Friday, April 5, 2019

The Best!

Lately I saw a little surge of talk about meritocracy on Twitter -- a surge in my little neighborhood, anyway.  I've had a lot to say on that subject here before, but this morning, as I was riding my bicycle to the library, I had a thought I don't think I've had before.

I suspect that there's a connection between faith/belief (they're not quite the same thing) in meritocracy and overrating the things or people to which we assign merit.  If you believe, as Chris Hayes for example does, that meritocracy means hiring the best, putting the best in charge of things, then you will probably feel an impulse to overrate the merit of those you nominate.  It may not be a simple cause-and-effect tendency.  You may want to give the person the job, the slot at your elite school, your money for their CD, because you think they're the best, rather than the other way around.  But they may not be the best, and it doesn't entirely matter.

For example, some years ago I saw that Bob Dylan had been ranked high in a Playboy readers' poll as a harmonica player.  Now, I like Dylan -- his early work anyway, up to 1970 or so -- but I never thought he was the best harmonica player around, or the best guitarist, or pianist, or singer.  He was good enough for what he wanted to do, and he violated norms for "good" singers in a good way: you don't have to be trained or have a pretty voice to be an expressive singer, and for some purposes having an ugly voice may be preferable.  But that doesn't mean you're the best singer, nor does it matter.

Now compare what Chris Hayes wrote on this subject in The Twilight of the Elites:
The same goes in a whole host of domains: the best opera soprano can, with the advent of MP3s and the Internet, sell to anyone in the world with an iPod, which spells trouble for the fifth best soprano. If you can buy the best, why settle? [143]
As I pointed out before, "best" is not the right word here.  Among seven billion people, there are going to be many thousands of operatic sopranos at such a level of excellence that it's really meaningless to call any of them the best.  The differences between them will be so tiny that most people can't detect them.  (This also applies to world-class athletes: the difference between the fastest runner and the tenth-fastest runner in the world is likely to be some tenths of a second, and some of that will be accidental, due to luck rather than "merit.")  To say that this "spells trouble for the fifth best soprano" is false; it doesn't spell trouble for the five hundredth best soprano.  As the example of Bob Dylan shows, you don't have to be the best singer or guitarist or harmonica player to make music that many people will want to buy -- more, most likely, than will buy the music of the best soprano.  Even in the domain Hayes elected to cite, his point is invalid, laughably so.  We often love things or people who are not the "best," and it would be ridiculous to claim that they are.  But they don't have to be.  We don't love them because they're the best.  We think they're the best because we love them.

This impulse emerges early in life, I think.  My mommy is the best mommy, the most beautiful mommy in the world.  I'm the best, handsomest, smartest little boy in the world.  These are conventions for expressing the intensity and sincerity of our love for someone.  But they're not literally true, and most of the time we know it.  It's believers in meritocracy who mistake metaphors for literal truth.

Is it even necessary to the concept of meritocracy that the best person should occupy a position?  Again, outside of a narrow range of fields, you cannot quantify qualifications for most jobs.  The fastest miler, for example, can be found.  (Next year, or the year after that, he won't be the fastest anymore, which is also important.)  The best CEO, the best accountant, the best IT manager, cannot. The best students for admission to elite colleges, or for that matter to community colleges.  One bit of evidence for what I'm suggesting here is the inflation of requirements for many positions: the applicant is expected to detail how and why denying insurance claims of the terminally ill is her passion, the goal on which she has focused, laser-like, since infancy.  Why he is very excited at the prospect of working the drive-through window at McDonald's.  (I've been allergic for decades now to the term "excited" in announcements; bullshit almost always follows that word.  But by now it too is a convention: if you didn't say you were excited to announce that this Friday will, once again, be Casual Friday, many people would feel that something important was missing.)  I've helped numerous friends fill out extremely long and detailed online applications, complete with a hundred personality-assay questions, to wash dishes in chain restaurants.  Something is wrong there, even leaving aside the invasion of privacy involved.

For many positions, what is needed is not the best, but someone who is simply good enough.  Often people grow into jobs; certainly we hope that students will grow into their educations.  All too often, despite the competition, the personality tests, the interviews, the trial-by-ordeal, the winning candidate isn't even good enough.  There are probably many things that need to be done to correct that, if it can be corrected; but one beginning might be to stop pressuring people to prove what can't in most cases be proven - that they're the best.