The SAT and the Meritocracy

I saw this Freddie deBoer post going viral Why the Fuck Do You Trust Harvard?

It was in their best interest to use the SAT before, so they used it. Now it’s in their best interest to have even more leeway to select the bumbling doofus children of the affluent, and you’re applauding them for it in the name of “equity.” Brilliant.

It’s all corrupt. All of it. From the top to the bottom. It is so insane that all of these people who are ostensibly so cynical about institutions, who will tell you that capitalism is inherently a rigged game, who think meritocracy is a joke, who say that they think these hierarchies are all just privilege, will then turn around and say “ah yes, the SAT is gone, now fairness and egalitarianism will reign.” The whole damn thing makes no sense – it is nonsensical to talk about equality in a process that by its most basic nature is designed to select for a tiny elite! How the fuck do you think it’s going to work, exactly, when the SAT is gone? They’re still nominating a tiny elite to enjoy the most outsized rewards human life has to offer. That’s destructive no matter who gets a golden ticket. By its very nature.

It’s evident the liberal elite do not want a meritocracy. Maybe in the past they did but not anymore. They want conditions to be in place so that their mediocre children are assured some degree of wealth and social status by just virtue of existing or through connections, without having to earn it, sorta like under the old English monarchy. The irony is that this more of a reactionary position than a democratic one. Of course, the left are not going to say outright they want a caste system or a cultural aristocracy, but their beliefs and actions suggest otherwise (such as opposition to the SAT, or efforts to dumb down the SAT by reducing its effective ceiling).

But they are not necessarily wrong either. The concept of the meritocracy as we know it, in which, in theory, anyone can rise from the bottom to the top by virtue of talent and effort alone, is a relatively modern concept in the context of history and society, and even today is rather unique to the US. Even Western Europe, despite being more ‘democratically liberal’ than the US, does not have this sort of idealization of a mediocracy that the US has. Neoliberals and neocons alike are probably correct that economic growth and innovation are optimized under a meritocracy, but opponents of the meritocracy may also be correct that it creates unrealistic expectations or anxiety for people who are unable to cut it. At least under a caste system, it’s not your own fault for failing to rise to the top, but rather the fault of forces outside of one’s control or outside of the individual. From a psychological perspective, this is like having a major burden lifted.

Even if decades ago there was less economic growth, fewer choices of gender to choose from, less equality, or fewer opportunities for advancement, in it would seem in popular culture there is still nostalgia for the 50s, 70s or 80s, but comparatively little nostalgia for the 90s and early 2000s, which is when society seemed to become more competitive than ever. Even 20-40 years from now, I don’t think there will be any desire to relive the first 2 decades of the 21st century, a period dominated by record inequality, culture warring and division, and unending pandemics and Middle East wars, unlike the 80s and 50s, when society seemed much more peaceful and socially cohesive. I don’t think people necessarily want more stuff/things, but rather a sense of belonging or a purpose. That is why religion and political propaganda are so enduring, not because it’s correct, but because it provides those aforementioned functions.

The meritocracy creates generations of strivers competing for a finite number of scarce, sought-after positions, and may be a contributing factor for delayed family formation. Wages for professionals, such as consulting, medicine, tech, finance, and law, have ballooned over the past decade on an inflation-adjusted basis and even after accounting for student loan debt. Except for celebrities, having kids does not seem to confer as much social status as it did in the past, unlike money and professional/career success, so it’s perfectly rational from an individual standpoint for smart people to delay family formation for as long as possible to take advantage of such high wages, even if society in the long-run loses by smart people failing to propagate their genes.

I have also noticed that the biggest proponents of the meritocracy tend to be people who are either already successful in their careers or who have good reason to believe they will be successful (such as graduates from prestigious universities/people with good career prospects), but individuals who are not that successful professionally seem to be among the biggest critics, such as journalists (I don’t think most people who are journalists aspired to that profession, but it was a fallback plan) or low-ranking academics. People who are at the top socially and financially, or whose skills/abilities are not fungible, are less at risk of being replaced by someone ‘more qualified’ (no one is going to be replacing Jordan Peterson, Tyler Cowen, or Elon Musk anytime soon, all of whom are proponents of the meritocracy), or may be more inclined to attribute their own success to the meritocracy (as opposed to factors such as connections or luck/timing).

I say ‘in theory’ because in reality, the link between ability/skill and ‘social rank’ is tenuous. I think for high-IQ people in tech or finance, the meritocracy is more or less intact, but for people who are not as smart or in the humanities, the opportunities for advancement are more limited or more reliant on connections or luck. On Hacker News and Reddit, there are many stories of 20-30-year-olds (such as on FIRE subs) who grew up the middle class or the lower-middle-class and are employed in high paying tech jobs and have a lot of money and status. Relative to the general population this is uncommon by virtue of the rarity of high IQ scores, but it shows that the meritocracy is still possible and works as indented, at least for some.

1 comment

  1. Did having more children confer greater social status in the past? I’m pretty sure people are hardwired to breed, you know ‘the biological imperative to pass on your genes’. Women especially. Once that maternal instinct kicks in she’ll be beggin’ for some guy to dump one in her. That or collect cats and become a wine connoisseur. The fact that higher income men are less likely to have kids indicates to me that they’re making a rationale decision to do so. My guess is they’re afraid of getting their accumulated wealth stripped away in divorce court or of being forced to pay egregious child support. The policies are dysgenic.

    ” . . .opponents of the meritocracy may also be correct that it creates unrealistic expectations or anxiety for people who are unable to cut it.”
    So you’ll create resentment from those at the lower end of the bell curve, but in a caste you’ll create resentment from those at the top of the bell curve. Those unable to cut it need to adjust their expectations.

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