An examination into the contradictions and confusions of Meritocracy


Up until the 19th Century, politics in the West was typically the preserve of a ruling class based on privilege. Entry into high office relied on a combination of money, connections and good parentage, bringing access to power and opportunities for increased wealth. Whilst there might be opportunities for smart people from the lower classes to work their way up, there was a clear ceiling beyond which they were unlikely to progress.


The world of Business shares many similarities with that of Politics. In the past, background and connections were important, although it was also possible for outstanding individuals to work their way up from the bottom by demonstrating their competence.


When politicians invoke the idea of meritocracy, and when the idea arises in general debate, it doesn’t usually refer to either of the versions discussed so far. Instead, the idea is that society as a whole should be organised such that those with ‘merit’ — hardworking, intelligent, industrious people — will do well, reaping the rewards of their success in the form of money and status. In contrast, those who are lazy and dull should fall behind, since they have made no effort to improve themselves.


For a moment, let us take the idea of a meritocratic society to its logical extreme. Suppose that we wanted a society in which the rewards that people receive are directly related to their merit. Let us call this ‘total meritocracy’.


If total meritocracy is an extreme fantasy — the kind of thing only likely to be explored by idealists and science fiction writers — it cannot be what is intended by popular discussion of the term. Instead, we must conceive of a lesser meaning: A society in which what matters is an individual’s qualities and what they do with them; not who they are and where they come from; but in which there is no guarantee that final outcomes will be closely tied to merit.


Whilst general meritocracy is concerned broadly with social fairness, in recent years, another subtly different meaning of the word ‘meritocracy’ has emerged. In this version, it refers to a system in which people are free to succeed as much as they are able, unencumbered by their background, or by undue interference from the state.


One further possible meaning of the word is worth considering: meritocracy can be seen as simply the opposite of a society ruled by money and class. Used as an antonym, a specific meaning for meritocracy is unnecessary — it is defined by its opposite.


As we have seen, there are multiple possible meanings for the term ‘meritocracy’: it could refer to principles of civil service selection; or to general practices of hiring and promotion. More commonly though, it is used as a prescription for a fair society. However, the exact nature of the society that is intended varies: it could be an extreme utopian (or dystopian) vision; it could be a practical compromise; it might be just a synonym for a free market approach; or even just an antonym for a society based on privilege.


The first argument for meritocracy is that it is fair and just — certain traits are morally superior and those who demonstrate them deserve reward.


The second argument, is that meritocracy is beneficial for society as a whole. Certain traits promote efficiency, economic growth and the progress of civilisation, benefitting all. Meritocracy promotes these behaviours by rewarding them.


A third argument for meritocracy exists, which is more subtle: Assuming that we do not wish for totalitarian, interventionist government (and given the history of the twentieth century we have good reason not to), then we must accept limited government. In such a society, inequality is inevitable — some will become wealthy, whilst others will not. This could easily be a source of tension and unrest, just as it was in the past, helping to foster socialist thinking. Meritocracy, it is argued, offers a way to justify inequality by making it appear fair.


The concept of Meritocracy is frequently invoked in social and political debate, usually as a positive ideal. However, the word can mean many things, with radically different implications. With such a wide variety of possible meanings, there is considerable opportunity for confusion. If we want to be understood, we would do better to avoid the term completely and explain ourselves clearly.


Independent of the confusion and false hope that discussion of meritocracy causes, there is another, deeper problem. Within all the discussions of meritocracy there is a critical underlying assumption that inequality in the distribution of rewards is desirable, or at least unavoidable.





Martin writes thought-provoking essays on science, philosophy, politics and design that nobody reads.

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Martin Colebourne

Martin Colebourne

Martin writes thought-provoking essays on science, philosophy, politics and design that nobody reads.