Meritocracy doesn’t mean inequality

Matt Yglesias has an article out today responding to the recent Brookings paper that describes the rise of “permanent” income inequality in America. Yglesias uses the state of professional golf to make the argument that a perfect meritocracy would lead to entrenched inequality:

If you take some field of endeavor where the concept of “merit” is pretty well-defined—professional golf, for example—what you see is an enormously inegalitarian distribution of income. Golfing ability is distributed very unevenly. The total set of people who golf is quite large, and most of them do it for negative wages. A tiny minority of people actually earn money golfing, and a much tinier subset of really good golfers dominate the tournament earnings. It’s both very meritocratic and very inegalitarian. What’s also true is that even as golf is a meritocracy where the best golfers win, it features major structural barriers to opportunity. Lots of kids don’t have a chance to golf growing up. That could be because their parents don’t have the money, or it could just be because their parents hate golf.

But if you removed those barriers to opportunity—by implementing, say, a well-funded universal golf education program—the end result would be even more inequality in earnings since the golfing market would only become more cutthroat and efficient.

I agree with the overall argument that a true meritocracy inevitably leads to inequality–natural distributions tend to have long right hand tails; a perfect example of that is the distribution of golfing ability that Yglesias describes–many people are terrible at golf, some are very good, and one or two per generation are outstanding.

Yglesias uses this fact to argue that true meritocracy is overrated because entrenched inequality is a pretty poor outcome. I actually disagree but I think the disagreement is primarily semantic–first, I don’t think there is any requirement that in a meritocracy the magnitude of income equate to the magnitude of ability, so long as the relative income corresponds to each individual’s relative ability. That is, let’s say that a golfer in the 99th percentile is twice as good as a golfer in the 95th percentile. Golf can still be a meritocratic sport so long as the golfer in the 99th percentile makes more than the golfer in the 95th percentile, even if the golfer in the 99th percentile doesn’t make twice as much money. So, a meritocratic society with a minor amount of inequality is theoretically possible.

Second, even the meritocracy that Yglesias described wouldn’t lead to entrenched income inequality–Entrenched inequality implies an inter-generational aspect; the children of wealthy children have a disproportionately better chance of being well-off in adulthood than children of lower-income parents, all other things being equal (a situation oddly reminiscent of America today). In the true meritocratic society that Yglesias described, each generation would have massive income inequality, but the wealth distribution would shift each subsequent generation based on the merit of the following generation.

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