Meritocracies become oligarchies

In The Nation, Christopher Hayes has a brilliant article on the way that "meritocracy" inevitably turns into oligarchy, and what that means for our society today. Hayes's account of the transition from meritocracy to oligarchy isn't just about self-delusion ("I am on top, and I am superior, therefore we live in a meritocracy") but also about the way that those who move to the top cement their position by changing the rules. He relates this to the end of economic mobility in the US, the concomitant concentration of wealth, and the way that these factors were a harbinger of collapse in other societies.

In order for it to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the challenge of matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous, competitive selection process that ensures performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot simply be made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures. When a slugger loses his swing, he should be benched; when a trader loses money, his bonus should be cut. At the broader social level, we hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”

Hayes goes on to interview various Wall Street titans and hedge fund managers, and gets their own account of how they feel that they are innately superior -- the smartest guys in the room -- and how great it is that the nation takes its cues from them.

Why Elites Fail


  1. “Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.”

    This is not a particularly new observation about “meritocracies”, as literally every leftist critique of capitalism for the past 200 years has leveled this charge. And rightly so.

    However, it always bears repeating.

    1. But perfectly equal outcomes and opportunities are both inconceivable, so I for one am pretty tired of hearing it repeated! Two people can’t be in exactly the same place, therefore one of them must be closer to some opportunity than the other. Obviously perfection is unattainable, but nor is it necessary.

      The real moral questions include: what is a tolerable level of inequality? To what extent can we calculate who deserves what?

      And the real practical questions include: what is an achievable level of equality? How do we know when it is achieved? And do people really care about it?

      Inequality only becomes a hot issue when the economy shrinks. When the economy is growing, inequality falls in importance for most people. It’s striking that the outcry over the “1%” (why not the 5%?) occured right after a significant fall in the share of wealth owned by the top 1%.

  2. Which is why all major sports leagues have some complex level-the-field rules (salaries, who gets 1st drafts, even revenue sharing). The game is no fun if the Yankees always win.

    1.  And even then the yankees have won a quarter of all world series, and a third of all american league pennants.

  3. but also about the way that those who move to the top cement their position by changing the rules.

    “Kicking away the ladder” some call it.

  4. Hayes always gets it almost great, but misses critical opportunities to hammer a point home.  In the discussion of “smartness” he comes off as arguing for less emphasis on “smartness” and more on other things.  All well and good, but it’s a terribly weak argument.  Especially when a much stronger one is available.  He should have pointed out that all this supposed “smartness” is part delusional rationalization of privilege– i.e. elites aren’t as smart as they think, and they think that in order to avoid feeling bad about their privileges–and partly a product of privilege itself.  It’s much easier to develop mental talents when provided with the best education and support, along with being surrounded by a culture that encourages it.  People in privileged positions often forget that, and seek to instead attribute all talent to some vitalistic essence innate to a person.  Hayes would have made a much more powerful case by exploring that direction, rather than making a waffling appeal to greater empathy.

    1.  You’re kind of presenting a false dichotomy. While it’s certainly true that the privileged are not necessarily smart and do inherently have better opportunities to develop themselves, natural “smartness” is also quite real, and an argument that depends on it being an illusion is just abandoning reality in order to make a “more powerful case.”

      1.  Whether it is real or not isn’t relevant to my argument.  And I made no such statement that it wasn’t.  What’s relevant is whether actual class differences in intelligence are sufficient to explain income differences and accumulation of wealth over generations.  I submit that they are not.

        1.  I’d say you were implying it wasn’t, but ok: you agree that it’s real. So you don’t propose denying reality, just ignoring part of it?

          1. Differences in intelligence across a class divide. It’s pretty self-explanatory. I will be clear here that I am not making any statement about the existence of any such thing. I am just pointing out that it doesn’t affect my argument if they do.

  5. It is indeed a difficult circle to square. Prevent unequal outcomes, and there is little motivation to push the boundaries (or even do much of anything). Allow unequal outcomes and they easily mutate into unequal opportunities for the ‘next round’ of competition. Some sort of strong encouragement to reset must be devised. Perhaps we can tax income based not on income levels but on wealth levels (e.g. make $250,000 while owning nothing and you are barely taxed, make $10,000 while being worth $5,000,000 and you are taxed at 95%…) There are definite problems there (how to account for spending), but it might be better than what we have now.

    1.  Some countries have a basic “wealth tax” that kind of serves that purpose.  But it is in addition to income taxes.

      1. Alternately, there’s the idea of a money tax (sort of an inverse income tax: money degrades in value the less it’s used) to discourage hoarding by already wealthy people.

    2. The matter has been temporarily solved many times in many places.  The typical solution is a progressive income tax and a near absolute estate tax.  This ameliorates social inequality without greatly inhibiting motivations, and prevents accumulation of wealth over generations.  The problem isn’t finding a structure that works.  The problem is finding one that isn’t gradually eroded by the influence of people who make it to the top.

        1. i doubt if you’d find that a majority of the french would agree with you about “the long view”. do you think that the problem hayes describes isn’t at work in france as well?

          1. It would be more accurate to say that development of a post-war social democracy worked pretty well in France.

          2. Oh, I am mostly kidding. But I do think that that the extremely entitled do tend to forget how large wealth inequalities have historically been handled….

        2. re: history etc. …kevin kelly, that irritating savant, once said “change changes change”. at this point i think its a toss up on whether or not the rich and powerful in western cultures have learned enough from history that things will go differently than in the past, or whether it goes down pretty much the way it has done before – some sufficiently strident members of the underclass take their stuff (and maybe their lives), and become the foundation of the new overclass. to be honest, i don’t even know which of these two i’d prefer.

        3.  Just look at Greece, now. Imho it’s only a matter of time till a mob forms and starts burning the corrupt high-class.

          And that’s a lesson to take home: People aren’t stupid. They are often complacent, but if you cheat on them to much, they will come and do nasty things to you.

      1. re: french post-WWII social democracy … i think the evidence is that this worked quite well in several places, including the USA. france managed to build a deeper and more robust social security system, but it appears to me that they are facing many of the same issues that hayes meritocracy=>oligarchy pattern implies (as is the UK, though they never really managed the revolution in the first place, so the manifestation is different there).

    3.  Maybe we should gently suggest to children that there’s better reasons to “push the boundaries” and “do much of anything” than money. 

      1.  We know from behavioral economics that rational choices alone cannot explain human activity.  Where are all these starving artists coming from?  And anyway, a society with low inequality isn’t a society with no inequality.  You’d be daft to think that a wealth distribution in which the top 10% control, say, 30-40% of the wealth would not produce sufficient motivation or ambition.

      2. I really don’t think it’s a teaching matter. It is really difficult to get people to sacrifice “time free for the pursuing of their interests” for anything other than “increases in capabilities for the pursuing of their interests”. You can offer up some interests to be pursued directly (transforming ‘work’ into ‘hobby’), and you can provide some non-monetary capability increases (e.g. ‘respect’ or ‘acclaim’), but both are quite difficult to scale and guarantee consistency.

  6. What a fascinating, flawed and racist screed that was.  I read the whole thing and I’m glad you pointed it out, Cory.

    When I read Hayes’ character sketch of David Addington, intended to describe how smart he is, my immediate thought was “Hayes is describing a pure psychopath”.

      1. It seemed to me that the article implicitly contained the idea that an institution’s decreasing non-white population was due to some inherent inability of non-whites to work the system.  Year one, you have all these people considered ultra-bright, of all races, year twenty, the ultra-bright whites have excluded the children of the ultra-bright non-whites.  Do you see it?  Perhaps I read too much between the lines.  I have had to deal with unselfconscious racism in the past and I am sensitive to certain phrasings and narrative arcs, which to me tend to indicate an unthinking acceptance of genetic privilege.

    1. I read the entire article – let me guess: you didn’t like the bit about “affirmative action for rich white people?”

      And you are right, Addington most certainly seems psychopathic by any rational definition. I gather you object to that too.

      How much you make, Ito? Work on Wall Street do you, or perhaps a political office? I wonder.

      Also, fuck oligarchy (NSFW).

      1. I certainly do object to psychopaths directing national policy, especially foreign policy.  I gather you don’t?

        I have never worked on Wall Street, although I did a consultant gig at age 16 for a stockbroker who wanted some dodgy reverse-engineering that was still legal back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  I have never worked in politics, except as a voting official for the Republican party during the last presidential election (I donated the paycheck to Planned Parenthood).  I do make truly absurd amounts of money, mostly by answering questions.  Mrs. Kagehisa donates much of it to environmental and social causes, and while I have no debt other than a mortgage, I am not at all rich by US standards.

        I enjoyed the video, thanks!

        1. Nicely done, sir. I do get my ‘occupy’ back up sometimes, I must admit – my apologies. I hope the femen made up for it.

    1.  The “Iron Law of Meritocracy” is just one proof for the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”; “He who says organization, says Oligarchy.”

  7. Just like Cory, I’m a writer. But I suffer under the rigged system of “unequal outcomes.” While Cory has received compensation for his writing, I’ve received exactly zip — could our outcomes be more unequal? Now all you capitalist are going to jump on me saying, “But Cory has revised and completed many novels then worked to secure publishing for each one, while you haven’t even finished the first draft of your first novel!” — and of course, you would be correct. But the underlying point of this article is that we should stop focusing on unequal talent or effort, and turn our full gaze to the unequal outcomes. Will you not wring your hands at my plight? Because Cory’s books have sold well, his next book will have an unfair advantage over my first-time submission (if I ever get the thing done). The editor will smile and say, “Here’s Cory’s new work! He’s a proven seller! I’ll publish his book rather than this first-time author!” Talk about kicking the ladder away!

    1. I’m afraid that with thinking of that caliber you will continue to experience unequal outcomes in most of your endeavors.

      1. Exactly! Just as the original author said, if people like me continue to experience unequal outcomes in my endeavors because of a lower caliber of thinking/work/effort/talent — then society is inherently unfair and ultimately doomed! Doomed! Will Cory split his royalties with me to save the planet?!?

        1. I will assume that I am not bright enough to detect and appreciate your mocking irony, as opposed to vice versa.

    2. “But the underlying point of this article is that we should stop focusing on unequal talent or effort, and turn our full gaze to the unequal outcomes.”

      No it isn’t.  Read it again.

      edit: I should clarify, I mean to read the Hayes article, not Cory’s mention of it above. I have a strong suspicion you didn’t.

      Second edit: I doubt you’ll do the reading, and suspect you’ll fail to grasp the thesis even if you do, so I’ll spell out Hayes’ main idea–though he actually does state this quite explicitly in the article.

      In a system in which actors are rewarded according to their talent, the talented tend to rise in social class. Having done so, they then use their elevated status to secure their position, and pass this status on to their children, thereby eroding the meritocracy and converting it gradually into an oligarchy.

      You’ll notice that no argument is presented at all against the notion of rewards according to talent or merit. At least attempt to understand the argument before you caricature it with a stock retort.

    3. I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re on Cory’s side and you’re being ironic in an attempt to paint people who disagree as being stupid.  Just because it would sadden me to believe you really are this stupid.

      1. If I am this stupid, then the Iron Law of Meritocracy will punish me the most! Why should my lack of common sense or discernible talent mean I get a smaller piece of the pie than Cory?

        1. Stupid or troll?  Why not both?

          The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.

          So the Iron Law of Meritocracy specifically does not say that you’ll be punished for stupidity. It says that if you’re stupid and your parents are rich they’ll change the rules for you so that you’ll succeed despite being stupid.

          You see how you have no fucking clue what you’re even criticizing? And how you’re perfectly demonstrating the Iron Law of Meritocracy by not starving to death in a ditch despite being implausibly thick?

  8. A good read is Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, it’s a short and funny science fiction-y novella by one of the architects of the UK post-war welfare state.

  9. Technology is changing the dynamic. On the Internet we all start out as nobodies, regardless of our past. The fact that your ISP treats you the same as their wealthy subscribers is what scares the rich most right now. They’ve never had to deal with a threat like this and its the reason for the deluge of proposed legislation to censor our communications.

  10. Meritocracy? like, in Wikipedia?
    Am I the only one who is noticing a sort of lower quality lately in Wikipedia, as “rules” enforced by such meritocrats are beating down good sense? Maybe this is the reason…  Interesting!

    1. There was, I think. Probably a very short window right after the great depression, which my grandmother was born during. She came from a poor family and worked her up the ladder at Seagram’s corp. with no education. When I dropped out of college, she expected me to do something similar, and would not accept that this was no longer possible.

    2.  I believe there was a lot more economic mobility in the past. The great depression and WWII changed the economic landscape of the US massively: a lot of large corporations had fallen or were weakened, new technology was appearing at a rapid pace and the economy was booming. It was the perfect situation for hard workers to get higher status in life and there were many willing to do just that (including veterans coming back from the war).

      All that hard work paid off for some and they created a new establishment, which is just as unforgiving as the one that came before the depression.

      1. The trick is that the past was not the same for everyone. You can be sure some types of people were always afforded much more mobility than others.

  11. This is exactly the same reason why “communism” and “theocracy” also tend towards failure after one generation or so – the idealists who implemented the original system (because they genuinely believed in better) are inevitably replaced by cynics or sociopaths who then pervert things until the society either ends up in war or revolution.   (It’s a rare one that escapes either, and even then it is pretty much never for an idealistic alternative.)  
    I suspect that private companies also exhibit much the same problems once they are driven by shareholder profit rather than the founders’ idealism. 

    1. Exactly. I’m not sure why this is treated as such a revelation by Cory. Instead it’s a rather obvious point that exists in ANY power structure, rather than just solely in a capitalistic society. 
      The same conclusions could be reached by examining the corruption and cronyism in China’s ruling class, or the leap-frog that is Russian rule these days. Power inherently corrupts. But with a free market, it’s supposed to be left to it’s own designs to fail or succeed without constant federal handouts or unfair supportive legislation. 

      The fact that our govt INSISTS on being so involved in every facet of life makes it a lot more difficult to tear ourselves free from the influence of the  corrupt, incompetent dullards who think it’s their place to police everything. 

  12. Mind you, there aren’t any very few – if any – actual meritocracies in the first place.

  13. Been reading Laurence J Peter, author of the Peter Principle which states that in a hierarchy people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.  Seems that Chris Hayes’ is approaching the same idea from a different direction.  Peter hoped to found the discipline of hierarchiology but it doesn’t seem to have occurred.

    Peter formally studied and taught education and his work was based upon systems thinking. Reading _The Peter Plan_ now, published in 1975 projecting a society in 1990 that has learned to live within ecological limits.  Heartbreaking to see how much farther away we are from such goals today.

  14. I think the bit on Robert Michels depresses me more than the point being made on meritocracy.

    Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable.

    What hope can there be to escape the clutches of oligarchy if both left and right wing political parties are destined to same oligarchical end and that even revolution merely treats the symptom, but never results in a cure?

  15. Meritocracy leads to oligarchy, which is why healthy doses of anarchy will be necessary from time to time, in order to level the playing field and give meritocracy a chance to flourish once more.

  16. I think Hayes misses the essential core of the problem. The issue is not selection by merit leading to the solidification of an elite; rather, it is the societal assumption that the elite are somehow anointed with the power necessary to accomplish that solidification.

    Consider this quote from Michel: “For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks … The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process.”

    From this, Hayes deduces that we are doomed to oligarchy. Of course, he’s making a pretty big assumption in his premises: should such organizations be considered legitimate? What establishes their legitimacy other than the brute force of a majority? What I would deduce from that quote is that the problem is actually the societal establishment and acceptance of the “tools” of oligarchical protection. As has been demonstrated time and time again, the oligarchy rules only at the pleasure of the masses. If the society does not accept the legitimacy of the coercive tools necessary for the oligarchy to maintain power, the society would not face the problem he describes.

    1. Interesting point. Reminded me of the execrable  piece by David Brooks the other day, saying that what we really need in this nation is to learn how to be better followers to our great leaders. 

      It’s amazing how quick some people are to forsake common sense, independence and skepticism as long as their team is calling the shots. What an awful, loathsome  opinion by someone so commonly referred to as an ‘expert’. It had more in common with an official party release from North Korea than a page in a leading part of the free press.

  17. George Monbiot (UK Guardian) has links to 2 research studies which undermine the superiority of elites.

    1. Evidence of Psychopathic profiles in CEOs, etc

    “In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders”.

    2. Evidence of zero skills in financial high-fliers

    The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.

  18. There’s also the problem, maybe overlooked in industrialized nations, that undernourishment during the 1st years of development has a lasting effect in a person’s educational progress, thus contributing to the lack of mobility in social classes.

    The brain needs to be properly fed in more than one way. 

Comments are closed.