The Pitfalls of Meritocracy and the Presidency of Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman is currently considered a great President, but he left office deeply unpopular. What does this tell us about meritocracy?

Posted by Tejus Parikh on September 20, 2017

David McCullough's Truman was on the top of my stack this summer. I thought I knew about Harry S. Truman, but really all I knew about the United States' 33rd President was the brief period following Roosevelt's death and his decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan to hasten the end of WWII. On this alone Truman would stand as a notable figure in the history of our nation, yet those were not his sole accomplishments nor his only lasting legacies.

The modern historical view is that Truman is one of our greatest Presidents, just behind Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. Truman was one of the most popular Presidents ever, one time reaching an approval rating over 90% (largely due to beating Nazi's in an era where beating Nazi's was universally considered a positive). Though this did not last long and he left office as the least popular President ever, with a dismal 25% approval rating. The disconnect between the modern and contemporary view of Truman got me thinking about the limits and pitfalls of evaluating merit.

The sophisticated, well spoken late-President was about to be replaced by a blunt, machine politician from the Midwest amidst a massive world scale war

Meritocracy is a common value in the technology culture originating from Silicon Valley. Individuals are selected based solely on their ability and performance. In a meritocracy, cream rises to the top, regardless of background, history, or other external factors.

Or so the theory goes. Reading contemporary accounts of Truman shows how challenging judging merit is and how poor we are at creating accurate judgements in the moment.

Consider the prevalent feeling amongst the staff immediately after the passing of FDR. The sophisticated, well spoken late-President was about to be replaced by a blunt, machine politician from the Midwest amidst a massive world scale war. No worse fate could be imagined by many, especially by those closest to FDR. Yet in the weeks and months that followed, many stayed on with the new administration even after being presented with the opportunity to leave. The most stereotypical cases of bias can often be the easiest to overcome.

Far more interesting are the reasons for Truman's ever declining popularity. While it was easy to to overcome the anti-Midwestern bias in person, there was no such reprieve in the national press. Furthermore, Truman used his initial popularity to do something audacious: promote a broad vision that went beyond the New Deal.

He desegregated the Armed forces, promoted universal healthcare, and passed some of the first civil rights legislation.

Instead of war reparations, Truman championed aid to rebuild Western Europe. He established NATO and sought to create the United Nations. He desegregated the Armed forces, promoted universal healthcare, and passed some of the first civil rights legislation. Even while Senator Joseph McCarthy was claiming the administration favored communists, Truman sent troops to fight them on the Korean Peninsula.

Of course, there were missteps. Some of the Missouri men carried on in their machine ways, labor relations were fraught as both sides tried to take more of the ever increasing pie, and the military action in Korea ended in a stale mate.

Yet the vast majority of the relative international stability of the last 70 years, the lack of a nuclear war, and the integration (at least in a law) of American society can trace their way back to the efforts of Truman. Much of which was deeply unpopular at the time.

Truman's efforts to promote civil rights, for instance, tore the Democratic Party apart. Southern Democrats abandoned en masse for a new pro-segregation Dixiecrat party featuring Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Truman's approach to the labor unrest managed to infuriate both sides. He fired the popular General MacArthur after a failed plan and refused to use the nuclear weapons to end the stalemate in Korea.

Simpler problems means evaluation is easier, not easy

A few decades of hindsight has helped historians separate the massive accomplishments from the smaller pitfalls, but this shows the true challenge of meritocracy: an action's merit may be difficult to determine.

But wait, you may say. I'm not the President of the United States, nor am I trying to bring about world peace. My problems are simpler. True as that may be, it just means the evaluation is easier, but not necessarily easy. When do you know that a refactor improved productivity? How long will it take to determine that a shift towards an enterprise sales strategy increased revenue? How did using bots instead of hiring more customer care team members effect retention? These questions might not have a real answer for a long time and can't be used in a merit based evaluation.

Which means that for everything non-trivial, we subconsciously revert to the old, non-merit based method of evaluation. We evaluate on arises such as how much we like the person, how much effort we see them put in, how they interact with others, and (far too often) how much they fit some idealized avatar of their role. The end result is we often trick ourselves into believing we evaluated on merit, when we actually evaluated on something else entirely.

Stereotypes may be true, but they are not close to universal.

This often bring meritocracy to a head with diversity. Merit advocates claim that nothing special needs to be done, things are the way they are because the current status quo worked for it and anyone who shows aptitude can join the club. However, when merit is hard to judge a more proactive approach to eliminating bias in evaluation is required. Stereotypes may be true, but they are not close to universal.

Truman was not the stereotypical President. He was not a wealthy aristocrat with a silver tongue and an eloquent pen. His spelling was atrocious, his speaking was direct, his hand gestures a little frightening, and when separated from his Presidential salary, he was nearly broke. A farmer from a line of farmers, he was about as far from the mold of a 20th century president as possible. And though few believed it at the time, he did a great job.

Original image is CC-licensed [original source]

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Tejus is the CTO and co-founder of WideAngle and writes weekly about building startups and the technology that powers them from Atlanta, GA, the startup capital of the south. Get my content on twitter, via RSS, or in your inbox:

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