Monday, January 4, 2021

How meritocracies fail

Meritocracies decay, and are often over-rated.

A public test of character.

Meritocracy is not a new social form. It is not specific to Western modernity. On the contrary, one of the key markers of meritocracy — selection of public servants by examination — was pioneered by China centuries ago.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), examination became the dominant path to official appointment. With the partial exception of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the subsequent dynasties, the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1912), also selected their officials from those who had passed the imperial examination.

The Ottoman Empire (1299–1922) was also a substantially meritocratic polity. The basis of Ottoman meritocracy was the boy-tax levied on non-Muslim families, the devshirme. Each crop of boys was sorted according to their apparent aptitudes. They were trained and tested and set upon their various career paths within the state apparatus.

Yet, the Ottoman Empire became “the sick man of Europe” and the Qing Empire failed to deal with the European challenge and the Japanese one, becoming the “sick man” of Asia. Because meritocracy has a considerable history we can examine how meritocracies decay.

Meritocracy is frequently over-rated.

Incentives and feedbacks are rather more important in determining how social systems work than how meritocratic appointment processes are. Especially as there is often a rather narrow conception of merit involved.

Moreover, meritocracies decay. They decay into corruption, spinelessness and cultural arrogance (even zealotry). They decay in these ways precisely because (1) the notion of merit involved is relatively narrow and (2) the processes of meritocratic selection typically do not involve any serious test of character or commitment, apart from the very minimal one of sufficient persistence (and capacity) to acquire the relevant credentials.

Meritocracy became the dominant model of official appointment in Britain by around 1870 (notably with the Cardwell reforms of the British Army) and in the US with the passing of the Pendleton Act in 1883. So, 150–130 years ago, though the transition to meritocracy took place across the C19th. Around 150 years into Chinese dynasties is roughly when the process of regime decay typically begins to become evident.

The core of the Ottoman meritocracy was established in the 1380s and is in decay by around 1600. But the Ottoman Empire was a warlike, expansionary state, whose elite experienced constant tests in battle. The processes of decay did not really begin until after the reign of Suleiman Kanuni (aka Suleiman the Magnificent, r.1520–1566). So, around 190 years or so after the establishment of the core of the Ottoman meritocracy.

China’s switch to a more meritocratic form of Leninism is probably too recent for the decay processes specific to meritocracy to set in. The decay processes specific to bureaucracy have had decades to emerge, but were lessened by the network-disruptions of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and by the shift to a much more market-oriented economy.

Corruption: selling official discretions

Financial corruption is the selling of official discretion (i.e. decisions, both active and passive). Meritocracy can provide cover for corruption, as officials are presumed to be meritoriously selected. The more merit is relied upon, the more official discretion officials are likely to have, the greater the capacity to sell or use those discretions for personal advantage.

Financial corruption among officials can be functional for rulers. It can provide a way for rulers to exercise patronage by providing supporters with income opportunities. Moreover, corrupt officials lack normative reliability as cooperators, as their actions are for sale. This lack of normative reliability translates into a lack of normative standing, retarding the possibility of their participating in any active threat to the ruler. (The lack of normative reliability is why corruption tends to be networked, as failure to “stay bought” rebounds through the network.)

Corrupt officials lacking normative reliability is, however, very two-edged. Their lack of cooperative reliability makes them unreliable in situations of stress in general, not just as potential political conspirators. In a situation of social stress or crisis, rulers can find their instruments of power effectively melting away as the result of corruption making their notional agents unreliable cooperators.

Chinese dynasties experienced a recurring pattern of mounting official corruption as each dynastic regime aged.

We can see ibn Khaldun’s (1332–1406) model of dynastic (or regime) cycles operating here. In his model, a group with very strong normative bonds comes to power. Over time, and in an interactive process, corruption mounts and the normative bonds weaken. By the end, the system of rule is pervaded by unreliable cooperators, and collapses, to be replaced by a new group with strong normative bonds. Then, rinse and repeat.

Eurosphere polities largely avoided the patterns ibn Khaldun identified as they historically had countervailing tests of character and commitment operating on office-holders. Such as the culture of duelling. With the rise of meritocracy, there is a comparative lack of tests of character and commitment. Thus, ibn Khaldun’s analysis of the consequences of the loss of asabiyya or group feeling (what we might call normative commitment) is likely to have increasing bite.

There are other types of corruption than outright sale of official discretions. For example, advantaging those with connections to prominent officials or creating mutual support networks among officials. It was notably how unremarkable so many commentators in elite media found it that, for instance, Hunter Biden was able to score such high-paying company directorships without any obvious talent or capacity, apart from who his father is.

Modern Anglo societies are relatively good at minimising outright financial corruption. Self-serving networking is, however, rather more common.

Without significant tests of character or normative commitment being attached to holding official positions, the various processes of meritocratic decay can be expected to increase over time due to institutional selection favouring those who play such games.

(On the matter of narrow conceptions of merit, a recent study of the traits of CEOs found that non-cognitive traits — we might say marks of character — such as social maturity, intensity, psychological energy, emotional stability, willingness to assume responsibility, being independent, having an outgoing character, demonstrating persistence and emotional stability, displaying initiative, are collectively a stronger predictor of becoming a CEO than are cognitive traits.)

Official spinelessness …

Spinelessness is risk aversion coupled with a lack of normative commitment. Bureaucracies generally select for risk aversion.

Without significant tests of character and normative commitment being attached to holding official positions, the culture of risk aversion can also be expected to increase, as that is what is being selected for and there is no counter-acting selection for character and commitment. Hence, as meritocracies age, the level of spinelessness among officials tends to increase.

We can certainly see this in our own time. The problem with “wokeness” is far less the demands of activists than that officials and executives regularly give in to them. The complaint by commentator Douglas Murray in his online commentary, and his The Madness of Crowds, of the recurrent failure of the “adults in the room” to act against activist purity spirals, and online mobbing, has much to do with this expanding official spinelessness (i.e. risk aversion without normative commitment).

…and mimetic arrogance

The third feature of failing meritocracies is mimetic arrogance. It is, in part, a natural tendency of meritocracy, as the notion that one is appointed on merit has a certain ego-elevating effect. Especially for a shared notion of merit. Members of the meritocracy can furiously agree what splendid persons they all are for having acquired the relevant markers of merit.

Retreat into such mimetic arrogance becomes more attractive the more awkward or threatening the larger social context becomes. We can see this mimetic arrogance in Islamic elites resisting modernisation or liberalisation because the ideas and techniques come from infidels. We can see it in the Chinese mandarins and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) officials deeming their rich cultural heritage so outweighing anything the Frankish/European barbarians coming by sea may have come up with.

This sort of cultural mimetic arrogance was also on display in Japanese reactions to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships”. That Japan had a long history of adopting Chinese ideas, but adapting them to their circumstances, as well as a long history of competing power centres, and consequent overt political bargaining, meant that they (mostly) evaded the downsides of such mimetic arrogance. (I say mostly, because a re-worked form of mimetic cultural arrogance rather disastrously re-emerged in the 1930s and 1940s.)

What we see in contemporary developed Eurosphere democracies is not that sort of cultural heritage arrogance, at least not much among the meritocratic elite, except at the level of unexamined assumptions. On the contrary, a dismissive or contemptuous attitude to the cultural legacies of their own societies has become much more common within the meritocracy. Instead, we see a different form of mimetic arrogance arising. Indeed, one that has spawned mimetic zealotry.

This is an evolution from the development of prestige opinions, adherence to which displays one’s members of the morally meritorious. Apart from a certain attentiveness to shifts in linguistic taboos and “proper” opinion, very little is demanded of people in way of actions to display one’s moral merit via adherence to the relevant prestige opinions. Hence, the most effective way to display one’s adherence to the markers of moral merit is to display one’s contempt to anyone who thinks differently. In other words, to publicly invest in the status-differentiation that drives the prestige opinions=moral merit social strategy. Anyone who disagrees with a prestige opinion is, as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said particularly clearly, a “bigot”.

Indeed, much of the service that elite (“quality”) media nowadays provides to its meritocratic readers is to indicate who it is proper to despise and why. Hence the endless proliferation of -ist and -phobe terms and other sins against moral merit (such as cultural appropriation). This recruits for public adherence (or at least acquiescence) to the prestige opinions that are markers of moral merit, as people do not wish to be subject to attacks on their reputation or hostile mobbing.

As no one wants to admit to themselves they are acquiescing out of cowardice, there is strong cognitive pressure to fully embrace the prestige opinions. This is part of the more general pattern, due to the wish to avoid cognitive dissonance, for social norms (which are maintained by social expectations with associated sanctions for divergence) to be seen to be moral norms (norms adopted in their own right).

A set of prestige opinions is also useful for bureaucracies (whether government, non-profit, or corporate). They provide simplifying selection criteria (adherence to the prestige opinions). They provide easier coordination within the bureaucracy (by aligning expectations). They provide moral projects to be getting along with (increasing the ambit of bureaucratic action). They provide networks and social dynamics that are coming to pervade institutions as completely as any totalitarian political party, though coordinated through mutual signalling rather than central direction.

What they do not provide is any genuine test of character or commitment. On the contrary, given their lack of serious (i.e. costly-to-the-person) signalling, their embrace of contempt and condescension to those who disagree and their value as social-dominance mechanisms, they actually provide a great deal of opportunity for bad actors. Especially those with Dark Triad characteristics.

So, the prestige opinions as markers of moral merit actually negatively select for character and for commitment to the wider society, This is perhaps most obvious in the widening contempt for the heritage of such societies; a cultural disdain that usefully signals membership of the morally meritorious and (even better) status-separation from the working class in particular.

But it is worse than that, as the prestige-opinions-moral-merit-social-dominance strategy is inherently hostile to discovery processes. The prestige opinions are selected for on the basis of what resonates with the target group. So, what is rhetorically effective, socially beneficial to the meritocrats and status convenient. None of these criteria have any strong connection to truth or accuracy and still less to the concerns of others. (Indeed, they are more selected for hostility for the concerns of others, as that increases their status-differentiation value: moral smugness is a feature, not a bug.)

Any set of prestige opinions operating as markers of moral merit must therefore be hostile to discovery processes; to processes that threaten the standing of the prestige opinions by threatening to throw up contradictory facts or inconvenient concerns.

Hence we can see the burgeoning hostility within the meritocracy to freedom, to democracy and to science, which are all discovery processes and so threaten the use of prestige opinions as markers of moral merit. With the hostility being driven by protection of the prestige-opinions (so evolutionary biology, sex research and psychology are far more under threat than, say, physics).

The threat to freedom has become blindingly obvious, with the development of cancel culture, withdrawal of books, films, blocking of authors, speakers etc. This hostility to intellectual freedom is reaching into mainstream academe, such as philosophy.

The threat to democracy is only a little less obvious with the systematic dismissal of voting for, for instance, Trump or Brexit as being morally (and intellectually) delinquent. As for the threat to science, if the 2+2=5 nonsense was not enough, the attempts to block research and publication of inconvenient papers is pretty clear, for those with eyes to see.

Of course, if you publicly notice any of this, you establish yourself as not being a member of the morally meritorious.

The pattern of establishing moral merit by adoption of prestige opinions (and then using that for various social dominance plays) is a process of social evolution. It has generated not merely a certain form of mimetic arrogance, but mimetic zealotry. One that not only gives folk a sense of meaning and purpose but also elevates and intensifies the attendant social dominance strategies.

The benefit of using cancel culture to sack people is that it generates promotion opportunities. The generation that has recently graduated from universities, courses (and even schools) increasingly pervaded by these patterns can use their greater facility with the techniques and taboos to one-up their seniors, getting them out of the way.

Which, of course, even further ramps up the selection for bad actors, the blocking of discovery processes and the processes of meritocratic decay.

So, expect more self-serving networking, official spinelessness, mimetic arrogance and zealotry selecting against good character, against commitment to the wider society and against openness to discovery processes.

Needless to say, this is no way to run an advanced technological society. Nor free ones. Nor democratic ones.

Welcome to 2021 and history happening.

History may not repeat, but it can rhyme, it can rhyme very strongly. And it is.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)


  1. Excellent article! People believe things that are crazy because that's what all the best people believe. How did the best people get viewed as the best? By having the best opinions. Which are crazy, but hey, best people. Hard to find the root of all this craziness. A tie to reality is not helpful to people who want to at least appear to believe unrealistic things.