The Merit Illusion

In 1960, when I was 13 years old, I had a regular newspaper delivery round. Before and after school, I called at the local newsagent’s, collected a canvas bag full of Yorkshire Posts or Evening Posts, and set off for an hour or so of walking the streets not far from my home. The first quarter mile was an uphill stretch common to two different delivery rounds, and in the afternoons I usually set off with the boy who had the other round. His name was Alan Young, and we soon we fell into the habit of stopping, where our paths split, to sit on our bags of newspapers and share a cigarette.

Had it not been for this little daily ritual, our different backgrounds make it unlikely that I would ever have come to know Alan Young. I suppose I knew that my home — a back-to-back terrace house in the cobbled streets of an industrial city in the North of England — was a working class area. My parents and my brother had left school at 13, and my father worked for almost all his life in a blanket mill. But the feeling of my childhood was not at all one of poverty; it was one of optimism about the future and a strong behavioural ethos that I took for granted at the time. Our family, like many in the neighbourhood, belonged to the local Nonconformist church. As well as regular attendance on Sundays, ‘belonging to the church’ also meant Sunday school, the Men’s Institute (with its billiards and snooker teams), the Women’s Meeting, the Youth Club, the Scouts and Guides, the drama club, the Whitsuntide outings and the annual bazaar. Broader somehow even than religion, the ethos of childhood — quietly reinforced from all sides by parents, grandparents, neighbours, church and school– was that behaviour was to be guided by ‘do unto others …’ and that the rule-of-thumb measure of acceptable conduct was ‘what if everyone behaved like that?’ These standards were not always observed. But they were always there.

Alan Young arrived at the newsagent’s from a different direction. He lived with his mother and step-father on a council estate (the name of which was, in my parents’ circle, inseparable from the adjective ‘rough’). As far as I know, he had never set foot in a church or youth club and I don’t think he was in touch with any other members of his family. Cigarette by cigarette, I got to know a few details of his life. I knew that he drank beer and belonged to a gang that was spoken of darkly around the streets where I lived. I also found out that on Friday and Saturday nights, after finishing his round and getting himself something to eat, he would be sent out by his step-father and told to be back before eight o’clock with at least £1 (which, I am astonished to realise, is more than £25 in today’s money). If he succeeded, there would be money for fish and chips. If he failed, there would be a strapping with a belt. Once, sitting on our bags of newspapers, he had pulled up his shirt to show me the purple, yellowing welts around his waist and back. All this had been going on for some time, though the demands on him had been steadily increasing.

Then there was the fact that from being five years old I had found myself doing well at school. From the first, the praise and encouragement this had drawn had persuaded me to add effort to whatever abilities I had. The result was that I sat on my bag of newspapers wearing a grammar school blazer, and a matching cap and tie stuffed down into the bag of newspapers. Every evening was dominated by homework. Every morning started with school assembly in a hall lined with mahogany honours boards on which were inlaid, in gold capitals, the names of former pupils who had won places at a university. Alan, also thirteen, was in his last year at secondary modern school where his attendance was already sporadic. He was amused by the idea of homework and had no thought of any qualifications. From being eight or nine years old, stealing was what had consistently brought him praise and reward.

Embarrassed as I am to recall it, I remember that I did try to talk to Alan — no doubt with excruciating piety — about God, about going to church, about my family and its ways — things that would have seemed as distant from his own life as my school blazer and my optimism about the future.

One day, Alan failed to appear at the newsagent’s to collect his bag. Another boy took his place and it soon became known that Alan was in a young offenders institution. Later, not long before I left for university, I heard that he was starting a prison sentence in Armley jail on the outskirts of Leeds.


Even at the time, my acquaintance with Alan Young was disturbing. Specifically, I remember the disturbance of realising that the difference between us — who and what we were, and were likely to become — was not, could not possibly be, a matter of ‘merit’ or ‘deserving’. It was obvious that I had not in any way chosen or deserved my abilities, or merited the kind of upbringing that had developed and directed them in that particular way. And I knew then that to believe myself somehow superior in merit to Alan Young — and consequently more deserving, more entitled — could be nothing but crassness and arrogance.

Almost fifty years later — after all the reports read and written about the lives of children and the strength of the associations between childhood circumstance and later life outcomes[i] — I still feel the same way. However many individual exceptions there may be, however many anecdotes of rags to riches, and however uncomfortable it may be for those who like to believe that their successes are due to their own merit, the facts are that the dice of life are heavily loaded by the circumstances of birth.

Advances in the social sciences, and in knowledge of the interactions between nature and nurture, have only served to make my teenage conviction the more inescapable.[ii] That the very different lives of those two adolescents, chatting for a few minutes before going their separate ways, should be attributed to the greater merit of the boy in the grammar school blazer seems to me a quite indefensible proposition. It did not make sense then. And it does not make sense now.

Similar wonderings and doubts must have occurred to millions of young people struggling to reconcile youth’s powerful sense of fairness with the dawning awareness of the world’s realities. But such misgivings about the fundamental fairness of things have a tendency to be pushed to one side as the pressures of adult life build, eventually becoming buried under layers of realism and compromise. Thereafter it requires the wisdom of philosophers to excavate the truths that seemed to lie in full view of youth. Here for example is John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century:

“(meritocracy) still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. (It is therefore) arbitrary from a moral perspective. There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.

“That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic … for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit.” [iii]

In between naïve youth and philosophic age, the idea that greater abilities equate to greater merit, and greater merit to greater entitlement, lies so deeply embedded as to seem almost beyond challenge.

The silence of the satisfied

It may of course be argued that this is because society simply could not function in any other way. What would happen to individual responsibility, to hard work, application, and the development of one’s talents? Why would anyone bother? And what would become of the basic precepts of society, even of law and order, if the underlying concepts of merit and blame were to be brought into question?

These are all serious, perhaps insurmountable, practical concerns. But they have nothing to say about the principle of the thing. Nor are they the only possible reason for society’s profound silence on the issue. Another possibility is that it is the silence of the satisfied. After all, the beneficiaries of the current conventional wisdom on the proper relationship between ability, merit and reward have an obvious vested interest in maintaining that wisdom. And by and large they are in a strong position to do so.

This is not to imply that such vested interest operates in any conscious, conspiratorial way. It is rather to suggest that the idea of ability and merit not being ‘deserved’ may be psychologically difficult to acknowledge. Discussing that dangerous subject ‘the lessons of history’, J. K. Galbraith has argued that “the most nearly invariant is that individuals and communities that are favoured in their economic and political condition attribute social virtue and political durability to that which they themselves enjoy.” [iv]

Vested interest, both material and psychological, is clearly a formidable buttress to conventional wisdoms; so formidable, in fact, that it can enable established views to withstand the weight of almost any amount of evidence to the contrary. What else could explain why so many generations of the intelligent, responsible, fair-minded men of their day were unable to entertain the idea that women might be their moral and intellectual equals? Or why whole nations, believing themselves civilised, could maintain that the non-white races were so inherently inferior as to justify their enslavement? Or why so many leaders of nineteenth century society, intellectuals as well as industrialists and politicians, could so blithely accept a Malthusian wisdom which affirmed that any action to improve the condition of the poor could lead only to a deepening of their wretchedness, so rendering such action not only self-defeating but ultimately immoral?

It is tempting to believe that our more enlightened age offers no equivalents of these fallen monuments to follies that were so long propped up by vested interest. Tempting but foolhardy. Is it not at least possible that one such equivalent might be the belief that ability and merit is deserved and therefore constitutes a fair basis for the distribution of society’s status and rewards? To put it another way, is it not possible that future generations will look back with a slightly patronising incredulity on a society so blinded by the vested interests of its more successful members that it failed to recognize the fundamental injustice of taking the two thirteen year-old boys with which this essay began — and the millions they represent — and deciding that the one merited much and the other little?


[i] As author of the annual UNICEF State of the World’s Children from 1980 to 1996 and of the Innocenti Report Card series on child poverty in industrialised countries (2000 to 2013).

[ii] Reviewing a large number of studies of early life circumstance and later life outcomes, and taking income as a crude indicator of ‘circumstances of birth,’ the American academic Susan Mayer has this to say: “Parental income is positively correlated with virtually every dimension of child well-being that social scientists measure, and this is true in every country for which we have data. The children of rich parents are healthier, better behaved, happier and better educated during their childhood and wealthier when they have grown up than are children from poor families.”

[iii] Rawls, A Theory of Justice, sec. 12 and 17 (2nd ed. 1999?.)

[iv] Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Culture of Contentment. Penguin Books Ltd, 1993, p. 2.

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