Imagine a dictator were to allocate jobs and positions of power, with the best ones given to people deemed talented and virtuous, whilst those deemed to be stupid, criminal or “feral“ were condemned to drudge work of life on subsistence benefits.
Imagine further that although the dictator claims that these judgments were based upon the hard evidence of exams and school reports, he in fact gives the best positions to those he favours. What, then, would be our attitudes to equality?
I reckon three things would happen:
1. People will tolerate such inequalities, because:
- The hindsight bias would lead people to believe that “top people” must have done something to justify their success
- The just world fallacy will lead people to seek reasons for inequality
- The “Deal or No Deal effect” or apophenia (our urge to see patterns in arbitrary events) will lead us to under-rate the importance of the dictator’s whims and instead see some desert and inevitability in the equality.
- Given these predispositions towards tolerating equality, a mix of the confirmation bias and framing effects will further support inequalities. Any good or wise conduct of the rich and powerful will be interpreted as justification for their fortune, whilst incompetence and corruption will be seen as isolated incidents.
One fact tells us that effects such as these are powerful - that unjust societies rarely experience revolutions solely because of inequality, and indeed can persist for decades. It is poverty or lack of freedom, rather than inequality alone, that triggers unrest.
2. These inequalities, though ex hypothesi arbitrary and unjust will come to be correlated with merit. People assigned to good jobs will appear to be smart, whilst those deemed criminal or stupid will live down to their reputations.
Norm suggests one reason for this. If you give people jobs that require articulacy and intelligence, such people will cultivate articulacy and intelligence, and so appear more meritorious than people in drudge work whose intellectual capacities atrophy through under-use.
There is, though, another reason. Labelling theory and stereotype threat tell us that people come to adopt the identities they are allocated; as the saying goes, “give a dog a bad name”. The most famous example of this was the Stanford prison experiment. But there are others:
- Students who are reminded of their athletic abilities do worse (pdf) on academic tests than people of similar abilities who are not so primed.
- Older workers can be less productive precisely because they are labelled as has-beens.
- Women who are reminded of their gender become less competitive than others.
- The Oak school experiments show that pupils who were arbitrarily deemed to have high IQs go on to do better on genuine tests.
3. Given point (2), inequalities will become further legitimated, because they’ll become seen to be correlated with differences in ability.
There are (at least) two points here. First, public support for inequality is no evidence of the legitimacy of that inequality, as it can arise through cognitive biases. Secondly, meritocracy, in itself cannot justify inequality because it might be, to some extent, the result of inequality rather than the cause.