Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Meritocracy is a theory of distributive justice- provided you get the Econ right

 Some kids are told Santa will bring them nice pressies if they are good. They may also be told that the reason Daddy kicks the shit out of them every time he gets drunk is because they are bad and deserve regular beating. Grownups are skeptical about such claims. On the other hand, there are contexts where it is worth having a notion of 'just deserts' as being the focal solution to a coordination game. However, in this case, Justice is utilitarian and depends on the fitness landscape. 

When it comes to how a group divides the product of a joint effort, the answer, in practice, is game theoretic and related to Shapley values which are themselves related to  opportunity costs and threat points. This means that guys who can earn a lot if they quit, or those who pose a 'hold out' problem, get more. In the short term, a group can adhere to a different rule, but long term, opportunity cost determines outcomes.

If merit is defined as something for which there is great demand and where excellence serves a Tardean mimetic purpose, then, absent market failure, and provided a Goldilocks condition re preference and endowment diversity is met, there is a unique general equilibrium which could be said to be both meritocratic and distributionally just- provided Justice is, as Hume said, about utility and isn't ontologically dysphoric or antagonomic.

Furthermore, absent concurrency problems (which would only arise if options have exactly the same price or opportunity cost) there must be an optimal or at least Schelling focal trajectory for mechanism design though the thing itself would not be computable.  My point is that for discretionary 'economia' there is no big problem here. Akreibia is a different matter- but that way lies madness. 

Joseph Schieber, writing in 3 Quarks, takes a different view.

There is something very intuitive about the idea that people should get what they deserve –

only in so far as it is intuitive that when bad shit happens to what appear to be decent peeps, it must be the case that they actually deserved it.  

so intuitive, in fact, that the claim “people should get what they deserve” sounds almost like a tautology.

only if 'peeps get what they deserve' is intuitive coz like karma is a real thing- right? 

The intuitive plausibility of that idea, however, should not fool us into thinking that we can use the notion of desert to develop a workable framework for distributing resources justly.

Why not? Marx said to each according to his contribution till scarcity disappears. Obviously, for this to work you have to junk the Labor theory of value and calculate shadow prices for the various factors of production. Sadly, this is too difficult so just use market prices.

At least, that’s how it appears to me after reading Richard Marshall’s thought-provoking interview with Thomas Mulligan. Mulligan seems to me to have offered one of the strongest defenses of desert-based justice; his book, Justice and the Meritocratic State, is available open access.

The problem with his approach is that 'Simpson's paradox' is ubiquitous in this field. Any empirical result can always be reversed by having finer grained sub-populations.  In any case, the configuration space is unknown and unknowable so any state of the world may be a concrete model for any theory of just distribution.  

In the interview, here’s how Mulligan glosses his theory of desert-based justice, which he terms “meritocracy”:

Meritocracy is a theory of distributive justice. It holds that justice is a matter of giving people what they deserve, and that this happens when there is equal opportunity and people are judged on their merits.

Sadly, because of Knightian Uncertainty, any assertion of 'just deserts' is arbitrary. The best we can do is to show that the thing arises from uncorrelated asymmetries specified by the Law. But this would still be defeasible if not unenforceable.  

As that initial definition indicates, Mulligan’s framework is noteworthy in that it involves not only merit, but also equality of opportunity.

Again, opportunity is unknown and unknowable.  One may say 'in the case of who gets such and such a job, surely the opportunity cost is known'. Sadly, this isn't the case because the reward from the job differs for different people for ideographic reasons. 

This is because, as Mulligan argues, a meritorious action only deserves reward if that action was achieved under conditions of equal opportunity:

This is clearly false. If a guy saves our life, we want to reward him even if nobody else had an equal opportunity to help us. Why not say 'nobody should get paid for producing any good or service till everybody has a dick of above average size and girth?'  

…being meritorious is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for desert.

Only if being a cat is a necessary condition for being a dog. Everybody deserves to take a shit from time to time even if- like me- they lack any merit or, indeed, any redeeming quality whatsoever. 

Equal opportunity must have prevailed as well.

Fuck off. You don't need to ensure that everybody can take a dump before shitting.  

Meritocracy’s two principles—equal opportunity and merit-based distribution—work in tandem.

By not working at all. This is just worthless bullshit produced by brain-dead cretins teaching crazy shite.  

They need each other to produce a compelling account of justice.

Justice is a service industry. A compelling account of it would show that we'd all be relatively fucked if it ceased to exist. 

The typical metaphor for meritocracy, which is a pretty good one, is a footrace: In a just race, the fastest runner gets the medal (meritocracy’s second principle).

Only because races are won by the guy who finishes first. No extra information is added by saying the race is just or fair or of a type approved by Sporting authorities. 

Even so, if that runner had a head start then he does not deserve the medal.

Unless, a stipulation to that effect was made by the governing authority. We can imagine a race open to all comers where there are handicaps based on age, gender, disability etc.  

For there was no equal opportunity (meritocracy’s first principle). He was meritorious,

by arbitrary stipulation 

but not deserving.

again, by arbitrary stipulation. But was anything gained by making such stipulations? No. The thing is useless. 

But if there was an equal starting line, and the medal was awarded to the fastest runner (and not on the basis of race, or appearance, or whatever), then justice was done.

Why the fuck would justice be interested in a race?  

The meritocratic argument for equal opportunity is transcendental:

by arbitrary stipulation. Rule by meritorious is still a good thing even if opportunities are unequal. Who wants the next President to be a flatulent pimp?  

(1) People ought to get what they deserve;

Fuck off! People ought to live for ever on paradisal planets of their own choosing. 

(2) this is only possible if there is equal opportunity;

Nope. Evil, murderous, bastards should be made to suffer even if few have the opportunity to kill others.  

therefore (3) we ought to establish equal opportunity.

only if we oughtn't to do sensible things coz God is only happy if we do stupid shit.  

One of the strengths of Mulligan’s discussion is that he recognizes that acknowledging meritorious achievements is insufficient; a just system must insure that those achievements occurred against a backdrop of equal opportunity.

This is like recognizing that cats are dogs. The fact is acknowledging a meritorious achievement has zero to do with the backdrop against which they occurred. We think guys who get the Fields Medal are meritorious even though billions of kids don't get the chance to study Math at Uni. Similarly, a guy who rushed into a burning house to rescue a baby is universally acknowledged to be meritorious even if very few people have the opportunity to display courage in the same way.

Furthermore, to Mulligan’s credit, he recognizes

stuff which is obvious to everybody 

that a meritocratic framework for distributive justice cannot ignore psychological facts about human beings,

Yes it can- because of the law of large numbers. The larger the population, the more 'psychological facts' cancel out as noise. 

high levels of financial inequality,

are irrelevant. Merit remains merit even if some are rich and others are as poor as shit. True, you can recruit morons from the wrong side of the tracks to your University Departments but then those Departments turn to shit. Merit moves elsewhere.  

and other obstacles to implementing meritocracy.

Stupidity is the main obstacle to implementing anything. I suppose it is a good thing that only cretins go in for this type of shite. Voters turned their back on equality in the Seventies. Only absolute living standards matter though 'risk pooling' can be implemented by the State to provide a Social minimum. That is Muth rational and regret minimizing. Rawls, cretin that he was, didn't get that Knightian Uncertainty means we will join an insurance scheme not agree to a crazy distribution scheme. 

In his book, he notes that, “The onus is on me to show that meritocracy is feasible,

coz people would rather be ruled by meritorious candidates rather than flatulent fools. 

that its policy demands make sense,

there is no point making demands of policy makers if they lack any type of merit.  

that it will not be exploited,

Coz Meritocrats tend to get fucked in the ass by homeless dudes who easily trick them into lowering their pants and bending over.  

and that it is sufficiently detailed.” 

Hopefully, the guy gave a detailed account of how Meritocrats can be guarded from homeless dudes who tell them they are Federal Asshole Inspectors but are actually sodomites who will stick their dicks up the bottoms of highly meritorious people who end up getting the equal opportunity to be reamed. 

Unfortunately, I do not see how Mulligan can possibly achieve these goals – particularly the feasibility and non-exploitation goals.

If there is such a thing as merit in politics, then the meritorious may choose to implement a Meritocracy which goes out of its way to spot talent wherever it might exist. To some extent, the French elite is meritocratic though appearing to the rest of us to be as stupid as shit.

It will help me to be clear about the ways in which Mulligan’s vision of a meritocratic theory of justice can fail either to be feasible or to be safe from exploitation. Although Mulligan focuses on the “level playing field” as the necessary condition linking merit to justice, it seems to me that this underdescribes the necessary conditions for linking merit and distributive justice.

Only in so far as it under-describes the necessary condition for cats to be highly meritorious dogs which keep getting reamed by homeless dudes.  

In fact, it seems to me that there are at least four conditions for a meritocratic system of justice – only the first of which is captured by Mulligan’s “level playing field.” The only way for meritocracy to work is if

1) The “playing field” is level;

Why? We can compensate for differences between playing fields. We can arrive at formula such that we can predict that a guy who ran x distance under y circumstances could do ten percent better under z circumstances 

2) Either there isn’t an oversupply of talent or the methods for determining merit aren’t winner-take-all

 Talent isn't merit which may also be termed excellence

3)The social determinants of merit line up with objective criteria of merit;

But 'social determinants' are shit. Nobody gives a crap about them.

4) Methods for determining merit are robustly sensitive to desert.

In which case they are shit at measuring merit. Why not say 'methods of determining if Rover is a cat should be robustly sensitive to meritorious peeps being reamed by homeless dudes.'?  

I’ll tackle these worries in reverse order, focusing most on criteria (4) and (1).

On Criterion 4: Methods for determining merit are not robustly sensitive to desert

because Rover the cat is saying woof, woof instead of miaow, miaow.  Also there's this homeless dude who says he needs to inspect my asshole. Should I let him? 

There is good reason to question whether the methods for determining merit are in fact robustly sensitive to desert. Famously, John Rawls rejects merit-based distributions of goods for just such a reason.

But Rawls made a lot more money than homeless dudes even though some were Federal Asshole Inspectors.  

Mulligan addresses Rawls’s concerns in a way that is very instructive, though ultimately unconvincing.

Here’s what Mulligan says in the interview with Richard Marshall:

'Rawls’ radical rejection of desert is unsound.

Because Rawls was as stupid as shit. 

(His argument is variously interpreted: that desert should not play a role in distributive justice, or that no one deserves anything at all, or that the very concept of desert is confused.) His claim, in a nutshell, is that everything that putatively makes us deserving—our intelligence, or efforts, or whatever—are just matters of luck. They originate, Rawls says, in “fortunate family or social circumstances”. If you’re intelligent, that’s either because (1) it’s in your natural makeup, or (2) you were raised in an environment which cultivated it. Either way, you’re lucky to be intelligent, and you can’t deserve on the basis of luck.

This is an arbitrary stipulation. The fact is we say 'that guy saved our lives. He deserves the biggest reward we can afford to give him'. We don't care that nobody else had an equal opportunity to save us. We might as well say 'the cab driver doesn't deserve to be paid for the ride we've just taken because Patagonian goats did not have an equal opportunity to become cab drivers.'  

Rawls is correct that luck undermines desert.

No it doesn't. The fact is, if you don't reward people as they deserve, a time may come when nobody will help you or else you yourself won't get any fucking reward. There is a reputational  benefit to rewarding meritorious actions- more particularly if you benefit from them. There is no longer a reputational benefit from virtue signaling about equality unless you are actually splitting your pay packet with your Teaching Assistants and sucking off homeless dudes in your spare time.  

If Ann is more talented than Nancy because Ann had rich parents who provided her fancy lessons, Ann’s claim to deserve on the basis of her talent is indeed lessened.

Talent isn't merit. Ann may be deserving if she excels in some field. But, if education makes a difference, she is competing with others like herself.  

But Ann’s natural traits are not matters of luck at all.

Genetic traits are a matter of luck. So what? Merit is not lessened on that account. 

Quite the opposite: They are metaphysically necessary.

No. A natural trait may be removed by a blow to the head or some other injury.  

In any possible world in which Ann exists, she has those traits.

This man is as stupid as shit. The possible world where Ann has half her brain removed is one where she can display no conspicuous talent.  

A person is constituted by her natural traits,

No. A person is embodied. Bodies are affected by all sorts of things which alter our traits. Imagine a world where I have plastic surgery and a hair transplant and liposuction and so forth. It is entirely possible that I will become quite good looking. But this a change in an accident, not an essence. 

and they can ground desert-claims. (This is a Kripkean argument about the essentiality of origin.)

Kripke wasn't stupid enough to assert that a talented person wouldn't become a vegetable if her head was smashed in.  

In a meritocracy, which has robust equal opportunity, differences in economic outcomes result only from differences in (1) natural traits and (2) choices.

Nonsense! Differences are stochastic or on the basis of unobservable variables or arise from the usual causes of market failure.  

As a result, outcomes are fully deserved.'

In some cases- sure. But that follows from the fixed point theorem. Econ is statistical. The best we can hope for is a Normal distribution whose center is 'fair' in some sense.

In other words, Mulligan suggests that Rawls provides a luck-based argument against desert.

Rawls, like many a theologian, was saying 'we are all miserable sinners. Even if we appear nice, that's just a matter of luck. Hence we should spend our lives on our knees in hair-shirts eating only Lenten fare.'  

In response, Mulligan offers his “Kripkean” argument: on Kripke’s view, a person has to have had their parents (and their genetic makeup) in any possible world in which that person exists at all.

But they could contract an illness or have an accident or get kidnapped as a baby and raised as a cannibal 

So, Mulligan continues, a person’s “natural traits” are necessary attributes. And, since those attributes are necessary, they’re not the result of luck.

But the fact that we are descended from naked apes and not zebras is a matter of luck. 

There are two problems with Mulligan’s discussion of Rawls.

One is that Mulligan has shit for brains. The other is that Rawls had shit for brains. 

The first problem with Mulligan’s discussion is that he mistakenly reduces a person’s “natural traits” to their genetic makeup. Given that, Mulligan then assumes that any intervening role of chance in the process that begins with the inputs of “natural traits” and results with the output of a successful achievement can be reduced to the role of differential socioeconomic status. To use his example, if Nancy’s parents were as rich as Ann, then if Ann is still more intelligent than Nancy, that difference between them can only be a result of “natural traits.”

Nope. Nancy may have had a childhood illness or may have been molested by her creepy Uncle or got sent to a progressive skool  

This is wrong for two reasons. The first is that it is too simplistic a picture of how a person’s genetic inheritance impacts their traits. As Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, although genes absolutely matter for a person’s traits, the impact of genes alone isn’t determinative. (It’s “a combination of genes, plus environment, plus triggers, plus chance,” according to Mukherjee. Compare this.) If this is right, however, then even one’s so-called “natural traits” are in part the result of chance.

But it is only meaningful to speak of chance if it arises within a particular causal series. We say 'Anna is smarter than Nancy coz her parents were high IQ refugees whereas Nancy's peeps were super-models'. We don't speak of the role of chance in causing Anna's ancestors to remain in the some despotic shithole whereas Nancy's ancestors got the fuck away from there thousands of years ago.  

The second reason why Mulligan’s reduction of a person’s “natural traits” to their genetic makeup is wrong is that the picture that Mulligan paints is too simplistic with respect to the role of socioeconomic status on the development of talent.

This cretin will now show that he doesn't know the difference between 'socioeconomic status' and geographical location.  

To take just one example, I would bet there are plenty of boys born to wealthy parents in Kansas, Wyoming, North Dakota, Mississippi, etc., who have the “natural traits” to be excellent ballet dancers,

the kids of wealthy parents don't become excellent ballet dancers. Their opportunity cost is too high. 

but who never develop balletic talents – not because of any decisions of their own, but due to the decisions of their parents to live in areas where nobody thinks of encouraging boys to develop those talents.

This is foolish. Rich peeps wot live in Red States are more likely to emphasize the ways in which they are different from the hoi polloi. Telling your employees about your son in Ballet School in Paris, France, is great when you know they will have to widen their shit-eating grin. 

Environment is more than family income.

But a high enough income changes your environment. You can hire minders who kick the shit out of rednecks who take exception to your mincing about in stilettos.  

The second – and, to me, more significant – problem with Mulligan’s discussion of Rawls, however, is that Mulligan misrepresents Rawls’s view in a way that undersells the force of Rawls’s rejection of desert-based distribution.

Here’s what Rawls himself writes in A Theory of Justice:

… undeserved inequalities call for redress;

no they don't. Piteous pleas for help from folk who are suffering avoidable pain may call for redress but every time I have sought to redress the undeserved inequality in penis size of Econ Nobel Prize winners by offering to shove their books up their arses I have received cease and desist notices.  

and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. (ToJ, p. 100)

by shoving books up the assholes of Professors. Nothing else will work.  

The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply in these cases. (ToJ, p. 104)

But nobody says 'x deserves to be of superior character'. They say 'x's superior character deserves our commendation.' Thus Rawls is only drawing attention to his own foolish misapplication of the word 'deserves'.  

Note that Rawls’s point isn’t that inequalities of birth or natural endowment are due to luck, but rather that they are undeserved –

unless the theory of karma is true or some Divine mystery is involved. Still, we do sometimes say 'I didn't deserve to be born into such a nice family' but this is just a figure of speech. The meaning is 'everybody else in my family is greatly my superior, yet they treat me with great affection and respect.'  

that the person who benefits from those inequalities is owed no credit for the inequalities themselves,

who wants to be 'owed credit' of a type which can't be turned into cash or cool shiny stuff?  

since they’re not the result of any of the person’s actions or choices. We don’t choose our parents; we don’t choose our genes.

But the true injustice is that we don't choose even the Solar System into which we are born. Not till Galactic equality of opportunity is achieved can universal sodomy by homeless dudes be averted.  

In reading Rawls on this point, I am reminded of Philippa Foot’s comments on the oddness of “the suggestion that someone might be proud of the sky or the sea: he looks at them and what he feels is pride.” (“Moral Beliefs,” p. 86) Foot notes that “the characteristic object of pride is something seen (a) as in some way a man’s own, and (b) as some sort of achievement.” (Moral Beliefs, p. 87) Foot doesn’t deny that “people can see strange things as achievements, … and they can identify themselves with remote ancestors, and relations, and neighbors …,” but Foot suggests that such cases would involve “far-fetched and comic examples of pride.” (“Moral Beliefs,” p. 87)

Was she proud of herself for writing this piffle? Perhaps. The fact is if Foot's book is crammed up the asshole of every Professor of a worthless subject then and only then will universal sodomy be averted. 

If this reading of Rawls is correct, then Mulligan’s appeal to the “Kripkean” argument is a red herring. Even if we grant that a person’s genetic inheritance is theirs necessarily – and even if we leave aside Mulligan’s mistake in conflating genetic inheritance with “natural traits” – it is still not the case that a person deserves credit for their genetic inheritance.

unless there is a good reason to grant such credit. Suppose an 'uncorrelated asymmetry' arising from genetic inheritance promotes a eusocial 'bourgeois strategy'- e.g. recognizing x as the heir by primogeniture to the throne averts a costly Civil War- then great credit should be given to genetic inheritance. Equally, we may want to show great respect to the descendants of Confucius or the Prophet Muhammad or of Aaron the brother of Moses so as to signal our devotion to religion and morality. 

So Rawls is correct in stating that inequalities of birth or natural endowment are undeserved.

Though the law may say that all the progeny of a person who dies intestate deserve a share in the estate. Rawls had shit for brains. He was never correct about anything. 

On Criterion 3: The social determinants of merit do not line up with objective criteria of merit

They must do if merit genuinely has social determinants. If it doesn't, then this criterion is crap.  

Take the “social determinants of merit” to be the indicators that society in fact uses to mark someone as meritorious.

An indicator is not a determinant. The fuel gauge is an indicator of whether there is any petrol in the tank. It does not determine whether or not you can drive the car.  

To say, then, that the social determinants of merit do not line up with objective criteria of merit is to say that many of those marked by society as meritorious are not, in fact, meritorious.

Merit can be faked. Examiners can be fooled. So what?  

This strikes me as very likely true. (For just one prominent example, read Dan Froomkin’s “The Washington Post opinion section is a sad, toxic wasteland”.) I won’t belabor the point here, though.

On Criterion 2: There is an oversupply of talent and (many of) the methods for determining merit are winner-take-all

Because not everybody can be above-average or representing outstanding excellence.  

Again, I won’t belabor this one. To take just one sort of example colored by my perspective as I enter my 20th year in a tenure-line position in higher education, it seems obvious to me that many very talented people have had to leave academia and find work not directly related to – and often very far removed from – their doctoral field. This is not only true in my own field, philosophy, or in the humanities more broadly, but also in many of the natural and social sciences as well.

Speaking generally, teaching a subject is the least productive outcome from having studied it. Also, in most fields, doing a PhD reduces life-time earnings. It is a different matter that in some fields, getting a PhD is part and parcel of your on the job training.  

On Criterion 1: The playing field isn’t level

Playing fields don't matter. There's a good reason why we want to run fast. Getting or not getting a prize scarcely matters. Being able to run the fuck away from a predator has survival value for our species. 

It is to Mulligan’s great credit that he doesn’t ignore the fact that the playing field, at present, isn’t level.

The playing field is only important in so far as it helps develop desirable qualities. True, it may also function as a screening or signaling device because of information asymmetry. But we can always improve the underlying mechanism if it pays to do so. Talent scouts with expert knowledge might go off to Africa or Siberia to identify candidates likely to excel.  

The core problem with Mulligan’s meritocratic theory of justice, however, is that Mulligan ignores the extent to which meritocratic systems have been – and will continue to be – exploited.

Teacher touched meritocratic system in its no-no place! We must prevent molestation- not to speak of pornographic exploitation- of meritocratic systems coz they ca do nothing to defend themselves. 

Here’s what Mulligan argues in his interview with Richard Marshall:

It is a true and lamentable fact that in the actual world a child’s socioeconomic prospects are strongly shaped by his parents’ wealth. But if we had robust equal opportunity that would not be the case.

Because everybody would be as poor as shit.  

Parents would understand that any inheritance would give their child undeserved advantage, and, perforce, give other children undeserved disadvantage. Parents would refrain out of a sense of justice, and because, as described, inheritance would only undermine their child’s accomplishments, character, and life.

Also they wouldn't wipe baby's bum unless every baby's bum was wiped. The fact is to have a child is unjust because many can't have kids. Not till everybody has a kid can anybody get preggers- if they care at all about justice as fairness as some shite some stupid Professor pulled out of his arse.  

Another meritocratic policy is a high top marginal income rate—say, a 90% tax on (the portion of) income over $4 million.

This has the merit of enriching tax attorneys while anyone who enjoys a 'rent to ability' emigrates or displays leisure preference.  

The U.S. had such a rate from the 1940s into the 1960s (a time of, not coincidentally, extraordinary economic growth).

So,the price of ending Jim Crow was letting high earners keep more of their pay packets.  

The justification is that these incomes are (usually) economic rent.

They are quasi-rent- they disappear in the medium to long term because supply becomes elastic.  

They do not reflect merit or contribution to the economy.

if supply has been artificially reduced then there is harm to the economy- a 'deadweight' loss. Sadly, 'the best of monopoly profits is a quiet life' not 'super-profits'.  

Think of hedge fund managers who exploit inefficiencies in markets and corporate executives whose pay packages result from nepotism.

They can do so just as easily from an offshore location. 

These incomes are undeserved, and so their recipients have no moral claim to them.

Trying to take them away could lead to less tax revenue.  

And, since they are rents, they can be taxed away without loss of economic efficiency.

Sadly, we can't be sure about that. There is such a thing as dynamic efficiency. But the thing is highly non-linear. 

I welcome Mulligan’s suggestions – both of higher inheritance taxes and of a high top marginal income tax rate.

For the US, this might be part and parcel of greater subsidiarity allowing 'Tiebout sorting'. There is evidence that people pay higher taxes if they feel that money is going into their own community. This is perfectly rational. 

However, I don’t think that either of those suggestions will be sufficient to keep high-status elites from gaming the system for the benefit of their offspring.

High status elites may decide not to have kids. Historically, one route to social mobility is attractive people 'marrying up' in return for having and raising kids.  

It strikes me as woefully naive to suppose that “a sense of justice” and a concern for the undermining of their “child’s accomplishments, character, and life” would be sufficient to keep parents from doing whatever they can to give their children “a leg up” – which is, of course, just a more polite way of saying “to skew the playing field.”

Not really. Playing fields simply don't matter. Giving kids a leg up is a good thing if they do useful stuff rather than study useless shite. We are all better off if the rich make smart choices. The bad choices of the poor can be escaped by moving out of their neighborhoods.  

Note furthermore that not all of the high-status elite’s attempts to rig the game for their children require the obscene inequalities of wealth that currently exist. Unequal access to cultural capital, mutually beneficial support networks, influence peddling, and other forms of quid pro quo can also skew the playing field.

Which is why high taxes cause those with high transfer earnings to express higher disutility for paid work. What you get is a caste system of a more and more unproductive type. Tardean mimetics then seals the economy into involuted subsistence which, however, may have a very esoteric aesthetic philosophy. 

As Daniel Bell put it in his 1972 essay, “On meritocracy and equality,” “There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.”

It is true that merit can be faked. That's why peeps pay big bucks to get our kids into the right skools and collidges. 

(“On meritocracy and equality,” p. 42) Recent – and relatively recent – incidents like the uproar over “nepo babies” and the “varsity blues” scandal suggest that the criticism Bell echoed in 1972 is still with us.

Moreover, the problem of death has still not been solved, probably because of Neoliberalism and Nepo babies rigging things so their wealthy parents pop their clogs rather than live forever the way Rawls intended.  

Indeed, a 2019 study in Great Britain showed that, in that country, the children of doctors were 24 times more likely to become doctors than the children of non-doctors, and the children of lawyers were 19 times more likely to become lawyers than the children of non-lawyers.

But most doctors and lawyers in the UK aren't particularly well paid. The fact is the typical GP- like Rishi Sunak's dad- doesn't want his son to be a Doctor. He wants him to become a hedge fund manager. Still, medicine is a vocation. I imagine that kids who love their parents want to follow in their footsteps more particularly if their calling is noble. 

Where this leaves us

So there is little hope for meritocracy as a theory of distributive justice.

No. It is fine as a theory provided you understand Economics and don't say stupid things like 'an act is not meritorious unless everybody has an equal opportunity to perform that act. Thus nobody should be awarded a V.C because some people aren't allowed to join the Army because their Mummy threatened to take away their teddy bear 

The “playing field” isn’t level,

Statistics can make it so for large enough populations and for specific economic purposes 

there is an oversupply of talent

which is another way of saying there isn't enough demand for it. If the thing is useless, then making it useful is the right way to tackle the problem. 

and the methods for determining merit are often winner-take-all,

Nope. The payoff matrix may be of that sort- only one guy wins the Fields medal- but a guy certified as potentially Fields worthy will be snapped up by FinTech for big big bucks. In any case, math is worth studying for its own sake.  

the social determinants of merit often don’t line up with objective criteria of merit;

they must do so if the really determine merit. The guy whom everybody says is most popular is, objectively the guy with the merit of being popular.  

and the methods for determining merit aren’t robustly sensitive to desert.

Actually, robustness means returning the same answer under minor perturbations. Otherwise you will get hysteresis.

Despite all of this, however, I do think that it is worthwhile to strive to make systems

only if that is what you are paid to do. Striving to make systems if everybody thinks you are an unemployable cretin is a waste of fucking time. 

that are more responsive to merit. Mulligan’s suggestions for attempting to make the “playing field” more level are good ones,

But who listens to Mulligan? Only other Professors who gang up to show he is a cretin.  

as I’ve already noted. We should search for ways better to address the oversupply of talent

ensure that talent is productive of utility and the demand for it will rise.  

and to develop ways of determining and rewarding merit that aren’t winner-take-all.

Mechanisms already exist to do that. Consider the theater. The big stars get paid a lot but they know that they need the character actors and dressers and so forth. That's why the theater developed a tradition of giving 'benefit' performances so the little guys got a bit of money on which to retire. Equally, Actors' Unions can improve outcomes though, obviously, they may overplay their hand.  

And although it will be very difficult, we should strive to influence society in ways that allow us collectively better to recognize those who actually merit our respect.

Sadly, this excludes virtue signaling academics who have been banging on about Equality for fifty years though electorates had repeatedly shown they didn't want the thing at any price.  

So if I think that we should do all of this, why don’t I think that we could embrace meritocracy as, at the very least, an ideal theory of distributive justice? The reason for this is that, even if we were able to accomplish these goals, I don’t think that in so doing we will be able to recognize those who are truly deserving. I simply find Rawls’s skepticism about desert too convincing.

Which is cool if you then turn to Religion and affirm a God who will give the good people paradise while Socioproctologists burn in Hell.  

When Lightning Strikes Sand, This Amazing Thing Happens!

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