Meritocracy and Gameability

I don’t know any of this for a fact, but I would imagine that, if you were to administer a spelling bee to a given middle-school classroom, there would be a fairly significant correlation between success at the bee and overall writing ability. I’d further imagine that this correlation begins to fall apart the closer you get to a country-wide scale, like the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Perhaps I’m being ungenerous there, but I don’t see too many future Hemingways in that crowd.) The reason I’d wager that these propositions are true is that good spelling is wrapped up with wide reading, which is the font of a whole host of verbal proficiencies. And so I think if you foisted an impromptu spelling contest on some group of unsuspecting eigth-graders, it’d be likely to shake out that the ones who did well in it know their way around a book. And that they could on the whole write sentences with more clarity and grace than their lower-scoring counterparts.

But the national spelling bee is a different animal altogether. Success at that level doesn’t mean you’re an “avid reader” or the kind of student who writes little short stories and poems in her spare time. It doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily got a knack for pleasant turns of phrase. Not at all. What it means is that you’ve got a freakishly capacious memory. And reliable recall under pressure, too. It means you’re willing to forego in large measure normal childhood entertainments. It means you’re willing to grind out hour after hour of tedious rote learning, inscribing obscure etymologies and variant spellings and all manner of curious linguistic fauna in careful runes upon your young heart.

I’m not saying this latter set of skills isn’t impressive in its own right, or that it’s never worth cultivating. (Years of spelling-bee prep strikes me as somewhat of a misspent youth. But then again I logged more than my fair share of hours on the Nintendo so who am I to throw stones?) I’m just pointing out out that the people who succeed at trial like this in its native environment and the people who succeed at once it’s been elevated to the status of a major contest are two different groups of people. And also that, as the bee makes that journey from afternoon diversion to national competition, the corpus of abilities it tests transforms radically.

Now like I said at the onset: I haven’t researched every last particular of my speculation here. I’ll admit it. If there are Scripps champions who went on to produce works of timeless literature, be sure to list them in the comments (and include a note on how to pronounce their name as well). But you can observe the same sort of phenomenon all over the place. Once a basic tool of training or assessment becomes incentivized heavily enough, it tends to lose all relationship to the qualities it was originally meant to train or assess. Look at Crossfit. The pull up is a staple of strength training. Classic. Respectable. And it’s a fair enough measure (taking bodyweight into account) of whether you or your lifting buddy have the stronger upper back.

But once you elevate that means of strength training to an end all of its own, once you elevate the pull up to the status of contest, well… you end up with something else entirely. Not classic. Not especially respectable. Just a bizarre arms race of ever-specializing techniques that people innovate because they’re more interested in winning than in maintaining the movement’s place in a larger scheme of physical improvement. In other words: once something becomes worth gaming, it will be gamed. And it will lose almost all of its former virtue in the gaming process.

There’s a lot of mileage to be had from this observation, which needless to say isn’t original to me. One of the largest, most thorough failures of modern educational policy (besides mandatory public schooling, of course) was occasioned by an oversight of this simple fact of human nature. No Child Left Behind, a law that was perhaps as well-intentioned as the name would have you believe, wanted to cut through all the nonsense and politics and unevenness of different school districts and “hold them all accountable” to “higher standards” of educational success. NCLB mandated that schoolchildren all over the nation would take tests throughout the year, and the schools they attended would be judged by the amount of progress they made in raising their scores on those tests. Schools that didn’t post steady progress would suffer interventions of various sorts. Schools that did would be spared.

As you can imagine, though, this set of incentives transformed the nature of classroom education. Once those test numbers were imbued with such a terrible significance, educators and administrators found all sorts of ways (both legal and non) to game them. Blatant cheating aside, teachers started teaching “to the test.” Practice tests became the order of the day. And the drive to perfect the science of Scantron bubbling crowded out more meaningful pedagogical practices, not to mention the sort of teachers who engaged in such practices in the first place.

The artificial levelling of “outcomes” (educational or otherwise) is a major preoccupation of liberals. It’s a sort of Marxism, you could say, applied to any number of cultural arenas. It’s a positively evil preoccupation, though, whatever you call it—especially when taken to the extremes in vogue today. The capable are punished. The incapable are patronized. And any ideal worth the name of justice gets sacrificed to our precious conviction that life really ought to be fair after all.

Sometimes, however, we on the Right tend to adopt the opposing position too vigorously for our own good. When they say “beatify the halt and the lame,” we say “let the devil take the hindmost.” When they offer social Utopianism, we counter with social Darwinism. Their positions are worth opposing. Yes. But not at any cost. In fact, that concept of “meritocracy,” so near and dear to many an honest conservative’s heart, brings its own set of ills, some just as serious as those that communism of outcomes does. And the larger the scale on which meritocracy is applied, the more prone to abuse it is, as in the case of Scripps or NCLB. The truth is almost any assessment of “merit” is gameable at that level. And so the nature of what is being assessed will differ dramatically from the nature what was intended to be assessed. And bad faith actors will operate at a decided advantage.

Within a single classroom or gym, it would be feasible for someone familiar with all of the faces involved to spot the bad faith actors. But if you include a whole nation of classrooms and gyms, those sort of judgment calls become impossible, and the grinders, the grifters, the unscrupulous rule the day. So it’s unwise, I think, to charge too far into the territory of meritocratic competition, even if that presents itself as an answer to the injustices of enforced equality. Our solutions need more nuance than that.

Liked it? Take a second to support Social Matter on Patreon!
View All


  1. We did best with a pagan/Christian combination. Pagan, broadly speaking, would resonate with the inherited psyche of the race. We used to call this a well-rounded education and it would have included the canon of classic western images and literature. We would have recognized that culture is a learned instinct used in every day life. The church would have played an active part. People actually dressed up to go to church as a sign of respect to God. Ritual imbued a sense of humility and united the classes in common powerful bond based on a founding myth and the drama.

  2. I would argue “gaming” itself to be tied to human nature. I think you’re spot on with your assessment that anything that becomes worth gaming, enevitably is.

    I would charge you to find any areana of human endeavor that has been free of “gaming”, where the spirit of honest competition surpassed the desire to win. To quote Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

    Interesting that “gaming” only takes place in endeavors restricted by rules. Without the rules, these activities are “innovations”, not gaming.

    I’m biased to think of “gaming” as a positive factor. Being good at working the system often requires more skill and intelligence than whatever activity is being engaged in, especially when such activities are designed to produce “equitable” outcomes as so many are in today’s fucked up world.

    From a policy prospective, I don’t have the slightest clue how a government can enforce the “spirit” of academic achievement while avoiding widespread cheating and fraud. Perhaps they could actively promote a culture where academic achievement is tied to status and privalege while holding groups who promote anti-social activity accountable, both socially and economically.


    Teach kids they’re permanent victims because of their race/gender/orientation, flood schools with inbred illiterate third world immigrants, sue school districts that suspend violent blacks too much, hire and promote faculty entirely based on race/gender, deflate the value of basic education so the darkies can graduate, and then wonder, without a shred of self awareness or irony, 1) why these perma victims aren’t interested in the culture of acedemia established by their oppressors. 2) why simply threatening to cut funding to Americas most established entitled beaurocratic body could possibly be a good idea.

    1. When you say that “gaming” only takes place under systems of rules, I think an important modifier here needs to be “formal” or “written” rules as opposed to unwritten or customary rules. The “gaming” of the legal system, for example, is a result of formalization of law such that the guardians of social order, be they king or jury, were largely stripped of their power to deal with bad-faith actors on a case-by-case basis.

      I think the solution is that we have to acknowledge that institutions and formalized rules are no substitute for a human judge or ruler with the authority to override the law/rules in the name of social order or amity. Good rules are not sufficient, we’re still left with the ancient problem of trying to find how to ensure a good man rules.

  3. Most Traditional Civilizations were not meritocracies at large and I think this is one of the reasons why. As you point out, meritocracy degenerates on the macro level as the race or scale becomes the center of the universe at the expense of all other pursuits.

    This seems good reason to compartmentalize authorities, some meritocratic via different mechanisms, others become traditionally aristocratic , and I would even favor small scale democratic authorities in some instances, for example small sub-localities. A good example of meritocracy in action would obviously be military structures, and I would also argue a similar principle on ecclesiastic authorities.

  4. Gaming is beloved of our “model immigrants,” the Chinese and Indians. They are quite expert at gaming entrance exams to competitive high schools, such as those in New York, and of course gaming college admissions, often with false credentials or credentials from meaningless schools in their native lands, or with SAT gaming. And they are very good at gaming jobs, as well, both with bogus credentials and, more so, with cronyism. I’ve seen time and time again, once an Indian becomes head of a department in a technology company, everyone hired for that group going forward will be Indian, the whites squeezed out as soon as they can be. Of course, this open discrimination is not in any way “racism” or even “discrimination.” It’s…. well, it’s nothing at all. It doesn’t exist.

    Our human imports are also exceptionally skilled at gaming our big, fat, lazy government targets like Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security disability. These giant, multi-trillion dollar systems are built on the assumption that everyone will play by the rules. They are exceptionally easy to skim from.

    The flip side of “every system will be gamed” is that “every big job of gaming requires a giant pool of suckers and easy marks.” That’s YOU, whitey.

  5. A key feature of Chinese civilization is that it has been an exam-based meritocracy for over 2000 years, yet the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened elsewhere…

Comments are closed.