The Case for Mediocracy

by Thomas R. Wells

Suppose a company wants to fill a job. They would advertise it together with the requirements for any successful candidate. HR would screen out all the applicants not good enough to do the job and everyone else’s name would go into a lottery.

Do you find this prospect upsetting? Perhaps you think it is unfair for someone to get a job without a good reason for why they deserve it rather than anyone else. Perhaps you think such a system would decrease your chances of getting the job you want. If so then you may be under the influence of the cult of excellence.

Excellence is the false religion of our time. Like all cults it fosters unhealthy and delusional behaviour, and benefits only a handful of insiders. We need to throw it out, reconcile ourselves to the essential truth that none of us is particularly special, and build a society fit for that.

The first problem with excellence is that we use it in a purely relative sense, to rank ourselves against each other to decide for who gets what. This turns society into a race in which we are trained to see each other as competitors for scarce resources rather than as fellows in a community of equals. Over time the race to the top takes over more institutions and more of our lives. In education, for example, cramming schools appear to help kids get into the right preschools, while a whole industry of consultants exists to help rich high-schoolers write their Ivy League application essays. In such a toxic meritocracy no one has the time or compassion to help the less fortunate. Winners congratulate themselves on their wonderfulness, as proven by their salaries, but retain an existential anxiety about their position. Losers blame themselves for not running faster. Inequality rockets.

Does society at least work better by stimulating and rewarding a competition for excellence? Only up to a point. One problem is that the pursuit of excellence can easily become excessive and actually prevent people from doing their jobs well. In my corner of academia, for example, it is not unusual to get 200 applicants for the best tenure track positions. These jobs are always advertised as requiring proven international excellence – but only in research, although the actual job will be 2/3 teaching. Junior academics recognize the implicit message: every hour you spend teaching students is an hour lost to building your career prospects. The outcome of 20 years of intense competition between universities for international rankings is that I routinely meet final year students who have never written an essay and have never had a university class that did not consist of powerpoint slides being read aloud. (They can get very annoyed with me.)

The second problem is that excellence is hard to judge. Thus, although nearly all organisations consider the pursuit of excellence to be their fiduciary duty, they have difficulty turning this mantra into action. For example, managers tasked with hiring/promoting ‘the best person for the job’ quickly run out of job-relevant criteria and end up recycling conventional prejudices about what successful people look and talk like (posh white men) and the prestige of their previous schools and employers (in the hope that someone else’s judgement will be more reliable). Hiring committees feel they have to come to a final decision that is justified by the merits of the winning candidate, even when they long ago ran out of sensible criteria for comparing candidates.

It was once naively assumed that machine learning artificial intelligence could finally optimise such decisions, since algorithms don’t have humans’ unconscious biases or cognitive limitations. But in practice this technique often amplifies existing prejudices. Machine learning works by finding the key correlations between job applications and the decisions of human recruiters that account for most of the positively valued results. So if your company favours male applicants then an AI system trained on historic data about what your company counts as success will explicitly weight applications from men higher than women’s (as happened at Amazon).

Our meritocracy of excellence does not succeed in its own terms. It neither improves institutional performance nor rewards those who contribute most to societal flourishing. It mainly benefits those from the right backgrounds and who actually enjoy deriving their self-worth from a competition for social status. Hence the need for a mediocracy.

Mediocracy is both more idealistic and more realistic than our current meritocracy. Idealistic because it views society as a cooperative community of equals rather than a competition to get ahead of and above each other. And it claims that an ideal of good enough is actually better than an ideal of personal excellence. Realistic because it is based on the truth that none of us is particularly special, and if we happen to achieve anything worthwhile we should attribute that to good luck. It rejects the meritocratic fantasy (so similar to prosperity theology) that the universe will recognize your special gifts and reach out to reward you through the magical invisible hand of capitalism.

In a mediocracy people do the jobs they are good enough for and get good enough rewards. A mediocracy does not seek to eliminate status hierarchies, but to contain them, by reducing the number of goods distributed according to social status and by breaking the link between relative status and self-worth. For example, goods like decent housing and health care should be a universal right rather than a privilege of winners, and some positional goods like jobs should be allocated by lottery. A mediocracy is a better society because empathy, fairness and even genuine excellence flourish there.

First, reducing the significance of status hierarchies in how one’s whole life goes allows us to look up from our own grasping self-interested tunnel vision and see other people and their needs. Middle-class parents for example have become so terrified of any possible threat to their children’s future life chances that they pay vast amounts to live in areas with no poor (non-white) pupils who might possibly bring down their children’s GPA. In a mediocracy, parents can afford to relax their narrow focus on their own children and consider the needs of others and of building a flourishing integrated society. More generally, distinguishing between luck (which is about the role of circumstances) and desert (which is about personal achievement) allows us to participate together in projects to reduce everyone’s vulnerability to bad luck.

Second, our current toxic meritocracy systematically disadvantages those people lacking the characteristics deemed prestigious by society. Hence the increasing rarity of women, people of colour, and working class backgrounds as you get further up the org charts. (It also discriminates against those – like me – who find competition distasteful.) This is unfair. Using a lottery to allocate jobs and promotions among good enough candidates would overcome this fairness problem where previously attempted affirmative action policies like diversity quotas and mentoring have failed.

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, a mediocracy might actually produce more excellence in the absolute sense. The cult of excellence distracts vast amounts of our attention, distorts our institutions, and dumps most of society’s resources on those who have the least need of them. In our individual jobs, for example, many of us spend a lot of time worrying about whether other people think we are good enough to deserve to be there. In a mediocracy that worry would disappear, because we would already know that no one got their job because they deserved it. With that weight off our shoulders we would be free to direct our attention to what doing a good job actually demands. We would know that we have been granted an opportunity and what we make of it is up to us.