by Jeff Polet
Our series of reflection essays are less intended to inform than to spur thinking. They are not meant to be final statements so much as opening ones, subject to further reproof, correction, and criticism. Mainly, they are drawing our readers’ attention to essays that are interesting and well-written.
I submit this preface because this week’s essay may rub some readers the wrong way, but I think the argument is quite an interesting one. Readers may recall “The Peter Principle” as the claim that in any organizational hierarchy individuals will always rise to their level of incompetence. The idea is that if you’re good at something you’ll keep getting promoted until you get to the thing you’re not good at, and you’ll spend the rest of your career there. As a result, organizations tend to operate poorly.
While it’s an interesting argument, I’m not sure it holds up well as a universal explanation. After all, many things in our world go so well so consistently that we are surprised when things go wrong. We expect every faucet turn, every flush, every switch flipped to yield predictable results. Public employees don’t expect to get their palms greased every time they perform a service. Corrupt institutional behavior is not the norm.
Still, there are concerning signs in our workplaces. Much has been made of “The Great Resignation,” more and more people leaving their jobs either for other employment of for no employment at all. In 2021, according to the above report, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs. A recent story in Michigan’s The Bridge worried that 2 in five nurses are prepared to quit their job and leave the industry entirely.
On the one hand, high rates of people leaving their jobs can represent upward movement, better work-life balance, and a dynamic economy. On the other hand, it can indicate a workforce unable to handle the rigors of full-time employment, stasis, bad work environments, and poor compensation. For consumers it could mean the loss of basic services (I think everyone is concerned if we lose 40% of our nursing professionals; most of us have suffered increased wait times in understaffed restaurants) and having to deal with disgruntled employees.
One of the most interesting questions about labor markets is how people end up in the roles they do. It’s a question we don’t think about a whole lot, unless we are running into the issue at the margins, such as in affirmative action debates, which in turn draw our attention to the fact that many jobs require a special set of skills that not everyone possesses. There’s a reason why I’m not cashing seven-figure checks on the PGA Tour, just as there’s a reason why you wouldn’t want me engineering your bridges or designing your buildings.
Highly complex economies require sorting mechanisms that place individuals in jobs for which they are best suited. In an ideal world we could just, Harry Potter-like, place a sorting hat on persons and assign accordingly. We could resort to other forms of magic also: we could have government officials in a Soviet fashion sending young children along predetermined paths; or we could have faith that markets will rationally delegate talent using wages as the great determinant; or we could use “agencies” borrowing on experience and connections to distribute workers across the fields of employment.
Already in the 19th century, social reformers became obsessed with the scientific management of society (whether this constitutes its own form of magical thinking is an open question) and settled on “testing” as the most reliable way of distributing skills across our sprawling economy. Personally, I’m deeply skeptical of these approaches, but I won’t litigate that in this space at this time. One reason for my skepticism is that the tests don’t achieve their promise of distributing careers on the basis of merit, as Nicholas Leman demonstrated in his book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. Leman provides ample evidence that the creators of our current testing system–particularly Henry Chauncey, the founder of the Educational Testing Service that administers most of our tests–were motivated less by facts than by a messianic faith that they could measure IQ, partner with the federal government, and usher in a new age that solved all the nation’s problems. “What I hope to see established,” Chauncey wrote, “is the moral equivalent of religion but based on reason and science rather than on sentiments and tradition.”
Of course, to say that we have imperfect measures that we misuse routinely is not to say there aren’t identifiable, natural gradations of intelligence and other talents. Within generally free systems such as ours there is something to be said for individuals gravitating toward fields that require their unique set of skills, and that a social system will most fully thrive when that gravitational pull is at its strongest. Weaknesses in our economic and social system indicate that this pull is at a low ebb.
In a provocative essay over at Tablet, Brian Chau has argued that our selection mechanisms are failing miserably, resulting in “the decay and collapse of American institutions.” But Chau doesn’t focus merely on market-based solutions; his special ire is directed at bureaucratic mechanisms that are largely operated, he insists, by “mid-wits” — people smart enough to go to college but not smart enough to run anything, become independent thinkers, or go into high-intelligence fields. They tend to go to college because they believe in its economic benefits and will seek careers that compensate well and provide job security. It’s hard to beat government work if those are the criteria you’re using (the annual compensation for Federal non-military employees is $143,643 and with superior benefits to those offered in the private sector; plus it’s almost impossible to get fired as a Federal employee), but the phenomenon is notable in academic and other organizations where midwits proliferate.
While competition for positions might, in some contexts, be well worth the value that a member of the elite contributes, this is rarely the case in incumbent political institutions, most of which depend for their survival on restricting intellectual input. Even if incumbent institutions could attract elites initially, elites would eventually abandon them, either to work in institutions less burdened by historical constraints or to fields that are more dominated by objective rather than subjective measures of skill and accomplishment.
Chau reproduces ETS data reviewing IQ distributions by college majors, and I have to say that the accompanying distributions pretty nearly match what I would have expected based on my 30 years of observing college students. If you had asked me to choose the two college majors most likely to be at the bottom, those are the two I would have selected. As “mid-wits” begin to occupy accompanying institutional roles, they tend to perpetuate their own kind. They don’t tolerate opposing viewpoints—independent thinkers generally ranking higher on intelligence distributions—especially when those viewpoints call into question the otherwise unexamined institutional positioning and economic security of mid-wits.
First, static, non-innovative institutions disproportionately select for midwits. Second, ideologically conformist midwits select for others of the same ideology, which can be done through hiring decisions, HR law, or employee activism and “training.” Third, the selection process is amplified further by incentives; because ideological conformity benefits midwits, they change procedures to elevate themselves and serve their own interests over against their less conformist but more productive and intelligent colleagues. Fourth, the increase in ideological conformity perpetuates itself, skewing selection further toward midwits. This cycle helps explain why incumbent institutions become stagnant or decline, and eventually become incapable of doing what they were created to do or to reinvent themselves in interesting ways. (An example of this is colleges talking incessantly about their “distinctives” that are, 99 times out of 100, such marginal differences as to be beneath attention. And, no, changing a funding model is not a “distinctive.”)
A long-standing complaint against conservatism is that it “defends the status quo,” but there may be no greater defenders of the status quo than mid-wits, who will studiously silence any challenge of their authority and, well, status. As Upton Sinclair reportedly said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This updated version of The Peter Principle indicates why large bureaucratic organizations tend to be conservative institutions pursuing progressive ends.
- What are the plusses and minuses associated with different systems for putting people into employment positions?
- If midwits tend to occupy static institutions, where can we find the dynamic elements of American life? Are there good and bad forms of dynamism?
- Has Chau correctly identified a problem and, if so, how might it be addressed?