There is a growing debate in the tech industry about whether or not Silicon Valley operates as a meritocracy.
Many of you have probably heard, or even participated in, the various arguments on both sides but let’s assume for a moment that the meritocracy is real and what that means if we apply it to the big picture.
If Silicon Valley is truly a meritocracy then that would mean that everyone who has raised money or cashed out has been able to do so because they worked smarter and/or harder than everyone else.
Since there are only so many hours in the day, there is a natural cap on how much harder someone can work. Let’s assume that cap is 100 hours a week, which is 2.5 times as many hours as the usual 40-hour work week. If the meritocracy is real, and luck, connections, and bias play no part, then any success above 2.5x must be attributed to intelligence and resourcefulness.
If you are in the category of people who have raised money or cashed out stock, then all of your friends who have not raised or cashed out — assuming they are working as hard as you are — must be less intelligent and/or less resourceful than you are.
Furthermore, everyone else who might be struggling in Silicon Valley — the delivery men, house cleaners, hair stylists, etc. — must be cursed with extremely low IQs. Again, assuming the Valley is a true meritocracy in which luck and connections play no role, and these people are working reasonably hard, then intelligence and resourcefulness, or lack thereof, must be the explanation for your success and their relative failure.
By the rules of Silicon Valley meritocracy, there must clearly be a gifted class whose outsized intelligence has provided them with outsized spoils, followed by various levels of less gifted people who work similarly as hard but aren’t smart enough to win big.
This leads to the next obvious question: Do the gifted, who through their superior intelligence have reaped great rewards, have any obligation to those who are less gifted?
Dating back to at least 1836, with related examples going all the way back to Homer’s Illiad, is the concept of noblesse oblige. The Random House dictionary defines it as “the moral obligation of those of high birth, powerful social position, etc., to act with honor, kindliness, generosity, etc.” while the American Heritage dictionary calls it “The belief that the wealthy and privileged are obliged to help those less fortunate.”
While the history of America is certainly filled with many examples of oppression and cruelty, it is also filled with stories of generosity and contributions to the greater good. For example, many of our finest universities were founded by 19th century industrialists. While we often refer to people such as Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt as robber barons, they also generously gave back in the spirit of noblesse oblige.
This concept seems to be lost on the current gifted class. In modern Silicon Valley, extracting as much as possible from the less fortunate is justified and explained away as something the market dictates and part of the meritocracy. Create a platform that disenfranchises workers in an entire industry? Screw ‘em, they should have been smart enough to see it coming.
I believe the reason young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have rejected the concept of noblesse oblige is because many of the people here have convinced themselves that they’ve earned their success through their own efforts.
While this argument is not unreasonable, it ignores the fact that many of these people started out with a huge natural advantage. Given that there are so many people working so hard while relatively few find massive success, you have to assume that finding success here is largely a result of one’s superior intelligence. (Either that, or maybe it’s not really a meritocracy after all.)
If you are gifted with such superior intelligence that you were able to make millions while other, less gifted people failed, is it your rightful place to extract as much as possible from those less gifted?
Or is it your place to give something back to the public good?
Silicon Valley may or may not be a meritocracy. But even if connections, favoritism, bias, deceit, and luck play absolutely no role in who wins and who loses, some people will still be naturally ahead of everyone else.
Do those people owe any obligation to the public good? Or should they just take as much as they can because market forces allow them to do so?