Arnold Kling  

Academic Merit vs. Economic Merit

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In response to Bryan's post on the role of "pity grades" in undermining academic meritocracy, Jane Galt writes,


I find it odd, too, that so many academics profess to be egalitarians, yet academia as a whole has produced one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles.

This raises the issue of the similarities and differences between the competition for prestige in academia and the competition for money in business. Presumably, to avoid hypocrisy, an academic who opposes inequality in income ought to be able to identify some differences between the academic tournament and the business tournament.

In this essay, I argued that the academic tournament is more effective.


the overall results of the academic tournament appear to me to be highly defensible. In general, it is fair to say that professors with impressive publication records and tenure at prestigious universities are more accomplished in their disciplines than those who lack such trophies.

The tournament for choosing CEO’s of large, established corporations probably is less effective than the academic tournament. It appears to me that idiosyncratic personal connections, timing, and luck play a big role in determining who gets to be a major CEO.


In my opinion, if you could repeat the academic tournament numerous times, a reasonable number of the same people would wind up as professors at top schools. But my guess is that if you could repeat the business tournament numerous times, the set of CEO's would be different.

Apart from tournament effectiveness, some people argue that the academic tournament is less evil because the competition is over something more worthwhile than money. I find that argument less persuasive. When money is involved, markets can get the social values reasonably correct. My guess is that when it comes to academic research, the divergence between private value and social value can be much larger--probably in both directions.

For what it's worth, the inequality of outcomes in academic life feels more wrong to me than the inequality of outcomes in business life. I think that the inequality of outcomes in business is greater than the inequality of talents. But I think that such differences are even worse in academic life. Moreover, the tenure system and the lack of any progressive "tax" on prestige makes academic differences more persistent.

It is common for academics to say, "I could go out and win the business tournament, but I am more interested in higher things." I believe that is self-serving nonsense. When professors display that attitude, they forfeit my respect.


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The author at Stumbling and Mumbling in a related article titled Acceptable inequalities writes:
    Jane Galt writes:So many academics profess to be egalitarians, yet academia as a whole has produced one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles. As a non-academic with egalitarian instincts, I see no [Tracked on August 22, 2005 7:49 AM]
COMMENTS (2 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Hayek made the point decades ago that markets are, strictly speaking, not meritocracies because a significant part of one's success (or lack thereof) in the game of catallaxy depends on luck.

Academia appears somewhat closer to a meritocracy at first glance, since once you're in you sink or swim based on the quality of your work. But a moment's thought reveals that there's a lot of luck involved there too: who your parents were matters both for financial reasons and for IQ reasons, and the quality of professors you get also matters. For the professors themselves, personal connections and the opinion of other faculty members also can have a significant impact on things like acceptance and tenure.

This is not to say that we shouldn't try to be as meritocratic as possible, but it's more an ideal to be strived for rather than something that can ever be expected to be reached.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"When professors display that attitude, they forfeit my respect."

Generally, or just in one area of judgment?

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