But he says a bunch of other things that to me represent a confused conflation of ideas. Here’s Zingales:
America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous [emphasis added]. In a word, it was a meritocracy.
That’s interesting—and revealing. Here’s what I get when I look up “meritocracy” in the dictionary:
1 : a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2 : leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria
Nothing here about “hardworking” or “virtuous.” In a meritocracy, you can be as hardworking as John Kruk or as virtuous as Kobe Bryant and you’ll still get ahead—if you have the talent and achievement. Throwing in “hardworking” and “virtuous” seems to me to an attempt (unconscious, I expect) to retroactively assign moral standing to the winners in an economic race.
Later, Zingales writes:
The fundamental role of an economic system, even an extremely primitive one, is to assign responsibility and reward.
Huh? Again he seems to be conflating economics with morality, in a similar way as when economists Mankiw and Weinzierl implied that the state only has a right to tax things that are “unjustly wrestled from someone else.” Zingales in the above quote is taking the economic functions of prices, wages, supply, and demand and transmuting them into to the morally-loaded terms “responsibility” and “reward.”
Finally, in his praise of meritocracy, Zingales doesn’t seem to be aware of the concept’s self-contradicting nature. As James “Effect” Flynn has pointed out,
The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.
To put it another way, Zingales talks a lot about the threat to meritocracy from business capturing government regulation or from pitchfork-wielding hordes raising the marginal tax rate, but he doesn’t consider some much more direct effects of meritocracy such as this.
Why do I interrupt our usual flow of deep statistical insights with an analysis of the flaws of what is, ultimately, a pretty run-of-the-mill reminder from Zingales that the free market is a golden goose that must be coddled lest it decrease its emission of eggs? Surely lots of people misunderstand meritocracy—why pick on Zingales or even bring up the topic?
It can’t simply be that Tyler Cowen favored Zingales with a link. Cowen provides dozens of links a week and I wouldn’t have time to read, let alone comment, on all of them.
No, my reason for bringing up meritocracy (again) is because I think it’s important. I am bothered when pundits such as Zingales set up a self-contradictory ideal which conflates accidents of birth, talent, achievement, success, riches, and power—not to mention “hard work” and “virtue.” We all know that these traits don’t always go together in the real world, but it’s also a mistake to think that they could all go together. As a political scientist, I think it’s important to use my (small) megaphone to remind people of this and to correct people when they’re confused about it.