Everyone’s half right and everyone’s simultaneously full of shit. Let’s cut through the shit. There are five separate keys to success in the modern United States economy. Some of them are meritocratic, some of them aren’t, and some of them are simultaneously meritocratic and unfair. These are the five.
How intelligent you are,
How charismatic you are, which would include how good you look,
How hard you work,
You lucky you are,
How rich your parents are.
Those are the five. You can live very robustly and have a good life if you have one of those five. If you have two, you’re a 10%er by the time you’re 40. If you have three, you’re a 1%er. Any two, or any three. There has never been someone who had all five and didn’t live in a giant mansion. Some of those are meritocratic and some aren’t. I made a chart to make this easy.
There’s a tremendous amount of sound science that says that intelligence, what scientists call the ‘g’ factor, is largely genetic, outside of environmental influences such as lead exposure. Someone who succeeds based on their intelligence is indeed succeeding on their merit. The environment had very little to do with how smart they are, and it’s not fair that some people are born smarter than others.
There’s a tremendous amount of sound science that says personality and personality typing is also genetic, although personality can be coached. Looks are obviously genetic, but people can definitely improve them with good habits, such as exercise, diet, hygiene, make-up, plastic surgery, whatever. Looks and personality have merit, so success based on this is meritocratic. But it is not fair that some people are born looking (and talking) better than others.
Work ethic flows almost entirely from your parenting and your developmental situation, although it can be learned later in life as well. Success based on your work ethic is meritocratic, and since anyone can choose to work hard, success by work ethic is also fair.
Luck is not genetic, it’s not environmental, and it does not reward merit in any way. But since anyone can get lucky, luck is definitely fair.
Your parents’ wealth is not coded in your genes. If your parents are intelligent and charismatic they’re generally more likely to be well off, but there’s no guarantee. Someone with rich parents can succeed in modern American society purely on that alone and doing so is neither meritocratic nor fair.
Let’s look at some examples. If you’re intelligent and work hard you can become a doctor. If you’re intelligent and charismatic, a manager. If you’re intelligent and lucky you sell your app to a venture capitalist and retire to the Caymans. If you’re charismatic and work hard you’re a news anchor or a podcaster. If you’re charismatic and lucky then you sign a record deal because of that night you ran into The Migos at Magic City. If you’re charismatic, lucky, and have rich parents, you can end up being the President. Etcetera. Play with the model, pick any two or three, and you’ll find a profession at the end of the intersection that’s killing it.
People who understand this chart make life decisions for themselves and their offspring based on it. Seek an attractive mate, a smart mate, or both, to give your progeny better genes. Instill a work ethic into your children. Save money so that your kids can benefit from #5. Climb social ladders or pay Ivy League tuition so your kids will procreate with #1s and #2s. Or better, #5s. Participation in cultures with traditional values tends to increase the chance that your offspring reap the rewards of the matrix.
The conservatives are wrong that we’re a meritocratic society. We’re half meritocratic, half not. Hard work alone definitely has a severe ceiling. The liberals are wrong that those with merit can’t succeed. They obviously can. Our view of this matrix is further distorted by social media, general media, and celebrity culture, because celebrities are basically just pretty people who either got lucky or did something naughty with Harvey Weinstein, and if your parents are rich enough you’re a celebrity (and successful) by default. Our glowing screens fill us with counterexamples to meritocracy. The British Royal Family is of no merit.
The Fairness Fetish
Most of the angst against modern American meritocracy comes from the left, and gets its wires severely crossed when differentiating between meritocracy and fairness. One of the defining things of center left thought is their fairness fetish. They also fall into the tabula rasa trap, thinking that genes don’t impact outcomes. If something is meritocratic yet unfair, they strike it from the list, so they look purely at work ethic. This analysis failure pervades modern discourse, but it goes all the way back to Karl Marx.
Marx’s “labor theory of value,” rephrased, states that your merit should be derived entirely from your work ethic and nothing else. If you diligently dig a hole and fill it back up again, that’s labor, and your labor magically infused that dirt with value it didn’t have before. Then because that’s obviously stupid, Marx spends a lot of time trying to plug the holes in it with addenda. Generally, Marx envisioned a meritocratic society where merit was determined by labor alone, and that idea still finds purchase in the modern American left. But we all know in real life the hot stripper gets the most tips, and we all also know that’s not fair to the frumpy stripper while we tip the hot one.
Nobody serious buys the labor theory of value anymore, but the left’s fixation on fairness is the underlying drive for their attacks on the idea that America is meritocratic, or even that meritocracy is good. Conservatives counter these attacks by overstating how meritocratic America actually is, when quite honestly most of the people we see in our glowing screens truly don’t deserve to be there. Everyone’s half right and everyone’s simultaneously full of shit, and nobody is having Real Talk about what’s actually going on.
Is this grid good or bad? Could it be better? I don’t know. But I strongly feel that it’s better than what came before it, and it definitely seems as if the people fighting against it don’t understand it at all.