Silicon Valley is Not a Meritocracy

Not long ago I had a rather heated debate with a young man at a happy hour for YGLs. The young man exclaimed that Silicon Valley is a special place because it is a meritocracy. I said that I agreed it is a nice place but Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. He was angered by my comment and went on to try and convince me that I was wrong (the irony of us talking in a high end hotel among an exclusive group notwithstanding). I've often revisited that exchange in my head and when I saw Ben Bernanke's graduation address, I thought I would share it because he puts it far better than I did.


From Ben Bernanke to Princeton Grads

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate -- these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

My point? Silicon Valley is filled with the very lucky (myself included). But sadly, many don't realize that.