What is meritocracy?

Andrew Gelman points to our confusions regarding merit in our social perceptions of winners and losers. I might make a list of naughty and nice sayings for another post.

Tyler Cowen pointed to an article by business-school professor Luigi Zingales about meritocracy. I’d expect a b-school prof to support the idea of meritocracy, and Zingales does not disappoint.

But he says a bunch of other things that to me represent a confused conflation of ideas. Here’s Zingales:

America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous [emphasis added]. In a word, it was a meritocracy.

That’s interesting—and revealing. Here’s what I get when I look up “meritocracy” in the dictionary:

1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.
Later, Zingales writes:

The fundamental role of an economic system, even an extremely primitive one, is to assign responsibility and reward.

Huh? Again he seems to be conflating economics with morality, in a similar way as when economists Mankiw and Weinzierl implied that the state only has a right to tax things that are “unjustly wrestled from someone else.” Zingales in the above quote is taking the economic functions of prices, wages, supply, and demand and transmuting them into to the morally-loaded terms “responsibility” and “reward.”

Finally, in his praise of meritocracy, Zingales doesn’t seem to be aware of the concept’s self-contradicting nature. As James “Effect” Flynn has pointed out,

The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

To put it another way, Zingales talks a lot about the threat to meritocracy from business capturing government regulation or from pitchfork-wielding hordes raising the marginal tax rate, but he doesn’t consider some much more direct effects of meritocracy such as this.

More can be read at Andrew’s place. (link is at beginning)