The dangerous attack on meritocracy

The core meritocratic idea — that tasks should be assigned to those most qualified to accomplish them — is, and has been for some time, under attack.  That attack, predictably in the current identity politics–obsessed climate, has been based on race and sex.

Just recently, for example, the CEO of United Airlines proudly announced that United's new goal for its stable of pilots and co-pilots is that it reflect the demography of United's passengers.  So if a certain percentage of passengers are women, and a certain percentage are black, then the occupants of United's cockpits should reflect those percentages.  The CEO failed to explain whether United's current failure to meet those percentages was due to its own race and sex discrimination or whether instead it was due to such factors as the skills and occupational preferences of women and blacks.  Nor did he explain why anyone, including United's passengers, should care anything about United's pilots other than whether they were highly qualified to execute a pilot's only job, which is to fly and land the plane safely.

The same point applies to the FAA's policy to "diversify" air traffic controllers.  Air traffic controllers, too, have one task, which is to manage congested skies so airplanes do not collide and land safely.  The occupants of airplanes care only that they do that task the best that it can be done, and they care not a whit about to what race or sex they belong.

This point also applies to the military.  It, too, has a singular task, to win wars and do so at the lowest cost in blood and treasure.  Accomplishing that mission, regardless of the race, sex, or sexual orientation of its members, is all citizens should demand of it.

But race-norming the promotion of officers, sex-norming the fitness criteria, or putting people in combat units who threaten unit cohesion because of sexual attraction and rivalries is not a means for most effectively winning wars.  Instead, these practices reduce that ability. 

When it comes to our own lives and the tasks we demand for ourselves and our loved ones, we don't care who does them; we care only that people do them well.  We want the best surgeon we can afford, irrespective of the surgeon's race, sex, or sexual preferences.  We want the same for our lawyer and our dry cleaner.  And the most meritocratic institutions of all, professional sports teams, care not at all about reflecting the demography of their fans.  They care only about winning and so select their players based on their skills and not on their ascriptive identities. 

Some will say we can diversify without lowering standards.  Don't believe it.  In the universities, the institutions in which the diversity program has been around the longest and has been employed most aggressively, the standards that one would think should prevail — for admitted students, the ability to do high-level intellectual work, and for faculty, knowledge of one's subject, the ability to convey that knowledge to students, and the ability to advance that knowledge through research and writing — have definitely been lowered in pursuit of diversity among students and faculty.  Because of this, in order to avoid embarrassing those admitted or hired with lowered standards, discourse within the university has become euphemistic at best and dishonest at worst.  Research on certain topics has become forbidden lest its findings prove unwelcome.  Departments have been established as academic ghettoes from which no useful knowledge is expected.  And ironically, with so many slots occupied by those selected by lowering the standards, those competing for the remaining slots have on average even more impressive qualifications than in the past, thus widening the gap between the best and the worst, much to the detriment of campus peace and cohesion. 

Meritocratic norms are what we employ in our personal lives with respect to tasks we really care about.  And they are norms we hope the institutions that fight our wars, fly and direct our planes, and seek and convey knowledge care about.  But that is less and less the case, and we are poorer and more vulnerable because of that.

Image: Ben Christiansen.

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