Targeting the Meritocracy : Response


Prospect Magazine writes about the problem with meritocracy. First Things thinks meritocracy is killing America. Feminist Philosophers comes out against meritocracy. The Guardian says “down with meritocracy”. Vox calls for an atack on the false god of meritocracy. There’s even an Against Meritocracy book. Given that meritocracy seems almost tautologically good (doesn’t it just mean positions going to those who deserve them?), there sure do seem to be a lot of people against it.

As an aside, note how Scott uses the ‘wall of links’ method in the beginning of his article, which helps the article go viral. The first paragraph contains six links.

The explanation is pretty obvious: the left opposes the meritocracy because the most meritorious are often of certain ethic and racial groups. It’s not about equality of opportunity, but about equality of outcomes. The meritocracy is an affront to the left’s pursuit diversity and equality.

A second criticism is that the meritocracy exacerbates wealth inequality. However, wealth inequality is a permanent fixture of any developed society, and in and of itself is not a refutation of the meritocracy. Is it better for society to have forced equality, or is it better to promote the most qualified, even if it means inequality. Scott is correct…I too would choose the more qualified surgeon (as would any rational individual, regardless of their politics):

I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.


The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.


This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.

But then the issues of fairness arises: if wealthy parents can afford genomic editing to create super-smart and super-successful kids, even if society as a whole benefits, it’s not longer a level playing field, and the social implications of having a ‘super class’ that not only controls society but perpetuates its existence through the manipulation of nature itself, as if ‘playing god’, is possibly unsettling to some. It becomes less about genius being serendipitous and random, but about the creation of a genetically superior caste, which removes the element of luck. As the ‘wealth of nations’ shows, society benefits from having more high-IQ people, but it’s understandable how the creation of a genetically superior, insular ‘super class’ that runs society, is disconcerting to many. But, especially, in Silicon Valley and Manhattan, due to assortative mating, socioeconomic self-selection already occurs, albeit more gradually than having processes accelerated with embryo selection and gene modification.

Regarding Ivy League schools and fairness, the the issue of legacy admissions often comes up. However, legacy students only make up around 10% of admissions and only have twice the acceptance rate of regular students. Jared Kushner Isn’t Alone: How Wealthy Families Manipulate Admissions at Elite Universities:

As they reject more applicants every year, most top universities still make room for as many alumni children as they did a decade ago. Legacies make up 22 percent of this year’s freshmen at Notre Dame, 13 percent at Yale, and between 18 and 19 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Princeton, admissions dean Janet Lavin Rapelye told me recently, legacies have comprised between 11 and 15 percent of every freshman class for a quarter century; this year it’s at the upper end of the range. “They tend to be very good students who have achieved at a high level in their high schools,” she said. “They have taken advantage of the advantages that have been given to them.”


Although the acceptance rate for legacies at elite universities has declined, these candidates have maintained or widened their edge over others. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, admitted 38 percent of alumni children in 2005, as against 21 percent of all applicants. This year it took 22 percent of legacies, versus 9 percent overall. So legacies were accepted at more than twice the average rate this year, a bigger proportional advantage than in 2005.

But the situation is still bad:

Ten years ago elite universities were already so selective and gave preference to so many groups (legacies, development admits, athletes, underrepresented minorities, etc.) that candidates who didn’t fit any of these categories faced steep odds. In an interview for my book, Daniel Saracino, then Notre Dame’s assistant provost for enrollment, told me, “The poor shmuck who has to get in on his own has to walk on water.”


Today the prospects for these unconnected applicants, who are predominantly middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, are even bleaker. The poor shmucks have to walk on water—during a tsunami. Saracino, now a higher education consultant, switched metaphors in a recent conversation. “The pie isn’t getting any bigger, but the pieces all want to grow a little bit,” he said. “It will come at the cost of the everyday kid.”

However, elite universities have very generous financial aid, so the belief that only the rich can afford to attend, and or the belief that elite universities only cater to the rich, is debunked. For all Ivy League schools, families with total parent earnings less than $60,000 and assets of less than $100,000, don’t have to pay tuition. The reason why elite universities are so generous is because they are admitting the best and the brightest (in terms of IQ, but also other factors), and because IQ and professional success are correlated, but also because elite university grads have the best job prospects of all college graduates, such graduates will pay back the tuition (and more) in terms of endowments, and also bring more prestige to the university, overall. ‘No Name U’ needs the money upfront because its medium-IQ students probably won’t be nearly as successful in their professional careers as the high-IQ Harvard grads.

The problem isn’t just getting into college. It’s that success in college only weakly correlates with success in the real world. I got into medical school because I got good grades in college; those good grades were in my major, philosophy. Someone else who was a slightly worse philosopher would never have made it to medical school; maybe they would have been a better doctor. Maybe someone who didn’t get the best grades in college has the right skills to be a nurse, or a firefighter, or a police officer. If so, we’ll never know; all three of those occupations are gradually shifting to acceptance conditional on college performance. Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?

Not sure about this. As measured by income, creative output (such as writing a book or publishing a research paper), and household wealth, college completion correlates highly with success. Getting into medical school also requires one take the MCAT. The ‘slightly worse philosopher’ would have still gotten into medical school if he had a high enough MCAT score. Regarding Ulysses Grant, that was 150 years ago, and it’s impossible to say he was ‘only guy capable of matching General Lee’. For most jobs, a college degree is intended to signal general ‘baseline competence’, not necessarily competence at a specific skill relevant to the job. It’s an expensive and imperfect form of signaling. A firefighter who has a degree is likely smarter (and thus has better judgment and can learn faster) than a firefighter without the degree. One can make such an inference from the degree alone, without having to test both applicants.

Remember that IQ correlates with chess talent at a modest r = 0.24, and chess champion Garry Kasparov has only a medium-high IQ of 135. If Kasparov’s educational success matched his IQ, he might or might not have made it into Harvard; he certainly wouldn’t have been their star student. And if it was only that kind of educational success that gave spots on some kind of national chess team, Kasparov and a bunch of other grandmasters would never have a chance. Real meritocracy is what you get when you ignore the degrees and check who can actually win a chess game.

That’s possibly because chess is not as highly g-loaded as other cognitive activities. People for some reason (maybe due to media coverage) equate chess as being the epitome of mental ability, but it’s not. Maybe the 135 score is an underestimate due to a low-ceiling IQ test. Who knows. Not that important anyway.

So the question is, why do we still need degrees, which are expensive and time-consuming? Can’t we just do-away with degrees and find better, cheaper, faster ways to signal competence? Scott Agrees.

One of the few places I see this going well is in programming. Triplebyte (conflict of interest notice: SSC sponsor) asks people who want a programming job to take a test of their programming ability, “no resume needed”. Then it matches them with tech companies that want the kind of programming the applicant is good at. It doesn’t matter whether you were president of the Junior Strivers’ Club in college. It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe. What matters is whether you can code or not. As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company. Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.


I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

As mentioned many times before, the issue of disparate impact arises, which makes it hard for companies to rely on IQ or SAT scores for hiring purposes, because certain groups tend to score poorly on these tests. Tests such as the Wonderlic, which correlates highly with IQ, are used by companies such as Procter and Gamble and DE Shaw, but large companies have the resources to fend off costly litigation that may arise from the use of such tests. As mentioned in the comments, using anything other than college as an IQ filter would be considered discrimination. Again, it goes back to equal outcomes v.s equal opportunities, in that the left chooses equality over opportunity. Related: How a 12-minute test can solve the student loan crisis.

A common argument (from the comments) is that IQ testing is unnecessary, because GPAs and other factors are good enough to predict competence:

If IQ is genetic (or heavily so) there should be a less extreme distribution. A country with a population that is 80-90% Western European is already going to have a done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of IQ selection for you. Between schools, grades and interviews you aren’t going to gain much from IQ tests as well. Small size means that it more difficult to build a multinational corporation without pulling in significant talent from other countries. I would speculate that the cultural/legal/language barriers probably require additional talents that don’t mesh as directly with IQ testing.

But due to grade inflation, the use of ‘pass/fail’ systems, and ‘fluff courses’, GPAs have become devalued, and elite colleges and employers know this. Ivy Leagues often reject valedictorians for this reason, instead putting more precedence on the SAT, which despite recent attempts to dumb-down, is still a better predictor individual of individual competence than grades (although this assumption has come under attack). But there is a positive correlation between GPA and SAT score:

As further evidence of the uselessness of GPAs, the correlation between GPAs and SAT scores is nonexistent or even negative:

…and SAT scores have remained constant despite rising GPAs:

Apprenticeships would also help, but again IQ plays a role (high-IQ apprentices learn faster than less intelligent ones, saving money and time for the company hiring them), which opens the door to disparate impact litigation.