Rule of the Meek

I was trained as an economist and taught to respect vertical equity: The idea that someone who was better at something deserved more of the reward. The pitcher with good control on his 100-mph fastball should get more pay than the one who tops out at 92 and tends to throw wild. It’s only fair. The better pitcher helps the team win more. Winning more is what everyone wants, including the fans. The fans bring the revenue. Revenue is the lifeblood of any enterprise. A successful baseball team will be staffed by good players who are paid well.

To honor vertical equity is to assign the riches of the world according to merit. Doing so ensures that the enterprises where more material value is at stake will be staffed by the best people. It is the best way to create powerful, effective organizations. These are the entities that make us all so well off.

Rewarding merit was a cause of the Enlightenment: Topple the aristocracy; it had its money for no reason other than birth. Let the wealth flow to the most competent people.

Non-monetary goods are also assigned according to merit. The top professorships go to the scholar with the most publications. People pay most attention to the media outlet with the best writers, editors, and producers. Attention, prestige, influence: All are doled according to some standard of merit.

We live in a meritocracy. The leaders of our culture have scored the highest, attended the most prestigious schools, and networked with the best people.

I used to be confident that all this was appropriate. Now, I’m having doubts. What is “merit?” The merit required for any position in society is, effectively, being skilled at whatever it takes to get the position. This is not the same thing as merit in the position itself. These two are the same in many cases, such as baseball pitchers. To get the job of pitching, you have to be a good pitcher. They are different in other cases, though, and really important ones too. The Presidency goes not to the best president but to the person who is best at getting votes.

In theory, a merit-based system assures that the best people at a role are placed in the role. In practice, we don’t have that. We have a role-seeking merit system: The person placed in the role is the one who is best at seeking it. Our system rewards role-seeking, not role-competence.

They are strongly correlated, of course. There’s probably no greater correlation than that between role-competence and role-seeking competence. I mean, if we know someone’s competence at doing what it takes to get the role, we probably know as much as can be known about his competence at the role itself. There’s no doubt that any move away from this system would result in a decline of effectiveness and power among all enterprises.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad though. We are awfully rich right now, the richest humans who have ever lived. (I’m speaking in average terms here. Not everybody is rich. We could do a lot more to help poor people, who suffer today as much as they always do. But this is another conversation. I want to focus on our overall well-being. Average.) If we tweaked our systems of achievement perhaps we might grow slower but be a lot happier.

Aristocracy: Think about it. Goods in society go to family members based on inheritance. There’s nothing about those families that makes them any more or less deserving of the goods. They’re just lucky. People who don’t have the goods are just unlucky. We’ve been trained to think of this as a horrible injustice. But it does have a positive that might be more important than anyone realized, a positive involving basic happiness. If my poor lot in life is the result of bad luck, then I won’t automatically think of myself as a stupid loser. In a meritocracy, people who are not on the top are reminded every day why that is so: “You are not very good.” Those people either feel awful about themselves and their world, and give up, or they start assuming that the supposedly “smart” people are not so smart. Which leads to a general skepticism of scientists, which leads to not vaccinating your kids. Maybe its better if people say that the rich are just lucky, rather than just smarter.

Rule of the Meek: What if goods in society went to the nicest people? It could happen. Nobody likes working with jerks. What if “merit” came to be understood as being a pleasant colleague? Imagine a company with the reputation of having really nice co-workers. It would attract lots of nice co-workers. A self-confirming reputation. People there would be happier. Turnover goes down, enthusiasm for the enterprise stays high… Employing nice people is not a bad way to make an enterprise thrive. In a way, networking is a test of emotional intelligence. What if that test of niceness-merit became more heavily weighted than pure cognitive ability or drive? Right now, we have these standardized tests because we presume that there are some very sharp people sprinkled among the people who are not already part of the elite. The system wants to find those people and bring them into that elite level. But those tests measure cognition, not niceness. As a result a lot – a whooooole lot – of people at the highest levels of society are nasty and mean and no fun to be around (disclaimer: I’m not excluding myself from that, not at all. Becoming a nicer person has been a lifelong quest starting from way behind). Imagine a national standardized test of niceness. The elite could draw into itself the ones who are meek, kind, giving, forgiving, earnest, and loving.

As I built the game program at Indiana, I came up with this mantra as regards hiring: “We are looking for kind-hearted people with a servant attitude.” That has always been our first screener. Fame and accomplishment is secondary. The result is, I really like the people I work with. We are relaxed in each other’s company. It is a joy to go to work each day. And I think we are quite effective in our mission, which is to give our students the best possible launch into their lives. Our placement rate is high, students love us, we love them, we have a strong and supportive and giving community, and our games are getting better by light-years every year. Merit based on kindness and service is a thing; it makes for a pretty powerful enterprise.

Maybe the world just have the idea of “merit” all wrong. Suppose a tenure case comes up and the research record is terrible. But the person is really nice and the students love him. All of my training says, “deny tenure.” But in the back of my head a separate rationality urges, “grant tenure,” because niceness is more important than research, and nice people are awfully hard to find.

So how about it, world? How about Rule of the Meek?