Belief in Meritocracy Is Not Only False, It’s Bad for You

Yves here. The fact that meritocracy is a useful illusion ties into the discussion in the Michael Hudson interview today by John Siman of how in antiquity, Stoicism’s emphasis on resignation helped citizens accept iniquities that they otherwise might have opposed.

By Clifton Mark. Originally published at Aeon

‘We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else …’ Barack Obama, inaugural address, 2013

‘We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.’ Donald Trump, inaugural address, 2017

Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort. The most common metaphor is the ‘even playing field’ upon which players can rise to the position that fits their merit. Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth. Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.

Most people don’t just think the world shouldbe run meritocratically, they think it ismeritocratic. In the UK, 84 per cent of respondents to the 2009 British Social Attitudes survey stated that hard work is either ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ when it comes to getting ahead, and in 2016 the Brookings Institute found that 69 per cent of Americans believe that people are rewarded for intelligence and skill. Respondents in both countries believe that external factors, such as luck and coming from a wealthy family, are much less important. While these ideas are most pronounced in these two countries, they are popular across the globe.

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

This is to say nothing of the fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story. In his book Success and Luck( 2016), the US economist Robert Frank recounts the long-shots and coincidences that led to Bill Gates’s stellar rise as Microsoft’s founder, as well as to Frank’s own success as an academic. Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success. This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people. However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best.

According to Frank, this is especially true where the success in question is great, and where the context in which it is achieved is competitive. There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth. In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

The ‘ultimatum game’ is an experiment, common in psychological labs, in which one player (the proposer) is given a sum of money and told to propose a division between him and another player (the responder), who may accept the offer or reject it. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. The experiment has been replicated thousands of times, and usually the proposer offers a relatively even split. If the amount to be shared is $100, most offers fall between $40-$50.

One variation on this game shows that believing one is more skilled leads to more selfish behaviour. In research at Beijing Normal University, participants played a fake game of skill before making offers in the ultimatum game. Players who were (falsely) led to believe they had ‘won’ claimed more for themselves than those who did not play the skill game. Other studies confirm this finding. The economists Aldo Rustichini at the University of Minnesota and Alexander Vostroknutov at Maastricht University in the Netherlands foundthat subjects who first engaged in a game of skill were much less likely to support the redistribution of prizes than those who engaged in games of chance. Just having the idea of skill in mind makes people more tolerant of unequal outcomes. While this was found to be true of all participants, the effect was much more pronounced among the ‘winners’.

By contrast, research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity. Frank cites a study in which simply asking subjects to recall the external factors (luck, help from others) that had contributed to their successes in life made them much more likely to give to charity than those who were asked to remember the internal factors (effort, skill).

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They foundthat, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.

This is why debates over the extent to which particular individuals are ‘self-made’ and over the effects of various forms of ‘privilege’ can get so hot-tempered. These arguments are not just about who gets to have what; it’s about how much ‘credit’ people can take for what they have, about what their successes allow them to believe about their inner qualities. That is why, under the assumption of meritocracy, the very notion that personal success is the result of ‘luck’ can be insulting. To acknowledge the influence of external factors seems to downplay or deny the existence of individual merit.

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.

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91 comments

    1. jrs

      I always though the title was off, the point being made is meritocracy is bad for society and people’s moral behavior, but I still think people adapt meritocracy because they think it is good for them individually, to a degree.

      I think we need to differentiate between purely individual beliefs and larger social beliefs, the purely individual beliefs are way less important but are sometimes used by people a means to cope.

      There’s the extreme in believing that luck has no role in life, and another extreme of believing nothing one can do personally (except you know join the revolution) can have an effect on their life. And as for being psychologically harmful to the individual, they both can be.

      The person just out of luck, who say can’t seem to find a job, who endlessly blames themselves falls into despair. Blaming themselves less would help a little bit, however this can not be changed so easily by a change of personal beliefs, as one’s feelings are a product of their society, beliefs themselves to the extent they affect feelings are NOT entirely individual. So in this case the social belief in meritocracy becomes harmful to the individual, but the individual belief frankly just doesn’t matter as much.

      OTOH if there is something an individual has some chance of changing then believing they can’t obviously isn’t helpful – so in this case some personal belief in agency may be helpful.

      But is meritocracy even the right term? When we are actually talking about belief in individual agency, they may be related to a degree, but are they really the same thing? Belief in agency is more like “I may be able to have some influence on my fate”, whereas meritocracy seems to posit some perfectly just world that we all know we don’t live in! But yes sometimes belief in individual agency is helpful and sometimes it’s not.

      Reply
      1. Adam Eran

        This is actually an ancient conversation. In those times meritocracy was called “salvation by works.” That is what Jesus condemned the pharisees for promoting. Orthodox Christianity (really, of any denomination) promotes “salvation by grace…” so your position is the result of a gift, not your merit. So meritocracy is heretical.

        This is a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. For example, the “Prodigal Son” gets the celebration with the fatted calf, while the good son does not.

        Even worse, the idea that meritocracy motivates people turns out to be false. Sticks and carrots are not effective motivators. See this TED talk for more about that.

        Reply
        1. Sol

          Synchronicity! *throws confetti*

          I suspect Nietszche understood why “salvation through good works” was rejected by the Bible in favor of salvation by faith alone. The glue that would hold salvation-by-works together lies in the hands of those privileged to define good. For when “good people” get to define what they do to, or at, others as “good works”, humans can tend to become blissfully self-satisfied monsters.

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        2. djrichard

          Yes, but Jesus didn’t make it very far in the church hierarchy did he. Hence the take-away lesson: if you want to move up the church hierarchy, you have to demonstrate your merit to those in authority.

          Reply
          1. Amfortas the hippie

            lol.
            like reagan being chased out of the tea party as a commie.
            I’m not sure that the orthodoxy/orthopraxis argument is a good fit, here…although i will venture that we could use a little more thought about the latter, and not just in religion.
            in this as in JR’s agency vs some sort of hard determinism, maybe an actual middle road (μηδὲν ἄγαν–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moderation) is something we could try.(look what they’ve done to my centrism, Ma…)
            as for meritocracy…i inherited the virus from my grandad…small industrial manufactor, houston, circa mid 50’s to late 90’s.
            good work=better pay, pride in one’s work, and such.
            I’d still like to believe this,lol.
            but i’ve seen little evidence to support it.
            system selects for psychopathy.

            Reply
        1. djrichard

          Evolution of capitalism’s redeeming value:
          – if you work hard, you’ll do fine
          – if you work hard and save, you’ll do fine
          – if you work hard, save and invest, you’ll do fine
          – if you work hard, save and invest and are lucky (to get a job, not get laid off or to lose out on your investments), you’ll do fine

          Reply
            1. WheresOurTeddy

              and don’t ever get sick or if you do have $5K lying around for the deductible and you know what, just die quickly and do your relatives a favor

              Reply
              1. jrs

                the most important one of course is predict where the job market will be in 10 years time. But who can? But otherwise, hello unemployment!

                Reply
    1. Jack

      Another old saying: “Luck happens when opportunity meets preparedness.”
      This isn’t universal, of course, but I personally experienced two nice career enhancements via this phenomenon.

      Reply
  1. Alex

    I don’t think that the facts in this post support the central premise ( that it “ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal”). First of all, the dichotomy between meritocracy and aristocracy is not false. The chances of someone born in a median family in modern-day Sweden to achieve success (whatever definition you use) are much higher than of one born in Victorian England. Would you argue against the meritocracy defined as having your odds of success being independent of the material status and class of your parents?

    I would suspect that the belief in meritocracy would also correlate with a bunch of positive traits like honesty, creativity and industriousness, it would be interesting to test that.

    Reply
    1. Alex

      I’ve done a quick google scholar search and apparently no one is interested whether the meritocracy belief is associated with anything positive.

      So I can’t cite anything as a proof but this is what I observed myself having lived most of my life in a place where the belief that hard work is rewarded by success is not very widespread, to put it mildly. By coincidence or not, there is a lot of short-termism among both businesses and people and a lot of opportunistic behaviour – think of a prisoner game where defecting makes most sense when you don’t trust others and don’t expect to play with them any more.

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      1. Sanxi

        Depends on the value any given culture at any given time places on whatever criteria minus a system based on birth. Given where we are at now, I’m looking at several, meta studies at NIH from who gets into Medical schools, choice residencies, and all that and the data shows a little aptitude, some attitude,and mostly luck goes a long way. But, surveys 20, 30, 40 years out, 90+ seem to think they did it all themselves, unfortunately, patients are less then satisfied (49% more or less). Just saying.

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        1. Nelson Lowhim

          Link to the study? Btw Ngram shows the word gaining currency in the 60s, peaking in 80, dropping till 90 then a double hump. Dropping for each recession.

          Reply
    2. diptherio

      It’s not just a matter of “the material status and class of your parents.” What about sheer luck? Or shall we believe also that luck is distributed meritocratically?

      At least in non-meritocratic societies, it was clear that someone wasn’t wealthier than another because they had worked harder or were somehow a better person. It’s still the case now that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but now we can lie to ourselves that our success (or someone else’s) must be due to their innate worthiness, since we have a supposedly “level playing field.”

      Reply
      1. Alex

        Who said luck doesn’t play a role? Especially at the very top where by definition you have very few slots and lots of people with more or less similar abilities. Definitely luck has played a lot of role in my life and I’m sure that in yours as well.

        Obviously luck is not distributed meritocratically, I’d be really surprised if someone believed that. Why insist that it’s either 100% luck or 100% merit?

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    3. ex-PFC Chuck

      I believe it was Churchill who said, “Some people are born mediocre, some people become mediocre, and yet others have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

      Reply
  2. Martin Finnucane

    That Obama quote is a real gem. It’s ok to have the “bleakest poverty,” provided that the impoverished one – that natural born 10%er – has to the chance to be, say, Neera Tanden’s secretary some day. Obama is the center-left’s Reagan.

    Reply
    1. Stephen Gardner

      That anyone could say “center left” with a straight face in reference to Obama shows just how far to the extreme right the Overton window has been moved over the last 40 years. There is NOTHING that is left wing about Obama. He was a brilliant choice by the business class that runs the show because, by virtue of his blackness, he was perceived as the left wing choice by voters.

      The reality is much different as we all know now. As Molly Ivins used to say, “You dance with the one what brung ya.” And the O’s danced well for the Bankers and are richly rewarded now.

      Reply
  3. Alex Cox

    Regarding Gates, I would suggest greed is a bigger element in his success than luck. Richard Stallman and Linux Torvalds are also great programmers. But they are less focused on the bucks.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      Bill Gates was NOT a skilled programmer. He, and friends, saw an opportunity to take a basic operating system developed by others (IBM?) and meld it with a graphic user interface (first developed at Stanford University) into a marginal system that was able to survive because the personal computer revolution (inspired by Apple) was beginning its incredible rise. (He was swept along by the tide.)

      Gates then used the legal skills learned from his daddy (a corporate attorney) to limit competitors by using legal threats and court actions and anti-competitive methods. Remember? He LOST the antitrust case brought against him; where he played “dumb as a rock” under cross-examination. Microsoft survived because the “remedy” instituted by the court was Pablum. To this day Microsoft products are junk, but for the average user one of only two choices; Apple is the other. (Linux desktop is still not broadly accessible to most users.)

      Bill Gates is the poster boy for the “meritocracy” joke.

      Reply
      1. human

        GNU/Linux desktop is more broadly available than either any M$ or Apple operating system if only because of cost! Granted, one may have network and printer issues with state-of-the-art hardware, but, with with anything older than about one year, it will work better out-of-the-box than either of the big 2. Once set up, most will see little difference and setting up is easier than either with a worldwide support base of users.

        It’s time to post this link again: He Who Controls the Bootloader

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      2. RMO

        MS-DOS was purchased as Q-DOS from Seattle Computer Products – IBM had nothing to do with developing it. Their strategy for making the PC was to outsource everything because producing in-house as they usually did would have taken far too long (the head of their PC project said that IBM’s internal approval processes meant that it would have taken at least two years to ship an empty box as a product). IBM went to Microsoft looking to buy BASIC and the CPM operating system. IBM was under the impression that Microsoft owned both. Microsoft sent them to Gary Kildall’s company to get CP-M but IBM didn’t make a deal at first (various reasons have been given including Kildall not showing up for the meeting as he wanted to go flying and his wife and partner not being willing to sign the onerous NDA IBM required). IBM came back to Microsoft and they scrambled to find an OS as they were terrified of losing the language business. They realized that getting in at the start with IBM would be huge. Q-DOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) was, shall we say heavily influenced by CP-M and Microsoft bought it so they could offer it to IBM.

        The GUI/mouse interface was derived from the Apple Mac and Gates is on record demanding “Mac on a PC.” when it was being developed. The Mac interface in turn came about directly from a system that was the product of Xerox’s PARC operation after Jobs visited the facility.

        Gates was a skilled programmer but nowhere near the skill level of Gary Kildall or many of the people at Xerox PARC to mention just a few. His massive success certainly isn’t a result of him being a code god. He sure was ambitious, well placed to take a large part of the PC market due to his family background, could see just how big PC’s would be and as greedy as hell though – none of those things support the proposition that we’re in a meritocracy that’s for sure.

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        1. political economist

          Yes, it is totally wrong to say as this article does that “There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth” implying that Gates was some god of programming instead of a lucky bastard who from the beginning who along with his team managed to use US laws and monopoly pricing in its output market and monopsony pricing in its labor market to create the economic rents leading to his and others billions of dollars in undue profits. He really seems like a dunce who has absorbed the memes of his class whenever he is interviewed and then restates them as if his stupid beliefs are the diamonds of truth. He keeps reminding me always of Giridharadas’s assessment of “winners [who] take all”!

          Reply
      3. john Wright

        >Bill Gates was NOT a skilled programmer. He, and friends, saw an opportunity to take a basic operating system developed by others (IBM?) and meld it with a graphic user interface (first developed at Stanford University) into a marginal system that was able to survive because the personal computer revolution (inspired by Apple) was beginning its incredible rise. (He was swept along by the tide.)

        A few corrections, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC interpreter that was used on the early MITS computer that was a precursor to Apple.

        Apple also used Gates BASIC. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Applesoft_BASIC

        Gates certainly had some skill as a programmer.

        IBM paid Gates to develop an operating system (and he bought one from a company in Seattle)

        http://thisdayintechhistory.com/11/06/ibm-signs-a-deal-with-the-devil/

        The BASIC interpreter history https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair_BASIC

        Apple was influenced by the graphical user interface work being done at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research center, so Stanford was not the source of the GUI

        see https://web.stanford.edu/dept/SUL/sites/mac/parc.html

        Gates may have been wise enough to read the graphical user handwriting on the wall and decided it would be a good idea to do a similar one, borrowing from both Apple’s and Xerox’s work.

        Gates was very fortunate in that the business world was very comfortable with Microsoft’s products and in my view doing embedded firmware in the 1980’s, senior management saw MS-Windows as safe to incorporate in products.

        Early on, I remember someone totaling up the PC vendors’ licensing costs for MS-Windows and suggesting the PC vendors could fund an effort to clone MS-Windows and save quite a bit of money that was going to Microsoft.

        Obviously, this never happened.

        I am still amazed that IBM, with its historically vast experience in software, would effectively put Bill Gates into the operating systems business.

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        1. John

          You would not be surprised at what IBM gave up to Microsoft if you had any contact with IBM corporate culture at any time in the last 50 years. I call it self deluded meritocracy. They were so convinced of their own wonderfulness because they merited entrance to IBM that they could not conceive of having any blindsides.
          I suspect that the corporate culture of the current big techies is infected with similar self delusion.

          Reply
    2. poopinator

      I completely agree. A lot of technical folk simply value the satisfaction of solving complex problems more than financial remuneration. I think the same can be said of those who work in social services, journalism and the arts as well. Unfortunately our society has always been married to the notion that financial success is equivalent to merit, and this belief is almost inextricably tied to our religion of capitalism. It’s also the reason our country’s best technical talents end up building gigantic ad platforms, surveillance technology, and high frequency trading systems instead of focusing on the existential issues that face humanity/nature.

      Reply
      1. Amfortas the hippie

        you touch on something ive thought about a lot lately…defining “success”.
        usually while riding around in the woods and fields in a bathrobe, in a golf cart, thinking.(it’s a working golf cart, with a rifle rack)
        i read zarathustra when i was a kid, and ever after wanted to “live on a mountain and wear robes and be a philosopher.”
        am I not, therefore, a Success?
        who gave “our betters” the privilege of defining such things?
        and why do we continue allow it?

        Reply
        1. poopinator

          On April 12, 1955, the day the Salk vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent,” legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow interviewed its creator and asked who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say,” said Salk in light of the millions of charitable donations raised by the March of Dimes that funded the vaccine’s research and field testing. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Lawyers for the foundation had investigated the possibility of patenting the vaccine but did not pursue it, in part because of Salk’s reluctance.

          https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-jonas-salk-and-the-polio-vaccine

          Jonas Salk would be mercilessly mocked if he were with us today. And you’re right on the mark with respect to ‘success’ and how we as a society have allowed it to be associated with wealth. Being rich is nice, but being lauded for it is even nicer. The rich can have their cake and eat it too.

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    3. Carla

      I once met and got to know, in a group situation, a married couple who struck me as the stupidest people I had ever encountered. I learned that they successfully operated a highly profitable family business. It seemed to me then (and still does now) that the pure desire for money was probably the main thing required for obtaining it. OK, maybe some luck doesn’t hurt, but main thing is the focus and pure desire.

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    4. Sanxi

      Alex Cox, greed maybe, but the massively stupid IBM sure helped. He tried ending his contracting with IBM over and over. Nope.

      Reply
  4. Marc

    What exactly is the article trying to suggest? It is quite condescending to suggest that people are under the illustion that priviledge and luck doesn’t exist. The surveys cited asked whether hard work, intelligence and skill contribute to success. They clearly do as reflected in the result but that doesn’t exlcude also recognising that you also need luck and you can have bad luck. I’m surrounded by people who have been more lucky and less lucky than I have from a similar starting point. I’m not exactly sure what you are supposed to do with that other hope that people are self-aware enough to realise this and not be arrogant etc but humans will be humans and there are all kinds. I just tell my children, that they have had a lot of the priviledges they’ve had, to work as hard as they can. That won’t guarantee success but at least they have made the effort and put themsleves in front of more opportunity than someone who hasn’t.

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    1. Sanxi

      All my brother ever had to do was show up. And he keep falling up from there. I’m happy for him as he had no skills to speak of.

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    2. anon y'mouse

      the ability to take advantage of the luck thrown your way is a skill to exploit, but it is usually predicated on being the previous recipient of a lucky circumstance that gave you enough chances to try (and prove, or improve) your skill.

      if you are never offered the chance, you cannot improve your skill. and being offered the chance is down to luck.

      we are shaped so much by our experiences, that the truth is found by studies that people who are more attractive are more successful and smarter, generally, than those who are not as attractive? why? because people treated them differently from the very beginning of their lives (or their period of attractiveness started) which made them more confident and thus able to exploit these opportunities that came their way, thus more room to expand whatever skills they may have had in the first place.

      this is a nature/nurture problem at the heart of it all. you want to believe that skill makes a difference, and it does. but why did that particular person develop those skills to begin with? they definitely weren’t “born that way”. society chooses what success means. the system determines what the grade for “failure” is. meaning it is somewhat arbitrary to begin with, and malleable (if we had a different system, with a different set of values, we would possibly choose different benchmarks).

      most important of all: a mentor or some figure around you that recognizes, early on, that you are capable of learning and developing talents and invests some time and trouble into you to make sure that you do develop them. some of us were lucky enough to have parents who did this. my own parents taught me to clean beer bottles, wash dishes, do laundry, etc. that is as far as their instruction went. all of my other training i had to pick up from school, or from reading, or from observation in life. the fact that i had an employer, at one time, who alllowed me to take on a wide range of duties resulting in developing skills at her business when i knew absolutely nothing to begin with, was totally down to luck on my part at that time.

      is any of that making sense? i have no idea anymore.

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      1. Temporarily Sane

        Your post makes perfect sense to me. Nobody gets to choose their parents, their personality traits, the socio-economic class they are born into etc. or the early childhood experiences that play such a major role in shaping a person’s psychological core. Someone who consistently gets negative feedback from their parents or peers will be psychologically hamstrung from an early age and without a mentor figure to help guide them, or blind genetic luck gifting them with a disposition that lets them overcome negative reinforcement and land on their feet, that can really damage their future potential.

        Another limiting factor is society itself. Example: A hypothetical person who spent their 20s and much of their 30s caught up in a heavy opiate addiction but manages to kick the habit before age 40. They can be smart, motivated, have a positive attitude and all that stuff, but unless that person also has resourceful family or connected friends who are willing to help them with jobs, money, references etc. and the transition into a “productive” member of society, they will likely be SOL and live on the margins for the rest of their life.

        America does not do second chances. There is no structure in place to assist people who messed up their young adulthood in finding a dignified position in society. Fu*k up once and unless you’re lucky and have people in your life willing and able to help, you’re finished as far as sustainable employment that pays a living wage goes.

        The same is true for a person who did time in jail. When they get out after serving their sentence, they have paid their debt to society and been deemed stable and rehabilitated enough to be allowed back into that society. But they will be forever stigmatized as an ex-con, a criminal, not to be trusted…and, unless they have family or friends who can give them a leg up, they too are denied the opportunity to earn a dignified living and to make something of themselves.

        In America and other countries with a similar social system it is blind luck that determines if a person who “made poor choices” in early adulthood or, for whatever reason, got a later start in life will have an opportunity to thrive and be accepted as a full member of their community.

        People who think that luck and circumstances outside of their control have nothing to do with what they have acheived are simply wrong. It is also supremely ironic that STEM bro types who aggressively push biological determinism don’t see any contradiction between that position and their waffle about the supposed fairness of meritocracy and “equality of opportunity” that is supposed to highlight their sensitive “hey I’m not a total crypto fascistic eugenicist” side. Bah. Family blog all those miserable family bloggers.

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        1. jrs

          +1000, America doesn’t do second chances, but we don’t talk about it, if we in this society talk about “opportunities” at all it’s making sure 20 year olds have chances (which by itself is fine of course), not that middle age people or older people have a second chance.

          Life is front loaded in this society. And because it’s front loaded it’s OVERWHELMINGLY determined by birth family. As one gets older one grows up more and more beyond their upbringing, at least if one is maturing at all. But when one is young one is strongly influenced by it. But if life is front loaded as it is in this society, it’s the decisions in youth that matter! The data is clear about adverse childhood experiences and addictions – and that’s the more extreme stuff, not 100 more minor handicaps that also stem from adverse childhood experiences.

          I suffer economically from my past (and it’s not even extreme, it’s hard but it could be worse), my partner suffers from their past (we are both not where we would have been if we came from functional upbringings), my sibling does. We all had difficult childhoods and we pay the price!

          We all need to keep the faith in our agency, just to survive in this world, it’s a privilege if you don’t have to think about it, but if you struggle you don’t have that privilege. It’s why I say if that writer plans to sell discussions over how everything including hard work is a function of luck over meritocracy it will fail as there are practical reasons to do with living in this society, people accept other narratives. And I don’t mean why life’s big winners do, because yes they get really messed up in the head, but I quite literally don’t care about them .

          But I’ve seen how stingy America is on the second chances. So also noone has a right to even talk about “equality of opportunities” (And I actually favor equality of results as the only real justice) if they don’t address the need of human beings to start of over. The 40 year old ex-opiate addict needs a good job, thanks!

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          1. LifelongLib

            I think the lack of second chances in the U.S. is a recent phenomenon. It used to be that if you moved to a different state you could pretty much escape a criminal record etc. A lot of relatively well-paying jobs didn’t require a lot of formal education. Things have gotten a lot more stringent in just the last 30 years.

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    3. Tim

      I agree with Marc. As everybody knows on this site framing is everything in a survey, and the author takes a massive leap on the referenced surveys to reach her conclusions of how the majority of people think.

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    4. Yves Smith Post author

      You need to get out more. I know people personally who believe that being unemployed is the unemployed person’s fault and if they can’t find a job they should start a business. They are quite sincere in saying that.

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      1. Marc

        I’ve worked in finance and the like with the most arrogant people you can find (Goldman, McKinsey…) so with all due respect I’ve met the kind. The point isn’t that they don’t exist. What is wrong with the article is to suggest that more than a majority of the population have been convinced of their superiority. They have not. To suggest that they are not aware of something as basic as this and that they have been convinced of it is simply insulting. Why are opinion polls on politicians, bankers etc so negative all around? And of someone say like Gates or Zuckerberg, the article simply wants to attribute it all to luck. The fact is that both those people had a preternatural interest in technologies that would become very important (Zuckerberg was programming and selling games before he was 10). They also took advantage of capitalism to accumulate a ridiculous amount of wealth and one can question the extent of that accumulation in various ways. But the article wants to deny their hard work, their intelligence, their opportunism etc. It effectively comes down to an article that would suggest that equality of outcome is what we need to achieve rather than equality of opportunity which is very pernicious.

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        1. anon y'mouse

          maybe equality of outcome, more or less, is what we should achieve. if our resource base can give a good quality of life for all, perhaps that is what we should do regardless of whether one sweeps streets or sells software.

          because of the forces shaping the person which then shapes their ability to exercise “will/agency” over their lives, it gets into an area of unfairness when the results are so disparate. maybe people should be motivated towards doing what they ARE actually good at, and not earning a few more dimes (usually on someone else’s back). not because everyone is equal (although they must be considered so under the law, otherwise chaos) but because all human lives ARE valuable.

          to suggest otherwise is to go down the road of “some people deserve to starve”. whether you actually would slide all the way down that slippery slope or not, someone eventually will. we already have people who say that those who can’t afford health insurance, or those who engage in “risky” lifestyle behaviors (yeah, tease out the causal factors between what they did and environmental poisoning) deserve to die of whatever illness they subsequently develop. precedent is a legal way of making the slippery slope argument, so i do not accept that as any kind of fallacy.

          even if you think that people are not equal because of something inherent in them (say genetics), is that THEIR fault that they only have the brainpower or whatever to become a janitor? not really.

          we need to stop blaming the victim in this society, and start doing for all regardless. and motivate people to do things for their intrinsic worth. our society is oriented backwards in its goals, motivations, values. the people who work the hardest (in reality) get the least, so even by that standard of valuing people (trying to tie it to some kind of ability that we feel equates to what they are fully capable of doing, thus inherent in them somehow and resulting in a meaningful difference between peoples and their abilities), we have failed.

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        2. jrs

          being unemployed may not be the unemployed person’s fault, and many of us may know it (if for no other reason than having seen unemployment up close), but we must live in a society where we must pretend it is, where long term unemployment or gaps in employment are some horror that must be explained away etc.. And noone knows this more than the person looking for work!

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      2. Joe Well

        Have these people who say that ever started a business?

        I never cease to be amazed by the people who think that entrepreneurship (at least in the early years) is either easy or glamorous.

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  5. Watt4Bob

    There’s a subtlety to the cognitive dissonance involved in believing in the meritocracy.

    That is IMO, many folks understand that ‘merit’ in a certain sense means being able to put up with BS, and many folks think a college diploma is actually proof of the bearers ability and willingness to swim upstream in sh*t creek.

    So meritocracy means different things to different people.

    Some folks even go so far as believing that a person’s inability to “Go along to get along” is proof of lower intelligence, and by extension, lack of ‘merit’.

    So one of the wrinkles in the story, lies in two different definitions of ‘merit’, one of which, though correct, is not a key to success, and believing in it is naive, and maybe a waste of time, the other though crooked and false, is actually useful to the crooked and dishonest in getting ahead under current management.

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    1. rd

      I think part of it is that there are different definitions of value. for some people, it is measured purely in money, for others in time, and for others in general happiness. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2018/10/09/can-money-buy-happiness-a-new-way-to-measure/#309bf40a4e89

      In general, it is pretty clear that money is directly correlated with happiness up to something like $70k to $135k per year in the developed world. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2018/02/26/does-money-equal-happiness-does-until-you-earn-much/374119002/

      Beyond that, extra money does not mean extra happiness. So it is very difficult to measure meritocracy past about $100k as many people make decisions where they could make more money but choose not to for a number of reasons.

      On the other hand, it is clear that many people struggle to break out of poverty no matter how hard they work, so there are systemic barriers preventing them from reaching that threshold value where money doesn’t buy more happiness. I think this is where the proof of US inequality and lack of meritocracy comes to the fore.

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      1. LifelongLib

        Arguably money is like air or food, you need a certain amount or you’re constantly impaired by not having enough, but once you have enough more doesn’t make much difference…

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      1. Sanxi

        No, the harder you work the harder you work. That kind of Effort bears almost no relationship to outcome.

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        1. jrs

          One has to work just to avoid getting fired (not that it’s the only reason people get fired of course). so there’s your relationship to outcome right there.

          But sure people work very hard at jobs that are poorly paid and others less hard at well remunerated jobs.

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        2. WobblyTelomeres

          Sanxi has it right. The only thing I ever got from working 70 hour weeks was a sociopath asking for 80.

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    1. Temporarily Sane

      It doesn’t. The meritocratic “if you want it badly enough you will find a way to get it” line that is pushed onto kids from an early age basically encourages them to be sociopaths. Herbert Spencer would wholeheartedly approve.

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  6. jake

    This piece promotes its own myth of meritocracy when it notes “There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth.”

    Nobody actually knows how skillful a programmer Gates is, but it doesn’t matter, because his programming skills have absolutely nothing to do with his wealth. Look up the history of IBM-DOS, for his pilfering of intellectual property and the colossal mistake of IBM, in allowing Microsoft, then a one-horse company, to retain rights to the operating system it didn’t actually write.

    Gates enjoys vast wealth thanks to incredible luck, crime and personality traits which have nothing to do with intellectual achievement.

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    1. poopinator

      Gates was a ruthless businessman. He was a monopolist. He was a bundler. He tried to rip off Paul Allen when he was stricken with cancer (Paul Allen was no sympathetic character in this either, btw). Gates was a notorious creep in the office during the early years. He would not have survived the scrutiny of a modern day internet enabled press. His philanthropy seems to serve his vanities more so than the immediate needs of the society that enabled his rise to wealth. Hell, until he was about 40 or so , he was a notorious miser when it came to charitable causes. Most of his charitable work seems to be aimed at pushing PR to rehabilitate the reputation that he so richly earned during the 80s and 90s.

      Whenever I hear or read about people talking about benevolent billionaires such as him or Buffet, I immediately know that the messenger is susceptible to propaganda. When Gates announced that he was leaving MS and concentrate on giving away his mountain of money, he was worth 10-20 billion. He’s now worth 100 billion, and most of that recent growth was due to rentier capitalism. Bill Gates firmly believes that he knows what society needs are better than the masses.

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        1. poopinator

          Been meaning to watch that. I think that’s a great example considering the topic of this thread. Society looks down on the homeless as losers in a meritocracy and deserving of their plight. Hence they are unworthy of charity from our plutocrats, despite being the product of the system they created.

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  7. Svante Arrhenius

    EWwww… Marx worked FOR Greeley! AmiRIGHT, huh, huh? Who decides, what MERITS whom? Certain towns sop up slime like SpongeBob. The 1% hasn’t the brains to replace their craven 9.9% churls with self-disinfecting robot whores YET? Without all these ivy league media hyenas feasting on the pyritic brains of inbred Reagan era pundits, wonks, gurus and deadeyed ofay hammerheads. What we have here is a meritocracy of mendacious moronic Munchkins? https://www.counterpunch.org/2009/06/12/elmer-fudd-nation/ https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2019/04/03/nine-reasons-why-you-should-support-joe-biden-for-president/

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  8. Sol

    Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour.

    Well, sure. See, one of the things we know for sure is that we are the good guy. And once we – the good guys – are also convinced of our own merit, from there determining who is also meritorious and good is a simple matter of examining those not like us for the flaws that made them dysfunctional, and examining those like us for the traits that made them excellent.

    Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

    :D

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  9. ape

    Yes, being delusional about reality leads to pathologies.

    Very great pathologies.

    In fact, there have been studies/simulations of pure meritocratic models versus partially random models — eg, a redistribution of wealth between plays so that early winners don’t get all the wealth. Unsurprisingly, a less “meritocratic” model is more meritocratic, because the problem isn’t in the winning, which is a partial winnow, but in the leveraging.

    You can see how deeply this bites even on this thread — if you’re a winner, and you think you’re a winner, you’re a loser.

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  10. JerryDenim

    As far as societal outcomes and world-views that squelch introspection I wonder how the Anglo concept of ‘meritocracy’ as a value system compares to other value systems that serve an entrenched elite at the top of a highly stratified society, like say, the Indian caste system? One system believes the gods and past deeds in previous lives determine your lot in this life, while the other system lays everything at the feet of each individual, in one lifespan, regardless of the hand they’ve been dealt, in effect elevating each man to god status deciding their own fates through sheer will. It could be argued the caste system is the more fatalist world view of the two, but it seems less psychologically corrosive for the losers. Not as much blame to internalize. Society-wide the outcome seems identical; Don’t question your betters, everybody gets what they deserve.

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  11. Rosario

    An observation I have made over the years. There are people who work hard (in a material and metaphysical/emotional sense), are smart, contribute to society in positive ways, and all the while, they gain little material or social wealth from it because they shun those “rewards” out of principle. I know some of those people and admire them very much. They are often a bit neurotic but very thoughtful and empathetic.

    Being successful in the sense that one is “helpful” to the world they live in is very different from being successful by typical cultural metrics. One is somewhat easy to quantify the other is not. Maybe the problem is, the way many people measure success is simplistic but easily quantifiable, and this half-picture approach to success, leads to “incompetence of morality”, similar to poor performance on the job as a result of not seeing the whole picture (put bluntly, being a dumbass). Not that bad behavior should be absolved because of this, but that perspective at least offers a less abstract approach to conditioning better behavior in people. We could create a model of human value and success that acknowledges our experience on this planet as more complicated than money, views, likes, etc.

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  12. Tim

    I believe the following three things:
    – I believe everybody should try as hard as they can to do their best for themselves and their loved ones in a moral/ethical way
    -I believe every individual should strive for a meritocracy in their own actions, and retain humility through empathy for those that are not as successfully in life. Luck and the starting point are huge factors
    – Even the most meritocractic of systems is not very meritocratic. Especially in the USA the ginni coefficient proves the american dream is dead.

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  13. Raulb

    Meritocracy is utopian. What we currently have is a 100M race with everyone starting at different distances. That’s not meritocracy by any reasonable interpretation of the word, its something else, yet we have the spectacle of ideologues who pretend its reality and in effect right now.

    Let’s start every child with the exact same circumstances till 18, how many meritocrats are open to that because that’s the only thing that can be called ‘meritocracy’? And its at this point that the arguments starts to rapidly degenerate into things like ‘parental meritocracy to pass on to children as perfectly fair’ ie feudalism or odious eugenics with more value placed on puzzle solving tests that they can logically provide. So every generation is squandering time arguing in good faith with disingenuous neo-feudals and their paid ideologues who use whatever they can to perpetuate privilege and wealth.

    Wealthy and able backgrounds are going to make a huge difference to children, as are connections and privilege in opportunities and perceptions. Since every society has an underclass that suffers prejudice and lack of opportunities and an upperclass that get the exact opposite meritocracy does not in fact exist.

    Even more damning how exactly are you going to get a meritocracy in a capitalist system that privileges wealth and capital, and by design produces a large underclass because demand, resource shortages and resulting prices hikes will always limit access only for the top echelons. There is no way any claims of merit can be made or taken with good faith. So what we get instead is celebrating the rich and privileged and a few odd naturally gifted who can start a race with a disadvantage and still compete as examples of meritocracy when it is only be the conditions of the average and not the exception that reflects a meritocracy.

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  14. cripes

    It’s worth mentioning that the earliest idea of meritocracy in 6th century china was the civil service examinations, embraced by confucious as a means to discourage corruption in government administration. The British also adopted a similar approach in India and the Americans enacted the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1881 intended to replace the “spoils” system.

    So this was largely about competitive examinations to qualify state functionaries for their jobs. The mania for testing and teaching to the test is the unfortunate progeny.

    Reasonable at first, but limited and did not originally describe an overblown (a)moral philosophy justifying hoarding of wealth and immiseration for the rest of us.

    Note:

    How does a just society provide for the care of elderly, or disabled children, accident victims or schizophrenics not capable of the “competition” meritocrats are so fond of?

    Or those who lack ambition for money, power or status but care for their children, create beautiful cabinets, music or murals?

    And the ditch-diggers and food servers every society needs especially the gifted “specials” so they can concentrate on coding or economics or something instead of harvesting their own food and carrying their waste out back in buckets.

    Meritocracy has no answer for it.

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  15. Ape

    Meritocracy is a very interesting problem, in that there do exist a few fields that are meritocratic, and a meritocracy makes sense.

    Many sports positions & sales, for example: success is *defined* by a metric, and not merely measured with metrics. So the guy who runs faster or the woman who makes more sales is by definition better at the job, and thus rewarding them based on that quantitative metric makes sense.

    You can’t consistently in the long-term game the system, and you have a clear way to distinguish an individual from everyone else with the same background. [thus the issues with drugging and corruption — they undermine that very unique quality of merit]

    However, almost every other job in the world can not be fully meritocratic — any metric to construct a meritocracy is inherently flawed in that it will be gamed, and there is no avoiding that. So to model it as meritocratic, when any measure you make must be dominated by “ability to game’ aka, irrelevant random numbers and “social network constructed around the job”, aka, “luck” in the sense that it’s not inherent to your own nature, but belongs to your social group, with a small residue of “talent”, stuff that distinguishes you from the members of your social group and isn’t just gaming the system.

    And since being consistently wrong about reality is dangerous… and leads to mental health problems…

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  16. Steven Greenberg

    When opportunity knocks, you have to be ready to open the door.

    There are good ideas to consider in this article, but just accepting everything in the article without thinking is also bad for you.

    Reply
  17. eg

    I’m surprised that neither the article nor any of the comments mention that the concept of “meritocracy” began as a satire.

    Reply
  18. dk

    Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief.

    This kind of implies that there are true beliefs, which is not the case. Belief is a substitute for concrete information. Concrete information is slippery enough, as physical circumstances constantly shift and evolve. Unless we also continuously change our beliefs, we can’t keep us with the current conditions of reality. One may believe what one wants, but belief in the validity of one’s beliefs in no way gives those beliefs significance to physical circumstance.

    Similarly, luck is a subjective evaluation, usually of unexpected events. But the failure of anticipation is subjective. “Good luck” is counter productive in an informational context, we learn little from unexpected success. We can learn a great deal more from failure, as long as we can survive it. This is how we develop skill. Without skill, claim to merit can only be on the basis of current and/or previous social status, i.e., a previous condition of merit. It a self-referring circle, self-sustaining and independent from the broader real circumstance.

    I think the entire line of reasoning is a very pure form of madness, an attempt to rationalize one set of beliefs by examining the flaws in another.

    One of the flaws of meritocracy is the conflation of benefits from skill, and benefits from loyalty. A loyal operator defends their pledge against failure by supporting claims that there was no failure at all, and that the consequences of an error are not caused by it.

    This in contrast to the operation of skill, which must identify error regardless of its origin, for the sake of accuracy alone. If we do not evaluate accurately, our evaluations differ from the real things we evaluate, and our conceptual models become disconnected (abstract) from reality. The result is that our expectations become unrealistic, inaccurate (garbage in, garbage out).

    Our civilization is sustained by the effectiveness of our skills, and the judicious placement of loyalty is one of those skills. But loyalty alone, while satisfying to some social contexts, is insufficient in itself to sustain function in a physical universe, whose behavior is not governed by our intellectual concepts or our emotional reactions.

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  19. Cripes

    Okay, Michael Young’s the myth of meritocracy 1958. Was a cautionary Tale about the false ideal of meritocracy in the near future.

    According the term when you become familiar with today. Misused without irony by those who have the most to gain from it.

    That’s not quite the same as inventing the concept though.

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  20. Sound of the Suburbs

    The trick is to get people to believe it’s a meritocracy.

    Those at the top are the best and those at the bottom are the worst.

    We are at the top because we are the best and we deserve loads of money and the best of everything.

    You are at the bottom because you are the worst, it’s all you fault you haven’t got anything.

    The last thing those at the top want is a meritocracy.

    What does a meritocracy look like?

    Let’s work it out from first principles.

    1) In a meritocracy everyone succeeds on their own merit.

    This is obvious, but to succeed on your own merit, we need to do away the traditional mechanisms that socially stratify society due to wealth flowing down the generations. Anything that comes from your parents has nothing to do with your own effort.

    2) There is no un-earned wealth or power, e.g inheritance, trust funds, hereditary titles

    In a meritocracy we need equal opportunity for all. We can’t have the current two tier education system with its fast track of private school / universities for people with wealthy parents.

    3) There is a uniform education system for everyone with no private schools or universities.

    The level playing field where the best get to the top.

    Yikes!

    Reply
  21. John

    Great article.

    The ideals behind the meritocracy downplay the extent to which external factors, such as luck, connections, and favorable circumstances (anything from social norms to guidance counselors) play a factor in determining an individual’s success. But even beyond those external factors that provide help along the way are the forces that shape one as an individual, namely genetics and parenting (or mentoring). People don’t choose what genes they’re born with and they don’t choose their parents. Yet these two determine what type of people they become and their aptitude for success in a capitalist economy. The law, for the most part, does not hold us to be responsible for our actions until we are 18, but by the time we’re that age, our personality is mostly formed. There’s not a whole lot we can do to change ourselves, and if we got poor grades in high school, it’s going to be very difficult for us to find success in this economy.

    I once volunteered at an orphanage for children 12-18. Until the kids were 12, they stayed at another orphanage. The people running the orphanage I was at told me that by the time the kids are 12, there’s not a whole lot that can be done to change them because their personalities are mostly formed. No one would seriously hold a 12 year old to be accountable for their lot in life…so why do we pretend that we are responsible for being the people that we are, and that we deserve all the credit for our own successes?

    There’s nothing wrong with giving some reward to those who achieve more in order to encourage productivity and success, but our society takes it way, way too far. There was once a famous study done where participants are quizzed on how much they think the richest people should earn compared to the poorest, and their answers–even those of Republicans–are typically much more equitable than our current distribution of wealth…can anyone help me find it? Anyway, that the fundamental attribution error actually ends up rationalizing our unjust politico-economic regime is an utter travesty.

    Reply

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