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In Defense of Merit: Why a Free Society Needs to Resist the Assault on Merit

Merit has become a dirty word. Almost as bad as privilege. It has come to mean an unfair advantage that threatens to overturn diversity, equity, and inclusion. To reward someone for merit means not rewarding someone for failing to exhibit merit. Merit, by its very nature, is not easily won, regardless of what the rules are for winning it and irrespective of whether those rules are just. And so our culture is increasingly hostile to merit because, say what you will, merit is not for everyone.

Nonetheless, I want to argue here that we need a society ordered by merit, and that without merit we do ourselves long-term harm. This concern, so expressed, applies not only to society as a whole but doubly to the business world. The fact is that no business can thrive apart from merit (the merit of its management and employees). Without it, businesses are mismanaged, and those ventures that continue in its absence do so because they are heavily subsidized or can claim some sort of monopoly that puts them outside the reach of market discipline — which ultimately is governed by merit.

What is merit? The very word, from its Latin root, refers to receiving what you earned. Originally, its connotation could be both positive or negative, as in earning a reward or earning a punishment. The point with merit is that it depends not on idiosyncratic features of yourself (your class, caste, race, ethnicity, gender) but on what you’ve accomplished through your own efforts, in other words, on your merits.

Now in most circumstances where we must depend on others and where there’s a cost to us for bringing others on board in some venture, we look to their merit. That’s why we look at a CV (curriculum vitae) or resumé. That’s why we look at test scores and performance metrics. Granted, higher education these days is tending to downgrade merit as gauged by ACT or SAT testing (note that I’m not challenging that move — there are problems with these tests — not all tests are good or provide fair estimates of merit).

But the detailed applications that especially the elite schools demand from prospective students nonetheless do gauge merit — the application process, at least from the students’ end, is all about the students’ record of accomplishment. Even with diversity as a criterion of admission, schools want students that have accomplished different sorts of things. In this light, it’s also interesting to note that high-end tech firms will ask prospective employees who have graduated college what their ACT or SAT scores were. The point is to gauge accomplishment and ability, and for some employers these test scores are a better reflection of merit than college performance (which in turn raises questions about the value of some college educations).

Imagine an athletic team where the coach had a pool of prospective athletes from which to choose, but decided to ignore merit. Merit always applies to excellence and ability in the relevant area of activity. So if it’s baseball, it’s merit in playing the game, whether as a pitcher, fielder, utility player, or designated hitter. But what if the coach decided to choose players based on some other factor? It could be on accomplishments irrelevant to the game. Powerlifting champions might be impressive when it comes to powerlifting, but most of them lack the nimbleness and skill set to play baseball well. At least with powerlifting there would be some merit, though it would be irrelevant to the game.

Alternatively, the coach might decide to exclude merit entirely from consideration in choosing the team. Perhaps winning a beauty contest could be a criterion of inclusion. Perhaps race or ethnicity could be a criterion, whether for inclusion or exclusion. So ask yourself how good a team could be fielded if merit were ignored in favor of other extraneous factors. Essentially, the team could in that case have just as well have been assembled at random.

Accordingly, such a team would flounder against teams that did make merit, and specifically merit with reference to baseball skills, its criterion for inclusion. Or would it? It depends if all other teams playing against each other were likewise selected on conditions other than merit. Teams selected on the basis of merit would trounce teams that weren’t.

But if, in the interest of equality, it was decided that no team should have an advantage over teams selected for reasons other than merit, then merit would disappear entirely from the sport in question, and games would be decided pretty much randomly, based on the luck of the draw in concentrating players with merit in a given team. Merit would still be there and still decide games, but its distribution would be random, or seemingly random. Of course, it could be that some teams would then try to select players based on merit, but then keep that selection process hidden so as not to betray that they were in fact a merit-based team.

The sports analogy makes clear why merit, at least in professional sports where the cost of playing players that lack merit would be devastating on the win-loss record, will always remain indispensable. But the business world likewise puts a premium on merit. Employees short on merit will be a net drag on a company and would be better replaced with those exemplary in merit. Business stakeholders who place a premium on diversity, equity, and inclusion will want to go beyond (mere) merit in hiring and firing decisions, but they cannot eliminate it, at least not without undermining the health and bottom line of the company.

The world of education, however, is a much iffier place for merit, at least in the last few decades. Unlike sports, where clear criteria of performance are in evidence, in the academy, play acting and faking can prosper. Sure, there are fields and departments where the standards of excellence are high and lack of merit will block your advancement. But many of the squishier fields of study (no need to mention them by name — anybody who has paid attention to American higher education will know what they are) allow for the academic advancement of its practitioners with little regard to any hard-won skills or achievements. Much more does advancement depend on the ability to play endlessly on the themes of victimhood and oppression. That’s not to say that victimhood and oppression are not real or don’t need serious academic treatment. It is to say that many opportunists have learned to cash in on victimhood and oppression, turning it from a legitimate area of research to an ideological soapbox.

And so, increasingly, merit is taking a second seat in American higher education. Thus it is now common to hear that mathematics, insofar as it demands correct answers, is a form of oppression. In consequence, students should not think of 2+2 = 4 as a true statement that demands assent but as one of various answers that could be equally legitimate, such as 2+2 = 5 or perhaps even 2+2 = a granola bar. Say what you will, but merit has deep ties to truth and reality. If you ignore merit, reality will eventually bite you in the rear end. But often you can ignore merit and reality before they catch up with you.

We see this dystopian dynamic in the world of higher education these days as well as in the world that higher education has spawned, namely, media and government. In fact, there’s a nice incestuous relation here. Government, by heavily subsidizing higher education through student loans and funding of faculty research (with disproportionate overhead costs going to university administration), allows schools to thrive, or at least spend money like drunken sailors, because schools don’t need to spend money prudently. Thus schools exhibit increasing administrative bloat, hiring administrators to oversee one politically correct cause on campus after another, at huge expense, while at the same time hiring ever greater armies of adjunct faculty at a pittance to do much of the basic teaching.

Moreover, once students deficient in merit graduate from colleges that diminish merit, they enter the workforce with a paucity of skills. They thus have no ready place in a business world that requires a full skill set exhibiting merit. And so, except for low-level jobs, they have little opportunity to prosper unless they go where merit is devalued and where they prosper by attacking merit.

Actually, this is not quite true. Laws and regulation can punish businesses and industry for not hiring, and worse yet for firing, persons even if they lack merit. Thus we may not be far (or maybe we are already there) from the care of nurses who don’t know the difference .10 milligrams and 10 milligrams. And while basic arithmetic skills may not be a prerequisite for certain university departments, in an age of fentanyl overdoses, arithmetic skills, and the merit they exhibit, will remain important in the health care professions.

Nonetheless, people deficient in merit, if they are really going to prosper, need to go into the media and government. The level of discourse there has in the last decade become incredibly shallow. But even shallow wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so mediocre and misdirected. Ideology rather than merit, it seems, is the guiding force in media and political discourse. The level of mismanagement in government is staggering (tens of billions of dollars of waste are nothing, nor the cost to morale in gutting our public institutions). And of course, this culture of waste feeds back on education, not only higher education but also K thru 12 education. Look at the teachers’ unions. Their interest is not in the students (otherwise they might be called students’ unions) but in preserving teachers’ jobs and perks regardless of how their merit-destroying policies negatively impact students.

Call me Cassandra? Sure. If you think that’s a misnomer, then you haven’t been paying attention. But the real question is, What is to be done? It seems that we may be past the point of systemic solutions. National testing, clear metrics of merit, and such seem on the way out. Civil service exams used to be a big thing. In ancient China, they could make or break your career, and cheating on them could get you executed. Perhaps this legacy of merit is one reason that Asians tend to do better than any other ethnic group on tests like the ACT and SAT.

It seems that the best that can be done is that people, individually, affirm their commitment to merit as a good thing. That people need to be rewarded for the inherent excellence of their work — its meritoriousness. And so, insofar as it is in our power to reward those who exhibit merit (which is to say those that deserve to be rewarded on the basis of their work rather than some extraneous factors), we should do so.

And if the system as a whole doesn’t reward merit? Then we need to muddle through as best we can, working with those deficient in merit, perhaps even sidelining them, getting them out of the way of those who exhibit merit and can get the job done. It’s like the Little Red Hen that worked hard and got the job done. The freeloaders were there, and insofar as they could be prevented from getting the rewards of merit, all to the good.

A world without merit is a world of parasites, people who benefit off the labors of others and don’t pull their own weight. I know this sounds harsh. And it would be one thing for those without merit to admit their limitations and take a station in keeping with it. But in our day, they don’t. They think they deserve all the benefits of those who have done the hard work, achieved the requisite skills, and provided the value for society. This is not just redistribution of wealth. This is redistribution of position and recognition.

A world without merit is a world of extortion, in which those who have the merit must pay protection money to those without merit so that they can at least try to keep doing something productive. But the net drain of an extortion racket on a society’s productivity is significant. We see it in the lousy education that so many of our young people receive courtesy of teachers unions who insulate bad teachers and bad schools from accountability; who purposely suppress alternative schools that do more with less, making them look bad; and who exact more money per student than any other country in the world, and yet produce overwhelmingly mediocre results. We see it in government boondoggles that spend billions if not trillions on planned infrastructure improvements that never materialize or at best get 10 cents on the dollar in value returned.

One of my high school friends was from Springfield, Massachusetts. His family knew Timothy Leary, who was from Springfield. It seemed the family remembered him fondly. Leary was the LSD guru of the 1960s and 70s, during which time he was arrested 36 times and branded by President Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America.” He popularized such catchphrases as “turn on, tune in, drop out” as well as “think for yourself and question authority.” The first of these was his most popular.

Let me suggest that we reinterpret Leary’s catchphrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” by focusing it on merit: turn on merit, as in make sure that you personally are putting a premium on merit and exhibiting it in your life and work; tune in(to) merit, as in make sure that you are looking to reward and advance those that exhibit merit; and finally, drop (out) what lacks merit, as in refuse to reward the people and institutions that flout merit, especially political and social media hit groups that actively penalize merit.

One final note: there are real victims and real oppressors in this world, and nothing here is meant to deny compassion to the victims or sidestep penalties to the oppressors. Many of the victims cannot help themselves. Anybody with a special-needs family member will understand that there is a currency that is even more valuable than merit, based on grace, love, and compassion. This article is meant to take to task the greedy, not the needy. In fact, one might say that the greatest service the meritorious can do is to help those who are truly victims.

But the irony of our times is that the people who are most outspoken and articulate about their victimhood can in fact be outspoken and articulate, having been educated and empowered to make victimhood a job and even a calling. The true victims, sadly, are typically silent. They are the people in the ER who are so badly hurt that they cannot advocate for themselves. Merit needs to advance a society by making it at once productive in enhancing the lives of its members but also responsive to those who are truly in need.