they are fair, but because they produce peak performance.

This is short-sighted. It optimizes for the "local maximum", the "today's maximum".

Yes, if today you don't choose the best candidate based purely on their results, you are technically losing, because you could do better. But here's the thing, if you choose a candidate that is not the best, but that can have a more meaningful impact in the long term, you are optimizing for the future.

For example, candidates who are coming from underrepresented groups can have a huge impact on kids who will find it easier to believe they can repeat such success, because someone who looks like them did it. That can unlock a huge pool of candidates who can outperform others in the future, but who would not be available if we didn't choose the n-th best candidate instead of the best one in the first place.


It doesn't even require generational returns. Underrepresented groups can bring a perspective to the project that you otherwise lack. Disabled team members can help you discover "curb cut effects" that improve usability for everybody. Women and minorities can point out hidden biases and opportunities. All of them can reveal assumptions you didn't even realize you were making in the way you run your team.

That goes far beyond "how fast can you write code" by any measurement because your end goal isn't to write code but to deliver a product -- as a team. Bringing in a diversity of ideas about the end product helps today, not just in the future. If you think of your team just as a bunch of high-performing individual code writers, you will miss opportunities to hit the real goal.


I like that your comment aligns with game theory. It is in the best interest of individual corporations to hire the best candidate. It is in the best interest of the industry to create a strong pool of candidates. An industry consists of individual corporations that act self-interested unless they cooperate to achieve long term goals together.

This dovetails with the free rider problem too. A corporation does not want to train (invest in) a subpar individual and then lose them to a free rider corporation in the industry that only hires the best candidates.


Ask yourself if you want the medic doing surgery on you, or to a less dramatic example the electrician working on your house, to be the best you can buy and you will quickly understand why in reality no one optimizes for the system's efficiency and everyone optimizes for own interest.


The hardest lesson I ever learned (the hard way!) was that meritocracy doesn't work in practice.

At some point in time, some people accumulate more credit/reputation for their work, and can use that to earn more credit more quickly. This then snowballs as these people pull ahead of others out of proportion to their actual contributions.

This makes a Meritocracy an unstable equilibrium, and such a system will not remain meritocratic for long. When other parties come along later, they won't be able to displace the incumbents.

You might then be tempted to cut off the long tail and hand over the community to the incumbents. But that's really going to be a problem if more than half your work is being done in that long tail!

Importantly; if you do hand over to the incumbents, you've very obviously just changed into something other-than-meritocracy.

My argument is that all systems that start as a (naive) Meritocracy will tend to fall into this trap.


This is the power law dynamic of increased network effects. Incumbents will not be displaced until some fundamental tech revolution or catastrophic (financial crisis or antitrust) remedy. Even then, tech revolutions are far more powerful than legal ones...


No, meritocracy works fine.

It's far from perfect, but the 'special case' you describe is actually rare.

There are people who are brilliant and hardworking in the academic sense slinging coffee for life, because both those attributes will result in 'good grades' which is a really good proxy for other things in life.


Interesting!

Do you have a specific example where it seemed to work fine for you?

(The example where I learned was in diverse web communities, including Wikimedia.)


Take the most broad and crude measure, educational outcomes, as some, albeit imperfect input to the system and you'll see very unambiguously and consistently that kids with better grades will do better in life, in most measures.

Next time you are at the office, look to your left, look to your right: you will notice conscientious people, probably educated, probably reasonably hard working, team work oriented, and probably bright.

Then hop on the bus and have conversations with the 'average person'. You fill find somewhat less conscientious, less interested, less curious, less intelligent people.

We have very clearly and unambiguously a mostly meritocratic system: as you go from coffee maker, to skilled labourer, to creative worker, to middle management to executive, you'll see a pretty obvious trend.

It's funny how the meritocratic naysayers, probably already in the top 20% of income earnings, probably would believer firmly they are more 'deserving' of their job than the dude who drove them there on the bus, but that somehow, the system 'above them' is 'not meritocratic'.

The issue then becomes one of 'self awareness': we don't like our boss, we are jealous of others who have more, we see some folks 'skip the line' with better access to education i.e. we see flaws or things 'we don't like' to varying degree and so somehow we believe the system is existentially flawed. It's not.

The first time you start to hire people, it becomes perfectly clear: either 'you' are fundamentally part of that of that byzantine, unfair system, inflicting your woes onto everyone with unfair hiring/advancement - or - more likely, you're actually trying to hire decent candidates, capable of doing the work.

So what's more likely: 1) you are the lone hero in an unfair world, trying to hire 'good people' while everyone else is either dumb or plotting like Mr. Bean a fools dystopia - or 2) that most people are like you, trying to hire reasonably good people (hopefully the best you can) and trying to do a reasonable job - and there is some intelligence in that process.

It's the later.

Most modern systems are crudely meritocratic. When they are not, it's obvious, but that doesn't mean those failures are normative or existential to the system.


Surely, Merit based metrics should be "a part of this complete breakfast". However, focusing _purely_ on merit based metrics (pure Meritocracy) is not sustainable. It will break down and cease to reward merit almost immediately. (for reasoning, see my previous post).

If you are using modern (western) societies as your example; you will see a sophisticated system of laws, subsidies, taxes, education and health investments, etc... which are all at least in part designed to prevent this breakdown and make sure that people who have something to contribute get a chance to contribute to society, and hopefully get justly rewarded.

The counter-intuitive part is that the outcomes are more Merit-based than are possible if you directly institute a merit based system. (It seems that policy outcomes are almost never intuitive)


> Then hop on the bus and have conversations with the 'average person'. You fill find somewhat less conscientious, less interested, less curious, less intelligent people.

Wow, this is jaw-dropping stereotype.

I used to ride the bus, and unsurprisingly, my level of intelligence was completely unaffected by the mode of transportation I happened to be using at the time.

Also, public transportation is more environmentally friendly than everyone driving cars.

Now that I think a little more about it, your comment is interesting because I'm wondering how much empirical experience you have striking up conversations with people on the bus? If you're a frequently bus rider, doesn't that make you, by your own argument, less intelligent?


He didn't say that bus riders are less intelligent. If you talk to a random person they are pretty dumb, and you find random people at busses. There isn't more to it than that.

Personally I experienced the average person when I did my military duty. Most people were forced to attend so you got a good slice of what society looks like. And yes, the average person there wasn't that bright, the discussions I heard there was the dumbest I've ever experienced.


> If you talk to a random person they are pretty dumb, and you find random people at busses.

No, that's not how randomness works. If you talk to sufficiently many random people, you will likely get a wide distribution of people.

Besides, talking to strangers is not a good measure, because people are often guarded around strangers. Especially on the bus, I thought people who tried to talk to me out of the blue were a bit strange and to be avoided.


It's also not random. I've talked a couple of times in my life to strangers in public transport, well, they actually talked to me, both times somehow accidentally people who I talked to were IT professionals, one was a programmer, the other one was a sysadmin and it was in the 90s in former soviet republic, hard to randomly encounter such people back then.


As a non-car owner, I ride the bus almost daily.

The average bus rider is less capable than the average Universality educated white collar tech worker in the professional sense, at least in terms of wage earning potential.

Ironically it would be someone without exposure to the 'bus world' who would have some utopian view that somehow all these bus riders are 'the same as professionals'.

My hunch is that it is white, upper middle class professionals without exposure who have this naive perspective as only entitled people can afford to.

It's pretty obvious riding the bus daily, that on average, that is not the case.

What is 'jaw dropping' is the lack of self awareness int many people seem to have difficulty accepting these simple facts, even if they don't 'feel' very nice.

'The bus' (esp. not the subway) is the domain of the urban working class - full stop.

"is more environmentally friendly" - this is irrelevant to the argument - the question is, why imbue the debate with side-show moralizing?

Those on ballpark equal footing who entered your high-school all had various opportunities in life, those who consistently put their best feet forward (usually measured by better grades but often not), were more consistently likely to have better opportunities. Not always, but usually.

Those who entered the work force and did 'a terrible job' were, by and large - not advanced. Those who did 'a good job' - mostly had more opportunity.

Obviously it's not always the case, but it usually is.

The people going to Medical School, mostly, are really really impressive folks.

The people stocking shelves, while they could be as great as pre-meds, and whatever talents they have are probably under utilized ... are nevertheless not in pre-med generally for good reason: the system is crudely meritocratic.


> As a non-car owner, I ride the bus almost daily.

> The average bus rider is less capable than the average Universality educated white collar tech worker in the professional sense,

You ride the bus. Some university educated white collar tech workers ride the bus. So why even bring up the bus? Denigrating bus riders doesn't help your argument at all, it's a red herring, as is speaking of "average" people, because averages often overlook the wide range of values within the population.

> at least in terms of wage earning potential.

That's not the interesting question here, otherwise "we have a meritocracy" would be almost a tautology.

> 'The bus' (esp. not the subway) is the domain of the urban working class - full stop.

Maybe we shouldn't full stop, but rather talk about the demographics of the urban working class...

> "is more environmentally friendly" - this is irrelevant to the argument - the question is, why imbue the debate with side-show moralizing?

Because riding the bus could be seen as a sign of conscientiousness, education, and intelligence, in contrast to your characterization of bus riders, and refusal to ride the bus as a sign of selfishness and immorality. Personally, I make no generalizations about bus riders. I tended to keep to myself on public transportation and thought it strange when someone wanted to talk to a stranger out of the blue. So it would be very unlikely for anyone to have experienced an intelligent, interesting conversation with me on the bus, regardless of my level of intelligence.

> the system is crudely meritocratic

This is not the defense you think it is. Few think the system is entirely random, or on the other hand, perfect. The level of crudeness is precisely why we're constantly debating the system.


You should read some Nassim Taleb or something, because what you are saying is too nonsensical, like there is no awareness of chances in your arguments whatsoever, as if this dystopian concept of merit is somehow actually real.


Hi there! If you pay attention to the ratio of pro vs against meritocracy rants in this page you will find some interesting (anec)data. Make your own conclusions!


We don't need 'anecdotes' we have tons of data.

Higher IQ, better academic results correlates with better jobs. That's a very crude, but broad measure of meritocracy.

But it's even easier than that: show me people earning $180K developing software who are 'complete idiots'. They don't exist.

People who earn more are generally smarter, more conscientious, credentialed.

It's basically a ridiculous argument to imply that meritocracy doesn't exist, when it's poignantly the basis of almost everything we do.

You might be smarter and more capable than your boss but more broadly speaking it's not the case.


i think you made a better case for meritocracy than the article itself.

the point you made earlier of people who dont ever have visibility of the 'other' always sees only from their pov particularly resonated. it is human nature to find joy with what we have. the projection of the privileged class about what the 'other' lacks is more damaging than any other inequality.

it's like someone who is happy with their prius until they saw that they neighbour got a tesla. suddenly, they feel impoverished.

now..what do you call the person who walks around the neighbourhood and keeps telling the prius guy that its unfair that the neighbour who is human just like him has a tesla..and why not him!

we have more people walking around neighbourhoods spouting opinions sowing seeds of discontent these days. but at the end of the day, the prius guy and tesla guy should ignore the shit stirrer and go on with their lives..driving their own cars to get to their desired destinations.


Well, policy in large organizations and especially public policy on the scale of nations is a lot like orbital mechanics. You can head off in a particular direction, but you're going to end up somewhere completely different from where a lot of people might intuitively expect.

Since you're looking only at national scale for now: A good measure for people being rewarded based on merit is social mobility. Which countries do you expect to have better social mobility? Countries that have a strong social-democratic element, or countries that are purely capitalist?

https://www.visualcapitalist.com/ranked-the-social-mobility-...

If you ever decide to try to implement strict Meritocracy at a smaller scale when actually locally organizing your own local organizations, please let me know; I'll bring popcorn. ;)


I am actually in agreement with you and the meritocracy.

My observation is that a disproportionate amount of the comments were from people that do not like meritocracy and are irrationally and hysterically going to argue with you missing the point. They will not be converted.

The ones who would know better seem to steer off clear from engaging with incompetent mobs; you will not find them here to have a sane discussion.


By definition the average person will have mediocre merit so it makes sense that most people are biased against meritocracy.


I don't agree with this definition and its conclusions.

I am average in a domain but I want competent people around me. I am not against them earning more.

What I see is that some people will consider that any type of competence signaled through usual means (e.g. better pay) is in fact corruption and the reason they earn less. You will find many of those people commenting on this post.


As a woman in tech, I feel that it isn't actually a meritocracy.

I think people have a habit of assuming men did the real work in a project, so they get a disproportionate share of the credit. People also have a habit of pushing women towards front end work, making the assumption that men are more 'technical' than women. It can be difficult to watch men get all of the credit for your blood, sweat and tears. It's especially bitter when they then say it's a meritocracy and you feel like saying 'what exactly did you contribute to this?'.

The concept of a meritocracy sounds nice on paper, but I think it ignores how humans work. The first issue is that I don't think we are especially good at identifying the best unless it's very easy to measure (sport for example). The second point is that it takes work to overcome your own biases and I think this feeds into how we evaluate 'the best' more than we like to admit.


Meritocracy is a good thing and we should never stop striving for it. The problem isn't that some strive for meritocracy, the problem is when people argue that they are meritocratic when they aren't. It is pretty easy to argue that there is plenty of merit in hiring women, like adding diversity to teams has benefits and so on, I don't see why you need to argue against the concept itself.

> The concept of a meritocracy sounds nice on paper, but I think it ignores how humans work.

Not really, the concept is nice both on paper and in reality. The most successful companies in the world today are much more meritocratic than most organizations that preceded them, they produce great results using it, the concept works great. And I don't see why you think it wouldn't, we humans have two signals, merit and bias. Without merit we just go by our biases. The problems you describe doesn't come from focusing too much on merit but too little on it.


I think proponents of meritocracy are naive.


People who think that white men will hire more minorities and women if they focused less on merit are naive.


Striving to build an environment where effort is made to attribute credit where it's due and to strive for equality of outcome for all is what we need to do. You're still picking the 'best person for the job' according to your own biases for what constitutes the 'best' (because how else could it work?), but you're also making an effort to ensure that your team/department/company isn't just all white (straight etc) men.


> Striving to build an environment where effort is made to attribute credit where it's due

That is what meritocracy is all about though.

> strive for equality of outcome for all is what we need to do

This is your bias speaking.

I got my job at Google by doing well on online coding competitions. I didn't do it with anyone else, I just sat at home and practiced on my own. Anyone could have done that. Show me a single woman who did well enough to get a t-shirt from the main google code jam competition but failed to get a good tech job and I could see your point, but I don't think there are any.

More importantly you'd expect that women would flock to those more objective ways to get into the industry, however it is the other way around, competitive programming is almost only asian and white men. Asians love it since it is a way for them to circumvent the bias against them and get jobs at Google or equivalent, why can't women do the same? And if women refuse to do the same work I and many of my peers did to get in yet still say I got in via privilege why should I take them seriously instead of just assuming they are biased against me? It isn't like women have less time as students than men have, they just choose to spend it differently.


Listen, I know what I’ve experienced.

Edit: No actually, I can't understand what this is? You are trying to convince me my experiences are wrong. You don't seem to actually want to understand my point of view, so what is this? Why are you wasting both of our time like this?


> You are trying to convince me my experiences are wrong.

No, I am not, I agree that there are many situations where women are not taken seriously due to their gender and assigning project credit is one of them. I 100% believe that has happened to you, that is wrong and we should try to do something about it. If you want that then you support meritocracy instead of biasocracy. However I'm trying to convince you that this statement is wrong:

> strive for equality of outcome for all is what we need to do

Men and women are different on average, maybe because of socialization etc but fact is that today they are different. My path relied on anonymous interactions online, so is by far the most friendly for marginalized groups. However marginalized groups like women are basically non existent on that path. That proves to me there are more differences than just discrimination. If you want to hire someone like me you wont find a woman, as there are hundreds of men for every woman with that background. Now you might not want to hire a person with those skills, but those who do will not find women to hire. And not because of discrimination, they don't even try to work for it in the first place.


This is why you've been pushed towards front end work and denied the credit for tasks that might put you on a path to power. Those above you can sense what you'd do with it. You'd say: "My experience has been this, and none of you can argue with that, so here is what we're going to do to make up for the injustices I experienced. Deal with it". The equality of outcome you so desire would be you and everyone underneath you unemployed, whole organizations gone bankrupt, and entire countries: a gulag.


Big brain comment here.


So you are basically describing a malfunctioning meritocracy, where the function that determines merit is corrupted by biases. Seems like the solution would be to remove biases (e.g. in case of coding interviews, do blind interviews instead of/in addition to in-person ones).

As a side note, my experience in all the teams I worked at (tech in SFBA and Seattle) is that white men are a small minority, and if you exclude Eastern Europeans barely exist at all. Even if you exclude the usual suspects, I'm pretty sure I've had more coworkers originally from North Africa than originally from North America :)


What is the problem with hiring a white person vs a blue person if the white one is better? And vice-versa, hiring the blue one if he is better?

If you want to hire white workers regardless of their competence, then you should start a company.

"Better" means that they have a high probability of doing the job as the employers sees fit. Don't go nitpicking on defining 'better'. If you do, you're not suited for the job of deciding who to hire.

And if you are suggesting that hiring process is biased then you are right - people are not robots.


I think the author has a very different definition of "fair" than what I usually think of it (free from favoritism; conforming to established rules; see https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fair).


One reason why life isn't fair is that there are contradictory definitions of fair. Unfairness is a poor criticism of any system, because there isn't a completely fair system.


Which makes all this mainly about personal values and not "objective truths".


That's only true if you accept moral relativism.


If morals aren't relative, which ones are correct?

To me, moral relativism means that I understand other people have different morals than mine and I have to respect that. It's not some excuse to toss morals out the window.


If Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are incompatible with respect to gravity, which one is correct?

The fact that we don't know something does not then imply that that the actual truth is subjective.

The less you know the more humble you need to be, but different views do not always justify respect. To use my previous analogy: If a random person shows up to a physicist claiming to have invented anti-gravity, then they aren't going to get much respect.

Similarly if someone claims that it's a moral positive to walk into random people's houses and murder their babies, I don't have to respect that.


Are we talking about moral relativism, or whether actual truth is subjective? Morals are personal/cultural values, I can't imagine equating them to "actual truth".

I'm really not following how this relates to my original comment either, I meant your idea of "fairness" depends on personal values. The fact that people have different ideas of what's fair is conclusive proof.


> Morals are personal/cultural values

This phrase is something I completely disagree with. Morals are how one ought to behave, and how one ought to behave can intersect with cultural and personal values, but is not determined by cultural and personal values.

> I'm really not following how this relates to my original comment either, I meant your idea of "fairness" depends on personal values. The fact that people have different ideas of what's fair is conclusive proof.

I missed that subtlety , I thought you meant the general discussion of whether meritocracies are good depends on personal values. That stronger statement (that I now see you didn't make) is what I was disagreeing with.


>Morals are how one ought to behave, and how one ought to behave can intersect with cultural and personal values, but is not determined by cultural and personal values.

There are plenty of people who believe this, that their morals are absolute, and you can refer to the Spanish Inquisition to see exactly how "evil" that kind of thinking can get. Moral relativists are saints compared to what the Catholics have done in the name of "morality".

All religious fanatics agree that morals are absolute, they just don't agree on what those morals are.

Also, and I'm sure you'll disagree, but how you quantify and qualify "merits" is based upon personal/cultural values. If you don't realize this you'll just argue endlessly with people over whose perspective is correct, not realizing you're both just viewing things through your own biases.

To me, "good morals" are trying to understand and empathize with other people, while allowing them their own unique perspective.


> Also, and I'm sure you'll disagree, but how you quantify and qualify "merits" is based upon personal/cultural values. If you don't realize this you'll just argue endlessly with people over whose perspective is correct, not realizing you're both just viewing things through your own biases.

Actually I completely agree with this. The fact that I have biases and you have biases will cause us to both be wrong. It doesn't mean that we are equally wrong though.

> To me, "good morals" are trying to understand and empathize with other people, while allowing them their own unique perspective.

That's a moral absolutist position.


>That's a moral absolutist position.

It's the exact opposite, because I acknowledged those are simply my morals, they're not some universal truth that everybody else is obliged to follow.

I'm convinced moral absolutism is dangerous and a major driving force behind fanaticism and authoritarianism.


>> That's a moral absolutist position.

> It's the exact opposite, because I acknowledged those are simply my morals, they're not some universal truth that everybody else is obliged to follow.

> I'm convinced moral absolutism is dangerous and a major driving force behind fanaticism and authoritarianism.

So is "moral absolutism is bad" the only universal moral truth?


Yes, you clever person, you caught me! I'm just a hypocrite who believes moral absolutism is objectively evil, in complete opposition to what I've been saying so far!

Or maybe I believe it's dangerous because of what I've seen and experienced, but I don't believe it's objectively bad because that would be extremely silly. No, it's not bad and you're not bad, I just don't agree, I just don't see things the same way.


Perhaps we are just using different terminologies, but I don't see how something can be dangerous and yet not objectively bad.

Like "I believe it's dangerous to launch nuclear warheads at people, but it's not objectively bad and I can't say you're a bad person for doing it?"


>I don't see how something can be dangerous and yet not objectively bad.

Driving a car is inherently dangerous, yet I certainly wouldn't call it objectively bad. There's aspects of driving that are "good" and aspects that are "bad" but it's really a mix.

Concrete philosophical definitions of "good" and "bad" don't really apply to real life. Even the "number one" moral law, don't kill other people, quickly breaks down and society has added a very long list of conditions.

Understanding that my morals are relative doesn't mean I have no concept of "good" and "bad". It means I have my own concepts while understanding that yours may be different.


> Understanding that my morals are relative doesn't mean I have no concept of "good" and "bad". It means I have my own concepts while understanding that yours may be different.

Similarly my belief that "good" and "bad" are absolute rather than relative doesn't mean that I think I can flawlessly categorize actions correctly, and where reasonable people disagree with me, it's a signal I should reflect on my reasons for why I differ and if I'm wrong.

I think we share a similar distaste (for lack of a better word) for anyone who thinks they are 100% right.

Unless you disagree, I think we've mined all we can from the medium of HN comments. Thanks for the discussion, I've not ever had the chance to discuss these points with someone who ascribes to any firm form of moral relativism before.


Meritocracy is a concept that was invented to be critiqued. The word meritocracy was coined in 1958 by British sociologist Michael Young in his dystopian satire the Rise of Meritocracy. In his book, children are subjected to rigorous and highly accurate intelligence testing that selects their destiny among a set of highly unequal options. The fact that the ideal of meritocracy is widely lauded as an unqualified good is highly ironic given that Young's intention was to present us a stark warning. Prior to Young, people used the word "aristocracy" instead. Thomas Jefferson spoke of a natural aristocracy: "there is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents".

There are a few great books written about this recently:

- The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel

- The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits

Both of these books examine how 20th century American society replaced a leisure-oriented capital-driven aristocracy with an extremely hard-working well-educated labor-driven meritocracy. Numerous factors propelled this transition, including the deployment of SAT testing and increased competitiveness at elite universities. This may sound like a good thing until you come to understand that we've created a modern American caste system. Caste is highly heritable, and upward mobility is at an all time low. 2/3 of Americans have no college degree, and the prospects for employment for them and their children look bleaker each and every day.

Furthermore, it's easy to confuse merit with value. With the pandemic, we have seen that our society is highly dependent on a set of essential workers, many of whom are in the lower castes. For example, a garbage collector could have an utterly mediocre existence in every dimension, and yet provide more value to society than a well-paid high-frequency trader in finance. Another good book to read about the negative value produced by well-paid jobs is Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. The danger of the myth of meritocracy is that these lower-caste workers don't receive the appropriate level of esteem that they are due in our society. This leads to a politics of resentment.


>Both of these books examine how 20th century American society replaced a leisure-oriented capital-driven aristocracy with an extremely hard-working well-educated labor-driven meritocracy

On the contrary, this aristocracy is doing extremely well. It is now served by the labor-driven meritocracy you describe. There is intense competition between elite knowledge workers for the privilege to serve modern-day nobles.


It's not ironic, such dystopia is particularly liked and promoted by capitalist scumbags, because it lets them justify exploitation, inequality, overwork, etc. But of course for any thinking person it's obvious that it's an awful awful idea, as if a kid raised by well educated parents who can therefore do really well in school deserves more, than a kid raised by uneducated parents who have no idea how to teach kids to do well in school.


>Hiring people who are “good enough” is simply not good enough. There has never been, and never will be, a team that won the world cup by selecting players who are “good enough.”

This isn't actually true. You can have a team full of good enough players that can win championships.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/11/how-david-beat...


Paul Graham says differently. You need to hire A players because otherwise B players hire B and C players and water down the strength of the startup.


> Paul Graham says differently.

It was Steve Jobs.


Or was it Joel Spolskey?


I tried to read the article but within the first paragraphs it sets up a false dichotomy to sell its point of view.

If you need fallacies to sell your argument, obviously something's wrong with your argument.


In my opinion, all talk of meritocracy, when applied, is irrelevant. I mean, it sounds good in principle, but in most applications, there is no simple way of determining the "best" candidate in any given situation.

Yeah, sure, we have some highly specialized environments, such as sports, where we have parameters to select from, but as much as no team has won by selecting players who are good enough, few teams if any have won by just selecting players who are the best in a narrow metric. You need leaders, you need players with specific skill, you need role players, you need people who can inspire etc.

Same when hiring for a job position - Determining who is the "best" candidate is near impossible. The best, according to which metric? Most years spent at uni? In the business? How do you control for biases that have given one candidate undeserved praise and another that has gone unrecognized? How tdo you value social factors, etc?


"there is no simple way of determining the "best" candidate"

There is, it just so happens many people applying are already good by virtue of their credentials.

What you are not seeing are the zillions of truly unqualified people show up.

If you want to gain some confidence in meritocracy, then simply open up your next dev position to literally 'anyone' and start interviewing 'random people' for that high paying job.

Then, you'll quickly realize how very few people are actually qualified.

Interviewing is generally about 1) narrowing the pool of actually qualified and then 2) ... well, it's hard from there on in as you point out.

But it's mostly highly meritocratic at least, each hiring mechanism is in isolation.


> But it's mostly highly meritocratic at least, each hiring mechanism is in isolation.

Why view it in isolation? To me, the interesting question is how the hiring manager got into their position.

Referring to the sports analogy of the previous comment: how do you become a sports team owner? Not by being great at sports, but simply by having a ton of spare money. And some pro sports team owners are really bad at running a sports team.

Most of us in the system are more or less fighting over table scraps. You can't really measure a so-called meritocracy without looking carefully at those in positions of power. We seem to only focus on the lower levels of non-manager worker drone hiring.


" To me, the interesting question is how the hiring manager got into their position."

The same way as anyone else.

And as for sports ... who cares who the owner is?

'Owning a sports team' has nothing to do with playing on one, frankly, by most historical measures it's a money-losing enterprise, something rich guys outbid each other on because they can. Like a yacht.

Ironically, nobody questions the meritocracy of sports because it's mostly evident that the best rise to the top.

Not always, and there are so many factors.

If you open up your next job position to less than qualified candidates you will see all manner of people come through the gates, most of whom - surprise surprise - are totally unqualified.

This whole 'the world is not meritocratic' meme is really problematic and assumes there's basically no ability for people to vet or understand each other when hiring, which is ridiculous.

Ask the nurse giving you a vaccine how long they had to study, how many exams they had to pass before they were allowed anywhere near you. No study, no pass, no job.


Unfortunately the rich have been amazingly effective at capturing all the productivity gains since the 1970s.

Meritocracy also means allowing those with the means to entrench their position for many decades.


A rather vague post.

> meritocracies work so well … because they produce peak performance

Does the author have any evidence for this? Supposing that this is true, does meritocracy continue to produce optimal performance in the long run? Is the author talking about meritocracy in theory, or meritocracy as practiced? What exactly does the author think should be decided through meritocracy? (College acceptance? Hiring decisions?) Does the author have any concrete recommendations, for any domain?


I think it's worth remembering that the term meritocracy was created as satire.

The Rise of the Meritocracy, where it was first used, is an explicitly dystopian novel.


Shot:

"Fa(ir|re) is what you pay to ride a bus."--LT Nicholson

Chaser:

". . .general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others."--Jon Postel

This is how the individual meritocracy helps all: keep the expectations low, and the outputs high. Fairness you locate under the sun has a metaphysical component. People are carnivores by nature. Let your merit, if it be real, build others.


>A society should delegate its jobs to those who are smartest, most capable, and most accomplished in that field. Because they are the ones who can best lead society through the worldly challenges we face everyday. Corrupting this process by discriminating on the basis of family ties, personal friendships, wealth, race, or gender, is simply cutting your nose to spite your face.

I'm confused because it seems like the article is arguing for meritocracy. How else would you measure who's the "most accomplished" in their field without some concept of "merit"?

It's confusing as hell to even discuss this if we just switch the terminology all around, and we don't have to.

Discrimination based upon family ties or personal friendships is nepotism, based upon wealth it's classism, based upon race it's racism, and based upon gender it's sexism. To me, addressing these issues in our society is the priority.


Meritocracies work in a very formalized context, like sports, where you can have a single criterion that can be measured objectively and determines the whole activity, because it's possible to prevent gaming of the criteria (even in sports you have this problem with illegal stimulants). The point is sophistry, when you say unbiased clearly nobody is including merit as one of the biases, the problem with meritocracy is that people actually believe in it outside of very specific conditions that make it possible and then confuse non-meritous biases that have yielded profit/status for merit.


This is such an odd use of the word "fair"

Fair is understood in a meritocracy to be with respect to skill level, not with respect to any particular person's moral standard.


"A meritocracy excels at producing wealth and economic prosperity. "

it does? tens of millions of people are going to be evicted next week even though there are vast sums of money that could be used to help these people. So yes there's "wealth" but the "prosperity" is reserved for a select few. the rest are discarded like trash.

"Universal basic income"

we have that?

"universal healthcare"

we have that?

"unemployment insurance, better public schooling and free job trainings"

not much ?

"these are the kind of Social Justice programs that can share the resulting prosperity among everyone."

but...they DON'T, since there are hardly are any such programs, and what "programs" manage to exist are continuously under threat of being dissolved by those who feel they are "without merit". The ultimate end of a "meritrocratic" system is that when these "meritous" people are rewarded all their well deserved wealth, these lucky few deem everyone else to be "without merit". also commonly referred to as "fuck you, I got mine".


The article makes the fundamental mistake of confusing economics and ethics.

Capitalism is an economic system. It's far from perfect, but it may be the best economic system we've got.

Capitalism is not an ethical system. Treated as an ethical system, it may be the absolute worst. It has nothing to do with "fairness". How is massive inequality fair? It's not.

We've got to dump the inhumane idea that people ethically "deserve" the money they acquire, as some kind of god-given right. I suspect some people literally believe that the "invisible hand" of the market is God distributing reward and punishment. But that's not economics, it's theology. I've got no objection to capitalism or inequality, if they end up being useful, but the whole point of it is to make everyone better off via economics, not to "fairly" distribute wealth. How fair is it that some people are born smart, or strong, or tall, or beautiful? Nothing really fair about the genetic lottery, but it can certainly be advantageous economically, and there's nothing wrong with utilizing natural talents for societal benefit.


Problem is, the proponents of meritocracy defend you shouldn't care for those less performant because, well, they don't deserve it.


Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk, Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Henry Ford and many others who were born poor and succeed are the perfect counterexample of this comunist manifesto. Life is not fair, but if the merit wasn’t rewarded soon there will be no achievement. Why try harder to get what everyone else gets? Look to a society who abolished meritocracy: Cuba.


I'm pretty sure most of those people were born into homes with plenty of access to good food and education.

Elon had a nice computer from an early age in the early 80s, and went to a fancy prep school. Gates had parents who were successful lawyers, and who got him into Harvard. Bezos went to Princeon. Woz's dad was a well paid enigeer at Lockheed and went to UC Berkeley.

Lots of mobility for sure, but it really does take a couple generations in most cases. None of those people you mentioned grew up poor.


Wow.. they built an empire from their own garages and you say “yeah, but they had a nice computer in the 80’s”. I sense the resentment.


> Gates had parents who were successful lawyers, and who got him into Harvard.

... and his mother was very cozy with IBM management :)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Maxwell_Gates

"the first woman to chair the national United Way’s executive committee where she served most notably with IBM's CEO, John Opel, "

No relation to Microsoft getting the MS DOS contract, for sure.


No resentment towards Musk etc. They all did some awesome work, and many of them continue to do so.

My resentment is towards hacker news commenters who think someone is "poor" because their parents didn't buy them enough Nintendo games when they were a kid. Even in the US something like 1 in 9 households struggle to feed their children, and globally the numbers are much worse.

Calling the upper middle-class families that these billionaires came from "poor" just trivializes the very real problems with economic mobility in the US today.


We should look to Cuba as an example of what happens when a neighboring rich and powerful country cuts off trade, and threatens other countries who try to trade.


> The reason meritocracies work so well,

Wait, who said they work well? Does he mean, for the people receiving the benefit? An aristocracy works well for the aristocrats, that's for sure.


the addendum is clearer about the author's position than the article itself.


Define "merit"


The problem is meritocracy can be gamed to be unfair by selling the perception of improved performance.

Giving off a perception of peak performance is trivial for those that know how to shmooze, get that title bump.

We see it all the time with celebrities getting their kids into nicer schools, dads who own construction companies donating to unis, etc. the list of stereotypes is endless.

Biological reality does not really care much for our emotional constructs, as others will always come along with their own.

It was fact that pagan gods controlled reality until it wasn’t. At least those ideologies were backed by fun imagery. Meritocracy is also nonsense, but easier to see as it doesn’t distract by flooding the imagination.


[flagged]


We do live in a meritocracy, which favor those white, middle class, mediocre males you complained about, because they got all the advantage and thus became good about it.

But selecting the best had nothing with fairness or ensuring that everyone is educated.


But... favoring a certain class of people _by definition_ means that those people arent necessarily the best equipped. Being favored doesn't just mean reaching the best results due to the best circumstances, it also means being given unfair credit etc.


A proponent of meritocracy would not favor anyone described as mediocre. That is kind of the whole point.


If you're fine with a system that rewards those who grew up in middle class and above families and punishes those that don't then I disagree but okay. But don't call that a system based on merit when you're quite transparently admitting it's not.

Meritocracies are an inhuman system which, to the extent they can be realized, only happen incidentally. How many of the relatively well to do people on this board subvert the meritocracy every day by giving their children every little advantage that tons of families just simply never could give their children. What would it take to make a meritocracy work? Ironically it would take a great flattening. But precisely because they believe in gain from advantage, the biggest proponents of meritocracy can never argue for the one thing that would actually make their system work. So instead we end up in this weird limbo where merit is actually subverted over and over again by a highly stratified social/economic makeup that begins in childhood and has strong persistence throughout life. "Actual" meritocracy may arise from time to time as a result of society spanning tragedy but will also quickly disappear and that doesn't exactly seem like the type of thing we should be aiming for anyways.


They address this in the article. Meritocracy doesn't mean dropping your children in the forest and stripping all advantage from them.

The whole point of a meritocracy is to be the best you can. Giving every advantage to your children that you can afford is the whole point of meritocracy. It's not "fair" but it produces peak performance, like the article says


Agreed and overall the article is very good. It is worth emphasising though that it is unfair and that environment plays a huge role in many people's success. At least some of the aristocrats knew that they were lucky and as a result had some kind of noblesse oblige. Some people at the top of the meritocracy think that because they got there on merit then they deserve as much as they can get.


Ironically this is not meritocracy.


From Merriam Webster:

a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.

A meritocracy only cares about demonstrated ability. If the kids next door could afford a better tutor, they probably have a greater demonstrated ability than you. They would still succeed under their own merit.


So.... "Be Best" ???


>They address this in the article. Meritocracy doesn't mean dropping your children in the forest and stripping all advantage from them.

If there's no equalizing basis then you can't say it's about merit. Was feudalism actually about merit? After all who's more capable of being the king than his own son?

>The whole point of a meritocracy is to be the best you can.

I agree but with a very strong emphasis on the "you."

>Giving every advantage to your children that you can afford is the whole point of meritocracy.

Just a second ago you were saying it was about advancing yourself. Now it's about advancing your bloodline, those are two different things.

>It's not "fair" but it produces peak performance, like the article says

There's no reason to believe it produces peak performance. Even if you're a big believer in individuals advancing themselves in efficient markets and all that what you actually want is very liquid markets. If certain jobs become chock full of rich kids because they're the only ones who can receive all the training then that's very strong evidence of inefficiency and thus big evidence that we are not receiving "peak performance."




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