Why neither right nor left support meritocracy

Charles says he believes in meritocracy, and Shem too thinks that admission to university should be based on merit. Polling the CIS did a few years back shows that most Australians also like the idea of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is a theory of desert; that if you have some characteristic – usually linked to ability – you deserve a position associated with that characteristic, most commonly places at educational institutions and particular jobs. Meritocracy’s Wikipedia entry states that this is in opposition to allocation by

wealth (plutocracy), family connections (nepotism), class privilege (oligarchy), cronyism, popularity (as in democracy) or other historical determinants of social position and political power.

But Wikipedia’s list is too short. Both liberals and social democrats support principles of distribution that are at least in tension with meritocracy.

Don Arthur likes pointing this out in the case of liberalism. Liberalism favours distribution by free exchange, and there is no guarantee that this will match distribution according to personal merit. The market is usually too impersonal to judge directly whether people are intelligent, hard-working, or have any other positive personal attribute. Consumers and producers often know little or nothing about each other. People can be stupid or lazy but lucky, and so reap market rewards. And people can be intelligent and hard-working but unlucky, and so go unrewarded in the market (as recent graduates are about to find out, at least temporarily).

Liberalism doesn’t guarantee that rewards will be distributed according to merit, but egalitarians are against rewards being distributed according to merit. A Marx’s famous dictum stated, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ In left-wing thinking, ability is substantially a matter of luck. Intelligence is a matter of genetic good fortune, as is being born into a family capable of developing, through high quality parenting and schooling, what natural potential a person may possess.

In egalitarian thought the surplus this luck produces should not go to those who have it, as it typically will in a liberal market society. Though markets are not formally meritocratic, in practice they are probably increasingly so as income is distributed more according to education and hours worked than in the past. Meritocracy means inequality. Arguably, meritocracy is an even worse form of inequality than aristocracy – at least then the poor could console themselves with the thought that it was unfair and the rich weren’t really better than the poor. But under meritocracy, unequal rewards are also just rewards.

Understandably, few on the left want to sign up to this idea. Instead, the left favour distribution of rewards according to other criteria, to all citizens usually according to ‘need’ in some form. Simple income redistribution is part of this, but there is also the problem of access to a range of rationed goods and services. Education, at least at the better schools and universities, and through them the leading professions, is one of these.

The left understands that ability must be part of the entry criteria – ability has to be made productive so that the needs of other can be met. The problem here is that while a certain level of intelligence and willingness to work is necessary to be a competent professional, there are generally more people who meet these criteria than there are places in the top schools and universities.

Particularly in the United States, the left has run a major campaign against strict academic merit based entry to higher education (the story is told in Nicholas Lemann’s excellent book, The Big Test). And more discreetly, every Australian university has long let students from disadvantaged backgrounds in on lower entry scores than other people. This has always been a huge complication in the argument against the full-fee places: a strict order of academic merit entry principle would disadvantage poor people far more than rich people.

I partially agree with the left on this point, which is why I argued for entry to university by lottery earlier in the year. But my larger point is that beyond the minimum entry requirements necessary to successfully complete a course, I don’t think strict order of academic merit is necessarily an optimal way of distributing places.

The main arguments in favour are that it encourages effort in school, for research universities it recruits those most likely to pursue postgraduate work, and that it is cheap for universities to run, as selection can be carried out by a computer.

There are arguments against all these points. While effort in school is good, students would still have to work hard to reach the minimum standards of the top courses, but perhaps without the same levels of stress they suffer now. And as Conrad notes this system favours private school students, when it is reasonable to encourage some upward social mobilty by giving people with less favourable home or school backgrounds a greater chance of selection. If universities are trying to create an interesting campus experience, they may also want to encourage some diversity in the classroom.

While future academic researchers are likely to be high academic achievers, to the extent the universities are schools for the professions a strict order of academic merit selection method is not necessarily going to produce the best lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. Increasingly, more specific aptitude tests are being used. This is more expensive than selection based just on school results, but it is sensible to spend a few hundred dollars getting a better match between a student and a course that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver.

And where I would most depart company with the left on this, I think that where there is an income-contingent loan willingness to pay is also relevant. Willingness to pay fees is a sign by applicants that they intend to use their education in ways that will deliver high returns, rather than just doing the course out of interest, or because they can’t decide what they want to do with their lives. If there is a genuine shortage of places, surely we should take steps to see that they are not wasted or used sub-optimally?

So I am not a strict meritocrat, and indeed despite its intuitive appeal I think strict meritocracy even in education is hard to defend. It doesn’t reliably predict academic success, much less achieve other purposes of education, and it clashes with the ideas of free exchange and fair distribution. Classical liberals and leftists are united against meritocracy, albeit for different reasons.

15 thoughts on “Why neither right nor left support meritocracy

  1. So I am neither a classical liberal or a leftist, I like to think of myself as a liberal but I definitely no longer have any sympathy for the Liberal party.

    If I could have my way we would go back to the old system, easy to get into the first year, hard to get into the second. University is a lot different to secondary school, let the system sort out who has the ability to motivate themselves.

    I do wonder about the Melbourne model but it does have the advantage that it puts course selection off until after several years of university life. Perhaps it is the way to go.

    I am not of the view that an education is only useful if it leads to production ( Mao would not be proud of me). Education is never wasted, at the very least it leads to a better informed public debate and a better informed voter, or if your sexist a better informed mother.


  2. Uh oh Charles, you’re not supposed to indulge in baby-boomer nostalgia like “If I could have my way we would go back to the old system”. And opinions like “I am not of the view that an education is only useful if it leads to production” won’t be well received because Andrew like to deal with easily measurable things, like money: “Willingness to pay fees is a sign by applicants that they intend to use their education in ways that will deliver high returns, rather than just doing the course out of interest”.

    I think there should be lots of ways into education – probably university entrance exams should be the main way but paying fees, demonstrating relevant work experience etc should be available as well – to cater for the fact that life treats us all differently, but that everyone deserves a chance at education. I don’t see why there can never be enough places – as a community we spend a vast amount of our wealth on rubbish, so we really are able to afford as much education as we want. After all, compared to most other ways we humans spend our time and money, there aren’t many downsides to education.


  3. Should I really be able to get a film studies degree for free just because I’d like one and after I’ve had the government subsidize a degree already?

    The Melbourne model is not about educating students better, it’s about funding universities by getting more money out of students by making them pay more for post graduate courses. It is the American model.

    Currently the system works on the ‘Asian subsidy system’ whereby the ability to attract Asian students pays for Australian’s University education.

    The problem is that Melbourne can’t get any more than the University of Ballarat because the prices are fixed and that there is always the threat that Asian students will stop coming. After the Asian financial crisis the Australian Universities were really worried.

    Am I the only one surprised not to see a post about compulsory HECS style deferrable fees with a ban on their use for politics here?


  4. Andrew

    I have a couple of years cohort data for my university, and the correlations between school scores and first year results are higher than sometimes mentioned here (r from around 0.3 to as high as 0.75) but the crucial point is that it varies greatly by discipline, and slightly by gender – the science/engineering/technology areas have higher correlations than areas such as law. School performance is the only predictor that has much effect, and we certainly make policy decisions elsewhere based on weaker effect sizes (e.g. the current drive to lift teacher standards at school level).

    If the relationship between school performance and university performance is weak for many disciplines, and also between uni performance and later professional performance, then we should be wary of introducing more complicated entry tests which could add little value. A lottery has a lot of appeal, but the politics (including academic politics) would be impossible – not to mention the possible impact on private schools!


  5. “Should I really be able to get a film studies degree for free just because I’d like one and after I’ve had the government subsidize a degree already?”

    I don’t see why not, at least compared to you getting a degree in any other subject area.


  6. Lawrence – I have only seen a handful of published studies, but apart from the disciplinary issues you mention I understand the correlations are higher for the students with better school results, but pushed down overall by the very varied uni performance of those with weaker school results.

    I don’t recall any studies of the more specific aptitude tests – though obviously in those cases post-uni retention in the profession, and not just academic results, are important. As you say, they have to prove their worth.


  7. Russell

    We are all allowed our views, some of us are mature enough to realize others have views also, and that our own are nothing more than one of many. It’s the reasons why I find Andrew’s blog interesting.


  8. Charles and Russell, on the topic of no education being wasted, there are some, perhaps many soft social science, cultural studies and sociology courses where students are likely to come out more stupid than they started due to the rubbish that they are expected to take on board. Sad but true!


  9. Rafe — I think you’re biased. I’m sure if you measured levels of literacy and so on (versus political beliefs), students doing these soft social science courses would be far above where they started. This is one of my problems with the “not in a job requiring a degree” category. Whilst such people exist, I’m sure many that are in that category are in jobs that are better than they otherwise may have gotten otherwise — You’d be surprised how poorly educated many students are that can get quite reasonable scores in year 12.


  10. Conrad, if you think students in the soft social sciences learn literacy you have got to be joking.
    In any case the universties are not there to teach literacy, they are there to teach content and methods and to introduce students to the best that has been said and written about the relevant field. My point was directed at the defective content in the soft social sciences. Biased maybe, but based on checking a lot of courses over several decades.
    I will not be surprised by anything you tell me about the poor education of students entering university (not to mention their illiteracy), I have marked their essays.


  11. Andrew: “Willingness to pay fees is a sign by applicants that they intend to use their education in ways that will deliver high returns, rather than just doing the course out of interest, or because they can’t decide what they want to do with their lives.”

    I agree with this point for vocational degrees – but what about non-vocational degrees; arts incl history, music etc. Does this provide value to society other than through an individual’s remuneration?


  12. Mitchell – An interesting question. One theory: the arts, including history and music, are probably cases where only a tiny minority of the very best students add any significant value to society – they write the books that change the way we see the world, play the music we love etc. For the rest, the degree is a private good that may be interesting, enjoyable, develop the student as a person etc but adds no general value to society. The policy issue then is that because a large investment by the student is high risk – unlike vocational fields where even so-so students are likely to proceed to a reasonably financially rewarding career – relatively few students would pay high prices. On this logic, public subsidy ought to be restricted to a small number of elite institutions restricted to those who have serious potential. Everyone else pays fees up to how much private value they place on the degree.


  13. Andrew – Speaking of nonvocational degrees, as uni I would occasionally met people who were doing what I thought were rather strange combinations of degrees, such as pure mathematics and law or theoretical physics and law. I understand that UNSW does not allow school leavers to enroll in a straight law degree: students must either do a combined degree or have already completed one other degree. (I suppose other universities are similar?) What is the rationale behind this? Isn’t it something along the lines of what Charles is alluding to – that it makes people better informed or more widely educated before they embark on a legal career? Or do they just do it because they can? Since law is a fairly desirable degree they can make people jump through lots of hoops to get there.


  14. Yes, I did Arts/Law, originally planning to be a lawyer, but soon making law my insurance degree – in case I could not get a decent job pursuing my intellectual-political interests. As is turned out, I haven’t needed to spend my life writing wills and contracts.

    While the law double degree has been common practice for a long time, I don’t know its historical origins, though I expect you are right that they do it because they can. Law still provides a strong return on educational investment even with the extra 2 years spent at university. When I looked at 2006 census earnings for graduates, more than half of male law graduates were earning $2,000 or more a week.


  15. Rafe: “In any case the universities are not there to teach literacy, they are there to teach content and methods and to introduce students to the best that has been said and written about the relevant field”… AN:”One theory: the arts, including history and music, are probably cases where only a tiny minority of the very best students add any significant value to society”
    1) I thought both your opinions were based on the idea that universities should be catering to public demand — and a fair bit of that demand has do with other skills, like being a nice writer, having good communications skills, and so on. If people want to learn these things, I don’t see why universities shouldn’t teach them (which is why you have subjects like “critical thinking” in first year).
    2) I would think that the most value universities add for perhaps most students are these general attributes, not field specific ones (many engineers, for example, simply end up as managers yet most of the focus in engineering courses is of course on engineering — only a small amount is to do with management). In addition, if you look at graduate starting salaries, it’s clearly the case that even those with the degrees people complain about (like history) are still doing rather reasonably, and that’s surely the reason. This of course should be no surprise — many jobs need specific things that universities couldn’t ever hope to teach — so the basic thing that many employers want are just smart people vs. people trained for a particular profession. Looking at some of the blog articles here from the last few months, I doubt in this respect that a smart history graduate is going to do very differently to a smart law graduate that doesn’t want to do law.


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