Tuesday, 3 November 2015


Meritocracy is a sham because someone gets to choose what "merit" is, and they are going to choose a meaning that favours themselves. But perhaps more foolish than the idea of a meritocratic society is the idea of a merit-based selection process for Cabinet ministers.

Justin Trudeau, Canada's new, super sexy Prime Minister has announce that his new Cabinet will be 50% men and 50% women. This has caused quite a number of columnists to wish that Canada's Cabinet ministers were chosen for their talents rather than their sex. The sometimes lucid Andrew Coyne laments this as a kind of slippery slope away from a fair system that is blind to gender. He laments this after noting that Cabinet selection has never been anything like merit-based. It takes into account regional representation, language, name recognition and good old fashioned cronyism. But now that we are going to have gender equality in Cabinet it is time to start worrying about whether we are heading towards merit-based selection or towards ticking boxes.

Left out of columns like the one Coyne wrote is that Trudeau hasn't actually announced who is in the Cabinet yet. So the criticisms of having a non-merit-based selection process are based on the assumption that a cabinet that is half women is not a cabinet selected based on merit.

The argument that would more likely be made would be that with 50 women and 134 men, it is more likely that the best qualified people are men. But that logic doesn't actually work unless we assume there is no bias at all in the process of electing MPs. If being male is an advantage in being elected and if we assume there is no reason to think a man or a woman would be a better Cabinet minister, then basically the best qualified 28 people would be, most likely, 14 men and 14 women.

Of course being qualified to be a Cabinet minister isn't a quantifiable trait. Assessments of merit are inherently subjective, Coyne admits this. So what he, and others, are really saying, is that in the 50 women elected to parliament as members of the Liberal party, no more than 13 could even be perceived to be qualified, that it would be plainly foolish to think that any of 37 of those women would be able to do the job well. If people are going to make this claim, they ought to be listing the 37 women that they don't think are qualified.

But what I'd really like to know is if any of the people who wrote these columns noticed that they weren't the only ones who suddenly had their thoughts turned to merit by the appointment of women to Cabinet. Did any of them think to themselves, "That's curious, what made us all think of this at the same time?"

I came across an article that seems to note this trend on a website called The Beaverton: 50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet.

Amazingly, Coyne talks about how when assessing merit we need to address our unconscious biases. Apparently not when writing newspaper columns.

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