An examination into the contradictions and confusions of Meritocracy
It seems that we all want meritocracy, but do we actually know what it means? There are many interpretations, with radically different consequences. We should be careful what we wish for.
Meritocracy is a commonly used term and it is usually assumed to be a self-evidently good thing. Broadly speaking, it refers to a system in which advancement is based on ability, rather than background and connections. It is associated with ideas of competence, fairness, efficiency and social justice. However, different commentators rarely spell out exactly what they believe it means and there are multiple, quite different interpretations.
This article explores the most important of these many meanings, showing how contradictory they can be, and how a discussion framed around meritocracy can have the effect of obscuring bias, rather than removing it. Far from being a positive ideal, it can be a distracting and divisive concept. By the end of this article, I hope to persuade you never to use the word again, and to question its real meaning whenever it occurs in discussion and in print.
To help us analyse the various meanings of the word, it is useful to have a high-level framework in mind:
First, meanings of meritocracy typically refer to one of three areas of life: Politics, Business and Society. We will treat each in turn.
Secondly, meanings differ according to their definition of merit and in whether they aim to measure it explicitly, or rely on emergent outcomes.
Finally, interpretations vary according to whether they take an individual view or an average view. The former stresses the possibility of success for individuals; whereas the latter is concerned with equality of opportunity, seeking to change the average outcome for different parts of society.
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.
There were a number of problems with this situation. For one, those in power may prove to be incompetent, resulting in poor outcomes for the country. Secondly, as countries increased their democratic franchise, giving voting rights to a broader spread of the population, it became hard to appeal to the electorate with leaders drawn only from privileged backgrounds. The rise of socialism and revolutionary ideas increasingly posed a threat to stability.
The seeds of an alternative approach date back to Confucian philosophy in ancient China, which suggested that leadership should be based on ability, rather than nobility. As China grew in size and complexity, these ideas led to the development of official examinations governing access into administrative roles, which lasted for hundreds of years.
Entry into the examinations was (mostly), open to all, meaning that it was possible for candidates from any background to succeed. To ensure a fair test, stringent measures were taken to avoid the potential for bias and cheating: All candidates sat exams at the same time, installed in separate wooden ‘cells’ to prevent any form of communication. Candidates were identified only by number and their essays were copied by an official scribe before marking so as to avoid the possibility of their handwriting being recognised. Quotas restricted the number of candidates who could be successful at each level of examinations, resulting in a highly competitive system.
The idea of meritocratic government spread from China, via British India, to Europe and the United States. Gradually, access to politics and the civil service became governed by academic qualifications and civil service examinations, rather than background and connections.
In Britain, the cosy complacency of the old boy network was gradually replaced by a new, meritocratic system. Here is Paul Barker, writing in the Independent in 1995:
“The meritocrats took over at No 10 Downing Street — Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and, above all, Margaret Thatcher, the highest-flying meritocrat of our time. All were propelled by competitive exams from modest backgrounds to the top of the political tree. In the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock boasted that he was the first member of his family in a thousand years to go to university. Tony Blair went to public school, but he is ferociously proud of going there on a scholarship, not family cash.”
Throughout this thread from ancient China to the modern West, we see a focus on individual success and a system of fair measurement, based on written examinations and an academic model of merit.
However, whilst this approach has opened up government to a wider intake and improved the quality of administration, there are limits to its impact. While it allows for individual success stories, it does nothing to change the average outcomes for those from the lower half of society — this is simply not part of its aim.
More significantly, achieving academic success requires long and diligent study. In practice this often restricts access to those coming from reasonably well-off backgrounds. The new focus on academic aptitude changed the focus of private schools which “started to concentrate on churning out good exam results instead of good chaps on the rugger field or the cricket pitch” (Paul Barker, Independent, 1995). This reinforced the influence of these schools on the makeup of the elite, rather than dramatically undermining it, as might have been expected.
Paradoxically, creating a fair system of tests can have the effect of entrenching privilege by obscuring it: Those who achieve the best results really are the best candidates and can feel secure in that knowledge. It is easy to ignore the many advantages that those coming from privileged background have in preparing them for such success: stable and supporting families; expensive schooling and tutoring; extra-curricula activities; and an attitude of entitlement and self-promotion instilled by exposure to a successful social circle.
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.
However, the requirements for access to senior positions have increasingly shifted towards a requirement for academic qualifications. This has driven a significant rise in the number of young people attending university, as this becomes seen as the only way to gain access to good jobs.
As in Politics, we can see here a focus on individual opportunity and the use of academic qualifications as the assessment. This can have the same effect of an unseen entrenchment of privilege. An unrepresentative proportion of top jobs continue to be filled by those from wealthy backgrounds, and the apparent fairness of the access requirements is simultaneously used to justify the increasing inequality in the rewards available in the private sector.
Once individuals have made a start in Business, the situation becomes more complex. Whereas academic qualifications can be used as a requirement for entry, promotion and career development are typically based on performance and experience. These are rarely measured formally, or controlled to ensure parity between individuals in different parts of the same organisation. However, many organisations claim to be meritocratic, arguing that advancement is based on merit, with the best rising to the top.
In this case, meritocracy relies on an emergent model, rather than formal measurement of merit. As a result, the actual meaning of merit becomes obscure, because it is never formally defined. The intention is that those who progress possess beneficial traits for the organisation — useful experience; management capability; a talent for growing business and delivering successful projects. However, it is quite possible that such an approach instead rewards those who can best give the appearance of those qualities, regardless of their actual capabilities: for example avoiding failing projects, claiming other people’s success, manipulating figures and presenting their work in the best possible light.
Without measurement, there is the danger that personal relationships and networks can exert an undue effect. Bias and prejudice can also take effect, unduly favouring particular groups — most often white men.
Recent studies suggest that organisations that promote the idea that they are meritocratic may actually increase the level of bias that managers show in making decisions on employee performance ratings and performance-based pay. How can this happen? Emilio J. Castilla and Stephen Benard suggest that: “An organizational culture that prides itself on meritocracy may encourage bias by convincing managers that they themselves are unbiased, which in turn may discourage them from closely examining their own behaviors for signs of prejudice.”
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.
This form of meritocracy is intuitively attractive. We believe that hard work should be rewarded and we do not want those who ‘cheat’ by doing nothing, to live off the fruits of others. However, it is a much more difficult prospect that meritocracy in business and politics, because it is so much broader.
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’.
Despite some of the core ideas associated with meritocracy dating back to ancient China, the word itself is surprisingly new. It was first used by the British sociologist and Labour policy advisor Michael Young, in a 1958 book: “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. This book provides us with one vision of how such a society might be made.
Whilst the word might be typically seen as a good thing in modern discussions, that certainly was not how Young intended it. The book is a satirical vision of a dystopian future, in which which intelligence tests are used to assess individuals’ potential in childhood and determine what role they should play in society, by controlling their education and ultimately assigning them to their job.
The intentions of this were good: allowing talented people to rise through society, regardless of the class of their birth; and granting power to those best able to use it, rather than on the basis of background and connections.
However, the elite, chosen on the basis of their merits, feel secure in their right to rule and certain in the inferiority of those they rule over. Meanwhile, the masses are stigmatised by their inferiority, having failed despite a system intended to seek out merit and to allow anyone worthy to succeed.
What Young describes is a test-based approach to merit, combined with the aim of equality of opportunity for all. A universal application of the idea of meritocracy, rather than a narrowly individual one, as we have seen in Politics and Business.
Whilst this may have seemed a plausible narrative when the book was written, our confidence in the accuracy and meaning of intelligence tests and their value in predicting real-world, performance have declined over the intervening years. A test-based approach no longer seems like a serious concept.
Rather than administering artificial tests, an alternative approach is to look for an emergent model, with individual progress and success as the score. Those who achieve the most would simply be rewarded the most. However, for life to represent a truly fair test of merit, it would be necessary to eliminate the differences between individuals resulting from the circumstances of their birth and the environment they experience growing up. It would also be necessary to ensure that no one is discriminated against in their education and work life; or that anyone should receive special assistance, which might put them at an advantage.
How could this possibly be achieved? Perhaps children could be removed from their parents at birth and brought up in a communal environment. Examinations and job interviews could be conducted in strict anonymity. Any form of gift or special assistance could be forbidden. It would also be necessary to outlaw any form of inheritance, since this would provide some people with unearned wealth which was not linked to their merit.
If this sounds like an extreme dystopian nightmare, then it should. The whole point about total meritocracy is that it is an extreme, one that is not realistic, achievable, or desirable. Creating it would require massive intervention from an all-powerful state, either in the form of government-sponsored testing and assignment, as in Young’s dystopian vision, or through legislation that would separate children from parents; and make our human instincts to help family and friends a crime.
Even if this form of intervention was desirable in principle, the history of the twentieth century has taught us that totalitarian states do not work. Regardless of their aims, they are too easily corrupted, and their interference in the lives of ordinary people is too extreme.
Given how extreme this meaning of meritocracy is, could anyone really intend it? Perhaps few would seriously discuss it in positive terms, but it is used by many of those who criticise the idea of meritocracy. Here is Andrew Lilico in the Telegraph:
“In my view, a meritocracy (or, if you prefer the terminology, a system of “equal opportunity”) is one of the worst, most wicked conceptions of society ever devised … all that counts … is your biological merits. If you are beautiful, clever, healthy, good-tempered and naturally hard-working, you will (and ought to) succeed, and if you are are ugly, stupid, unhealthy, bad-tempered and naturally lazy you will fail, and no one is allowed to help you … all the usual systems and social bonds that that help the less biologically advantaged to get ahead — family connections, church, charitable patronage, pity, brute good fortune — are stripped away and called wicked.”
There isn’t space here to debate the role of biology in merit, but it should be clear that the world that is being criticised here is a total meritocracy — one extreme enough to ’strip away’ any form of assistance. But if total meritocracy is not the meaning that most people intend, then it is standing as only a straw man in critiques such as this
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.
In this formulation, meritocracy allows deserving people to move ahead as they go through life, whilst less deserving people fall behind. Perhaps the best do not succeed in every challenge, but overall, their chances are always better than those who are lazy and incompetent. However, there is no guarantee that the most deserving will end up with the highest status and rewards, only that they will be favoured at each stage. Let us call this general meritocracy.
We can think of general meritocracy as lying on a continuum between total meritocracy and a society based on class and privilege.
Compared to the other meanings that we have encountered, general meritocracy is nebulous and imprecise: it cannot be a definite state that society could attain. We can tell that this must be true because, as defined, it lies in the middle of a continuum. Rather than conceiving of meritocracy as an achievable state, we need to think of it as a compromise.
We want merit to count, rather than privilege, but addressing the inequalities of birth requires intervention into people’s lives, in the form of taxation and legislation, impacting on personal freedom.
Whilst we do not want life to be governed entirely by privilege, we also don’t want a highly interventionist society. As a result, any solution must be a compromise, balancing the promotion of merit, with the defence of personal freedom, with the aim of creating a society in which birth does not dominate life outcomes.
We can see here a version of meritocracy which relies on emergent outcomes, rather than testing; and that is concerned with the inequality of opportunity which exists in society, but that is tempered by the practical limitations in addressing this.
The key concern at the heart of the compromise is the difference in average life outcomes between those born into the top half of society and those born into the bottom half. Some people must start from nothing and battle their way through life with no assistance; whilst those from a privileged background receive the best of life’s opportunities at every turn. As a result, those who start form the bottom are far less likely to make it to the top than those who are born into privilege.
It could be argued that meritocracy would be served by the elimination of private schools, taxes on inherited wealth, and the elimination of university tuition fees. Such measures would have the effect of ‘levelling the playing field’, but they would require significant intervention.
Alternatively, significant investments could be made in social support and raising educational standards for all. This would have the effect of improving outcomes for all those in the bottom half of society. However, this approach is expensive, meaning that significant intervention is still required in the form of high taxation for those at the top.
An alternative is to identify those with merit and provide them with enhanced opportunities in order to make the best of their potential — for example via selective schooling. This is cheaper, since it requires a smaller intervention. However, it is also much weaker since it erodes the focus on average outcomes, focusing instead on improving the situation for a select few. This approach leaves us with four quarters of society: The rich with potential, who benefit from the best and do well. The rich without potential, who benefit from the best and do fairly well. The poor with potential, who are spotted, invested in and do fairly well. And the poor without potential (or whose potential is not recognised), who are left to do what they will. This form of intervention is surely only a small victory for meritocracy.
FREE MARKET MERITOCRACY
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.
Success in this formulation is largely conceived of in business terms, in particular, making money. In a sense, it is an extension of the concept of meritocracy in business. Although concerned with the management of society as a whole, this is really an individual view of meritocracy, relying on emergence in the form of market success, rather than explicit testing.
As an example, take a look at this extract of a commencement speech, given at Princeton, by Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve:
“We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair … 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 broad aim here is to be commended — reminding those privileged few at one of America’s top universities that they are lucky and shouldn’t let it go to their heads. But what is interesting is the assumed meaning of ‘meritocracy’. First off, it stresses the idea that luck plays a significant role in success, but it does so without the implication that this runs counter to the principles of meritocracy — luck is part of merit, not a flaw.
Beyond that, though, two elements are worth highlighting: ‘family support’ and ‘income’. In other words, those who are lucky enough to be born into privilege, are amongst those who reap the largest rewards. This sounds like the opposite of a meritocracy, but it makes sense if meritocracy is a synonym for a free market.
The inherent problem in a free-markets definition of meritocracy is that it is entirely circular. Merit is defined as the ability to succeed in a free market; which means that those who succeed must have merit. If merit is defined like this, then the system cannot fail.
But what if we want to define merit in a different way? It seems entirely plausible that a free market rewards Machiavellian qualities like selfishness and greed as much as hard work, industry and intelligence. Is that really what we mean by merit?
Bernanke implicitly recognises this problem later in the speech:
“I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect — and help, if necessary — than many people who are superficially more successful. They’re more fun to have a beer with, too. That’s all that I know about sociology.”
He acknowledges that such people have good qualities, but that they end up needing support doesn’t seem to challenge the meaning of meritocracy.
If the free markets definition of meritocracy is circular, it is difficult to see how we would confirm whether society is operating as a meritocracy or not. There are two possible answers, neither of them satisfying:
The first indicator, is that it is possible for individuals to make it to the top, regardless of where they started out. This can be seen as a demonstration that there are no absolute barriers to progress. Proponents of a markets view happily cite specific cases of the ’self-made man’. But, in accordance with the individual nature of this version of meritocracy, such one-off examples only prove that it is possible to make it, they say nothing at all about the average outcomes of people from different parts of society.
However, in the logic of this view of meritocracy, the possibility for success is enough to absolve those at the top from any guilt in their advantages: it may be harder for those from the bottom to make it to the top, but the fact that some do means that those who fail simply aren’t trying hard enough.
The second indicator is even more troublesome. If free-market meritocracy is working, then people are free to be successful; the more successful they can be, the more it must be working. From this perspective, the existence of a growing crop of Billionaires is evidence that the system is working, not that it is broken.
MERITOCRACY AS AN ANTONYM
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.
Assuming that we are opposed to class and privilege, then it is easy to agree with this version of Meritocracy. In fact, ensuring that no specific definition is provided makes it easier to agree to: we can be united in our distaste for the alternative, whilst having no agreement at all on what is proposed to replace it.
Worse still, it is easy to end up with the implication that you are ‘either with us, or against us’ — if you don’t agree with Meritocracy, then you must want a return to privilege. This is, of course, a hopeless simplification and serves only to obscure the issues and undermine any real debate.
WHY IS MERITOCRACY SEEN AS A GOOD THING?
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.
If the precise meaning of Meritocracy is unclear, then why is it so widely assumed to be a good thing? One possible answer is that, buried within the different meanings of the word, are ideas that are fundamentally attractive. So long as the radical differences between the various meanings remain obscure, then these positive aspects provide a halo effect for the word as a whole, regardless of the intended meaning in a particular context.
To understand this better, let’s examine the key arguments that are given in favour of Meritocracy.
FAIRNESS AND JUSTICE
The first argument for meritocracy is that it is fair and just — certain traits are morally superior and those who demonstrate them deserve reward.
Hiring and promoting based on merit is clearly fairer than the alternative. Meanwhile, Total Meritocracy promises to link outcomes directly to merit, which takes fairness to a perfect extreme — provided that the practical implications are not considered, then who could argue against people receiving the rewards that they deserve?
However, the value of merit-based hiring is moot when considering how to organise society; and we wouldn’t want to live in a Total Meritocracy. General Meritocracy means something less — a fairer society, not a fair one — whilst market-based meritocracy has few claims on fairness. However, we may fail to appreciate this, if the halo of other meanings intrudes.
BENEFICIAL TO SOCIETY
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.
Such an argument makes sense when considering hiring and promotion: better qualified staff should perform more effectively, improving business and government effectiveness.
Total Meritocracy promises to maximise the overall effectiveness of society as a whole by fitting everyone to their ideal role. In contrast, General Meritocracy offers a much weaker version of the same idea by allowing good people a chance to make their way to the top.
The argument of overall benefit is also frequently used in support of free market economics, but the logic is different and more dubious. Freeing people to succeed as much as possible is thought to drive economic growth, ultimately benefitting all through a trickle down effect. Little evidence for this seems to exist and it is far from clear that it would outweigh the cost to those whose potential is squandered because of a lack of opportunity.
A JUSTIFICIATION FOR INEQUALITY
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.
Whilst such an argument might work for Total Meritocracy, in General Meritocracy those coming from the bottom are still fighting an uphill battle, significantly reducing the justification for inequality.
In contrast, free market meritocracy has little claim on fairness, whilst simultaneously promoting increasing inequality.
The argument is also quite disturbing, because it reveals the potentially manipulative nature of the concept. It might be that meritocracy is the best system to allow limited government; but it is also clear that it might be nothing more than a useful cover story to placate the masses.
An alternative way of framing the argument is that a meritocratic society offers everyone the opportunity for social mobility, so that either they (or their children) can partake of societies’ rewards. A system in which you have a chance to succeed is far harder to rebel against than one in which there is no hope of escaping your class roots.
This is framing is different, because it doesn’t promise a fair distribution of rewards, only that the opportunity exists to seek them. This is much more compatible with the individualism of free market meritocracy. Rather than placating the masses, this approach divides them, breaking down class unity in favour of individual advancement.
We can see that some of the typical arguments in favour of meritocracy are a better fit for meritocracy in politics and business, or for total meritocracy, than for general meritocracy, or free market meritocracy. However, since these distinctions are rarely made clear, the arguments tend to benefit all uses of the term equally.
Above all, meritocracy used as an antonym can absorb all positive associations, since its exact meaning is never defined. It is fairer and more effective than class and privilege by definition.
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.
But perhaps that is to miss the point. We noted at the beginning that the term is both frequently used and almost always assumed to be a good thing — a positive ideal. If meritocracy is popular, then perhaps politicians are happy to use the term, regardless of whether the intended meaning is clear. What better than an ideal that everyone agrees with, but which cannot be pinned down to an actual meaning?
Whilst it may be assumed that meritocracy stands for a fair society in which everyone has a chance for success, based on their abilities, this is not necessarily what most commentators intend. The rallying cry of meritocracy can be used by those who are only interested in maintaining the status quo. By claiming that meritocracy is about enabling success, their position, and the rewards that come with it, can be justified.
For the bottom half of society, the concept of meritocracy is a dangerous elixir: politicians can preach it, building support by promising fairness, whilst actually perpetuating their own advantage; at the same time, they can break class solidarity by pitting people against one another in an individualistic race to succeed, all the while, claiming that what they are doing is good for society as a whole.
POST-SCRIPT: INEQUALITY OF REWARDS
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.
Meritocracy proposes that this inequality can be made just, provided that it is based on the merits of the individual. However, as we have seen, there are no good grounds for believing that this is truly meaningful, or that society could approach even a reasonable approximation of it.
In other words, we should be realistic in expecting success to be based as much on luck and background, as on the qualities possessed by individuals. Working hard will tend to lead to higher level of success and good people will sometimes make it to the top, regardless of background, but so will some who are less deserving. And many good people will not make it as far as we might expect.
This might not matter if the level of inequality was small, but often it is very large and getting larger, with those at the top earning thousands of times what those at the bottom do. The promise of meritocracy is a distraction from the inherently unjust nature of this extreme inequality. Rather than trying to crete fairness through meritocracy, we should consider how we can improve fairness by challenging the level of inequality in society.