28. The Case for Favoritism

Imag­ine the per­fect mer­i­toc­racy. Now think again. In our per­fect mer­i­toc­racy prizes go to the most able, the most wor­thy, the best … But who is to decide the most able, wor­thy or best ? A fair sys­tem you say, inno­cent of human bias, objec­tive in its eval­u­a­tion.

That’s nice. How many fair sys­tems do you know? Well, there are some admirably equal deci­sion processes in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. A ther­mome­ter is pretty fair about mea­sur­ing the tem­per­a­ture, and a binary cal­cu­la­tor sep­a­rates zeroes and ones reli­ably.

Con­sider human affairs. Have you ever seen a fair exam­i­na­tion? Well, the ‘fair­ness’ here is rel­a­tive to your cri­te­ria, isn’t it. If the exam mea­sures what the teacher taught, and the stu­dent answers what the teacher asked, then we might say (in some cases) that the exam was fair. But what if the teach­ing was inad­e­quate or the teacher was mis­in­formed? Or what if the stu­dent was smarter than the teacher, and the teacher had trou­ble admit­ting that? Rare, you say. No, as a teacher for 27 years in many venues, I have to say that it is extremely com­mon, even the norm. Hmm, what hap­pened to our mer­i­toc­racy here? We wind up with “bril­liant” stu­dents who in fact are mod­els of con­for­mity, while some of the really clever stu­dents (as well as any num­ber of gen­uine fail­ures of course), are sent down the waste dis­posal chute.

Come to the so-called real world. The world of adult work. Sup­pose we have a per­son­nel hir­ing and pro­mo­tion sys­tem based on, um, merit. Hmm, who decides? Well, peo­ple who are paid to decide make deci­sions based on their best judge­ment. Judge­ment, there’s the rub. How good is their judge­ment? If they are aver­age — and most peo­ple are aver­age — then their judge­ment will often be pretty awful. Another name for aver­age is mediocre, and it is extremely dif­fi­cult emo­tion­ally and intel­lec­tu­ally, for the mediocre to make good deci­sions about excep­tional peo­ple, espe­cially if those excep­tional peo­ple might dis­com­fort the mediocre at some future time. It is also extremely dif­fi­cult for a 25 year old per­son­nel offi­cer to make a fair deci­sion about a 55 year old job appli­cant, since 55 for the young seems like the cusp of death. It may be dif­fi­cult for a rigid older per­son to make fair judge­ments about a more laid back youth too. In other words, even with the best will in the world, human judge­ments in any orga­ni­za­tion will tend to a lower com­mon denom­i­na­tor. Those with expe­ri­ence in orga­ni­za­tions will also know that ‘the best will in the world’ is not so com­mon either, being com­pli­cated by ambi­tion, pol­i­tics and the seven deadly sins.

What applies in com­pa­nies and other orga­ni­za­tions also applies at a national level. Democ­racy is an excel­lent way to dis­pose of scoundrels once they are unmasked. It is a dubi­ous mech­a­nism, to say the least, for choos­ing the wise and the able for high office. The judge­ment of the major­ity is by def­i­n­i­tion the judge­ment of the mediocre. In prac­tice it is also the judge­ment of the mis­in­formed, for even with­out media manip­u­la­tion, we all only have twenty-four hours in a day, and few peo­ple have the abil­ity, time or inter­est to remain well-informed on the issues and play­ers in national and inter­na­tional affairs.

Merit there­fore may be clear to the gods, but for mere humans the choices are often clouded.

So what is to be done? We tend to be con­fi­dent that trans­par­ent, fair and demo­c­ra­tic choices are not only char­ac­ter­is­tic of the most ‘mod­ern’ soci­eties, but also lead to the best over­all out­comes. I have just ques­tioned the real­ity of this kind of ‘mer­i­toc­racy’. Other soci­eties through­out his­tory, and many today, have had no qualms about impos­ing less open sys­tems of choice and gov­er­nance. Inher­i­tance, caste, nepo­tism, favoritism, force, bribery, the judge­ment (sober or oth­er­wise) of a coun­cil of elders … and count­less other mech­a­nisms have been used to rearrange or tie down the play­ers in the human cir­cus.

The out­comes of rule by favour etc. have often been appalling. The loss of human poten­tial, the lives ruined or enslaved, the prej­u­dice, poverty and regres­sion in many human ant-heaps is all too well chron­i­cled.

Yet it is also the case that arbi­trary and ‘unfair’ judge­ments by those in power can have good out­comes as well as bad. There have been kings who were able, wise and tol­er­ant, shap­ing at least for their brief tenure, soci­eties which were far more suc­cess­ful than one which any col­lo­quium of their aver­age cit­i­zens at the time could have man­aged. There have been any num­ber of com­pa­nies which were founded and thrived under the tute­lage of an excep­tional entre­pre­neur, but with his depar­ture with­ered and died amid the bick­er­ing of “pro­fes­sional man­agers”.

Equally there have always been deals done on the strength of bribes or favours. Deals between nations, com­pa­nies and indi­vid­u­als. Many of them cause waste, loss or suf­fer­ing. But also there are deals which would never have hap­pened with­out the bribes and favours. Not a small num­ber of them have had ben­e­fi­cial out­comes way beyond the cor­rupt inter­ests of those who gave them birth.

And yes, there are men and women who have obtained their jobs unfairly. They are legion, and the bur­den of their incom­pe­tence has sunk count­less com­pa­nies and economies. Yet amongst their num­ber are indi­vid­u­als of great abil­ity, who lack­ing beauty, medi­oc­rity or some other qual­i­fi­ca­tion of ‘mer­i­to­ri­ous selec­tion’ by aver­age fools, would never have had the chance to exer­cise their gifts with­out the unfair inter­ven­tion of some wiser spon­sor.

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