The Merit Delusion


with inputs from Sunil.

Reservations (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India but mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds in social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood even amongst atheists who consider themselves as better informed than the average Indian:

I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.

Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.

There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )

Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)

Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward…

Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN..

May the good breed of politicians like ARJUN SINGH long live…

Medal For Merits. Source - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medal_%C2%ABFor_merits%C2%BB_%28Rosregistratsija%29.jpg

Medal For Merits. Image in public domain; via Wikimedia Commons (links to source).

That is just one amongst the myriad jokes about the lower castes that are popular among the upper castes.

There is an implied assertion in the “joke” – that a person who avails reservation, which means a lower bar of entry, lacks merit. Whereas a person who doesn’t avail it has merit. So what is this merit that the upper castes are so hung up on? It is the idea that traits like intelligence and assiduousness are what that determine how successful one should be in their life. It is the central dogma that people like me grew up with. So if you lack merit, you are a hack; a parasite on society. Profusion of such unmerited people is the reason why India is backward.

On its own, the idea of merit isn’t bad. But what gives rise to absurd “jokes”, like the one above, and what leads to the delusional beliefs about reservations are two things – (a) What is the source of merit, and (b) Which practices in society are labeled as merit based and which aren’t.

The Source of Merit

Where does merit come from? Is it inborn?

On an average humans are capable of the same things even when you account for factors like race or gender. There are always exceptional individuals, but there is nothing to suggest that such individuals can only come from one particular group. Also history shows that some particular groups at different times have dominated others in terms of intellectual achievements. In light of that, it can be concluded that merit is largely a function of the environment rather than of one group’s inherent superiority.

So no, it is inaccurate to say that merit is inborn. Given the right opportunities, any group of people can go on to achieve remarkable things.

Then why is it that we see such bigoted jokes on the lower castes? Surely educated India has given up such archaic notions of inborn merit, and atheists even more so? I think the answer to that lies in how social prejudices linger in people’s minds. So what could be the source of the prejudice here? I think it is the caste system.

The way the caste system started out is that a person’s gunas and karma determine their caste. But in the absence of a system which constantly adjudicates gunas and karma and reassigns a person’s caste, caste took the only course left – it became birth based. (Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste touches upon this). But people still believed that it is a person’s gunas and karma that determined caste. How that can be reconciled with the ground reality that caste is determined by birth? Part of the solution was to make karma count over multiple lives. Bad karma in the previous lives would make you born into a lower caste. The other part is the belief that upper caste people tend to have an inborn inclination for certain gunas and the lower castes towards a lack of those gunas. The intellectual achievements of the upper castes are due to their knack for it. The lack of such among lower castes is due to the lack of such knack. Unless one convinces themselves of that, there’s no way they can sleep at night believing that the caste system is the best way to organize society and also believing that the lower castes are justified in being low.

The idea of merit in the “joke” parallels the idea of gunas. Take how SC/ST/OBC doctors are made fun of. Though they have reserved seats in medical college, once they get in, they have to pass the same exams that everyone else has to. Only then will they get an M.B.B.S. certificate. And yet the “joke” believes that those doctors lack merit and hence are bad in practicing medicine. Hence the the dig at politicians in the “joke”. Politicians are responsible for the existence of reservations, so they should get a taste of their policies by dying in the hands doctors who lack merit. Here the assumption is that SC/ST/OBCs don’t have the gunas that are necessary for being a good doctor. Once a lower caste, always a person lacking certain gunas. The possibility that people learn given the opportunity doesn’t even enter the picture.

So such assumptions about merit are good old fashioned casteism couched in a different form.

Of course, such ideas about merit aren’t unique to the caste system. At a lower level, they can be seen as arising from fundamental attribution error, and also from a belief in a just world.

Merit in practice

Now lets come to the how merit fares in the real world. Most of the time merit has little to do with how successful one is in their life. Consider these cases:

Buying your way through college. Since independence it was mostly the upper castes who were able to do this – either buy seats in private colleges in India or send their kids to other countries like the US (when to compared to Indian standards of living, that costs a lot of money. Even with scholarships). So given that there are plenty of doctors who bought their way in, why no jokes about their competency? More importantly why didn’t buying your way through college result in utter lack of quality of services provided in various professions? The answer lies in getting rid of the delusion that merit is always inborn. People learn given the opportunity.

Hiring practices in the private sector, the gold standard of meritocracy as opposed to ingrained incompetency of the public sector (As an aside, the word “meritocracy” was originally meant to be sarcastic). If merit were paramount, companies would publicly advertise for a position and vet as many candidates as they can to get the best merit. But companies do such things as a last resort. Their preferred method of hiring is by referrals where they restrict themselves to a smaller pool of talent. Sure even after a referral the candidate has to go through an interview. But the interview process itself is subjective and anyone who has conducted them knows that candidates who aren’t the best fit do get through. Then there are the cases of nepotism in the private sector. And then the cases of fake experience on resumes.

So how come despite all that the private sector manages to produce goods with reasonable efficiency? Again, the answer lies in the fact that people learn. A person might not have sufficient merit at hiring time but given the opportunity, they can learn and become better at their jobs.

Businesses. They are typically inherited. There are no entrance examinations to determine who has the best merit to run a business. Anil and Mukesh Ambani didn’t become owners of their business because of merit, but became owners because they are the sons of Dhirubhai Ambani. Business deals, partnerships too mostly happen on who knows who basis and not on some merit based tests.

So, on one hand we know that merit can be acquired given the right opportunities and on the other we also know that merit in the real world doesn’t work in the ideal way. Despite that there is a lot vitriol directed towards reservations as if the very existence of them is an affront to merit. People feel the need to make jokes about lower caste people make bad doctors or ask rhetorical questions like “Would you fly in a plane piloted by a reserved category person”? I would say that a good part of the scorn originates from caste prejudices in the Indian society and a serious lack of effort to prevent acquisition of such prejudices from early on, like being taught about them in schools. All that has led to a very lopsided discourse on the topic of reservations. Despite there being evidence that they work, they’re portrayed as one of the evils plaguing India without leaving any room for a nuanced discussion. Among atheists who advertise themselves as “good without god”, such prejudices show that a mere disbelief in god isn’t enough and getting rid of social prejudices is every bit hard as letting go of the god delusion if not harder.

Comment policy for this post – This post is about arguments that rely on certain ideas of merit. So please keep the discussion to that. This comment space shall not be a platform for the ad nauseum arguments about how reservations are teh evil. Any comments that veer off in that direction will be deleted.

Comments

  1. says

    Sounds eerily similar to jokes/claims against affirmative action and similar policies in North America to reduce racial/sexual disparities; likewise with the roots of such prejudices and the systemic failures of society to genuinely be based on merit/achievement.

  2. Sunil says

    One aspect of “merit” is actually what social scientists refer to as human capital, social capital (free PDF to an often-cited paper) and cultural capital. Privileged groups have this capital in so many ways – e.g. business networks, physical safety, health, housing and property, information flow, social norms, family status etc., while marginalised groups lack it. So privileged groups, in general, have a significant advantage. Sadly, people tend not to be aware of these sociological aspects – instead, as you pointed out, they think in terms of the individual alone.

  3. smhll says

    I’m in the USA, so I hadn’t thought a lot about how karma comes up in arguments. But, it’s already annoying for me to discuss the concept of “privilege” with people I encounter. If I was often arguing with people who were certain that they had earned their privilege in previous lives, this difficult discussion would become even more impossible.

    Where I live, I hear “God must love poor people, he made so many of them” and “Jesus said ‘the poor will always be with us'”. People say these things to wiggle out of making any effort to alleviate poverty. But if someone tried to say something to me like “Of course he was born poor, it has been pre-determined that he deserves to be poor”, I think my head would explode in frustration.

  4. CaitieCat says

    I will never, ever understand how people can defend as rational a system which draws from only a tiny pool and claims that this is the best way to achieve excellence.

    My contention is, that the top 10% of ALL of society in a given field is going to be a MUCH larger class of quality/merit than the top 80% of a tiny pool. Which is better: the top 10% of men, or the top 5% of all people? Anyone arguing the former must then make their case for overturning the null hypothesis (that the populations of people generally follow the same distribution), by showing that the tiny pool is of such exceptional quality that it must necessarily outshine any number of people from outside it.

    Which is, nakedly, a supremacist argument. It is of the same quality as those given by slavers and the KKK and MRAs and all sorts of irrational bullshit-spreaders.

    Excellent post as always on this blog, thank you.

  5. says

    @Sunil,

    That’s a point made in this article written at time of Mandal Commission partly as a reply to the same arguments about merit. Note that this was in 1990. And we keep hearing the same arguments 23 years later.

    The unwritten reservation that the forward castes enjoy in the form of Connections’ is incomparably more potent than all the recommendations Mandal has made for the benefit of the backward castes, but that is not seen as reservation.

    .

    The ‘right connections’ is another reservation widely prevalent in society, and that again is available only to the rich and the privileged communities. This reservation too, far from ceasing after one generation or two, goes on for generation after generation, and indeed becomes stronger as time goes on.

    .

    But of course the biggest reservation of them all is property. Property is reserved for the progeny of the propertied, for generation after generation, irrespective of talent or merit. It will no doubt be treated as sacrilegious if one suggests that hereafter property shall not be inherited by the children of the propertied, but by the persons who possess the greatest merit in handling it . After all, if it is a national disaster for jobs to be given to meritless persons on grounds of caste, it is equally a national disaster for property to pass into the hands of persons not competent to put it to use for no reason other than a genetic accident.

  6. says

    Thanks for this excellent and rationally discussed article. it is so much needed in India. Even people who call themselves progressive paint the system of giving caste based reservations as evil and responsible for all the ills in current Indian society. India Against Corruption, that hysterical movement led by Anna Hazare which was giddily incited by the electronic media portrayed Reservations as one of the forms of corruption in India. This is the kind of willful misunderstanding that one has to confront apart from the sheer ignorance of the issues involved. Hence this article comes across as a breath of fresh air. It needs to be shared over and over again. Hope you don’t mind my posting it in my blog @geetacharusivam.blogspot.in alongwith appropriate links.

  7. Anita J says

    They just have to consider two questions to get a basic understanding why the anti-reservation sentiment is utterly unjust – Do we have a level playing field? Which side of the hierarchy do they come from?
    Thanks for writing this.

  8. Vivek says

    It was quite interesting to read about your in-depth analysis of an internet-joke. I am glad some one has take taken time to uncover more layers beneath ‘apparently’ superficial internet-joke.

    If the sole purpose of your blog-post was to prove how agitated you are because of the joke, then please do not bother to read rest of my comment. But if the purpose of your blog-post is to justify reservation, read on.

    Apart from the internet-joke and guna-karma analysis, the main line of your argument appears to be ‘Reservation doesn’t kill merit because there is no IDEAL merit’.

    After examining three cases where there is no IDEAL merit, your take home message for the reader is: ‘Because there is no IDEAL merit – Reservation doesn’t kill merit’.

    To draw a parallel to your line of reasoning, one could say ‘Drought doesn’t kill a crop because there is no IDEAL crop’ or ‘Acid attack doesn’t kill girl’s beauty because there is no IDEAL beauty’

    In the process of supporting your argument for reservation, you have demonized merit.

    You have presented the three cases where there was no regard for merit. Don’t you agree that those three cases are equally likely to occur for a upper class individual and a lower class individual ? Let me read them out again for you again and see if you spot the logical fallacy.

    1) Rich – buying your way through college

    Underlying assumption : People from backward classes are inherently Poor – hence, cannot buy their way into college.

    2) Referral based hiring practices in the private sector

    Underlying assumption : People from backward classes are not hired in private sector based on referrals

    3) Business inheritance

    Underlying assumption : People from backward classes do not inherit businesses.

    Of course, they are absurd assumptions.

    As you can see, the three cases you have presented have nothing to do upper class / lower class (or) caste system. Since, reservation has its roots in caste system, the three cases you presented have nothing to do with reservation.

    When someone says ‘Reservation kills merit’, in my humble understanding it means : Given two individuals with the same financial resources, with same potential for referrals and with same right to inheritance, reservation unjustifiably supports one over the other. In the same way as “Referral hiring”, “Rich buying collage admission”, reservation also disregards merit.

  9. says

    If the sole purpose of your blog-post was to prove how agitated you are because of the joke, then please do not bother to read rest of my comment. But if the purpose of your blog-post is to justify reservation, read on.

    The point of my post was that if you are going to have a discussion on reservations, it can’t be based on faulty assumptions. The joke is just an example of what passes for a discussion on reservations.

    Apart from the internet-joke and guna-karma analysis, the main line of your argument appears to be ‘Reservation doesn’t kill merit because there is no IDEAL merit’.

    My argument is that since merit doesn’t really work the way some people envision about it, what’s the point in making an argument based on unrealistic premises? Of course you can work towards very hard to achieve goals like a perfect democracy, but what obstacles you chose to tackle and how you justify your approach will expose your biases. In this case, there are bigger affronts to the idealized merit than reservations. And yet all the scorn seems to be reserved for reservations. I’m questioning the hypocrisy in that.

    You have presented the three cases where there was no regard for merit. Don’t you agree that those three cases are equally likely to occur for a upper class individual and a lower class individual ?

    I wouldn’t say equally likely because there are a lot more poor amongst lower castes than the upper castes. But yes, the examples I gave can apply for lower castes as well. So here’s the answer to your “spot the logical fallacy” – you made a strawman argument. Because I never said that only upper castes can buy their way through college, or get hired by referral or inherit businesses. You only imagined I said it.

    As you can see, the three cases you have presented have nothing to do upper class / lower class (or) caste system. Since, reservation has its roots in caste system, the three cases you presented have nothing to do with reservation.

    But I wasn’t talking about reservations, but about cases of how merit works in practice. Again, you have picked a strawman to fight against.

    When someone says ‘Reservation kills merit’, in my humble understanding it means : Given two individuals with the same financial resources, with same potential for referrals and with same right to inheritance, reservation unjustifiably supports one over the other. In the same way as “Referral hiring”, “Rich buying collage admission”, reservation also disregards merit.

    Then why is there so much scorn for lower castes who avail reservations and nothing for the other cases?

  10. Change says

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    I keep arguing with privileged shitheads that just “mugging” everything up and vomiting in the exam (most admission qualifications involve passing a written exam) is not merit.

  11. says

    @Change,

    I am a privileged shithead myself and used to think acing entrance exams was a sure sign of merit. Imagine my horror in college when I found that reserved category people, who scored far less than me, were able to understand some subjects quite easily. I mean how was that possible? They are the reserved category. They are meant to be mediocre. Now I know better.

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