Illusions of Merit

I was thinking to myself the other day that, paradoxically, one of the more pernicious aspects of pseudo-meritocracy in America is that even if you’re given a lot of advantages in life it still is genuinely difficult to acquire certain kinds of highly sought-after positions. This is well-expressed by Keith Gessen in this essay on college admissions:

Even worse than the temporary psychological distortion is, as Lemann argued in “The Big Test,” the permanent sense of entitlement the admissions game provides. Winners can plausibly claim they participated in a brutal competition (even if many potential competitors were never told about it). So we owe no one anything. Many of the people I went to school with became doctors, public advocates, television writers who bring laughter to the American people. But most of them became, like my friend who believed that getting into Harvard was the hardest thing in life, investment bankers.

I found that essay via Kathy G. who wisely remarks that “a distressingly large number of people in our society seem to believe that going to college is proof that they’re “smarter” than their non-college-educated fellow citizens, and therefore more deserving of respect, status, and the comforts of middle-class life” despite the fact that “In the U.S., low income is likely to be a huge barrier to going to college, even among the highest scoring students.”

More broadly, the merit illusion stems from the well-documented fact that people don’t have a great intuitive grasp of statistics or large numbers. If your family connections boost your odds of getting into Harvard from one percent to five percent, you’ll perceive that as having triumphed against the odds on merit rather than using family connections to quintuple your chances. And then once you’re in it is, again, a genuinely difficult, competitive process to get a job at an investment bank. And climbing to the top of the i-banking world is, again, a genuinely difficult and competitive process.

It’s difficult, however, for people to keep in their heads the idea that, yes, you may have displayed considerable merit to get where you are but also you’ve taken advantage of a lot of undeserved privileges of birth. Similarly, if you wind up needing to compete on merit against a few hundred other people for a couple dozen highly desirable slots, the question of what happened to all those other people who got excluded from consideration for non-merit reasons sort of falls out of sight.